Speaking Evil

June 5, 2009

James 4:11-12 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Why do Christians find this passage so difficult to obey?

When James speaks of the Law, he is referring to the Law of Liberty (James 1:25), which Paul calls the Law of the Spirit of life (Rom 8:2) and the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21, Gal 6:2). That is the law that governs Christians. And the primary command in that Law is to love one another (John 13:34, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:23, etc).

When we speak evil of our brother, we are sinning in two ways. First, we are doing harm to one we are supposed to love. Why speak evil “of” our brother, rather than speaking the truth “to” our brother? Second, we are rejecting the Law of Christ, which calls us to treat our brother as we would like to be treated ourselves. In effect we are saying the law of love is just not that important.

It is likely that James was addressing the controversy over whether Jewish rites like holy days and circumcision continued to be binding on Christians. His instruction, then, was to hold our tongues rather than saying critical things to third parties about our brother. James equates speaking evil against a brother with judging him. And he commands that we should leave that up to God.

Albert Barnes says the following on this issue:

Not a few of the harsh judgments which one class of religionists pronounce on others, are in fact judgments on the laws of Christ. We set up our own standards, or our own interpretations, and then we judge others for not complying with them, when in fact they may be acting only as the law of Christianity, properly understood, would allow them to do. They who set up a claim to a right to judge the conduct of others, should be certain that they understand the nature of religion themselves. It may be presumed, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that others are as conscientious as we are; and it may commonly be supposed that they who differ from us have some reason for what they do, and may be desirous of glorifying their Lord and Master, and that they may possibly be right. — Albert Barnes Commentary

Despite the clear biblical instruction in James and elsewhere, Christians are prone to being critical of those who hold different opinions. Haven’t we all heard Christians question the sincerity of other Christians with whom they disagree? Haven’t we seen Christians treating other Christians with suspicion and disrespect, because they hold a different interpretation of scripture? Haven’t we seen Christians avoiding association with other Christians because their practices are different in some way?

Because we think our brother is wrong about something, we feel justified in ignoring the clear instruction of James. So we speak evil of our brother. It should not be so. Let’s resolve not to speak evil of our brothers, and not to give audience to that kind of talk. If we have a different opinion, let’s keep that between ourselves and God. Our brothers will stand despite the disagreement, because God is able to make them stand.

One comment

  1. Nice words Alan.. it seems that folks having a literalistic bent struggle most with this one 🙂

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