17. Lord, Help Your Church Not Speak Evil of One Another! (James 4:11-12)Related Media
Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?
James 4:11-12 (NET)
How can we avoid speaking evil of others?
With the Jewish Christians James wrote to, it is clear that there were lots of discord and fights going on within their congregations. In James 4:1, James said, “Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you?” There were ongoing battles happening in the early church; some had even been murdered because of them (4:3). It also is clear that many of these battles were happening because people were speaking ill of each other. In James 1:19, James said, “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” People were getting angry at each other, not listening, and therefore saying harsh words. In Chapter 3, James warned about the dangers of the tongue and compared it to an uncontrollable fire which could destroy a whole forest (3:5). And, here in James 4:11, James said, “Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters.” The NIV translates it, “Do not slander one another.” However, it is clear he was not referring to slander alone. Literally, the command is, “Do not speak down on one another, brothers.”1 It is a challenge against defaming or degrading others in a variety of ways. The ESV translates it, “Do not speak evil against one another.” These types of evil speech include (1) gossip—saying negative things behind someone’s back, whether true or false, (2) slander—saying false, harmful things against others, (3) and criticism, giving negative critiques directly to others which are not meant to build them up. Since the church has emphasized not speaking false information about others—slander is often not a big problem. It has also emphasized not gossiping behind others’ backs. But the church has failed to emphasize how criticism harms others. Some believers think as long as it is true and it is towards another’s face, then it’s OK. Some might even think they have the spiritual gift of criticism—like it’s their job to fix everybody and everything. However, people like that have misunderstood James and Scripture in general. James is saying that we shouldn’t say anything true or false that tears others down instead of building them up. Certainly, there is a type of constructive criticism that can encourage and sharpen another believer, when given at the right time, with the right words and the right manner. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as much as it should in our churches. It has been said that the church is the only army that shoots its wounded. What many people don’t understand is that most are painfully aware of their flaws and are working to correct them. Then, someone with the “gift of criticism” comes and pours oil on the fire, which only tears them down further—making it hard for them to serve at all. No doubt, many were experiencing this in the early church.
Most likely, the main ones being criticized were people serving or in leadership. Sadly, this has been common throughout biblical history. Moses was slandered, criticized, and gossiped about by the people he led. Daniel was gossiped about and plotted against by his co-workers; in fact, they got him thrown into the lions’ den. Jesus was defamed by many of the Jews and especially by the leadership of Israel, who got him killed.
In fact, speaking evil about people has been widespread since the fall. One of Satan’s most prominent titles is the name devil which means “slanderer.” The first temptation included his slander of God. He said to Eve, “If you eat of the tree, surely, you won’t die! God knows that if you eat it, you will be just like him.” Satan slandered God by declaring that he was lying and that he was keeping the best away from Eve. This essentially led to the fall. After the fall, Adam blamed God by saying, “The woman You gave me, gave me food and I ate.” Since then, humanity has been prone to hurting one another with their words. The daily news is commonly filled with criticism of various people in the public eye—slandering the other sides’ intelligence and motives. The world is divided, in part, because of all the evil words constantly spoken against one another.
As mentioned, those often criticized and slandered are those in the public eye, as they serve in some manner. They include teachers, coaches, managers, governors, and presidents. In the church, they are commonly worship leaders, children and youth ministers, and elders/pastors. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, it is clear Paul was being criticized by the church he founded. They said, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but his physical presence is weak and his speech is of no account.” They criticized his physical appearance and his preaching—saying it was worthless. Regrettably, this is common for those who serve in the preaching ministry today. Young pastors are often told at their ordination ceremonies that they’ll have to develop thick skin if they are to serve long-term in ministry.
This is common in the church because speaking evil of others is normative of our unredeemed nature and therefore the world (cf. Gal 5:19-21). That is exactly what James is challenging these believers about in the surrounding scriptural context. They were living by worldly wisdom (3:15), befriending the world (4:4), and therefore, acting just like the world, which included speaking evil of others. In James 4:10, when he calls for them to humble themselves before God so he could exalt them, he was attacking the root of their excessive criticism of others. They were prideful. (1) Sometimes, they spoke evil of others because of jealously. (2) Sometimes, they spoke evil of others to build themselves up by bringing someone else down. (3) Sometimes, they spoke evil of others out of revenge. Either way, their pride would only cause God to fight against them, as he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Jam 4:6). Consequently, in James 4:11-12, James challenges these early believers and us with several principles about how to stop speaking evil of other believers.
Big Question: According to James 4:11-12, how can believers stop speaking evil of each other?
To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Cultivate Right Thoughts About Them
Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge.
In verse 11, the terms “brothers and sisters,” “fellow believer,” and “fellow believer” in the NET all come from the same Greek word which just means “brother.” That’s why more literal versions, like the ESV, use the terms “brothers,” “brother,” and “brother.” The threefold repetition of family terminology was meant to challenge the Jewish Christians that James wrote to. It’s like James was saying, “Stop treating others so harshly. Don’t you know you are family?” It’s not normal for a son to gossip about his father, or a mother to slander her son, or for siblings to continually criticize each other. Families are supposed to build each other up and not break each other down.
Certainly, this should be true of the church, as Scripture describes us as the family of God. Galatians 6:10 says, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith.” We should do good to all, but especially to our spiritual family. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul said, “Do not address an older man harshly but appeal to him as a father. Speak to younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters—with complete purity.” We should address the older men and women in the congregation with respect as though they’re our parents, even when they are in sin. Likewise, we should speak gently to those younger than us, as speaking to younger siblings. We should treat the members of the church as family—caring for one another, praying for one another, and seeking each other’s good.
James’ point is this: how we think about others affects how we talk about them. Speaking evil of others always starts in our hearts. Therefore, if we battle wrong thoughts in our hearts (2 Cor 10:5) and aim to think about believers as God does, it will positively affect how we speak about them and treat them. John MacArthur said it this way,
If fellow believers are viewed as those chosen by God before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died, who are loved and honored by God, and with whom we will spend eternity in heaven, we will seek to honor, love, and protect them. The first step in avoiding the sin of slander is not keeping one’s lips sealed, but keeping one’s thoughts about others right.2
In addition, we must not just recognize other believers as family, but specifically, as God’s children who he is zealous for and protective of (Jam 4:5). In Matthew 18:6-7, Jesus said this about young believers:
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come.
If we offend other believers (especially young ones), it would be better to die a gruesome death than to experience God’s judgment. God is forgiving, but when it comes to defending his children, he tends to be just, like most parents! If we thought about this before speaking evil about one of his children, it would keep us from sinning with our mouths.
Applications for All Relationships
With all that said, though James is, specifically, writing about our words toward other believers, this truth will help us guard our words toward anybody, including nonbelievers. Do we realize that God sent his Son to die for this person? Do we realize that they are made in the image of God—to demonstrate his glory? In James 3:9, James recognized the contradiction between blessing God with our tongues and then at the same time cursing those made in his image. He says, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image.” To curse God’s works by mocking a person’s appearance or being merciless with his shortcomings or failures, is to curse God. And to do so means to be in danger of his judgment.
Are we thinking of believers as God’s children, who he is zealous for and protective of? Are we considering all people as those made in God’s image, whom he loves, even though they are not perfect? If so, it will help us guard our tongues against speaking evil of them.
Application Question: How have you been hurt by others speaking evil of you? How have you hurt others with your words? What are some disciplines or tips that will help us think of other believers (and ourselves) as God’s children and all people as those made in the image of God, so we can avoid speaking evil of them?
To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Obey God’s Law of Love Instead of Rebelling Against It
He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge.
In James 4:11, one reason for not speaking evil of others is that when we do so, we are speaking against God’s law and judging it.
Interpretation Question: What law is James referring to?
He has talked about the law several times throughout the book (1:25, 2:8-12). In 1:25, he called it “the perfect law of liberty,” which means instead of binding us, it frees us from sin to love God and others. In James 4:13, when James says, “who are you to judge your neighbor?” it indicates that he is referring to the summary command of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Romans 13:9-10 says this,
For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
If we love our neighbor, we won’t lust after his or her spouse. If we love our neighbor, we won’t steal from him or murder him. Loving our neighbor will also keep us from speaking evil against him. Loving our neighbor is a summary of God’s commands; we even love God by loving our neighbor, since they’re his children.
Interpretation Question: What does James mean when he says that those who speak evil of others speak against the law and judge it?
Essentially, James is saying that we speak against the law by saying, at least with our evil words, there are some parts of the law that don’t apply to us. We believe that we should not murder or steal, but we don’t think we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves by our speech. Our actions say, “It’s OK for me to criticize my siblings, my parents, my boss, my pastor, my president because I don’t have to abide by that aspect of God’s law!” Or, we speak against the law by declaring, “It’s not a good law! That person deserves my criticism!”
James 4:11 says, “But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge.” Essentially, James says instead of judging God’s law, we should be doing God’s law. This means instead of speaking evil about others, we must consider how we can love them as ourselves—both in actions and words. This means we must ask ourselves questions before we speak. Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Here are some questions to ask from Ephesians 4:29: (1) Would these words be unwholesome or evil—like harmful criticism, demeaning names, or an unflattering description? (2) Would these words build up the person and help their faith or productivity? (3) Are these words needed? There are many good things we could say or that we might want to say, but that person may not need to hear them at this moment. Even teachers don’t teach everything at once because students couldn’t handle it. In our relationships, if they are discouraged, maybe we should give them a Scripture to encourage them or help them see their situation in a more hopeful light. If they are struggling with sin, maybe we should give them biblical instructions on how to break free, or a challenge, so they might repent.
In addition, we can ask ourselves questions based on God’s summary command in Leviticus 19:18 to love our neighbor as ourselves. (4) In considering loving our neighbor, we should ask, from what we know about them, “How might they best receive love, including certain types of comments, instructions, or correction?” If they are very sensitive, then maybe we shouldn’t say it at all, or we should say it very gently, at a strategic time. If they are extremely shy, maybe they would prefer the comment or instruction to not be given in public. If they are proud or foolish, maybe the comment needs to be said in a very challenging manner, including considering potential consequences. If we don’t know them well, we should consider if the instruction might be better received from somebody they know intimately and respect. In “loving our neighbor,” we must consider their uniqueness and how they might best receive love, including our words. (5) In considering loving our neighbor “as ourselves,” we must ask, “How would we prefer to be loved, and specifically through words?” For example, “How would I best receive this comment or instruction?” Or, “What type of words or comments would I not want to receive?” Often people unwisely do or say things to others which they would never enjoy or receive. For example, most people especially struggle with receiving public rebuke. However, sometimes people in leadership rebuke people publicly, even though the leader would never want the same done to them. Not that public rebuke is never needed, but it must be done wisely and rarely. To “love our neighbor as ourselves,” we must both consider our neighbor and ourselves, so we can best love them, especially with our words.
To not speak evil of others, we must obey God’s law of love instead of rebelling against it by our actions and words. We must carefully consider how we can use our words to love our neighbors by building them up instead of tearing them down.
Application Question: What are some edifying ways that we can build others up with our words? How can we build others up with our words, specifically, when having to deliver rebuke or a challenge? Who is God calling you to, especially, edify with your words and why?
To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Submit to God Instead of Trying to Be God
But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy.
In James 4:11-12, James was not only calling these believers to not speak evil of others, but also to not judge them, acting as though they were God. In verse 11b, he said, “He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law.” Therefore, James gives another reason for not speaking evil of others and that is the fact that God, not us, is the only lawgiver and judge (v. 12). God is the source of the law and the one who applies it justly. He is the one who saves the most wretched sinner who puts his faith in Jesus Christ and condemns those who persist in sin and reject his Son. He is the ultimate judge, not us. Therefore, when we judge others with condemning words (11b), we usurp God and his role. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul said this about judging ministers, which was obviously happening quite a bit in that church:
So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.
Interpretation Question: Do James’ and Paul’s comments mean that we are never to judge anybody and specifically their sins?
Some Christians condemn all judging, and their proof text is Matthew 7:1 which says, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” However, even in the context of Matthew 7, it is clear Christ is not telling believers to never judge. He teaches them to judge themselves first by taking the plank out of their own eye, so they can see properly and help others take the speck out of their eye (7:5). Also, in Matthew 7:6, he says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.” When helping others get rid of sin, we need to judge their readiness. Are they dogs who will reject the pearls of scriptural wisdom and become angry with us? Or are they open-hearted? At times, when Christ had the opportunity to share with others, he said nothing. Christ said nothing to Herod who wanted to see him perform a miracle (Lk 23:9). For the most part, Christ also said nothing to the council who trumped up witnesses to falsely accuse him in order to get him crucified (Matt 26:61-63). Christ wouldn’t cast his pearls before swine. They didn’t want to hear the truth, and he didn’t give it to them. Likewise, in Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus called believers to watch out for false prophets who would be known by their evil fruit. Believers must use wise judgment to discern a false prophet. We have to discern both their bad character and bad teaching by comparing them against God’s Word. So Christ was not teaching to never judge; he was teaching the need for righteous judgment. And James and Paul were not forbidding all types of judgment either.
In fact, throughout James’ letter, he declared that certain practices happening among the Jewish Christian congregations were sinful. He challenged those who were declaring that God was tempting them to sin in James 1:13. In James 2:1-11, he challenged those who were honoring the rich and dishonoring the poor. In James 4:1-6, he challenged the believers about their friendship with the world which was causing discord in the church. In James 5:1-6, he challenged the wealthy who were cheating and murdering the poor. James was judging sin throughout the letter. The difference in his judging was that he was simply saying what God had already said in his Word. He was not making up his own standards or judging with selfish motives.
Interpretation Question: How can we avoid misjudging others and causing unnecessary conflict?
(1) To avoid misjudging, we should never judge people based on our opinions or preferences, apart from Scripture. In the context of judging ministers, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:6 that we should not go “beyond what is written”—again saying we should not go about setting our own standards, apart from God’s Word, to judge others by, including age, education, money, race, or talents. Most fights in the world—between husbands and wives, friends and co-workers, citizens and government officials—are based on opinion or preference, not Scripture or moral issues. Understanding the difference between a moral issue and a preference issue is crucial for maintaining peaceful relationships. Preference issues may bother us, but they don’t necessarily bother God. We shouldn’t handle a preference or wisdom issue the same as moral issues. When the Jews were cheating people at the temple, Christ turned over tables and pulled out a whip (John 2). When God was being defamed and others hurt, he was like a lion. Unfortunately, we are often like lions over our preferences and opinions which often aren’t scriptural. Understanding the difference will save us from fights and relationships. We should be gentle with others when it comes to differing opinions and wisdom issues. When we judge people on our preferences or opinions, we are acting like God by establishing our own laws to judge people. We’re not God! That’s what the Pharisees did by adding to Scripture. They misjudged Jesus and his disciples because they didn’t wash their hands, practice the Sabbath, or fast like they thought should happen. They made their own laws and were judging others like they were God! People often do the same.
(2) In addition, to avoid misjudging, we should never judge people’s hearts, since we don’t know them. When we act like we know others’ motives, we again are usurping God’s role. He is the only one who knows the full reasons why a person did this or that. Often, people’s motives are mixed—combined with some good aspects and evil ones. When we judge the heart, we usurp God’s role and often anger those we are confronting because of our pride and blindness.
(3) Also, to avoid misjudging, we should not have evil motives or intentions when judging others. As mentioned, much of our judging can often come from a desire to glorify ourselves by demeaning others. We essentially say, we could lead better, preach better, counsel better, or administrate better. By aiming to glorify ourselves, we are essentially usurping God’s role, who is the only one worthy of glory.
Again, James is not calling us to never judge. He is saying that we should never act like we are God—setting our own standards of righteousness, acting like we know others’ hearts, or seeking to glorify ourselves, as though we are God. Unfortunately, this commonly happens in our relationships and the church—leading to great discord. Let God be God! Again, this all stems from James’ challenge in James 4:10, to humble ourselves before God—stop trying to be him—so he can exalt us.
Application Question: In what ways have you seen people mishandle Matthew 7:1, declaring that we should never judge others? Why is that view wrong, both biblically and practically? How is God calling you to not go beyond Scripture in your judgments, which will lessen or reconcile many of your disputes (1 Cor 4:6)?
To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Correctly Evaluate Ourselves
On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?
In James 4:12, when James says, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” he was essentially saying, “Who do you think you are, judging your neighbor … God?” Paul similarly rebuked the Romans who were divided over doubtful issues like eating certain foods and worshiping on certain days. In Romans 14:4, he said, “Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
In James’ and Paul’s rhetorical questions, they implied that one of the main reasons we struggle with speaking evil of others is an exaggerated view of ourselves. Pride in our ability, wisdom, or righteousness often leads to looking down on others or criticizing them. In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14), the Pharisee boasted in his giving and righteousness before God and then criticized the tax collector. He had a wrong view of himself, which led to wrongly evaluating and demeaning others. Christ actually said the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee (v. 14).
Properly Evaluating Ourselves
Therefore, to properly judge others and not speak evil of them, we must have a fair estimation of ourselves. In Romans 12:3, Paul said: “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment.”
Application Question: How can we properly evaluate ourselves, so we won’t speak evil of others?
1. To properly evaluate ourselves, we must spend more time in God’s presence.
In Isaiah 6:5, when Isaiah had a view of God, he cried out, “Too bad for me! I am destroyed, for my lips are contaminated by sin, and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin. My eyes have seen the king, the Lord who commands armies.” When Isaiah was in God’s presence, he saw himself and others properly. Therefore, a lack of time in God’s presence—by neglecting Scripture study, worship, and prayer—leads to misevaluating ourselves, either leading to pride or insecurity, and ultimately misjudging others.
2. To properly evaluate ourselves, we need God’s people to speak in our lives.
As we develop accountability relationships with others, God will commonly speak to us through them. Sometimes, they will challenge us, but at other times, they will encourage us, as they recognize God’s gifting and specific calling on our lives. Samuel anointed David and told him he was going to be King. And Nathan challenged King David when he was in sin. Paul challenged Timothy to not be fearful because of his youth and inexperience but to recognize the power God had given him to serve others and to walk in his gifts. We all need people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even when it hurts. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” That’s what James has been doing in the letter to these Jewish Christians, as he challenges them about not speaking evil of others and judging them.
To not speak evil of others, we must properly evaluate ourselves. An inflated view of ourselves leads to judging and condemning others with our words. We gain a proper perspective as we live in God’s presence through prayer and Scripture study and as we have godly accountability who speak God’s words to us.
Application Question: How does pride commonly blind us and lead to wrongly evaluating others and speaking evil of them? How is God calling you to spend more time in his presence and develop accountability partners, so you can properly evaluate yourself and others?
In James 4:11-12, James challenged the Jewish Christians to not speak evil of one another. It is clear that gossip, criticism, and slander were rampant within the churches—tearing them apart. Speaking evil of and judging others is something common in the world—in our friendships, families, education systems, businesses, media, and governments. However, it should not be a characteristic of God’s church. Therefore, James challenges them, and us, to no longer speak evil of each other.
- To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Cultivate Right Thoughts About Them
- To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Obey God’s Law of Love Instead of Rebelling Against It
- To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Submit to God Instead of Trying to Be God
- To Not Speak Evil of Others, We Must Correctly Evaluate Ourselves
- Pray for God to forgive our evil thoughts and words towards others and our rebellion against his leadership and law of love.
- Pray for God to give us his thoughts about others and to help us love them, as he loves them, especially with our words.
- Pray for God to enable us to see ourselves as he sees us, including our weaknesses and strengths, so we can better serve others.
Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown
Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.
All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.
BTG Publishing all rights reserved.
Related Topics: Christian Life