In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote this about the Eighth of the Ten Commandments,
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
Theologian, Bruce Marshall, elaborates,
If Luther’s interpretation is correct, the eighth commandment is an epistemic principle [epistemology is the study of how we know things]: it has to do with figuring out when we have found the truth about our neighbor. When it comes to the assessment of our neighbor’s words and deeds, we should ‘find ways of excusing him, speak well of him and make the best of everything’ – or as it is often rendered, ‘put the best construction on everything (Small Catechism I.16).
This is not just a rule of etiquette. We cannot keep this commandment by first discovering what we suppose to be the hard truth about another’s words and deeds, and then politely keeping quiet about, or softening up the rough edges. The commandment not to bear false witness surely cannot be an injunction to dissemble.
Rather, obedience to this commandment has to enter into our very effort to discern the truth about our neighbor in the first place; we cannot suppose that we have got the truth about our neighbor’s words and deeds until we are sure we have put the best possible construction on them. In just this sense, presumably, the apostle Paul enjoins us to speak the truth in love, and warns against ‘evil talk,’ namely that which fails to build up and give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:15, 29).
If we sense a conflict between what we want to say about our neighbor and that kindness and tenderness of heart without which we grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30, 32) we have a sure sign that we have so far failed to find the truth, and have fastened onto falsehoods of our own invention.
(quoted by Eugene Rogers in Sexuality and the Christian Body, p. 33)
“We cannot suppose that we have got the truth about our neighbor’s words and deeds until we are sure we have put the best possible construction on them.” This sounds wise and faithful to me. It also sounds hard. At least I find it to be difficult at times. It requires discipline and practice. But when we engage one another – especially when we disagree about things about which we care deeply – it is what it means to bear with one another and speak the truth in love, with gentleness and reverence toward the other.
Recently, I came across this from philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make an argument or critique another person’s position with kindness:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Bearing with One Another When We Disagree
1. Broken Love