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Set a Seal Over the Door of Your Lips

Do not judge.


During World War II artists were called upon to use their skills for the war effort. John Atherton created a poster warning citizens to guard their words, not carelessly giving information to the enemy. The poster shows a white cross like the grave markers at Arlington Cemetery, a soldier’s helmet on one arm of the cross and a kit belt on the other. The caption reads: “A Careless Word, Another Cross.” Proverbs 18 puts it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

James 4:11-12 describe the deadly power of criticizing and judging. All of us have been the recipients of that kind of speech. We have wilted in the desert of shame, baked in the oven of harsh words, and been roasted at the stake of criticism. So, the Lord tells us in plain terms: “Do not speak evil against one another. … Who are you to judge your neighbor?” (ESV)

The Command: Do not Speak Against or Judge Your Brother (vv. 11a)

Let’s begin by making sure we have a clear understanding of the command. The verb “speak against” is used three times in verse 11. It means to defame or slander. This is critical, derogatory speech intended to influence listeners against the person being criticized. The Apostle James is clear: don’t do it. Don’t use words that kill.

The other verb is “judge,” and it is used six times in these two verses. It has a range of meanings from the highly negative “condemn/judge,” to the milder “distinguish/discriminate” as when we judge a baking contest. James obviously has in mind the former meaning. So, we are not to speak against, slander, condemn, criticize, defame, disparage, tear down, or cut up our brother or sister.

For example:

  • My coach is a jerk. I’m gonna quit. Let’s all quit.
  • My mother is so mean. I hope she gets what she deserves.
  • My teacher stinks. I hope he gets fired.
  • My roommate is so self-centered. He can’t say more than two sentences without puffing himself up.

Do not speak against or judge your brother or sister.

Robertson McQuilkin was the president of Columbia International University (formerly Columbia Bible College). Over the fireplace in his home was a plaque with these words: “Absent friends are safe here.” Isn’t that beautiful? Absent friends will not be defamed, slandered, criticized, or condemned in this house.

The command is clear: “Do not speak against one another.” Now let’s dig deeper. Why does the Holy Spirit make this command? What is the reasoning behind the command?

The Grounds for the Command: Judging Others Judges the Law (v. 11b)

What does this mean? It is probably referring to Leviticus 19:16-18, “Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you will not share his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Our passage also echoes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.”

When we break the Law—whether it is the Old Testament Law or the new “Law” Jesus gave his disciples—we set ourselves above the Law. In a sense, we “judge” the Law. We decide: “This Law is stupid; this Law has no value for me; my own opinion is more rational than the Law.”

Imagine this dialogue with God. God says, “Honor your parents.” We say, “Are you kidding me? My parents are dumb!” God: “You may feel differently when you have kids of your own.” We: “No! I won’t feel any different because I’ll deserve honor.” God: “Well . . . in any case, I want you to honor your parents now.” We: “I don’t want to honor them; they don’t deserve honor. They deserve criticism, sneaking rebellion, and cutting remarks behind their backs. I know what is right and wrong. My way is right.” God: “When you judge your parents, you judge my Law, and when you judge the Law, I take that personally.”

Let’s say that an actor is in a play, and in rehearsal the director is blocking the scene. (“Blocking” means position and movement on stage.) The director says, “OK Jeff, on that line move down left. Walk down here to the couch. OK? Let’s run the scene.” The actors run the scene and reach the line, but Jeff doesn’t cross left. He crosses right.

The director says, “Whoa, hold on. Jeff, on your line, cross left, down here to the couch. Let’s try it again.” They try it again, and Jeff does the same thing. He crosses right. The director is puzzled. She says, “Jeff, on your line, when you say ‘I’m coming home,’ walk over here. See where I am standing? Walk here. If you don’t move to this position, there won’t be room for the other actors who enter. Please, cross left!” But Jeff doesn’t do it.

How do you think that makes the director feel? Do you think there’s a little rift, a little bit of tension on stage? Yes. Because when Jeff rejects the director’s instructions, he is also rejecting the director. His action rejects her authority. That’s what the Lord has in mind when he says that if we judge our neighbor, we judge his Law.

Furthermore, the second grounding for the command to not speak against our neighbor is found in verse 12: God is Lawgiver and Judge.

The Grounds: Only God Is Lawgiver and Judge (v. 12)

To judge another person, you must know four things: the Law, their actions, their motives, and the correct punishment. Sounds like judging is a job for God alone.

Let’s say that Colonel Mustard is accused of killing Professor Plum, and that you are the judge. To make a good ruling, you will need to know the law: the difference between manslaughter, self-defense, premeditated murder, and so forth. And you’ll need complete understanding of the actions: where he was on the night of July 31, was he drinking at the bar, did witnesses see him with a lead pipe, how did he enter Professor Plum’s room, and so on. Then you’ll need to know his motive (this is the trickiest part): was he acting in self-defense or did someone pay him to commit murder. Finally, you will need wisdom to give a fair sentence. To judge righteously, you must know quite a bit, don’t you?

It’s best to leave judgment to the Judge, isn’t it? He knows the Law, the other person’s actions, their motives, and a proper recompense. That’s why verse 12 asks, “Who are we to judge our neighbor?”

When we hear this command about not judging and not speaking again one another, a question may arise: Doesn’t the Bible also say that the person who is spiritual should restore sinners? That demands that we discern or judge the other person, doesn’t? We have to see their sin. That’s right, but notice the differences between judging to tear down and judging to build up.

A Clarification—The Differences Between Judging and Admonishing

Motive: one desires to destroy, the other desires to restore. Tone: one is harsh, the other is gentle. Recipient: judging to destroy speaks to third parties; judging to build up speaks to the person who is being accused. View of self: I am judge; I am a friend, also under the same Law.

This story from Pastor Gordon MacDonald illustrates how so called “judging” can give life.

One time, twenty or so years ago, I was in Japan on a speaking tour with a close personal friend. He was a number of years older than I was. As we walked down the street in Yokohama, Japan, the name of a common friend came up, and I said something unkind about that person. It was sarcastic. It was cynical. It was a put-down. My older friend stopped, turned, and faced me until his face was right in front of mine. With deep, slow words he said, "Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not say a thing like that about a friend."

He could have put a knife into my ribs, and the pain would not have been any less. He did what a prophet does. But you know something? There have been ten thousand times in the last twenty years that I have been saved from making a jerk of myself. When I've been tempted to say something unkind about a brother or sister, I hear my friend's voice say, "Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not speak in such a way about a friend."

Prophets do that. They remind us of the truth and where we are falling short. If you avoid prophets—and a lot of people do—you do so at the peril of your spiritual journey. You and I need prophets.


There is a world of difference between judging to destroy and judging to restore. But if you aren’t sure of your own motives, then my advice is to set a seal over the door of your lips. “There is only one lawgiver and judge, [so] who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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