To Build Up, Not Tear Down

Text: Eighth Commandment

St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, in chapter 4, about the new life they had received in Christ. Their new life – to which they were called by Baptism and faith – was different than the life they previously lived, including how they used to relate to their neighbor. St. Paul said, 

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another…Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear…Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 4:25-32

St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians in their walk together by teaching them to practice the Commandments in their daily lives, including the Eighth Commandment. In the Eighth Commandment, our God teaches us to use our tongues for speaking truth and to build up, and not for lying or tearing down.

I.

We’ve spoken already about some ways that God would have us behave toward our neighbor. In the Fourth Commandment, we are taught to honor those whom God places above us in station: our parents, teachers, worldly authorities, pastors. In the Fifth Commandment, God began teaching us to be respectful of what belongs to our neighbor, starting with his body. We are not to hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him. In the Sixth Commandment, we are not to lust after our neighbor’s spouse. On Sunday, we heard the Seventh Commandment, where God taught us to be respectful of our neighbor’s money and possessions by not stealing them and by helping him to improve and protect what is his. There is one more thing that belongs to our neighbor that God would have us respect: his or her reputation.

The Holy Spirit spoke by King Solomon, saying, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” He also says, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” It is a blessing of God to have a good name and reputation, to have the trust of other people. It is important for one to be able to stand in integrity before their family and the world. One’s integrity, in some ways, is far more precious than any earthly jewel. Therefore, God would have us protect our neighbor’s reputation by defending him, speaking well of him, and explaining everything in the kindest way. The Eighth Commandment strikes against everything contrary to these things.

II.

Let’s go ahead and read the Commandment together.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not 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.

Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

The first and literal meaning of the Commandment is, as it says, to not give false testimony. This a term that is used to refer to the fact that, sometimes, what happens in a court room is not done in all fairness. In this fallen world there are such things as wicked judges, witnesses who take bribes, and litigious parties that do nothing but destroy a man and his reputation. God would not have us, His children, be any of these things.

Neither should we speak in any way that causes harm to our neighbor. This includes outright lying – whether in court or in life. It includes betraying our neighbor’s secrets, which were spoken to us in confidence. This Commandment speaks against all slander and gossip, rushes to judgment, and the entertaining of harmful rumors. In short, anything that tears down our neighbor’s reputation is forbidden by God in this Commandment. There are exceptions to this Commandment, such as when a judge announces a verdict that may cause someone to fall in the public eye. A pastor, likewise, may be called upon to speak against a false teacher. Both of these are done within an office entrusted by God – and not according to their person.

III.

Instead of tearing down our neighbor or harming his reputation in any way, God would have us build our neighbor up. When others speak poorly of our neighbor, we should come to his defense and speak well of him. We should do our best to draw attention to our neighbor’s good qualities, and not their faults. St. Peter said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” In general, we should also assume the best of our neighbor and explain all his or her actions in the most positive and kindest way possible.

Now, none of this means that we are to ignore our neighbor’s sins. But, it does mean, when our neighbor’s sin becomes known to us, we have two options. The first is to keep it to ourselves. Knowing about our neighbor’s sins and speaking them are two entirely different things. The second option for when our neighbor’s sin is known to us is – when it is within our place – to go and speak to them privately. This is what our Lord said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” By following our Lord’s instructions, we protect our neighbor’s reputation while also caring for his soul.

And that, in short, is the meaning of this Commandment. In addition to our protecting our neighbor’s body, his/her spouse, and their possessions, God would also have us defend our neighbor’s reputation. We do this by not lying, slandering, or gossiping, but by speaking well of our neighbor and explaining everything in the kindest way. In this way, we follow St. Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesians, that we use our words to build up and not tear down.

Let us pray.

Guard our lips, O Lord, and govern our unruly tongues so that our words about our neighbors are not tainted with falsehood, betrayal, or slander, which would damage their reputation. Instead, give us the wisdom to speak well of our neighbors, defend them, and explain their circumstances and actions in the kindest way; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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