God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Eighth Commandment

c5eb77b68fc5ba622774b03443c36e9bI’m not rude, just honest.” Statements like this one are common. Their intention is to absolve the speaker from any wrongdoing and allow him or her to say hurtful things with a clear conscience. The idea is simple: I can call you names, so long as I’m being honest; I can spread gossip about you, so long as I’m being honest; I can destroy your reputation, so long as I’m being honest.

This is the attitude the Eighth Commandment addresses. Yes, the commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbors means that we should not tell lies about people. Certainly this commandment forbids telling blatant untruths that would do harm to our neighbor, like falsely accusing another person of assault. These types of lies are what Luther called deadly lies.[1]

However, this commandment also speaks to us in our everyday life that is often more complicated. Take, for instance, simple lies told by parents who tell their children that the tooth fairy put a quarter under their pillow or by actresses who make a living playing different characters on stage and screen. These may be examples of people being intentionally deceptive, but each is an example of what Luther termed a playful lie. The Eighth Commandment is not concerned with such situations.

      Beyond harmful or playful lies, there are even times in real life where a lie is not only allowed, but the right thing to do. Luther called this the obliging lie, like when a woman’s friend deceives an abusive husband about whether his battered wife is hiding at her place. Such a lie is told to protect a neighbor from harm.

While it is good to teach our children not to lie, Luther viewed the fundamental duty of loving your neighbor as more important.[2] It is in this light that the true purpose of the Eighth Commandment becomes clear to the baptized children of God. In the words of the Large Catechism, “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one should say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false … Rather, we should use our tongue to speak the best about all people” [LC, TC 285].

This is so important because, in Luther’s words again, “It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others” [LC, TC 264]. Considering the ease with which we can instantly share our thoughts electronically, the effortlessness with which we can spread rumors and gossip electronically, and the joy that the sinful nature finds in sharing scandalous stories, the devastation that can result from breaking this commandment can be seen quite clearly in our world today.

But our call remains the same: defend your neighbors, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way possible. Or, if you prefer grandma’s wisdom, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ It doesn’t really matter if what you have to say is true. What matters is whether what you have to say is something that builds a person’s reputation up or tears it down. God’s children are called to build each other up.

Certain exceptions are of course made when it comes to positions of authority whose purpose is to investigate accusations, like police, parents, or the like. If we are called to testify in court, the Eighth Commandment requires that we tell the truth, regardless of whether it’s flattering or not. But in our personal relationships, in private conversations, in the school hallways and the coffee shops, we are called to turn our ears into a tomb [LC, TC 266]. In this way, no member of the body of Christ is dishonored. Our Lord created us to live in community, in relationships with him and with the people around us. The Eighth Commandment encourages us to value the reputation of the other people in the community, bearing with each other, making the body of Christ on earth a place of refuge.

[1] See Rev. Hans Fiene’s article in The Federalist “The Group Behind The Planned Parenthood Videos Was Right To Deceive”

[2] Robert Kolb, Teaching God’s Children His Teaching

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