The Lutheran Tone Police

One of the most common ways of dismissing substantive criticism is to complain about its “tone.” If only it were said less antagonistically, more lovingly, more sensitively, etc., then it might be possible for them to listen thoughtfully. But it was just so darn mean that they “can’t even.” If you’re looking to dodge responsibility, it’s an effective way to change the subject from your errant ideas to somebody else’s communication skills.

Lutherans have their own variation of this deceitful tactic, and it centers on one phrase from Luther’s Small Catechism about the 8th Commandment: “put the best construction on everything.” Notice that I didn’t say the tactic centers on the 8th Commandment or on Luther’s explanation thereof, but on that single phrase in isolation. So let’s look at the entire entry from the Small Catechism.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

Luther’s is a straightforward and Biblical approach to the Commandments–Jesus reasoned from Scripture the same way. As usual, he lists both negative and positive responsibilities which God has given us with this Commandment. First is the most literal sense, of course–don’t lie about your neighbor in a court of law. But if your neighbor’s reputation is of sufficient value that you shouldn’t destroy it in court, then neither should you destroy it in lesser ways. And if you love your neighbor, you will do what you can to preserve the important things in his life, including his good name.

So Luther lists a few examples of how we put that into practice, including the bit about “best construction.” To put the best construction on everything basically means to give someone the benefit of the doubt. If something can justifiably be explained in your neighbor’s favor, it ought to be so explained. By doing this, we guard against inadvertent slander and therefore protect our neighbors’ reputations.

But those who try to make the law a tool for self-justification will always need to twist it to some extent. That brings us back to the Lutheran version of the tone police. You see, when some Lutherans are too pusillanimous to receive criticism, they shift the conversation from the criticism itself to the question of whether the critic truly put the “best construction on everything.”

This deceitful misunderstanding of the Commandment has been a boon to false teachers in our midst. When they publicly teach error, they proclaim that the 8th Commandment forbids people from addressing the plain meaning of their words publicly. They moralize that “best construction” means assuming they’re not teaching falsely despite all evidence to the contrary and allowing their words to stand unopposed. They tell you that if there is any possible way their words could be understood to not contradict the Faith, then God has commanded you to be silent. And if you still think there might be a problem, your only pious option is asking them privately about their public words.

In saying this, they only heap false teaching upon false teaching.

This tactic is not merely deceitful. It’s incoherent. After all, what would happen if the false teacher were to apply this false understanding of “best construction” to his own response? If you accuse your critic of breaking the 8th Commandment, have you truly put the best construction on his words? Shouldn’t you refrain from addressing the plain meaning of their rebuke? Shouldn’t you assume that their criticism of you is faithful and allow it to stand? Does not God command you to be silent, and if it still troubles you, shouldn’t you only respond privately instead of publicly?

Of course, they never do this. That’s because they don’t really think the 8th Commandment requires it; it’s just very useful to them if you think the 8th Commandment requires it. They are preying on your good nature–your willingness to reflect on your actions in light of God’s Word and adjust them accordingly.

But no one who is truly familiar with Luther, the Lutheran Confessions, or God’s word should fall for this. Luther, of course, is famous for vocally and sharply addressing the false teachers of his own day, as was fitting for his vocation. And in terms of our confessions, the Small Catechism is only a brief summary of the Large Catechism which adds:

All this has been said about secret sins. But where the sin is quite public, so that the judge and everybody know about it, you can without any sin shun the offender and let him go his own way, because he has brought himself into disgrace. You may also publicly testify about him. For when a matter is public in the daylight, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying. It is like when we now rebuke the pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public that everyone may learn to guard against it.

And, of course, our Confessions are only summaries of Holy Scripture. Consider the example of the Apostle Paul when Peter was publicly despising Gentile believers:

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all…

And to Paul’s example, we can add Christ’s very public rebukes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 or Elijah’s treatment of the prophets of Baal. False teaching requires public rebuke.

Faithful Christians who are equipped to discern right from wrong have a responsibility to our neighbors. When we fail to rebuke false teaching, we leave our fellow Christians to be preyed upon by these wolves. Don’t let fake Lutherans cow you into silence and replace your love for your neighbor with hatred. Despite what they would like you to believe, the 8th Commandment does not give them diplomatic immunity.

The best construction for false teaching is always demolition work:  “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Lutheranism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Lutheran Tone Police

  1. johnson j says:

    Paul also says in one of the pastorals both “rebuke not an elder” and later in the same chapter “those elders who sin rebuke before all so that all may fear.” I’ve seen sinning elders preach the first one to justify themselves and just make sure not to read the full chapter. Paul is not contradicting himself but saying to rebuke for sin not silly stuff like SJWs rebuke for.

  2. philip says:

    The adjacent topic being that of “winsomeness” as a prerequisite for engagement. Often citing Paul (Col 4:6) forgetting the same Paul wished the Judaizers would emasculate themselves. He also had some things to say about Cretans…

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