Dear Friends in Christ,
I’m writing this month’s article at the same time that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is conducting a special hearing about sexual assault allegations made against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. That’s not what this article is about. However, the entire situation is a clear example to us of the importance of a good name and reputation.
God has set up the 8th Commandment to guard and protect the reputations of all people: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” This means that the Lord commands His people not to “tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
You’ll recall that this teaching about the 8th Commandment is from Luther’s Small Catechism. I want to provide a lengthy quote from Luther’s Large Catechism. You should read it, and take this teaching to heart. A harmed or lost reputation is just as harmful to a person’s life as physical harm. We ought always to guard our tongue from lies, gossip, and slander, with God’s help; at the same, and also with His help, we should always be ready to defend our neighbor and counter lies, gossip, and slander from others.
Over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we still have another treasure—honor and good reputation [Proverbs 22:1]. We cannot do without these. For it is intolerable to live among people in open shame and general contempt. Therefore, God does not want the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished, just as with his money and possessions. He wants everyone to stand in his integrity before wife, children, servants, and neighbors…
In the third place, which concerns us all, this commandment forbids all sins of the tongue [James 3], by which we may injure or confront our neighbor. To bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue. Now, God prohibits whatever is done with the tongue against a fellow man. This applies to false preachers with their doctrine and blasphemy, false judges and witnesses with their verdict, or outside of court by lying and speaking evil. Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on, and of which much could be said. For it is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil more than hearing good about his neighbor. We ourselves are so bad that we cannot allow anyone to say anything bad about us. Everyone would much prefer that all the world should speak of him in glowing terms. Yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others…
So you see that it is directly forbidden to speak any evil of our neighbor. However, the civil government, preachers, father, and mother are not forbidden to speak out. This is based on the understanding that this commandment does not allow evil to go unpunished… For in matters of justice necessity requires one to speak of the evil, to prefer charges, to investigate, and to testify. This is no different from the case of a doctor who is sometimes compelled to examine and handle the private parts of the patient whom he is to cure. In the same way governments, father and mother, brothers and sisters, and other good friends are under obligation to one another to rebuke evil wherever it is needful and profitable [Luke 17:3].
The true way in this matter would be to keep the order in the Gospel. In Matthew 18:15, Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, which is to be carefully kept against this detestable misuse. Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too quickly spread evil about your neighbor and slander him to others. Instead, admonish him privately that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself. But if he has not seen it, then let him hold his tongue.
You can learn the same thing also from the daily government of the household. When the master of the house sees that the servant does not do what he ought, he admonishes him personally… Look, that would be acting quite brotherly, so that the evil would be stopped, and your neighbor would retain his honor. As Christ also says in the same place, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” [Matthew 18:15]. Then you have done a great and excellent work. For do you think it is a small matter to gain a brother?…
Further, Christ teaches, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” [Matthew 18:16]. So the person concerned in this matter must always be dealt with personally, and must not be spoken of without his knowledge. But if that does not work, then bring it publicly before the community, whether before the civil or the Church court. For then you do not stand alone, but you have those witnesses with you by whom you can convict the guilty one. Relying on their testimony the judge can pronounce sentence and punish. This is the right and regular course for checking and reforming a wicked person. But if we gossip about another in all corners, and stir the filth, no one will be reformed…
All this has been said about secret sins. But where the sin is quite public, so that the judge and everybody know about it, you can without any sin shun the offender and let him go his own way, because he has brought himself into disgrace. You may also publicly testify about him. For when a matter is public in the daylight, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying… Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.
Now we have the sum and general understanding of this commandment: Let no one do any harm to his neighbor with the tongue, whether friend or foe. Do not speak evil of him, no matter whether it is true or false, unless it is done by commandment or for his reformation. Let everyone use his tongue and make it serve for the best of everyone else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities [1 Peter 4:8], excuse them, conceal and garnish them with his own reputation. The chief reason for this should be the one that Christ declares in the Gospel, where He includes all commandments about our neighbor, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” [Matthew 7:12].
Even nature teaches the same thing in our own bodies, as St. Paul says, “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty” (1 Corinthians 12:22–23). No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth, for they, being in themselves the most honorable parts that we have, do not require it. But the most weak parts, of which we are ashamed, we cover with all diligence. Hands, eyes, and the whole body must help to cover and conceal them. So also among ourselves should we clothe whatever blemishes and infirmities we find in our neighbor and serve and help him to promote his honor to the best of our ability. On the other hand, we should prevent whatever may be disgraceful to him. It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor (if it is not notoriously evil). Or, at any rate, forgive the matter over and against the poisonous tongues that are busy wherever they can to pry out and discover something to blame in a neighbor [Psalm 140:3]…
There are included, therefore, in this commandment quite a multitude of good works. These please God most highly and bring abundant good and blessing, if only the blind world and the false saints would recognize them. For there is nothing on or in a person that can do both greater and more extensive good or harm in spiritual and in temporal matters than the tongue. This is true even though it is the least and weakest part of a person [James 3:5].
So we see how our Lord would have us guard and protect our neighbor’s reputation. As in all things, this also serves for our own reputations and good names to be upheld. We do not have to worry about ourselves. God will care for us and uphold us through our neighbors. As in all good works, we strive to do what we can in our weakness, knowing that our Lord Jesus covers over our infirmities with His perfection and righteousness.
Love in Christ,