"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."- Exodus 20:16
What does it mean to "bear false witness" against our neighbor? One of my favorite treatments of this commandment is by Thomas Watson. He explains that the ninth commandment generally "forbids anything which may tend to the disparagement or prejudice of our neighbor." This law essentially prohibits all slander and lies, and it carries at least one imperative: "that we stand up for others and vindicate them when they are injured by lying lips." (I encourage you to read Watson's words on this here.)
Why am I whipping out the ninth commandment? Because some in the church have grown careless here. I have been careless here. There are a lot of accusations flying around these days in our Baptist periodicals, in our seminary student assemblies, and they rage in our internet publications. While I believe in theological debate, and am convinced it is necessary to call people out when they are teaching false doctrine, I am greatly troubled by the baseless accusations being made to make brothers and sisters look bad. "Those guys are hyper-Calvinists. They don't evangelize, and they kill churches." No evidence, just sensational language that riles people up and perpetuates prejudices. But it's not just the Calvinists who have to walk through unjust accusations.
Recently some men have been accused of being "liberal" theologians. Vague generalizations are being made, people are not quoted, sound argument is not made, but naked assertions and accusations are released in an effort to warn others to stay away. "That guy is a liberal in evangelical clothing!" My trouble is that in some cases these accusations amount to unrighteous distortions of the truth. And I have to say, I am grieved.
I know, it sounds dramatic. I am normally just annoyed, but lately I am grieved that some men, zealous for truth yet ignorant of the facts, are making unjust accusations against others. I would like to give these critics the benefit of doubt, saying that they just didn't have the time to read interviews, or that maybe they just misread the same book I read. But these are educated men, leaders in Christ's churches, denominational talking heads to whom many turn to get their information and opinions. There is no excuse for unjust accusations nor the careless, arrogant attacks made on brothers in Christ.
Am I the only one who's going to say it? This is sin. Having a platform or a big mouth necessitates responsibility, clarity and charity. What I have seen lately is at best zeal without knowledge, or worse it is lying. Either way, it breaks the ninth and hurts the church.
Look, if you think someone's theology is dangerous, then deal with it. Use the man's words, and show where his words speak heresy or false doctrine. I believe this is one of the tasks of our pastor-theologians and professors. But it must be done with care and precision, not passion and presumption. This forces everyone to be honest and fair.
Misrepresenting the ideas of another is both a misrepresentation of the truth, and it is unbecoming of the church. Such habits are satanic, and the danger is double because it encourages others to repeat the lie and spread the sin. As Watson put it, "A false witness perverts the place of judicature; he corrupts the judge by making him pronounce a wrong sentence, and causes the innocent to suffer."
The carelessness of it all amazes me. Watson explains that men who would never steal another's goods don't think twice about robbing a man of his reputation.
Look, I am not an overly sensitive guy, but I am compelled by the ninth commandment to speak up for others, even those I sometimes disagree with, when false accusations are leveled against them, and to encourage greater care when we engage those we disagree with. Watson said it better than I can.
The mandatory part of the commandment implied is that we stand up for others and vindicate them when they are injured by lying lips. This is the sense of the commandment, not only that we should not slander falsely or accuse others; but that we should witness for them, and stand up in their defense, when we know them to be traduced. A man may wrong another as well by silence as by slander, when he knows him to be wrongfully accused, yet does not speak in his behalf. If others cast false aspersions on any, we should wipe them off. When the apostles were filled with the wine of the Spirit, and were charged with drunkenness, Peter openly maintained their innocence. ‘These are not drunken, as ye suppose.’ Acts 2: 15. Jonathan knowing David to be a worthy man, and all those things Saul said of him to be slanders, vindicated him. ‘David has not sinned against thee; his works have been to thee-ward very good. Wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause?’ 1 Sam 19: 4, 5. When the primitive Christians were falsely accused for incest, and killing their children, Tertullian wrote a famous apology in their vindication. This is to act the part both of a friend and of a Christian, to be an advocate for another, when he is wronged in his good name.