“Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” (James 4:11–12, AV)
As a young boy, I remember my grandmother’s collection of nick-nacks. One was of three monkeys. One monkey was covering his ears with his hands, another was covering his mouth, and another his eyes. The slogan on the base stated, “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.” My initial impression of the saying was that it was some sort of exhortation to abstain from evil.
Later, I researched the saying and discovered that it came from a 17th Century carving over the door of the Tosho-gu shrine in Japan. The slogan seems to have its origin in Buddhism. While I am not promoting Buddhism, the slogan contains a principle that should characterize the lives of Christians, that is to avoid the influence of evil upon their lives. Often what one sees and hears will have a subtle influence on their behavior, including their speech.
James in this verse speaks of the problem of our speech. He tells us not to speak evil of one another. The ESV translates the verse, “Do not speak evil against one another” (James 4:11, ESV). The use of the word, “against” captures the thought better. The issue here is one of slandering another. When we speak evil against one, James tells us that we have set ourselves up as judges, judging our brother and the law. Moreover, those who speak evil against a brother are no longer doers of the law. The big problem is that those who slander take a prideful position and elevate themselves to the level of God.
Here is the problem. Many people use verses like these to indicate that we are not to judge the actions of others. Let me clarify this. We must make critical assessments of one’s actions if we are going to rescue one from the perils of sin (James 5:20). How are we to maintain the purity of the church if we do not identify the actions of one who is wrong (1 Cor 5:1-2). So, we must make a critical assessment of another’s conduct. However, there are three main things to understand in doing this.
First, our critical assessment is to be based upon the clear and specific revelation of Scripture. It is God’s word and we are not to make judgement based upon our own ideas, but on the clear teachings of Scripture. Thus, we are not the supreme lawgiver and judge, but rather a proclaimer of God’s truth.
Second, our actions in this work of discernment are not to injure another, but to rescue him or her. Later in James’ letter we see this, “let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20, ESV). Paul echoes this thought in his letter to the Galatians, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1, ESV).
Third, there is a biblically mandated process to handle such issues. It is not to publicly slander, but to go to the person in private and seek for the person’s welfare (Matt 16:15-20). Spiritual people will handle this correctly and approach an offending person with an attitude of gentleness and love.
We cannot allow the ways of the world to so encompass us that we elevate ourselves and thus speak evil against people. We must be people who live by the Spirit and address people, not with evil words, but with words of grace designed to benefit the recipient (Eph 4:29).