12 Questions on Handling Your Tongue
Have you ever wondered how to handle all the cases of gossip, backbiting, whispering, etc.? Here’s a few directives from Richard Baxter. Tomorrow, I plan to post another series from Baxter.
Question I. May I not speak evil of that which is evil? And call every one truly as he is?
Answer. You must not speak a known falsehood of any man under pretense of charity or speaking well. But you are not to speak all the evil of every man which is true: as opening the faults of the king or your parents, though never so truly, is a sin against the fifth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother:” so if you do it without a call, you sin against your neighbor’s honour, and many other ways offend.
Question II. Is it not sinful silence, and a consenting to or countenancing of the sins of others, to say nothing against them, as tender of their honour?
Answer. It is sinful to be silent when you have a call to speak: if you forbear to admonish the offender in love between him and you, when you have opportunity and just cause, it is sinful to be silent then, but to silence backbiting is no sin. If you must be guilty of every man’s sin that you talk not against behind his back, your whole discourse must be nothing but backbiting.
Question III. May I not speak that which honest, religious, credible persons do report?
Answer. Not without both sufficient evidence and a sufficient call. You must not judge of the action by the person, but of the person by the action. Nor must you imitate any man in evil-doing. If a good man abuse you, are you willing that all men follow him and abuse you more?
Question IV. May I believe the bad report of an honest, credible person?
Answer. You must first consider whether you may hear it, or meddle with it: for if it be a case that you have nothing to do with, you may not set your judgment to it, either to believe it, or to disbelieve it. And if it be a thing that you are called to judge of, yet every honest man’s word is not presently to be believed: you must first know whether it be a thing that he saw, or is certain of himself, or a thing which he only taketh upon report; and what his evidence and proof is; and whether he be not engaged by interest, passion, or any difference of opinion; or be not engaged in some contrary faction, where the interest of a party or cause is his temptation; or whether he be not used to rash reports and uncharitable speeches; and what concurrence of testimonies there is, and what is said on the other side; especially what the person accused saith in his own defense. If it be so heinous a crime in public judgment, to pass sentence before both parties are heard, and to condemn a man before he speak for himself; it cannot be justifiable in private judgment. Would you be willing yourselves that all should be believed of you, which is spoken by any honest man? And how uncertain are we of other men’s honesty, that we should on that account think ill of others.
Question V. May I not speak evil of them that are enemies to God, to religion and godliness, and are open persecutors of it; or are enemies to the king or church?
Answer. You may on all meet occasions speak evil of the sin; and of the persons when you have a just call; but not at your own pleasure.
Question VI. What if it be one whose honour and credit countenanceth an ill cause, and his dishonour would disable him to do hurt?
Answer. You may not belie the devil, nor wrong the worst man that is, though under pretense of doing good; God needeth not malice, nor calumnies, nor injustice to his glory: it is an ill cause that cannot be maintained without such means as these. And when the matter is true, you must have a call to speak it, and you must speak it justly, without unrighteous aggravations, or hiding the better part, which should make the case and person better understood. There is a time and due manner, in which that man’s crimes and just dishonour may be published, whose false reputation injureth the truth. But yet I must say, that a great deal of villainy and slander is committed upon this plausible pretense; and that there is scarce a more common cloak for the most inhuman lies and calumnies.
Question VII. May I not lawfully make a true narration of such matters of fact, as are criminal and dishonorable to offenders? Else no man may write a true history to posterity of men’s crimes.
Answer. When you have a just call to do it, you may; but not at your own pleasure. Historians may take much more liberty to speak the truth of the dead, than you may of the living: though no untruth must be spoken of either: yet the honour of princes and magistrates while they are alive is needful to their government, and therefore must be maintained, ofttimes by the concealment of their faults: and so proportionably the honour of other men is needful to a life of love, and peace, and just society; but when they are dead, they are not subjects capable of a right to any such honour as must be maintained by such silencing of the truth, to the injury of posterity: and posterity hath usually a right to historical truth, that good examples may draw them to imitation, and bad examples may warn them to take heed of sin. God will have the name of the wicked to rot; and the faults of a Noah, Lot, David, Solomon, Peter, &c. shall be recorded. Yet nothing unprofitable to posterity may be recorded of the dead, though it be true; nor the faults of men unnecessarily divulged; much less may the dead be slandered or abused.
Question VIII. What if it be one that hath been oft admonished in vain? May not the faults of such a one be mentioned behind his back?
Answer. I confess such a one (the case being proved, and he being notoriously impenitent) hath made a much greater forfeiture of his honour than other men; and no man can save that man’s honour who will cast it away himself. But yet it is not every one that committeth a sin after admonition, who is here to be understood; but such as are impenitent in some mortal or ruling sin: for some may sin oft in a small and controverted point, for want of ability to discern the truth; and some may live in daily infirmities, (as the best men do,) which they condemn themselves for, and desire to be delivered from. And even the most impenitent man’s sins must not be meddled with by every one at his pleasure, but only when you have just cause.
Question IX. What if it be one whom I cannot speak to face to face?
Answer. You must let him alone, till you have just cause to speak of him.
Question X. When hath a man a just cause and call to open another’s faults?
Answer. Negatively: 1. Not to fill up the time with other idle chat, or table talk. 2. Not to second any man, how good soever, who backbiteth others; no, though he pretend to do it to make the sin more odious, or to exercise godly sorrow for other men’s sin. 3. Not whenever interest, passion, faction, or company seemeth to require it. But, affirmatively, 1. When we may speak it to his face in love and privacy, in due manner and circumstances, as is most hopeful to conduce to his amendment. 2. When, after due admonition, we take two or three, and after that tell the church (in a case that requireth it). 3. When we have a sufficient cause to accuse him to the magistrate. 4. When the magistrate or the pastors of the church, reprove or punish him. 5. When it is necessary to the preservation of another: as if I see my friend in danger of marrying with a wicked person, or taking a false servant, or trading and bargaining with one that is like to overreach him, or going among cheaters, or going to hear or converse with a dangerous heretic or seducer; I must open the faults of those that they are in danger of, so far as their safety and my charity require. 6. When it is any treason or conspiracy against the king or commonwealth; where my concealment may be an injury to the king, or damage or danger to the kingdom. 7. When the person himself doth, by his self-justification, force me to it. 8. When his reputation is so built upon the injury of others, and slanders of the just, that the justifying of him is the condemning of the innocent, we may then indirectly condemn him, by vindicating the just; as if it be in a case of contention between two, if we cannot justify the right without dishonour to the injurious, there is no remedy but he must bear his blame. 9. When a man’s notorious wickedness hath set him up as a spectacle of warning and lamentation, so that his crimes cannot be hid, and he hath forfeited his reputation, we must give others warning by his fall as an excommunicate person, or malefactor at the gallows, &c. 10. When we have just occasion to make a bare narrative of some public matters of fact; as of the sentence of a judge, or punishment of offenders, &c. 11. When the crime is so heinous, as that all good persons are obliged to join to make it odious, as Phinehas was to execute judgment. As in cases of open rebellion, treason, blasphemy, atheism, idolatry, murders, perjury, cruelty; such as the French massacre, the Irish far greater massacre, the murdering of kings, the powder-plot, the burning of London, &c. [Note: The reader will recognise that Baxter's imperfect knowledge of history does not detract from his argument.] Crimes notorious should not go about in the mouths or ears of men, but with just detestation. 12. When any person’s false reputation is a seducement to men’s souls, and made by himself or others the instruments of God’s dishonour, and the injury of church or state, or others, though we may do no unjust thing to blast his reputation, we may tell the truth so far as justice, or mercy, or piety requireth it.
Question XI. What if I hear flatterers applauding wicked men, and speaking well of them, and extenuating their crimes, and praising them for evil doing?
Answer. You must on all just occasions speak evil of sin; but when that is enough, you need not meddle with the sinner; no, not though other men applaud him, and you know it be false; for you are not bound to contradict every falsehood which you hear. But if in any of the twelve forementioned cases you have a call to do it, (as for the preservation of the hearers from a snare thereby; as if men commend a traitor or a wicked man to draw another to like his way,) in such cases you may contradict the false report.
Question XII. Are we bound to reprove every back-biter, in this age when honest people are grown to make little conscience of it, but think it their duty to divulge men’s faults?
Answer. Most of all, that you may stop the stream of this common sin, ordinarily whenever we can do it without doing greater hurt, we should rebuke the tongue that reporteth evil of other men causelessly behind their backs; for our silence is their encouragement in sin.