Pridefully Swinging God's Gavel (James 4:11–12)

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The goal of the church

The NT paints a very hopeful picture of what the church is supposed to look like. 

By the power of the Holy Spirit that resides within each member of the church we are to strive to be devoted to one another, accept one another, care for one another, bear one another’s burdens, forgive one another, submit to one another, encourage and build one another up, pray for one another, serve one another, and love one another.

And, while no local church is doing those things perfectly, we trust that God is gradually and inevitably transforming us into those types of people and that type of church—the type of church where all are welcomed and none are ignored; where all mature and none stagnate. 

It’s a beautiful picture and one that all who are involved in a local expression of Christ’s church prayerfully hold up as our goal.

Today, however, we’re going to consider a habit that, if practiced by people in any church, can ruin everything and derail our growth as a NT church. It’s a sinful habit that is at odds with our development as a church family. 

It’s the habit of slander. 

As we come to the midsection of James 4, the author is going to warn us, as a church, to avoid such a family-killing activity. In just two verses we’re going to find the command stated, the command explained, and we’ll end with the command applied. Stated, explained, and applied. 

The command stated

James states the command immediately.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another (v. 11a).

“Slander” literally means “to talk down”; to defame another person, smear their reputation, or call their character into question, typically when they’re not around. James commands God’s people to avoid such talk.

The world outside the church does that. In fact, Peter warns Christians that this is going to happen:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Pet. 2:12). 

In the first century, many outside the church labeled Christ-followers as cannibals and incestuous. Why? Because they spoke of eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood at the Table of the Lord and because they called one another “brothers” and “sisters” and yet married one another! It was a misunderstanding but didn’t stop the accusations of evil. Peter said, “be prepared for that.”

Today we aren’t being called those names, but the world around us may call Christians bigots, intolerant, or anti-progress. 

The point is, slander from outside the church is expected. James is warning us to not let that stuff come inside the walls of the church. Don’t tear one another down!

Pat Tillman was an NFL player who left a multi-million dollar contract to become an army ranger in response to the 9/11 attacks.

In 2004, Tillman was shot and killed in Afghanistan. Original reports stated that he was shot and killed while charging at attacking enemies, a brave action that allowed for the rest of his platoon to escape. Tillman was awarded a number of honours for his bravery.

However, within weeks of his death other reports began to surface revealing that Tillman was not killed the way the original reports claimed but, instead, was shot down by friendly fire. Apparently, there was an explosion mistaken for an enemy attack that prompted one group of U.S. Rangers to begin firing upon another group of Rangers of which Tillman was a part. There were no actual enemies around when Pat Tillman was killed. 

Slander is spiritual friendly fire. The Christian life is likened to war and this church family is our platoon. But if we talk one another down, if we slander one another, we are wounding our allies. James says, don’t do it; he states the command: Do not slander one another.

The command explained

As we read on we find this command explained. James gives two reasons why slander should be avoided.

First, when we slander other believers we are elevating ourselves above God’s law.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it (Jas. 4:11).

I take “the law” here to be the Bible. God’s law was given to humanity in order to guide us toward a right relationship with God and with God’s people.

For example:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Lev. 19:15–18). 

Or think of the second-half of the ten commandments: They have to do with our relationships with one another.

The law was given, at least in part, to show us how to live in harmony with God’s people and, if we slander one another, we are elevating ourselves above God’s law and its purpose. 

I grew up with two brothers. One of the most significant rules in our home, one that garnered some of the harsher punishments, was that we were not allowed to hit one another. But I remember many moments when tensions would rise between brothers and, in a moment, we would have to decide whether or not immediate vengeance was perhaps worth the inevitable consequences. Is the juice worth the squeeze? And, in the moments when I’d make the wrong decision, I was essentially elevating my need for vengeance or preteen justice over my parents rules, rules that were in place in order to promote good relationships in the family. 

It’s the same with God’s law. He put it in place so that we could live well together, encourage one another, support one another, honour God together. If we slander, however, we elevate ourselves above his law.

Second, when we slander other believers we are elevating ourselves above God himself.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour (v. 12)? 

I recently read that the most well-known Bible verse in North America today is no longer John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Can you guess which is?

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt. 7:1). Interestingly, it seems to be largely memorized by people who don’t believe the Bible. 

However, not all judgementalism is wrong. Governments were given by God to judge citizens. Church elders are to judge members. Parents are to judge children. Christians are to judge one another in order to spur one another on toward holiness. All of these God-given avenues of judgement are to be done in love.

So, there are righteous avenues of judgment in which we are to participate. What Jesus is warning against in Matthew 7 and what James is talking about in our passage this morning has to do when we move outside of our God-ordained lanes of judgement and start to drift over into the lane that belongs to God alone—that is, the lane of condemnation. 

Think about a courtroom. You’ve got jury members, lawyers, witnesses, bailiff, and the judge, each with a role to play in carrying out justice. What happens when one of the jury members decides to climb up into the judges bench? When someone who is unqualified picks up the gavel and pretends they have the authority to condemn? Well, it makes a mockery of the one who should be sitting there as well as the entire judicial system.

If we, as believers, slander one another, it’s as though we are climbing up into the great Judges’ bench and trying to swing his gavel. We can’t see the evidence, we aren’t trained to pass just judgements, but we’re ready to move to sentencing anyway, to condemn. 

When we slander one another, not only are we elevating ourselves above God’s law, but we’re actually elevating ourselves above God himself.

Do you ever feel the impulse to swing God’s gavel?

The command applied

We’ve seen the command stated and the command explained. I now want to close by talking about the command applied. Here are four things we should ask for in order to prevent friendly fire within our church.

First, ask God for help. This is a spiritual battle and we need spiritual aid. If we determine to stomp out our slanderous habits by ourselves, we will become frustrated. We need to ask God for help in detecting slanderous habits in our lives, strength and humility to confess them to him, and wisdom to avoid that type of behaviour.

Second, ask people to stop. This is where we start to help one another. Have you ever been in a conversation where the talking starts to take a turn toward slander? This can happen electronically as well, just as easily. 

Motivated by love—for the slanderer, the slandered, the church, and for God himself—it’s our responsibility to ask people to stop. To say, hey, can we talk about something else?

Third, ask friends for accountability. If this is a habit of yours, you may need help breaking it. People we trust that know us and that are around us to see where we may stumble. Someone that prays with and for you. To simple ask them, I struggle here; would you help keep an eye on me?

Fourth, ask others for forgiveness. If, after asking God to help you search your heart, you become convicted that you may have committed some friendly fire, it may be time to ask forgiveness. To go up to that person and say to them, I’ve wronged you, will you forgive me?

Four questions that can help us avoid the sin of slander in the church: Ask God for help, ask people to stop, ask friends for accountability, and ask others for forgiveness. 

And when we, as God’s people depending on God himself for help, begin to put behind us any sort of slander that may exist in our lives, who do we become more like?

Jesus! While he was on earth, even while he was being tortured, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).

And it’s the same even now after his earthly ministry. We know from Scripture that, after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, where he still is now (Heb. 4). And what is he doing there? Interceding on our behalf (see Rom. 8:34). Whereas Satan is the accuser (Rev. 12; Job 1), Christ is our intercessor. He’s not slandering us before the Father in heaven, he’s mediating on our behalf. 

And so, as we individually and collectively avoid and kill the habits of slander in our church, we are becoming increasingly Christlike and becoming more and more the type of church and the type of people that bring the absolute most honour and glory to our God as we can. 

And, isn’t that the goal?