James 4:11 addresses one of the “respectable sins”—that is, one of those behaviors that the Bible has so clearly condemned but that Christians by and large have learned to tolerate and sometimes even celebrate. We are prone to rage against what is wrong outside of our group while failing to pay attention to what is dreadfully wrong inside, turning a blind eye to our own sins because they are ours. Among these “respectable sins” is slander.
To slander is to talk against someone or to speak in such a way as to unjustly degrade their reputation. In Greek, the word is katalaleî, from laleō (“to speak”) and kata (“against”). We slander outright by gossip, backbiting, malicious talk, false reports, and lies. But slander can also be hidden in something as simple as repeating stories about the wrongs of others in a way that doesn’t build them up (Eph. 4:29).
To the extent that we have stained our hands with slander, we need to heed the exhortation of James 4:8—“Cleanse your hands, you sinners”—and make sure we are growing in our ability to recognize and kill sin.
Is Slander Really a Big Deal?
The Bible is not ambiguous about slander. God told the Israelites early on, “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD” (Lev.19:16). And in Psalm 50, God identifies slander and deceitful speech as expressions of the inherent wickedness of men and women, saying,
You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother’s son. (vv. 19–20)
The book of Proverbs is replete with references to the tongue—at least sixty of them throughout the book—with several confronting slander specifically. Proverbs 10:18, for example, reads, “The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.”
Slander is to talk against someone or to speak in such a way as to reduce them.
Jesus, too, spoke very clearly about our words when He said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36). And nearly a fifth of the letter of James is concerned with the tongue in one way or another, because, according to James, “if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Clearly, then, throughout both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture’s stance on slander is firm: it is a sin—and not one to be dismissed.
The Incongruity of Slander
In chapter 4 of his epistle, James turns his attention to slander in particular, issuing a clear imperative in verse 11: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.”
In the preceding verses, James has called for believers to submit themselves to God (v. 7)—an act which involves humbling ourselves before Him (vv. 6, 10). This matter of humility leads James directly to the problem of slander, because slander is a form of self-exaltation. In our pride, we knock others down with our words to make ourselves feel a little higher.
Yet the absurdity of slander within the church is revealed when James addresses his readers (and us) as “brothers.” The term sets the issue of slander within the framework of a family—and while it is certainly common for people to say terrible things about their family, such conduct is destructive to family life. When slander infects a family, whom God has created for mutual love and support, something has gone terribly wrong. It is incongruous and shameful when siblings speak ill of each other.
As Christians, we find ourselves united when we recognize that we are from the same spiritual bloodline, sharing “an interest in the Savior’s blood,” which “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). If we forget who we are in Jesus and what we are to one another, then we may find ourselves passing on truths, half-truths, or even falsehoods that create division rather than harmony through joy and encouragement.
In our pride, we knock others down with our words to make ourselves feel a little higher.
We may think a little bit of “honest” speech about our brothers and sisters in the church doesn’t really matter, or even that it’s a good thing. But if it is not aimed at reconciliation and building up, then it can quickly become slander, dividing people, destroying praise, confusing the watching world, and ultimately killing a church fellowship.
Recognizing Slander in Our Speech
James was not addressing a hypothetical situation, nor were the other apostles when they confronted slander (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Peter 2:1). It was a very real problem in the church, and it still is. In his book Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges identifies three expressions of slander that are particularly common in the church today. Though these certainly don’t constitute the full extent of slander, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with them so that we can be on guard against them.
First of all, we are guilty of slander when we report negatively on another person’s point of view without fully understanding it. It is a sore temptation to take a sound bite and pass it along without investigating whether it represents a genuine expression of someone’s convictions. In a social-media age, we are quick to jump to conclusions—but when we speak without knowing, we indict ourselves as slanderers.
Secondly, we are guilty of slander when we act as if we know the motives of people and then question those motives: “Oh, the only reason she’s helping is because…” “Well, the only reason he’s saying that is because…” The truth is that we don’t know the motives of people’s hearts, and we shouldn’t speak as if we do. James addresses this form of slander, pointedly asking, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Thirdly, we are guilty of slander when we publicly question the commitment of our brothers and sisters because they haven’t met our personal expectations. It’s easy enough to believe someone doesn’t love God or the church as much as you do, but it’s impossible to know merely from a cursory judgment of outward signs. We don’t know what circumstances they face, we don’t know what place they’ve started from, and we certainly can’t see what is going on in their hearts (1 Sam. 16:7). If we decry our brothers and sisters as uncommitted on the basis of rash and unasked-for judgment, we have slandered them while exalting ourselves to the position of God.
The Antidote for Slander
Once we have seen and acknowledged the problem of slander in our thoughts, words, and hearts, what can we do with it? The only way to deal with slander, as with any sin, is to repent of it in faithful obedience and submission to God.
We are guilty of slander when we call into question the commitment of our brothers and sisters when that commitment doesn’t meet our expectations.
It is uncomfortable to face the biblical condemnations of slander and to recognize that in fact, they condemn us. But while God’s word diagnoses our ailment, it also provides the cure. The antidote to sin—whether slander or any other sin—is always the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
James’s instruction about responding to slander leaves little room for accommodation: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep” (James 4:8–9). He uses the strongest possible terms to urge God’s people—who have been changed by God, made new by God, and included in the family of God—to recognize the sin that remains in their lives and to take it seriously as something deadly.
Yet it is in this repentance and humility that we discover that the Gospel is our only hope for freedom from sin, including the sin of slander. The Gospel tells us that another has done for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Instead of holding sin to our account, God credits us with all of the righteousness of Christ, and He adopts us into His family. Then He says, “Come on, son. Come on, daughter. Be what you are.”
We are children of God. The devil’s a slanderer, but we are not the devil’s children any longer. As we abide in Christ, trusting in His blood to cleanse us and His Spirit to sanctify us, we will find Him forming us into His image (2 Cor. 3:16–18). In the power of the cross, the tongue can be transformed from “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6) to “a fountain of life” (Prov. 10:11).