Wrestling with the 8th Commandment in the LCMS
You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor.
What is this?
Answer: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
Over the last several years, the Eighth Commandment has received a lot of attention in conversations throughout the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It has become common in the midst of a controversy for one side or the other to cry foul by suggesting that the other party is not arguing fairly because they’ve broken this particular commandment.
Selma and the Eighth Commandment
Some recent examples occurred at the 2019 LCMS Convention in Tampa. One occurred as part of the discussion of a resolution dealing with the now closed Concordia College—Alabama (Selma). This is a sensitive example that I use with caution and a sincere desire to keep this commandment and not bring harm to the reputation of any within our church body. There are still questions surrounding the recent closure of our only historically black LCMS college. The resolution was intended to simply give thanks to God for the good work done at the school. Despite the resolution’s title, it included a litany of all the challenges that faced the college and a catalogue of the efforts that were undertaken in attempts to bail out the ship as it sank (and the convention was given the impression that these efforts were heroic). A majority of voting delegates objected that this portion of the resolution sounded more like an attempt to justify the eventual closure of the school.
In the midst of the discussion (which was allowed to continue for a while by the synod vice president chairing the convention at the time) one issue raised was a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the synod. Delegates expressed disappointment at not having been informed of the seriousness of the problems facing Selma before it was too late. Then came the bombshell of the afternoon. One delegate came forward and identified “institutional racism” as a factor contributing to Selma’s doom. This serious accusation was met with immediate protest. In the subsequent conversation, it may have been the most discussed phrase of the convention. Everyone seemed to be discussing whether or not there was merit to it. That’s when the Eighth Commandment was dropped. Albeit not specifically referring to that comment, one speaker stated, “The Eighth Commandment has been broken today.” Whether it was intended or not, this comment effectively ended further inquiries into the particulars of Concordia Selma’s closing.
Was the Eighth Commandment broken or not? If so, how? Luther draws our attention to God’s gift of a good reputation. This commandment is intended to preserve and enhance our neighbor’s reputation. I believe this is the key concept we need to grasp if we are to actually keep the spirit of this law as opposed to falling prey to legalism or moral bean counting. In this discussion and others like it, we always need to ask ourselves, “Am I saying something that will damage someone else’s reputation?”
Tell It to the Church
This is an interesting case because it involves both individuals and institutions. Individuals brought their accusations and reactions forward but they did not take aim at the reputations of other individuals in particular. The suggestion of institutional racism does not call any one person a racist. Perhaps this accusation had such stinging power because it seemed to implicate everyone, at least those serving on the particular boards and in positions charged with the oversight and preservation of Concordia College—Alabama. Several questions are left unanswered. Was information being withheld by those charged with responsibility in order to protect the reputation of the college? Does the Eighth Commandment protect institutions or only the individuals who serve them? What is the appropriate venue for such questions, concerns, and even accusations to surface?
The “go-to” passage in Scripture for conflict resolution is Matthew 18 (15-20). Jesus lays the groundwork for the classic three step procedure for church discipline. First, the brother who sins is to be approached one-on-one. If this fails to bring him to repentance, the offended party is to bring one or two witnesses into the resolution process. Finally, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v.17).
This passage is often cited in cases involving the Eighth Commandment and dispute resolution in the LCMS. How might Jesus’ instructions come into play in situations like this? Interestingly, these steps take an issue from the individual level (“your brother”) to an institutional level if necessary (“the church”). I would suggest that the proper place for questions to start is always a brother-to-brother conversation. Like it or not, every rostered church worker’s contact information is readily available through the synod website’s locator tool or the printed Lutheran Annual. We can easily make attempts to contact someone individually with a concern. A 2006 Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations dealing with the Eighth Commandment quotes John Fritz in this regard:
The highest law, however, is under all circumstances the law of Christian charity (love). If Christian charity therefore demands that a public offender be spoken to privately, it would be unjust to proceed at once against him publicly; for the purpose of church discipline is to bring a sinner to a knowledge of his sins and to true repentance.
Assuming this step has been attempted to no avail, and the next step (perhaps contacting the appropriate ecclesiastical supervisor) also fails, what can be done? When problems exist on an institutional level, how can one “tell it to the church”? What is “the church” in a situation like this? In the original context, Jesus uses the word ecclesia to refer to “a local community of the disciples of Jesus,”  not to a corporate entity, a board of directors, or a denominational convention. Perhaps Matthew 18 is not the appropriate passage to use here. On the other hand, if grievances haven’t been handled and questions haven’t been answered satisfactorily on an individual level, how will these issues be addressed? If they can’t be told to “the church” as Synod in Convention, who can they be told to? It seems we have left ourselves with no recourse for fruitful debate or resolution.
Defending My Neighbor
So much negativity! What can be done? I will offer some suggestions but first, I want to highlight an instance during the convention where I thought the Eighth Commandment was honored well. This story begins with the Eighth Commandment being dishonored but trust me, it has a happy ending. Throughout the convention there were always little private conversations happening off to the side of the delegate seating area; friends sharing opinions on whatever was being debated. There were murmurings that certain delegates were making trips to the microphones too frequently. It was surmised that their intention in doing so was to stall the proceedings in order to keep the convention behind schedule so that some issues would never come up. Okay, so that certainly is not putting the best construction on things! However, one morning our district held a breakfast. During the breakfast, one of our delegates brought up this idea that some delegates were maliciously trying to stall the convention. In response, another delegate said that he took the time to speak to several of those delegates who frequently went to the microphones. He reported to us that they seemed to have an honest interest in conversation and were only bringing up the genuine concerns of the congregations and circuits they represented. It was refreshing to hear someone coming to the defense of his brothers and speaking well of them, even if he may have disagreed with what they had to say.
A Way Forward
This gets us back to the core of the Eighth Commandment. It’s all about preserving God’s gift of a good reputation—not only our own good reputation but especially our neighbor’s. What can we do in these tricky situations? I do not pretend to be an authoritative voice on the subject but I can offer my own suggestions.
First, to borrow a line from the Hunger Games franchise, “Remember who the real enemy is.” The LCMS is a very small and relatively homogenous group of Christians. There are issues which divide us, of course, but they are very insignificant in the big picture of Church history. We would do well to remember how much agreement we already have on major issues of Christian doctrine and practice. Being mindful of this, we should be much more charitable toward one another as we continue to work out the smaller things. It is not worth villainizing fellow disciples over these things. The real enemy, the old evil foe, means to keep us divided and distracted with insignificant matters.
Second, we should care about our reputation, both individually and corporately. The Holy Spirit alone calls, gathers, and enlightens, but a bad reputation can certainly create obstacles for His work. When an assumption or an accusation is made, it is our natural reaction to become defensive. I think we need to work past our gut defensiveness. Rather than using the Eighth Commandment as a bludgeon or a way to stop conversation, we need to take the time to seriously consider even the ugliest accusations. We should be willing to ask hard questions like, “What makes you say that?” “Could there be any truth to it?” Even if the accusation is false, we should consider that it may yet be the reputation we have in the eyes of some. Is there something we can do to improve the reputation of our church body, our universities, our congregations, and ourselves?
 Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000.
 Fritz, John H. C., quoted in The Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Public Rebuke of Public Sin. St. Louis, MO: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2006, 15.
 Jeffrey Gibbs and Jeffrey Kloha quoted in ibid., 15.