A Laymen’s Commentary on the Large Catechism: Eighth Commandment

This is part 10 of 10 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Large Catechism

 

 

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
    Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
    and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
    and does no evil to his neighbor,
    nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
    but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
    and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.

(Psalm 15)

 

The Eighth Commandment.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

These are the holy Ten Commands
Which our Lord God placed in our hands
Through Moses, His own servant true,
When he to Mount Sinai drew.
Kyrieleis!

Thou shalt no faithless witness be,
Nor neighbor harm with calumny;
Defend his innocence from blame;
With charity hide his shame.
Kyrieleis!

God hath giv’n us all these commands
That thou thy sin, O child of man,
Might know, and also well perceive
How unto God man should live.
Kyrieleis!

Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we
A Mediator have in Thee.
With works we’d perish from the path;
They merit but endless wrath.
Kyrieleis! (TLH 287/LSB 581)

 

The Eighth Commandment.

254] Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

255] Over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we have yet another treasure, namely, honor and good report [the illustrious testimony of an upright and unsullied name and reputation], with which we cannot dispense. For it is intolerable to live among men in open shame and general contempt. 256] Therefore God wishes the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished as little as his money and possessions, that every one may stand in his integrity before wife, children, servants, and neighbors. 257] And in the first place, we take the plainest meaning of this commandment according to the words (Thou shalt not bear false witness), as pertaining to the public courts of justice, where a poor innocent man is accused and oppressed by false witnesses in order to be punished in his body, property, or honor.

258] Now, this appears as if it were of little concern to us at present; but with the Jews it was quite a common and ordinary matter. For the people were organized under an excellent and regular government; and where there is still such a government, instances of this sin will not be wanting. The cause of it is that where judges, burgomasters, princes, or others in authority sit in judgment, things never fail to go according to the course of the world; namely, men do not like to offend anybody, flatter, and speak to gain favor, money, prospects, or friendship; and in consequence a poor man and his cause must be oppressed, denounced as wrong, and suffer punishment. And it is a common calamity in the world that in courts of justice there seldom preside godly men.

259] For to be a judge requires above all things a godly man, and not only a godly, but also a wise, modest, yea, a brave and hold man; likewise, to be a witness requires a fearless and especially a godly man. For a person who is to judge all matters rightly and carry them through with his decision will often offend good friends, relatives, neighbors, and the rich and powerful, who can greatly serve or injure him. Therefore he must be quite blind, have his eyes and ears closed, neither see nor hear, but go straight forward in everything that comes before him, and decide accordingly.

260] Therefore this commandment is given first of all that every one shall help his neighbor to secure his rights, and not allow them to be hindered or twisted, but shall promote and strictly maintain them, no matter whether he be judge or witness, and let it pertain to whatsoever it will. 261] And especially is a goal set up here for our jurists that they be careful to deal truly and uprightly with every case, allowing right to remain right, and, on the other hand, not perverting anything [by their tricks and technical points turning black into white and making wrong out to be right], nor glossing it over or keeping silent concerning it, irrespective of a person’s money, possession, honor, or power. This is one part and the plainest sense of this commandment concerning all that takes place in court.

Now that we have dealt with the body, spouse, and physical possessions we now deal with reputation.  After all one’s good name is higher than all riches (Proverbs 22:1).  Reputation takes a lifetime to build but an instant to destroy.  Since reputation is so valuable, we must strive to keep our neighbor’s good name and not tell lies about him.

The most obvious application of this commandment is in court.  We are to testify truthfully and judge our neighbor rightly.  Surprisingly, where a just government exists this commandment is frequently broken.  Especially in court, people will flatter and lie out of fear of retribution or in order to gain advantage and not offend anyone.  People will also build up their own reputation at the expense of justice (Proverbs 26:17-27:2).

As such Judges, Jurists, Lawyers, and Witnesses should all be above reproach and strive to do justice. Judges are to adjudicate the law rightly.  Jurists are to weigh the facts of the case honestly and without bias.  Lawyers are to present their cases without craft or guile but rather seek justice for the defendant and the victims.  Witnesses are to speak truthfully and fully answer any questions they know the answers to.  All of this is to help our neighbor by protecting them from wrongful prosecution as well as punishing those who have done wrong. This allows us to grant justice to our neighbor in this temporal realm.

In addition, we must not change black to white, twist the law, or twist people’s words.  Rather we are to treat the law both in its letter and its spirit, as well as be fair and understanding to the people being judged.  God will not hold blameless those who twist the truth and engage in falsehood (Isaiah 5:18-25).

262] Next, it extends very much further, if we are to apply it to spiritual jurisdiction or administration; here it is a common occurrence that every one bears false witness against his neighbor. For wherever there are godly preachers and Christians, they must bear the sentence before the world that they are called heretics, apostates, yea, seditious and desperately wicked miscreants. Besides, the Word of God must suffer in the most shameful and malicious manner, being persecuted, blasphemed, contradicted, perverted, and falsely cited and interpreted. But let this pass; for it is the way of the blind world that she condemns and persecutes the truth and the children of God, and yet esteems it no sin.

Speaking falsely of God is also contained in this commandment, as with the Second Commandment.  We are not to condone heretics, nor spread false doctrine.  This is because we would be lying about God and lying to our neighbor, the heretic.  We must denounce false doctrine as false, so that those who preach it may repent and learn the error of their ways.  Pointing out false doctrine also is for the purpose of warning people against false teachers and doctrine, and helps to teach Christians to discern between false and true doctrine (Galatians 5:1-15). This is especially true for pastors who are commanded to publicly deal with issues of doctrine and condemn those who teach falsely (Titus 1:5-16).  As undershepherds of Christ’s flock, they are to defend the flock from evil without and within (John 10:1-21, John 21:15-19).

263] In the third place, what concerns us all, this commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure or approach too closely to our neighbor. For to bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue. Now, whatever is done with the tongue against a fellow-man God would have prohibited, whether it be false preachers with their doctrine and blasphemy, false judges and witnesses with their verdict, or outside of court by lying and evil-speaking. 264] 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 there would be much to be said. For it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor; and although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that any one should say anything bad about us, but every one would much rather that all the world should speak of him in terms of gold, yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.

In fact, this commandment is very broad and forbids all sins of the tongue (James 3).  Gossip and slander are also included.  Thus we are to speak rightly of our neighbor, defend him from false accusations, speak to his advantage, and put the best construction on everything.  We should not backbite, tell rumors, or talk behind our neighbor’s back.

Therefore, to avoid this vice we should note that 265] no one is allowed publicly to judge and reprove his neighbor, although he may see him sin, unless he have a command to judge and to reprove. 266] For there is a great difference between these two things, judging sin and knowing sin. You may indeed know it, but you are not to judge it. I can indeed see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to report it to others. Now, if I rush in, judging and passing sentence, I fall into a sin which is greater than his. But if you know it, do nothing else than turn your ears into a grave and cover it, until you are appointed to be judge and to punish by virtue of your office.

267] Those, then, are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but proceed to assume jurisdiction, and when they know a slight offense of another, carry it into every corner, and are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure [baseness], as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout. 268] This is nothing else than meddling with the judgment and office of God, and pronouncing sentence and punishment with the most severe verdict. For no judge can punish to a higher degree nor go farther than to say: “He is a thief, a murderer, a traitor,” etc. Therefore, whoever presumes to say the same of his neighbor goes just as far as the emperor and all governments. For although you do not wield the sword, you employ your poisonous tongue to the shame and hurt of your neighbor.

269] God therefore would have it prohibited, that any one speak evil of another even though he be guilty, and the latter know it right well; much less if he do not know it, and have it only from hearsay. But you say: 270] Shall I not say it if it be the truth? Answer: Why do you not make accusation to regular judges? Ah, I cannot prove it publicly, and hence I might be silenced and turned away in a harsh manner [incur the penalty of a false accusation]. “Ah, indeed, do you smell the roast?” If you do not trust yourself to stand before the proper authorities and to make answer, then hold your tongue. But if you know it, know it for yourself and not for another. For if you tell it to others, although it be true, you will appear as a liar, because you cannot prove it, and you are, besides, acting like a knave. For we ought never to deprive any one of his honor or good name unless it be first taken away from him publicly.

271] False witness, then, is everything which cannot be properly proved. 272] Therefore, what is not manifest upon sufficient evidence no one shall make public or declare for truth; and, in short, whatever is secret should be allowed to remain secret, or, at any rate, should be secretly reproved, as we shall hear. 273] Therefore, if you encounter an idle tongue which betrays and slanders some one, contradict such a one promptly to his face, that he may blush; thus many a one will hold his tongue who else would bring some poor man into bad repute, from which he would not easily extricate himself. For honor and a good name are easily taken away, but not easily restored.

274] Thus you see that it is summarily forbidden to speak any evil of our neighbor, however, the civil government, preachers, father and mother excepted, on the understanding that this commandment does not allow evil to go unpunished. Now, as according to the Fifth Commandment no one is to be injured in body, and yet Master Hannes [the executioner] is excepted, who by virtue of his office does his neighbor no good, but only evil and harm, and nevertheless does not sin against God’s commandment, because God has on His own account instituted that office; for He has reserved punishment for His own good pleasure, as He threatens in the First Commandment,-just so also, although no one has a right in his own person to judge and condemn anybody, yet if they to whose office it belongs fail to do it, they sin as well as he who would do so of his own accord, without such office. For here necessity requires one to speak of the evil, to prefer charges, to investigate and testify; 275] and it is not different from the case of a physician who is sometimes compelled to examine and handle the patient whom he is to cure in secret parts. Just so governments, father and mother, brothers and sisters, and other good friends, are under obligation to each other to reprove evil wherever it is needful and profitable.

We are not to publicly judge and reprove our neighbor for private sins.  We may know of the sin but we are not to judge it.  It is not our place to do so (Matthew 7:1-5).

We have no command to report sin except to the proper authorities.  We are not judge, jury, or executioner.  We have no jurisdiction.  We should not publicly proclaim a verdict where it is not our vocation.  Rather we would be usurping the proper vocation of those who are supposed to render justice. When you pronounce a verdict you are taking the same authority as the government.  Recall how precious a man’s reputation is, thus speaking out of turn can destroy someone’s reputation which is a dreadful act.  It takes but an instant to destroy a man’s reputation but a lifetime to rebuild it.  Rather we should seek to preserve reputation and let the proper authorities do their work.  Recall that the slandered man will call to God for justice, thus we should be very careful with our neighbor’s name and reputation (Psalm 140).

If you are to bring a charge, do so in court and make sure you can prove it.  There the proper authorities will distinguish between right and wrong. As Christians, we are to assume someone is innocent until proven guilty in court.  Otherwise, we are to hold our tongues.

False witness, then, is anything that cannot be properly proved.  Saying something is true without sufficient evidence.  This can also include things not involving sin, such as in science or engineering.  However, Luther is driving here against private perceived sins.

We are to cover private sin with love (1 Peter 4:1-11). We are to rebuke those who spread rumor and lies about our neighbor.  We are to also to rebuke public sin, which Luther will get to shortly (Proverbs 10:31-32).

Civil Government, Pastors, Fathers, Mothers, and those in proper authority are given to pass judgment.  It is their vocation. Thus bring your complaint to them for them to adjudicate.  The Kingdom of the Left is given the sword to punish, and truth must reign in the Kingdom of the Right.  This is good order, and is the proper authority given to those positions (Luke 17:1-4, 1 Corinthians 14:40).

276] But the true way in this matter would be to observe the order according to the Gospel, Matt. 18:15, where Christ says: If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone. Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, which is to be carefully observed against this detestable misuse. Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too readily spread evil concerning your neighbor and slander him to others, but admonish him privately that he may amend [his life]. Likewise, also, if some one report to you what this or that one has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish him personally, if he have seen it himself; but if not, that he hold his tongue.

277] The same you can learn also from the daily government of the household. For when the master of the house sees that the servant does not do what he ought, he admonishes him personally. But if he were so foolish as to let the servant sit at home, and went on the streets to complain of him to his neighbors, he would no doubt be told: “You fool, what does that concern us? 278] Why do you not tell it to him?” Behold, that would be acting quite brotherly, so that the evil would be stayed, and your neighbor would retain his honor. As Christ also says in the same place: If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. Then you have done a great and excellent work; for do you think it is a little matter to gain a brother? Let all monks and holy orders step forth, with all their works melted together into one mass, and see if they can boast that they have gained a brother.

279] Further, Christ teaches: But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. So he whom it concerns is always to be treated with personally, and not to be spoken of without his knowledge. 280] But if that do not avail, then bring it publicly before the community, whether before the civil or the ecclesiastical tribunal. For then you do not stand alone, but you have those witnesses with you by whom you can convict the guilty one, relying on whom the judge can pronounce sentence and punish. This is the right and regular course for checking and reforming a wicked person. 281] But if we gossip about another in all corners, and stir the filth, no one will be reformed, and afterwards when we are to stand up and bear witness, we deny having said so. 282] Therefore it would serve such tongues right if their itch for slander were severely punished, as a warning to others. 283] If you were acting for your neighbor’s reformation or from love of the truth, you would not sneak about secretly nor shun the day and the light.

Following our Lord’s instruction, we must start with our neighbor directly, then grow it from there.  Finally, when private interaction has failed we must bring it in front of civil authorities or the Church and make it public.  This way we are above reproach and may bring sufficient evidence to the judge (Matthew 18:15-20).

In addition, Christians are not to use the courts to settle civil disputes amongst those of the community of faith.  Rather with our Christian brothers and sisters, we are to deal with them in the community of faith.  For to use the courts would damage the reputation of the Church and those who attend there. As well as evidence the sin of those who refuse to be reconciled with one another (1 Corinthians 6:1-11).

We are to be children of light not of darkness.  We should not shun the cleansing light of day and truth.  For the Truth and the Light is Christ (John 3:16-21).

284] All this has been said regarding secret sins. But where the sin is quite public so that the judge and everybody know it, you can without any sin avoid him and let him go, because he has brought himself into disgrace, and you may also publicly testify concerning him. For when a matter is public in the light of day, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying; as, when we now reprove the Pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. For where the sin is public, the reproof also must be public, that every one may learn to guard against it.

All that was prior is about private sin.  If the sin is public, then you may shun, rebuke, and chastise the offender as he has defamed himself (Mark 6:14-29, Galatians 1-5).  This is his right punishment for public sin.  Also, it discourages others from sinning likewise and warns people so they may be on guard.  You are not lying about them anymore or destroying their reputation, but rather you have proof and are justified in what you say. They have already destroyed their reputation by their own words and actions.

However, if they repent of that sin we are to forgive them and forget the trespass as our Father in heaven does.  We are also not to further slander our neighbor by saying further false things about them.  Rather our criticism of our neighbor should only be for what they have done publicly, and not for any evil they have not committed.  After all, our neighbor’s specific sins do not permit us to speak ill of them in general.  For instance, one should not call a known adulterer, a thief if he has not stolen anything.  Thus in dealing with our neighbor, we should always be truthful and not exaggerate. We should always strive to preserve what remains of their reputation in all that we say.

285] Thus we have now the sum and general understanding of this commandment, to wit, that no one do any injury with the tongue to his neighbor, whether friend or foe, nor speak evil of him, no matter whether it be true or false, unless it be done by commandment or for his reformation, but that every one employ his tongue and make it serve for the best of every one else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities, excuse them, palliate and garnish them with his own reputation. 286] The chief reason for this should be the one which Christ alleges in the Gospel, in which He comprehends all commandments respecting our neighbor, Matt. 7:12: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.

287] Even nature teaches the same thing in our own bodies, as St. Paul says, 1 Cor. 12:22: Much more, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary; and those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth, for they, being in themselves the most honorable members which we have, do not require it. But the most infirm members, of which we are ashamed, we cover with all diligence; hands, eyes, and the whole body must help to cover and conceal them. 288] Thus also among ourselves should we adorn whatever blemishes and infirmities we find in our neighbor, and serve and help him to promote his honor to the best of our ability, and, on the other hand, prevent whatever may be discreditable to him. 289] And it is especially an excellent and noble virtue for one always to explain advantageously and put the best construction upon all he may hear of his neighbor (if it be not notoriously evil), or at any rate to condone it over and against the poisonous tongues that are busy wherever they can pry out and discover something to blame in a neighbor, and that explain and pervert it in the worst way; as is done now especially with the precious Word of God and its preachers.

290] There are comprehended therefore in this commandment quite a multitude of good works which 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 entire man which can do both greater and more extensive good or harm in spiritual and in temporal matters than the tongue, though it is the least and feeblest member.

This is the summation of the commandment: Let no one do any harm to his neighbor with the tongue (Matthew 7:12-14). We are one body in the Church.  We must cover for our weaker members.  The includes their reputation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

As always there are a multitude of good works to do in this commandment.  So there is no need to look for some extraordinary work.  It is in front of you.

1 O God, my faithful God,
True fountain ever flowing,
Without whom nothing is,
All perfect gifts bestowing:
Give me a healthy frame,
And may I have within
A conscience free from blame,
A soul unstained by sin.

2 Grant me the strength to do
With ready heart and willing
Whatever You command,
My calling here fulfilling;
That I do what I should
While trusting You to bless
The outcome for my good,
For You must give success.

3 Keep me from saying words
That later need recalling;
Guard me lest idle speech
May from my lips be falling;
But when within my place
I must and ought to speak,
Then to my words give grace
Lest I offend the weak.

4 Lord, let me win my foes
With kindly words and actions,
And let me find good friends
For counsel and correction.
Help me, as You have taught,
To love both great and small
And by Your Spirit’s might
To live in peace with all.

5 Let me depart this life
Confiding in my Savior;
By grace receive my soul
That it may live forever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting place
Within a Christian grave;
And let it sleep in peace.

6 And on that final day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch out Your mighty hand,
My deathly slumber breaking.
Then let me hear Your voice,
Redeem this earthly frame,
And bid me to rejoice
With those who love Your name. (LSB 696)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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