The Internet and the Eighth Commandment

by Dr. Jerald C. Joersz

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A staff member of our congregation has been designated in a will to serve as a personal representative of a person giving large sums of money to causes promoting sinful behavior. I discovered this information on the Internet and have discussed it with others—although to my knowledge the congregation does not know this. I believe the staff member’s action is inappropriate. What should I do as a concerned fellow-Christian?

Christian love and concern requires that you first learn the facts of the case and that you not rush to judgment. In keeping with the spirit of Matt. 18:15ff., you are encouraged to speak directly, and privately, with the staff member regarding your concern.

As you consider this matter, it would be important to bear in mind that serving as an executor, or administrator, of a will does not entail a moral judgment either for or against the deceased’s requests expressed in the will. In fact, the duties of the administrator can be carried out faithfully and honestly even if he or she may have moral objections to the way assets are to be distributed. Even though we, for various reasons, may personally regard the conduct of fellow Christians as unwise or inappropriate in the given case, we must exercise great care, lest we lay a burden of conscience on another in areas involving human judgment, not express biblical teaching.

Though your staff member could without sin serve as an administrator of this will, his (or her) good name and ministry could suffer great harm if false or misleading information is circulated. In cases like this especially, we all would do well to heed Martin Luther’s counsel in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment to defend our neighbor, speak well of him and explain his actions in the kindest way. More poignantly in the Large Catechism Luther says, “It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all we may hear about our neighbors (as long as it is not an evil that is publicly known), and to defend them against the poisonous tongues of those who are busily trying to pry out and pounce on something to criticize in their neighbor, misconstruing and twisting things in the worst way” (Large Catechism, I, 289 [Kolb/Wengert]).

A further caution seems appropriate here. The ready availability of information today on the Internet (even about the personal lives of individuals) and the ease of its instant and widespread distribution bring a set of temptations unparalleled in previous generations. Irretrievably great harm to the reputation of others may be caused by the failure to bridle the tongue electronically (see James 3:1–12).

Mindful of the grace and mercy shown to us in our Savior Jesus Christ, our general approach ought to be to do “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29 ESV).

About the Author: Until his retirement, Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was an associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.

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