Where better to turn for a source of New Year’s resolutions than the Ten Commandments? Martin Luther’s exposition of the Eighth Commandment* contains a bit of practical Christian wisdom that one could hope would find wide observance in the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the coming year.
Explaining what it means to refrain from bearing false witness against our neighbors, Luther in his Small Catechism says this means “we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Luther’s Large Catechism expands this last point further:
“It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all that we may hear about our neighbors…, and to defend them against the poisonous tongues of those who are busily trying to pry out and pounce on something to criticize in their neighbor, misconstruing and twisting things in the worst way.”
Luther recognizes it as a violation of the commandment against false witness when we make straw men out of our neighbors’ positions, or interpret their actions and motivations in anything but the best possible light.
As one who has had the great privilege of circulating among different political and ideological subcultures within the PC(USA), I have been struck at how very much damage is done to the life of our church by the stories that circulate among groups of like-minded Presbyterians about what makes the “other side” tick: We all know of course that “those liberals” have renounced the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture in order to embrace a different gospel that is subservient to the demands of personal experience and Hollywood culture. And in a similar vein, isn’t it obvious to all right-thinking people that “those conservatives” have elevated hate to the status of a Christian virtue, sold their souls to fundamentalism, and replaced the Gospel of Christ with pharisaic legalism?
Very few of these charges are accurate in my experience, but even in those isolated instances where such unflattering portraits might gain a little traction, Luther’s interpretation of the commandment would seem to require us to preserve our neighbors’ honor and reputation by helping both them and others view their positions in the best and strongest possible light. Doing otherwise would constitute false witness by conveying the impression that the only possible basis for such a stance would be the stuff of our unflattering caricatures of each other.
At the very least, dealing with the best and strongest arguments for positions we disagree with should help all of us find a surer footing in our joint efforts to convert ourselves and others more fully to the truth. And in those cases where we cannot come up with a reasonable accounting of our neighbors’ positions, perhaps this commandment might help prevent us from jumping immediately to the conclusion that our fellow Christians are godless, hateful or irrational… and instead lead us to consider the possibility that we may not have understood their actions and positions as fully as we might.
I am going to try to do a better job observing this commandment in the coming year. Will you join me?
Mark Achtemeier teaches theology and ethics at Dubuque Theological Seminary
*Because of the different ways that Lutheran and Reformed Christians number the commandments, corresponding discussions in Reformed sources will identify the prohibition of false witness as the ninth rather than the eighth commandment.
Quotes from Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms are taken from The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
I am indebted to Eugene Rogers for directing my attention to this passage in Luther’s Small Catechism.