Was ist das? The Eighth Commandment: Luther’s Toughest Words

By Scott Keith

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Okay, easy enough. So, long story short, I am not supposed to outwardly tell lies about my neighbor. I can do that, I think. Then Luther does what Jesus tended to do. That is, Luther takes something in the Law that seems easy to accomplish and exposes its real difficulty.

Luther asks the toughest question ever: “What does this mean?” Or more simply put: “What is this?” Answer. “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

Piece by piece, we can see that this commandment is not as easy to accomplish as we thought at first glance. Sure, it seems clear that we may be able to avoid setting traps for our neighbor or openly defaming his name. Betrayal appears to be easily avoidable, too.

And then comes the hammer. We are called to defend our neighbor. That’s right; we are to protect and support that neighbor that we have tried so hard not to gossip about. It’s hard enough to talk crap about him when he acts like an idiot or writes a stupid blog. Instead, the call of the Eighth Commandment, according to Luther, is to come to his defense. Hmm, I’m not too sure about that.

So then, what does “defend him” actually entail? Well, Luther is not one to leave the matter unclear. Thus, he sets to making his case with even more fervor. According to Luther, we are to not only speak well of him (defend him with our words) but also think well of him. What? The commandment seeks to control not only our words but our thoughts, too? You bet your sweet bippy. Furthermore, Luther is not even done yet.

The last nail in the coffin of our sanctimony in Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment comes in the last line: “and put the best construction on everything.” So what does this mean? I think it means that we are to believe the best about what our neighbor does, writes, and says. Then, once believing the best, we apply the former imperatives to “defend” and “speak well” based on our new way of thinking. In other words, use the “best construction” when considering and speaking of your neighbor’s, your brother in Christ’s, words and deeds. And when you don’t understand what your neighbor is trying to say, then apply the words of Christ in Matthew 18 and ask him: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15)


So why do I write this today? Isn’t this a little “legalistic” for The Jagged Word? Yeah, it kind of is. But for all of us who write blogs, read blogs, or troll social media, we need a reminder that our current way of handling a disagreement between Christian brothers and sisters is not actually Christian. It is not the “Christian thing to do” to start a social media firestorm against another Christian without first defending him, speaking well of him, putting the best construction on his words, and, when all else fails, asking him about the disagreement.

You wouldn’t know that from the maelstrom of vitriol that flows from many Christian (Lutheran) websites and social media accounts against fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. What is more common is to read, or even write, sanctimonious decrees concerning the “danger” of their words or the “impurity” of their proposed teaching.

Now, you ask, what if their words are “dangerous” or “unsafe” and their teaching truly “impure”? Then, perhaps, their words need to be dealt with thoughtfully. But ask yourself: have you first attempted to heed Luther’s words? Have you tried to put the best construction on their possibly overly simplistic attempt to communicate an idea? Have you, by that best construction, then tried to defend him and speak well of him? Or have you, like so many of us, consumed his idea like a conquering army without giving it the due diligence it deserves before reacting?

The answers are probably the same for you as they more often than not are for me. You see, I, like you, am a gossip, a scoundrel, and a dishonest fiend. Better, though, that you and I heed the words of Paul and try to be a friend to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when I think that they may be wrong. Maybe these truly are Luther’s toughest words. “…defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

Surely we will fail. What makes us brothers and sisters in Christ is that our failure, not our success, is what we all have in common. When we fail, we follow the words of Scripture and flee to Christ. Left to our own, our failure to follow Christ’s commands makes us a body of death. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)