A backbiter is a person with back trouble -- not his own, but someone else's. He is a pain in another person's back. How is your neighbor's back today?
The word "backbite," according to Webster, means "to say mean or spiteful things about (one absent): slander." The word in the Hebrew from which backbite comes suggests the idea of "to play the spy." That is, the backbiter attempts to spy out the faults and defects of another person's life or to circulate reports unfavorable to others by low and petty remarks as well as those which may be malicious and slanderous. It is conveyed in the New Testament by the word "evil speaking" (James 4:11; 1 Peter 3:16).
The sins of the tongue are many and they are serious. The tongue is not steel, but it cuts and it wounds. Its wounds are not always to the face, but more often to the back. The scorpion harms only the one it stings, the snake only the one it bites, and poison only the one who ingests it, but the backbiter hurts, wounds and slays both near and far, at home and abroad, and spares neither the living nor the dead.
There is an amazing scarcity of material on problems such as this one. It is little wonder that there is so much wrangling, bitterness and backbiting in the church today. Granted, we have many doctrinal problems, but we also have many personal problems (Galatians 5:15). In writing this article, I simply went to four passages in the Bible where the word "backbite" in its various forms is used and formulated my thoughts. What does God, in his Word, say of the backbiter?
No fewer than twenty-three sorts of sins and sinners are mentioned by Paul in these verses. These are things "unbecoming," i.e., inconsistent with our duty to God and others. Of all the misdeeds herein mentioned, five are sins of the tongue. Debate -- strife, and the disposition to be contentious and quarrelsome. Deceit -- fraud, falsehood and lying. Malignity -- misinterpreting the words and actions of others, or putting the worst construction on their conduct. Whisperers -- those who secretly, by hints and innuendoes, detract from others or excite suspicion of them. They secretly filet another for his faults, while pretending great innocence themselves. They talk about others as if it pains them to do so, when actually they are enjoying every second of it. Backbiters -- those who speak ill of others when they are not present to speak for themselves. Backbiters never tell "secrets," but only those things which are notoriously "true." They never speak to the person involved, only about the person.
A major source of trouble in our congregations is the malicious speech of brethren. An example of such, in the New Testament, is Diotrephes (3 John 9-11). John said it was a work which Diotrephes continued to practice, "prating against us [slandering] with malicious words" (verse 10). B.C. Goodpasture fittingly characterized Diotrephes as playing the role of "a church boss, a short-horn deacon, a presiding elderand a church regulator" (Gospel Advocate, April 24, 1975). How common is the Diotrephes personality type in the church today?
A old but humorous line by A.T. Robertson may retain an appropriate modern application. "Some forty years ago I wrote an article on Diotrephes for a denominational paper. The editor told me that twenty-five deacons stopped the paper to show their resentment against being personally attacked in the paper" (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume 6, p. 263). Every congregation should enjoy peace and tranquility in the truth (Ephesians 4:3). It is wrong when one creates contention with his words (Proverbs 6:18-19). For this reason many warnings are given in the New Testament regarding the wrongful use of the tongue (Ephesians 4:29; James 3:2).
In this passage, we have two serious and weighty questions: "Who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?" That is, what kind of people does the Lord own? Who is prepared for heaven? It concerns us al to put the question to ourselves (Luke 18:18).
In this passage, we also find a plain and particular answer given: Walk uprightly, work righteousness, speak the truth in your heart -- no backbiting! It is essential to godliness that we do not defame others (Psalm 101:5). This is a crime of infinite evils and multiplied mischief. It saps the foundation of friendship (Proverbs 17:9). It hurts the one talked about, while rending in pieces the vitals of charity (James 3:8-10). It hurts the teller, for who dares trust a backbiter (Proverbs 26:25). It hurts the hearer, filling his heart with evil suspicions, which are almost always uncalled for (Matthew 7:1-5).
Why should backbiting ever be known among us? To begin with, if what we say about another is false (as in our not knowing all the facts in a given situation), then we are guilty of lying. On the other hand, if what we say about others is true (as the slanderer will characteristically assure you that it is, or he wouldn't be saying it), then we are void of love, because some things even though they are true are better left unsaid (cf. Proverbs 10:12; 1 Corinthians 13:1, 4-7).
This passage from Solomon speaks of the way we should react to the talebearer when he starts to fill our ears full of garbage about another person. We should react to it with anger and displeasure. Matthew Henry said, "Slanders would not be so readily spoken as they are if they were not readily heard, but good manners would silence the slanderer if he saw that his tales displeased the company."
Someone else has said, "Great minds talk of ideas, average minds of things and small minds of people." How true of the backbiter! Backbiting is wrong. May we never participate in it or be party to it without seeking to put a stop to it. Value your friends, neighbors and especially your brethren in Christ. Let us defend one another against the "slings and arrows" of the cowardly backbiter.