Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
James has a lot to say about the tongue. This section follows, or perhaps (as NIV heading might suggest) is part of what preceded on submitting oneself to God, and one can see the possible connection with the opening thought on quarreling and not getting along.
To slander is to speak some untruth against someone, but the word might only mean to speak against someone, period, even if what is said is the truth. Only God knows the entire truth, and the truth through and through, so that we must beware of thinking we know in any final sense.
And when we speak in that way we also somehow put ourselves in the place of God. God alone gave the law, and God alone can make judgments based on it. Our judgment invariably won’t measure up to God’s, nor will our application of the law. In fact we will be so amiss, that we in effect will be judging the law itself. Exactly what that means is hard to pinpoint, except to say that our judgment on others inevitably means we are judging the law, and not getting at the true meaning of it, making the law into something other than it is. It is for living according to God’s will in love. We simply are incapable of making any such judgments on others.
And that’s what might be key to understanding the passage. It is referring to judging others in a sense in which we can’t. There are necessary judgments in life which we must make and receive. And best to do so together, always in a prayerful attitude.
What we might take home from this is simply to be cautious, so that if and when we speak we will do so in complete humility, emphasizing mercy, and God’s work in the entire process. Only God can convict the wrongdoer, and bring them to repentance. We can’t. We may necessarily have to confront someone, but we do so gently in love, realizing that we can easily fall into sin ourselves. But we are included in God’s work of restoration (Galatians 6).
We must beware of taking matters in our own hands, and brashly applying the law, when inevitably we who judge do the same things ourselves (Romans 2). When we stand in that kind of judgment of others, inevitably we not only distort what they did due to our own sin, but we also distort the law itself, somehow making it conform to our own understanding, beset with a heart not right, and therefore not seeing everything clearly. Only God can judge, convict, sentence, and redeem. We can’t.
So we best take a cautious attitude. And not slander or speak against our brother or sister even when our gut reaction is to do so. When we have to consider problems, we best do so before God, and when necessary, together. And not tolerate anything that doesn’t accentuate mercy along with the utmost humility concerning our own weakness and shortcomings.