Thursday, August 23, 2012

False Witness

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the 8th Commandment:

Q:  What does it mean when the Bible commands against bearing “false witness against your neighbor?”  What things does this commandment require Christians to do and forbid them from doing?

Among the Ten Commandments, this one (the 8th) is certainly in the running to be considered the most frequently misunderstood.  Some have paraphrased this commandment as “You shall not lie,” but it is really much more than that. 

The first three commandments deal with how humans are intended to act toward God, and the fourth through seventh commandments can be sinned against with thoughts, words, or actions.    Now this commandment deals primarily with our words, and how they relate to other people’s reputation. 

It is obvious that this commandment forbids Christians from lying—not only in formal testimony but also in private conversation.  This would include repeating untrue things we have heard from others, as well as starting the untruths ourselves, and it includes all lies, both those told publicly to many people or privately to only one person. 

Not only does this commandment apply to lies, but also to telling the truth in ways that are harmful.  This would include revealing secrets or other information one has been told with an understanding  of confidentiality.  It would also include revealing sins or other unfavorable truths that were previously private or giving even greater publicity to unfavorable truths that have already been made public about another person. 

In general, Christians should make every effort not to harm the reputation of other people if it can be avoided.  Private sins and offenses should be dealt with privately for the preservation of the reputations of everyone involved.  In Matthew 18, Jesus instructed the people to first go to a person who has sinned against them privately, then with 2 or three witnesses, and only if all other attempts had failed to make a matter public. 

The only occasion when it would not be sinful to keep a sin or other unfavorable truth secret is if it is revealed for the sake of helping the person in question or other people who might otherwise be endangered if the secret were kept. 

Some obvious examples of this would be when citizens report a crime, children report bullying or other harmful acts in school, or friends and relatives reveal an addictive behavior or suicidal intent with the intent of finding help for the person.  Even in these cases, though, one is not to declare such things in public, but rather only to those who have the proper authority to deal with them, such as law enforcement, teachers, pastors, or parents. 

Another instance in which it might be not only permissible to make unfavorable truths public is to correct an false statement that has been made publicly by another.  For example, if one businessman has publicly defamed another, the only way to correct the lie is to make the first man’s sin public in order to defend the good reputation of the second.

A similar instance comes concerning religious teaching.  If a religious leader is making public statements or publishing books about God, the Bible, or religious teaching that are blatantly untrue, not only would it be a faithful pastor’s option to make this known to the people under his care, and perhaps to the community at large, but he would be negligent if he became aware of such statements and failed to do so.

In both cases, the businessman and the religious leader have made their own sins public, and those seeking to correct them have no choice but to address them likewise. 

In any case, the Bible speaks frequently, such as the books of James and Proverbs, about the importance of using our words wisely.  We do so when we speak for the sake of helping others and defending their reputation rather than with the intent to do them harm.

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