Romans 1:28–32 (NKJV)
28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
This morning we return to Paul’s catalogue of the bitter fruits that are produced by a debased mind. Today we consider the twelfth of these fruits: backbiters. Paul writes that rebellious peoples, peoples whom God has delivered over to their sin because of their rebellion, “are backbiters.”
Most modern translations opt for the word slanderers to convey the sense of the Greek. The word frequently occurs in company with the previous vice, “whisperers” or “gossipers.” For instance, Paul warns the Corinthians “lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, [and] tumults” among them (2 Cor 12:20). Backbiting and whispering, slander and gossip form a deadly duo.
So what is it to backbite or slander? Webster writes that it is “to defame; to injure by maliciously uttering a false report respecting one; to tarnish or impair the reputation of one by false tales, maliciously told or propagated.” To backbite, therefore, is to discredit another person unjustly; it is to speak of their character that which is not true. So the people of Israel slandered God in the wilderness, accusing Him of plotting their destruction: “And the people [slandered] God …: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’ (Num 21:5) Such slander, either against God or against one’s neighbor, is abhorrent to God.
James writes in his epistle, “Do not [slander] one another, brethren. He who [slanders] a brother and judges his brother, [slanders] the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (4:11). He reminds us that to slander another is to cast God’s word aside, to act as though we are the arbiters of right and wrong. And to do that is to invite God’s judgment on ourselves. “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor,” God declares in Psalm 101:5a, “Him I will destroy…”
If we would be a people after God’s own heart, therefore, we must put away backbiting or slander. We must delight in God’s law, God’s word; and to delight in God’s law is to delight in the truth. “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all [slander], as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Pet 2:1-2). The one who has come to know and serve the God of truth delights in the truth.
Because slander is so pervasive among rebellious peoples, the Apostle Peter reminds us to live in a way that convicts unbelievers of their slander. He writes, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they [slander] you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:11–12). Later in the same epistle, he urges us to be men and women of truth so that “when they [slander] you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed” (3:16). The proper way to expose slander is to live in such a way that there is no ground for accusation.
The Scriptures would remind us, therefore, to be men and women of the truth. “Buy the truth and do not sell it” (Pr 23:23). Never slander another; never speak of them things which are not true; to do so is to expose their reputation to ruin and to rebel against God and His law.
So what of you? Are you faithful to speak the truth always? Or are you a backbiter? Reminded that God summons us to speak the truth about Himself and others, let us confess that we and the American Church are full of backbiters, that we have oft spoken lies against God and others. And as we confess our sin, let us kneel before the Lord as we are able. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin.