Avoiding All Lies and Deceit (2): Receive No Evil
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Avoiding All Lies and Deceit (1): Speak No Evil.
As we saw in the last blog post the Heidelberg Catechism mentions four types of sins against the Ninth Commandment. The first three sins—bearing false witness, falsifying a man’s words and slander/backbiting—are sins in which we speak evil to or about the neighbor. But there is a second way in which to break this commandment: we receive an evil report about someone. In other words, we transgress this commandment with the ear as well as with the tongue.
The Heidelberg Catechism puts this sin under the category of “judging.” Fourth, the Ninth Commandment forbids “that I judge or join in condemning any man rashly or unheard.” The Catechism does not condemn judging as such. There is some confusion here, for some Christians, misunderstanding Jesus, believe it is always wrong to judge: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1). But judging is necessary, for we must evaluate every teaching and every action: is it true or false; is it in accordance with or contrary to God’s Word? If we do not judge, we will be gullible fools: “The simple believeth every word, but the prudent man looketh well to his going” (Prov. 14:15). In addition, we must judge according to the standard by which we are willing to be judged. Hypocritical, inconsistent judging, where one standard is applied to one person whom we like and another standard is applied to others whom we dislike, is forbidden.
We have the tendency to believe something bad about another person, often because we do not like that person, and because we want the evil report about him to be true. Psalm 15:3 describes the righteous man, “He taketh not up a reproach against his neighbor.” When he hears an evil report about his neighbor, he is not quick to believe it. In fact, he is reluctant to believe it. That, too, is one of the characteristics of Christian love: “[charity] thinketh no evil” (1 Cor. 13:5). The Christian does not jump to conclusions, and he does not think the worst about a person. This applies even to our enemy. We must not say, when we hear something evil about an enemy, “Oh yes, I knew it! That is typical of him.” Instead, we must reserve judgment, and hope the best, even of our enemy, and certainly of our brother in the church.
Two kinds of false judging are specifically condemned in Heidelberg Catechism LD 43: rash judging or condemning, and judging or condemning a man unheard. Rash judging is judging without any serious thought. This happens, for example, with crass generalization, when we label everyone in a certain group in a certain way out of prejudice. Judging or condemning a man unheard is to judge without hearing his side of the story. The Heidelberg Catechism forbids us even “to join in condemning any man rashly or unheard.” Perhaps we did not make the rash judgment ourselves, but we agreed to others doing it, and we uncritically received a report about the neighbor. That, too, is a sin against the ninth commandment. But how easy is it to be guilty of this! It takes effort to examine a case properly; how easy to jump to rash, unwarranted, even prejudiced, conclusions! There is a very significant Proverb, which we should all take to heart: “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just, but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him” (Prov. 18:17). Do not believe an evil report against someone without strong evidence. Do not spread an evil report about someone, and especially not without strong evidence. Every person who is accused has the right to a defence. He has a right to state his side of the story, and he has a right to be listened to before he is judged or condemned.
Does this apply to official Christian discipline in the church so that it is rash judgment on the part of the members of the church to trust the consistory rather than to seek the perspective of the brother who is under discipline? That does not follow because a brother under discipline has not been judged rashly and unheard. He has been judged because his sin has been reported to the elders, who have carefully examined him to determine his guilt and who have judged that the member is both guilty and impenitent. Furthermore, if the name of the impenitent member has been announced to the congregation, Classis has carefully examined the consistory’s work, besides which the member has been given the right to protest or appeal his own discipline. Indeed, when members of the church murmur and militate against the consistory who place a man under discipline they judge the elders rashly and unheard since the members are not—and can never be—privy to all the facts of the case. If they have concerns and evidence that they believe the elders have overlooked, they are free to approach the elders in a brotherly fashion.
Finally, positively, the Ninth Commandment requires that “I defend and promote, as much as I am able [German: according to my ability or capacity], the honor and good character of my neighbor.” We transgress this commandment when we speak lies, especially lies against others, by backbiting, slandering, twisting men’s words, and bearing false witness against them. We transgress this commandment when we receive lies about others, believing evil about others when we find it convenient to do so. We also transgress this commandment when we do nothing. We hear an evil report, and perhaps we do not give much credence to it, but we do not rebuke the bringer of the evil report. We do not put a stop to the gossip, backbiter, or slanderer, but we allow him to continue to spread his lies. We do nothing to protect the good name of our brother or sister, but allow his name to be trampled into the mud.
Is God’s name not more important than the neighbor’s name? Absolutely! That does not negate the Ninth Commandment in which God requires that we promote the good name of our neighbor. That is how we show not only our love for the neighbor, but also our love for our neighbor. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother [by, among other things, hating his good name and by lies and slander seeking to destroy it—MMcG], he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother [by, among other things, not defending and promoting his honor and good character—MMcG] whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).