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 (Jas 4:11).
James in his epistle delivers straightforward moral guidance for the Christian community. His writings share the directness of the Old Testament prophets and evidence the wisdom of Jesus’ own preaching. “The parallel between the Sermon on the Mount and verses, clauses, phrases, and words in the letter of James is remarkable.”1
The form of James’ counsel in this verse is a prohibition (v. 11a) with its justification (v. 11b). First he tells us that there is some speaking which is absolutely forbidden to us as Christians, and then he explains why that kind of speaking is forbidden.
James writes as the Lord’s spokesman, and this is another example of God’s gracious teaching. The sovereign Lord has every right to command and forbid at His pleasure. He owes us no explanation for His reasons behind the requirements and strictures of His moral law. His bare command should gain our immediate and wholehearted compliance. Nevertheless, in commanding, God often condescends to win our consent by elaborating on the sweet reasonableness of His revealed will. We should be extremely thankful that He takes into account our foolishness and aversion to
righteousness. We must never interpret His patience as minimizing our sin or exalting our judgment as equal with His. Gracious defenses of God’s will are only resisted by the most obstinate.
WHAT IS FORBIDDEN (v. 11a)
“Speak not evil one of another, brethren.” In the original Greek there are only four words—a particle (“not”), a verb (“speak evil”), a pronoun (“one another”), and a noun (“brethren”). The particle negates the verb, turning the statement into the form of a prohibition instead of a commandment. James is telling us what not to do.
The verb’s root is “katalaleo,” probably onomatopoeic, where the pronunciation of the word sounds like the thing it represents. Here, staccato syllables resemble quick, careless speech. It means to “speak ill of, speak degradingly of, speak evil of, defame, slander” (BDAG); “accuse” (DBLSD). It has “a suggestion of the false and exaggerated.”2 Matthew Henry says it “signifies speaking anything that may hurt or injure another” (in loc.). We should feel ashamed that we are prone to this sin and need the warning.
The last two Greek words apply the prohibition to church members’ mutual treatment: “of one another, brethren” (cf. Jas 2.1). Of course it should be applied in our talk about unbelievers, but the sin is most heinous when committed against fellow Christians. John MacArthur rightly qualifies this:
James does not forbid confronting those in sin, which is elsewhere commanded in Scripture (Matt. 18:15–17; Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 4:14; Col. 1:28; Titus 1:13; 2:15; 3:10). Rather, he condemns careless, derogatory, critical, slanderous accusations against others.3
WHY IT IS FORBIDDEN (v. 11b)
Essentially, James exposes this sin by asserting that the one committing it elevates himself above God and His moral law instead of submitting as one who must obey. The law condemns a censorious, hateful spirit towards one’s neighbor. When anyone indulges this anyway, he not only “judges his brother,” but, in effect, condemns the law as wrong, since he judges it unworthy as a rule for himself. This, in effect, is to sit as Judge in the place of God, who alone has the authority and wisdom and holiness to justify and to condemn by His own standard. The kind of confrontation Christians must make in righteousness is neither malicious nor superficial (John 7.24). It is humble, benevolent, and in keeping with biblical truth (Gal 2.14; 6.1).
I close with priceless insights on this from Puritan Thomas Manton: In things doubtful, judge the best; in things hidden and secret we can take no cognizance: when the fact is open, we do not know the aim nor the intent of the heart. It is the devil’s work to judge thus: ‘Doth Job serve God for naught?’ when he could not traduce his action. If the practice be open and public, we do not know what alleviating circumstances it may bear, what grievous temptations they had, or whether they have repented, yea or nay. The devil is called a slanderer, because he doth accuse the saints. It is too true many times what he accuses them of. Aye! but he accuses them when they are pardoned; he rakes up the filth God hath covered; he accuses the brethren after repentance, after they are acquitted by the Lord’s grace; and so you may incur the like: and therefore it is a very hard matter to avoid sin; in one way or other we shall dash upon the command; better
let it alone.4
May the Lord mercifully forgive our sins and reform our speech. Amen.
1. Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, p. 11).
2. Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, on “λαλέω.”
3. MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.).
4. Manton, T. (1872). The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (Vol. 6).