It is as plain as “Thou shall not murder.” “Speak evil of no person,” says the Apostle James, echoed by many others (See James 4:11; Titus 3:1-13; I Peter 3:10). Our question becomes, “What does it mean to speak evil?” We start by saying that it is not the same as lying or slander. It is possible for us to be as true as the Bible, and still speak evil. A word may be spoken in the gentlest manner, and still be evil. The type of “evil-speaking” mentioned here happens in the absence of a person who is the subject of the words. It occurs anytime we relate to another the fault of a third person, when that person is not present to answer for themselves.
This sin is so common. How many conversations do we hear when this does not occur? And it is so tempting to engage. To do so can gratify our own pride. We can relate the faults of others and take the focus off our own guilt. By engaging in this behavior, we can indulge our own anger, resentment, self-will, envy, and jealousy, and it can feel good. We might even fall into the delusion of justifying these temperaments as “righteousness.”
Evil-speaking is so easy to disguise. We can speak in noble indignation. We can sound so righteous in our judgment. And yet we serve the devil, even out of our zeal for God. We commit sin from our own hatred of sin. We pour sin upon ourselves under the veil of holiness.
Can we avoid this snare? The answer is “yes.” Our Lord has given us the way. He says, “If one sins against you, go and point out the faults when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others with you, so that your words may be confirmed. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church, and if they still refuse, let them be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
First, go to them alone. The most literal way of following this rule is the best. If you see a fellow Christian commit undeniable sin, so that it is impossible to doubt the fact, then your responsibility is clear. Take the very first opportunity you have to go to them and discuss this alone, taking great care to do so in the right spirit, a patient and kind spirit, free from human wrath. The goal is always restoration and redemption, offered in a spirit of love.
Always, speak in a manner that is of the Gospel of Christ. Avoid every look, gesture, word, or tone that reveals pride or judgment. Avoid everything that looks like anger, arrogance, or assuming. Use the “air and language of sweetness, as well as gentleness, that all may flow from love in the heart.” While, at the same time, do not let this sweetness hinder the seriousness of the conversation. Do this in person, or if necessary, through a trusted messenger, or if there is no other way, through the written word.
Our Lord dictates this first step before we attempt any other. No alternative is allowed. It is true that he allows, and even encourages us to take others, but only as a next step when necessary. One-on-one, face-to-face conversation is best, if it is to bear the fruits of goodness rather than evil. Waiting until you are so burdened that you cannot refrain is not the proper way and is likely to bring harm. Waiting out of fear is also not advised. A sin of omission can be just as harmful, especially if you cover this sin by a sin of commission or by telling another. “Ease bought by sin is a costly purchase!” You will have no ease, and will likely be burdened even more.
I will name one exception to this rule. There may be peculiar cases where the accused is absent, but the violation needs to be reported to protect the innocent. For example, you may have knowledge that property or another’s well-being is in danger. In this case, set aside the rule. There are times when it is our duty to say something in order to prevent evil to another. But even here, remember that evil-speaking is always deadly poison. Therefore, if you are sometimes constrained to use it as medicine, do so with fear and trembling, and use as little as possible.
But what if they will not listen? What if they repay evil for good? What if they become enraged rather than convicted? Again, our Lord has given clear instructions. “Take others with you.” This is the second step. Even with more in the room, make sure that the conversation continues in the spirit of meekness, gentleness, patience, without “evil for evil, or railing for railing.” In this conversation, follow this advice. Briefly repeat what is spoken and answered back to one another. Repeat and confirm the reasons which are given, where all can understand.
Then, Jesus give farther directions. If this second step does not yield fruits of reconciliation and love, then the next step is to bring it before the church. By church we are not talking about the whole congregation. This would answer no good end, but spark more “evil-speaking.” Utilizing this third step, enlist the “elder or elders of the Church, those who oversee the flock to which you both belong.” And if at all possible, this should be done in the presence of the person concerned, and again, with all the tenderness and love that the nature of the situation will allow. At this point, it belongs to the “office of the elder,” to determine the nature of the offence and the proposed remedy.
When you have done this, you have fulfilled your responsibility. You are under no obligation to think of this person anymore, or to try to help them. This is what is meant by the saying, “Let them be as a Gentile or tax Collector.” You need not speak of them anymore, but leave them to the Lord. You still owe him or her good-will and courtesy. But no friendship or familiarity is required.
To keep us humble, we must ask, where do we see such Christians? I see very few. To all of you who are called “Methodist,” I call on you to set an example to the Christian world, so called. Put away evil-speaking, “tale-bearing,” and “whispering.” If you must be distinguished, let this be the distinguishing mark of a Methodist: “Censure no one behind their back.” Speak face to face in love. As we actively love our brothers and sisters, in this hard way, God’s love will abound in our own souls. It will be a peace flowing like a river. And if we follow this rule, what effect will it have on the whole church? Love will continually increase. If one suffers, all will suffer with her or him. If one is honored, all will rejoice. (I Corinthians 12). What effect will this have on the “wild unthinking world?” Might they say, “See how these Christians love one another!” This is how God will convince the world, and prepare hearts for the kingdom of God.
This hope was expressed in the last prayer of Jesus found in John’s Gospel, where Jesus prayed that all who believe in him “may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you; that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21). May the Lord empower us to love one another, not only “in word and in tongue, but in good works and in truth, even as Christ has loved us.” Amen.