“You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor.”

[255] Besides our own body, our spouse, and our temporal property, we have one more treasure that is indispensable to us, namely, our honor and good reputation. For it is important that we not live among people in public disgrace and dishonor. [256] Therefore God does not want our neighbors deprived of their reputation, honor, and character any more than of their money and possessions; he wants everyone to maintain self-respect before spouse, child, servant, and neighbor. [257] In its first and simplest meaning, as the words stand (“You shall not bear false witness”), this commandment pertains to public courts of justice, where one may accuse and malign a poor, innocent man and crush him by means of false witnesses, so that consequently he may suffer punishment in body, property, or honor.

[258] This appears to have little to do with us now, but among the Jews it was an extraordinarily common occurrence. That nation had an excellent, orderly government, and even now, where there is such a government, this sin still has not diminished. The reason is this: Where judges, mayors, princes, or others in authority sit in judgment, it never fails to happen that, true to the usual course of the world, people are loath to offend anyone. Instead, they speak dishonestly with an eye to gaining favor, money, prospects, or friendship. Consequently, a poor man is inevitably oppressed, loses his case, and suffers punishment.

And it is a common misfortune in the world that seldom do people of integrity preside in courts of justice. [259] A judge must, above all, be a person of integrity, and not only that, but also wise and perceptive, in fact, a bold and fearless man. Likewise, a witness must be fearless; more than that, someone who is upright. For those who are to administer justice equitably and to impose penalties will often offend good friends, relatives, neighbors, and the rich and powerful who could do much to harm or help them. Therefore they must be absolutely blind, closing their eyes and ears to everything but the evidence presented, and render judgment accordingly.
[260] The first application of this commandment, then, is that all people should help their neighbors maintain their legal rights. One must not allow these rights to be thwarted or distorted but should promote and resolutely guard them, whether this person is judge or witness, no matter what the consequences may be. [261] Here a special goal is set for our jurists: to take care that they deal fairly and honestly with cases, that they let right remain right, not perverting or concealing or suppressing anything on account of someone’s money, property, honor, or power. This is one aspect of this commandment and its plainest meaning, applying to all that takes place in court.

[262] Next, it extends much further when it is applied to spiritual jurisdiction or administration. Here, too, all people bear false witness against their neighbors. Wherever there are upright preachers and Christians, they must endure having the world call them heretics, apostates, even seditious and desperate scoundrels. Moreover, the Word of God must undergo the most shameful and spiteful persecution and blasphemy; it is contradicted, perverted, misused, and misinterpreted. But let this pass; it is the blind world’s nature to condemn and persecute the truth and the children of God and yet consider this no sin.

[263] The third aspect of this commandment, which applies to all of us, forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor. “Bearing false witness” is nothing but a work of the tongue. God wants to hold in check whatever is done with the tongue against a neighbor. This applies to false preachers with their blasphemous teaching, to false judges and witnesses with their rulings in court and their lying and malicious talk outside of court. [264] It applies especially to the detestable, shameless vice of backbiting or slander by which the devil rides us. Of this much could be said. It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.

[265] To avoid this vice, therefore, we should note that none has the right to judge and reprove a neighbor publicly, even after having seen a sin committed, unless authorized to judge and reprove. [266] There is a very great difference between judging sin and having knowledge of sin. You may certainly know about a sin, but you should not judge it. I may certainly see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to tell others about it. If I were to interfere and pass judgment on him, I would fall into a sin greater than that of my neighbor. When you become aware of a sin, however, do nothing but turn your ears into a tomb and bury it until you are appointed a judge and are authorized to administer punishment by virtue of your office.

[267] Those who are not content just to know but rush ahead and judge are called backbiters. Learning a bit of gossip about someone else, they spread it into every corner, relishing and delighting in the chance to stir up someone else’s dirt like pigs that roll in manure and root around in it with their snouts. [268] This is nothing else than usurping God’s judgment and office and pronouncing the severest kind of verdict or sentence, for the harshest verdict a judge can pronounce is to declare someone a thief, a murderer, a traitor, etc. Therefore those who venture to accuse their neighbor of such guilt assume as much authority as the emperor and all rulers. For though you do not wield the sword, you use your venomous tongue to bring disgrace and harm upon your neighbor.

[269] Therefore God forbids you to speak evil about another, even though, to your certain knowledge, that person is guilty. Even less may you do so if you are not really sure and have it only from hearsay. [270] But you say: “Why shouldn’t I say it if it is the truth?” Answer: “Why don’t you bring it before the proper judge?” “Oh, I can’t prove it publicly; I might be called a liar and sent away in disgrace.” Ah, my dear, now do you smell the roast? If you do not trust yourself to stand before the persons appointed for such tasks and make your charges, then hold your tongue. If you know something, keep it to yourself and do not tell others. For when you repeat a story that you cannot prove, even though it is true, you appear as a liar. Besides, you act like a knave, for no one should be deprived of his honor and good name unless these have first been taken away from the person publicly.

[271] Every report, then, that cannot be adequately proved is false witness. [272] Therefore, no one should publicly assert as truth what is not publicly substantiated. In short, what is secret should be left secret, or at any rate be reproved in secret, as we shall hear. [273] Therefore, if you encounter someone with a worthless tongue who gossips and slanders someone else, rebuke such people straight to their faces and make them blush with shame. Then those who otherwise would bring some poor person into disgrace, from which one could scarcely clear one’s self, will hold their tongue. For honor and good name are easily taken away but not easily restored.

[274] So you see that we are absolutely forbidden to speak evil of our neighbor. Exception is made, however, of civil magistrates, preachers, and fathers and mothers in order that we may interpret this commandment in such a way that evil does not go unpunished. We have seen that the Fifth Commandment forbids us to injure anyone physically, and yet an exception is made of the hangman. By virtue of his office he does not do his neighbor good but only harm and evil, yet he does not sin against God’s commandment because God of his own accord instituted that office, and, as he warns in the First Commandment, he has reserved to himself the right of punishment. Likewise, although no one personally has the right to judge and condemn anyone, yet if they are commanded to do so and fail to do it, they sin as much as those who take the law into their own hands apart from any office. In that case necessity requires one to report evil, to prefer charges, to give evidence, to examine witnesses, and to testify. [275] It is no different than when a physician, in order to cure a patient, is sometimes compelled to examine and touch the patient’s private parts. Just so, the authorities, fathers and mothers, and even brothers and sisters and other good friends are under a mutual obligation to reprove evil wherever it is necessary and helpful.

[276] But the right way to deal with this matter would be to follow the rule laid down by the gospel, Matthew 18, where Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”112 Here you have a fine, precious precept for governing the tongue that ought to be noted carefully in order to avoid this detestable abuse. Let this be your rule, then, that you should not be quick to spread slander and gossip about your neighbors but admonish them privately so that they may improve. Likewise, do the same when others tell you what this or that person has done. Instruct them, if they saw the wrongdoing, to go and reprove the individual personally or otherwise to hold their tongue.

[277] You can also learn this lesson from the day-to-day running of a household. This is what the master of the house does: when he sees a servant not doing what he is supposed to do, he speaks to him personally. If he were so foolish as to let the servant sit at home while he went out into the streets to complain to his neighbors, he would no doubt be told: “You fool, it’s none of our business! Why don’t you tell him yourself?” [278] See, that would be the proper, brotherly thing to do, for the evil would be corrected and your neighbor’s honor preserved. As Christ also says in the same passage: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” There you will have done a great and excellent deed. For do you think that it is an insignificant thing to gain a brother? Let all the monks and holy orders step forward with all their works piled together, and see if they can boast of having gained one brother!

[279] Christ teaches further: “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Thus the people involved are to be dealt with directly and not gossiped about behind their backs. [280] If this does not help, bring the matter publicly before the community, either before the civil or the ecclesiastical court. Here you are not standing alone, but you have those witnesses with you through whom you can prove the accused’s guilt and on whose testimony the judge can base the decision and pass sentence. This is the right and proper way of dealing with and improving a wicked person. [281] But if you gossip about someone in every corner and root around in the filth, no one will be improved. Moreover, when people are subsequently called upon to witness, they deny having said anything. [282] It would serve such big mouths right to have their fun spoiled, as a warning to others. [283] If you were acting to improve your neighbor or out of love for the truth, you would not sneak about in secret, shunning the light of day.

[284] All of this refers to secret sins. But where the sin is so public that the judge and everyone else are aware of it, you can without sin shun and avoid those who have brought disgrace upon themselves, and you may also testify publicly against them. For when something is exposed to the light of day, there can be no question of slander or injustice or false witness. For example, we now censure the pope and his teaching, which is publicly set forth in books and shouted throughout the world. Where the sin is public, appropriate public punishment should follow so that everyone may know how to guard against it.

[285] Now we have the summary and substance of this commandment: No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement. Rather, we should use our tongue to speak only the best about all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor. [286] Our chief reason for doing this is the one that Christ has given in the gospel, and in which he means to encompass all the commandments concerning our neighbor, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

[287] Nature, too, teaches us the same thing in our own bodies, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12[:22–23*]: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth; we do not need to, for they are the most honorable members we have. But the weakest members, of which we are ashamed, we carefully conceal. Our hands and eyes, even the whole body, must help to cover and veil them. [288] Thus in our relations with one another all of us should veil whatever is dishonorable and weak in our neighbors, and do whatever we can to serve, assist, and promote their good name. On the other hand, we should prevent everything that may contribute to their disgrace.

[289] It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all we may hear about our neighbors (as long as it is not an evil that is publicly known), 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. At present this is happening especially to the precious Word of God and to its preachers.
[290] This commandment, then, includes a great many good works that please God most highly and bestow abundant blessings, if only the blind world and false saints would recognize them. [291] There is nothing around or in us that can do greater good or greater harm in temporal or spiritual matters than the tongue, although it is the smallest and weakest member.