The Eighth Commandment from Luther’s Large Catechism

Note: This commandment was given to protect one’s name and reputation. Communicating in ways that do not uphold our neighbor’s name and reputation break this commandment. The greatest violators are false preachers who, by their false doctrine, speak ill of God and His name. If we are aware of something negative about our neighbor, but have no authority to act, we should remain silent and not speak of it. However, when the proper authorities call upon us to speak to the matter, we will do so honestly. Also, if we are aware of something that requires the attention of public authorities, we will share it with them. Luther clearly states that civil magistrates, pastors, and parents must act upon hearing of something requiring their attention. Luther carefully distinguishes between secret sins and open, public sins. Secret sins should not be made public. However, when the error is open we have every right, even the duty, to speak publicly about it and to testify against the person involved. Speaking publicly about another person’s public error or sin is not bearing false witness, nor is it a violation of Matthew 18. Luther concludes that putting “the best construction on everything” is a fine and noble virtue.
254 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
255 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. 256 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. 257 In the first place, we must consider the plainest meaning of this commandment, according to the words “You shall not bear false witness.” This applies 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 commandment appears as though it were of little concern to us at present. But with the Jewish people it was a quite common and ordinary matter. For the people were organized under an excellent and regular government. Where there is still such a government, instances of this sin will not be lacking. The cause of it is that where judges, mayors, princes, or others in authority sit in judgment, things never fail to go according to the way of the world. In other words, people do not like to offend anybody. They flatter and speak to gain favor, money, prospects, or friendship [Proverbs 26:28]. As a result, a poor man and his cause must be oppressed, denounced as wrong, and suffer punishment. It is a common disaster in the world that in courts of justice godly men seldom preside.
259 To be a judge requires above all things a godly man, and not only a godly man, but also a wise, modest, indeed, a brave and bold man. Likewise, to be a witness requires a fearless and especially 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 may 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 in the first place so that everyone shall help his neighbor to secure his rights and not allow them to be hindered or twisted. But everyone shall promote and strictly maintain these rights, no matter whether he is a judge or a witness, and let it apply to whatsoever it will. 261 A particular goal is set up here for our jurists that they be careful to deal truly and uprightly with every case, allowing right to remain right. On the other hand, they must not pervert anything by their tricks and technical points, turning black into white and making wrong out to be right [Isaiah 5:20]. They must not gloss over a matter or keep silent about it, regardless of a person’s money, possession, honor, or power. This is one part and the plainest sense of this commandment about all that takes place in court.
262 Next, this commandment extends very much further, if we are to apply it to spiritual jurisdiction or administration. Here it is a common occurrence that everyone bears false witness against his neighbor. For wherever there are godly preachers and Christians, they must bear the sentence before the world that calls them heretics, apostates, and indeed, instigators and desperately wicked unbelievers. Besides, God’s Word must suffer in the most shameful and hateful manner, being persecuted, blasphemed, contradicted, perverted, and falsely quoted and interpreted. But let this go. For this is the way of the blind world, which condemns and persecutes the truth and God’s children, and yet considers it no sin.
263 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. 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 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.
265 To avoid this vice we should note that no one is allowed publicly to judge and reprove his neighbor—even though he may see him sin—unless he has a command to judge and to reprove. 266 There is a great difference between these two things: judging sin and knowing about sin. You may indeed know about it, but you are not to judge it [Matthew 7:1–5]. 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 that is greater than his. But if you know about it, do nothing other 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 People are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but go on to assume jurisdiction. When they know about a slight offense committed by another person, they carry it into every corner. They are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure, just as swine delight to roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout. 268 This is nothing other than meddling with God’s judgment and office 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, “That person is a thief, a murderer, a traitor,” and so on. Therefore, whoever presumes to say the same things about his neighbor goes just as far as the emperor and all governments. For although you do not wield the sword, you use your poisonous tongue to shame and hurt your neighbor [Psalm 140:3].
269 God, therefore, would have such behavior banned, that anyone should speak evil of another person even though that person is guilty, and the latter knows it well, much less if anyone does not know it and has the story only from hearsay.
270 But you say, “Shall I not say something if it is the truth?”
Answer: “Why do you not make your accusation to regular judges?”
“Ah, I cannot prove it publicly, and so I might be silenced and turned away in a harsh manner.”
“Ah, indeed, do you smell the roast?”
If you do not trust yourself to stand before the proper authorities and to answer well, then hold your tongue. But if you know about it, know it for yourself and not for another. For if you tell the matter to others—although it is true—you will look like a liar, because you cannot prove it. Besides, you are acting like a rascal. We should never deprive anyone of his honor or good name unless it is first taken away from him publicly.
271 “False witness,” then, is everything that cannot be properly proved. 272 No one shall make public or declare for truth what is not obvious by sufficient evidence. In short, whatever is secret should be allowed to remain secret [1 Peter 4:8], or, at any rate, should be secretly rebuked, as we shall hear. 273 Therefore, if you meet an idle tongue that betrays and slanders someone, contradict such a person promptly to his face [Proverbs 10:31], so he may blush. Then many a person will hold his tongue who otherwise would bring some poor man into bad repute, from which he would not easily free himself. For honor and a good name are easily taken away, but not easily restored [Proverbs 22:1].
274 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. Now, in the Fifth Commandment no one is to be injured in body, and yet Master Hans (the executioner) is excluded from this rule. By virtue of his office he does his neighbor no good, but only evil and harm. Nevertheless he does not sin against God’s commandment. God has instituted that office on His own account. God has reserved punishment for His own good pleasure, as He threatens in the First Commandment. In the same way, although no one has a personal right to judge and condemn anybody, yet if those who serve in offices of judgment fail to judge, they sin just as surely as a person who would act on his own accord without such an office. For in matters of justice necessity requires one to speak of the evil, to prefer charges, to investigate, and to testify. 275 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].
276 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.
277 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. But if he were so foolish as to let the servant sit at home and went on the streets to complain about him to his neighbors, he would no doubt be told, “You fool, how does that concern us? Why don’t you tell it to the servant?” 278 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? 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 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. 280 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. 281 But if we gossip about another in all corners, and stir the filth, no one will be reformed. Later, 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 [John 3:19–20].
284 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. It is like when we now rebuke the pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.
285 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. 286 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].
287 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. 288 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. 289 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]. They explain and pervert the matter in the worst way, as is done now especially with God’s precious Word and its preachers.
290 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. 291 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].

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 388.

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One thought on “The Eighth Commandment from Luther’s Large Catechism

  1. Ah, the commandment that most people say they’ve kept.

    “Me, I don’t gossip or say bad things about others.”

    And then in the next sentence, they lace into someone who talked too loud at the movies or dressed in jeans when they came to church. Or they even spend their time attacking clergymen for being faithful to God’s Word.

    But they don’t speak ill of others!!

    Gotta love the Eighth Commandment!!!

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