John Wesley’s Definition of Evil Speaking

… to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. Titus 3:2

In his sermon on The Cure of Evil Speaking, John Wesley describes the sin of evil speaking this way:

“Speak evil of no man,” says the great Apostle: — As plain a command as, “Thou shalt do no murder.” But who, even among Christians, regards this command. Yea, how few are there that so much as understand it what is evil-speaking. It is not, as some suppose, the same with lying or slandering. All a man says may be as true as the Bible; and yet the saying of it is evil-speaking. For evil-speaking is neither more nor less than speaking evil of an absent person; relating something evil, which was really done or said by one that is not present when it is related. Suppose, having seen a man drunk, or heard him curse or swear, I tell this when he is absent; it is evil-speaking. In our language this is also, by an extremely proper name, termed backbiting. Nor is there any material difference between this and what we usually style tale-bearing. If the tale be delivered in a soft and quiet manner (perhaps with expressions of good-will to the person, and of hope that things may not be quite so bad,) then we call it whispering. But in whatever manner it be done, the thing is the same; — the same in substance, if not in circumstance. Still it is evil-speaking; still this command, “Speak evil of no man,” is trampled under foot; if we relate to another the fault of a third person, when he is not present to answer for himself.

In a world increasingly ruled by social media, that would be quite a standard to follow.

Wesley bases his definition on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:15-17:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 5:15-17

Wesley admonishes Methodists to not speak about each other, but to each other, following the model Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount. Start with person-to-person dialogue. If necessary, escalate the matter to what might be called an “intervention”. As a last resort, present to the matter to the church. For Wesley, in this instance, that means the body of believers which most directly has responsibility before God for the care of one’s soul.

While this process could certainly clarify issues, overcome misunderstandings and provide correction to all the parties involved in a disagreement, neither Matthew nor Wesley understood this as a neutral process with no pre-ordained outcome. The goal is to realign Christian lives in accordance with the revealed truth of the gospel as the church understands it. Put more simply, the goal is to end sin. There is a standard against which Christian lives can be measured. To choose to live outside of those standards is to separate yourself from the church that upholds them.

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