Talking against others

Don’t criticize one another, brothers and sisters. Anyone who defames or judges a fellow believer defames and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 

-James 4:11 

Barnes notes: The evil here referred to is that of talking against others:

- against their actions, their motives, their manner of living, their families, etc. Few things are more common in the world; nothing is more decidedly against the true spirit of religion. 

-"He that speaketh evil of his brother" - Referring here probably to Christian brother, or to a fellow Christian. The word may however be used in a larger sense to denote anyone - a brother of the human race. Religion forbids both, and would restrain us from all evil speaking against any human being. 

-"And judgeth his brother" - His motives, or his conduct. (See Matthew 7:1) 

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.

-"Speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law"- Instead of manifesting the feelings of a brother he sets himself up as judge, and not only a judge of his brother, but a judge of the law.

The law here referred to is probably the law of Christ, or the rule which all Christians profess to obey. It is that which James elsewhere calls the "law of liberty," (James 1:25) the law which released men from the servitude of the Jewish rites, and gave them liberty to worship God without the restraint and bondage (Acts 15:10; Galatians 4:21-31) implied in that ancient system of worship; and the law by which it was contemplated that they should be free from sin. It is not absolutely certain to what the apostle refers here, but it would seem probable that it is to some course of conduct which one portion of the church felt they were at liberty to follow, but which another portion regarded as wrong, and for which they censured them. 

The explanation which will best suit the expressions here used, is that which supposes that it refers to some difference of opinion which existed among Christians, especially among those of Jewish origin, about the binding nature of the Jewish laws, in regard to circumcision, to holy days, to ceremonial observances, to the distinctions of meats, etc. A part regarded the law on these subjects as still binding, another portion supposed that the obligation in regard to these matters had ceased by the introduction of the gospel. 

Those who regarded the obligation of the Mosaic law as still binding, would of course judge their brethren, and regard them as guilty of a disregard of the law of God by their conduct. We know that differences of opinion on these points gave rise to contentions, and to the formation of parties in the church, and that it required all the wisdom of Paul and of the other apostles to hush the contending elements to peace. (Compare Colossians 2:16-18) 

To some such source of contention the apostle doubtless refers here; and the meaning probably is, that they who held the opinion that all the Jewish ceremonial laws were still binding on Christians, and who judged and condemned their brethren who did not observe them, by such a course judged and condemned "the law of liberty" under which they acted - the law of Christianity that had abolished the ceremonial observances, and released men from their obligation.  

The judgment which they passed, therefore, was not only on their brethren, but was on that law of Christianity which had given greater liberty of conscience, and which was intended to abolish the obligation of the Jewish ritual. 

(emphasis mine) The same thing now occurs when we judge others for a course which their consciences approve, because they do not deem it necessary to comply with all the rules which we think to be binding.

(emphasis mine) Not a few of the harsh judgments which one class of religionists pronounce on others, are in fact judgments on the laws of Christ. We set up our own standards, or our own interpretations, and then we judge others for not complying with them, when in fact they may be acting only as the law of Christianity, properly understood, would allow them to do. 

They who set up a claim to a right to judge the conduct of others, should be certain that they understand the nature of religion themselves.

It may be presumed, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that others are as conscientious as we are; and it may commonly be supposed that they who differ from us have some reason for what they do, and may be desirous of glorifying their Lord and Master, and that they may possibly be right. It is commonly not safe to judge hastily of a man who has turned his attention to a particular subject, or to suppose that he has no reasons to allege for his opinions or conduct.

"But if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge" - It is implied here that it is the simple duty of every Christian to obey the law. He is not to assume the office of a judge about its propriety or fitness; but he is to do what he supposes the law to require of him, and is to allow others to do the same. 

Our business in religion is not to make laws, or to declare what they should have been, or to amend those that are made; it is simply to obey those which are appointed, and to allow others to do the same, as they understand them. It would be well for all individual Christians, and Christian denominations, to learn this, and to imbibe the spirit of charity to which it would prompt. -Barnes notes (1834)

Donald W. Burdick (1996) wrote: What is said may be true in its content but harsh and unkind in its manner or presentation... James's readers had fallen into the habit of criticizing one another, and so he says, "Stop speaking against one another.".. The reason that he gives is that the one who criticizes or judges his brother "speaks against the law and judges it." ...Leviticus 19:18: "Love your neighbor as your self." To speak against your neighbor is to violate this law. The person who does so places himself above the law and, by his action declares that law to be a bad or unnecessary statute. Rather than submit to it and "keeping it," he passes judgement on its validity and sets it aside. -Donald W. Burdick

"Criticizing others is dangerous not only because it is a form of selfishness but also because the critic exalts himself even over God when he or she criticizes." -Thomas Constable

"Do not speak against one another" This is a present imperative with a negative particle, which usually means to stop an act that is in process. The Tyndale translation has "backbiting," possibly because this same word is used in this sense in the LXX of Ps. 50:20. The church had/has been guilty of this (cf. 5:9; 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Pet. 2:1). -Bob Utley


Artwork: Conversation by Ker-Xavier Roussel


Albert Barnes, notes on the Bible, James

Donald W. Burdick, James

Thomas Constable, Notes on James

Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary, James