This story is told by a campus minister friend of mine.
In anticipation of fall semester, the minister wrote congregations around the state inviting students coming to attend the University of Alabama to participate in his student ministry. He pointed out the many advantages of doing so, inviting the students to come see “our pool and ping pong table.”
Well, it wasn’t long before a rather strongly worded bulletin article made the rounds pointing how his church has a “swimming pool.” The bulletin made its way to the campus minister, who was mortified, because his church has no swimming pool – never has, never will. In fact, he’d meant to write that the student center has “pool and ping pong tables.” He got one little “s” wrong and suddenly he’s being lambasted in the church periodicals.
He called the minister who’d written the article, explained the typographical error, apologized for the error and the trouble he’d caused. He assured the minister that his church has no pool. The minister who’d written the bulletin was unconvinced. The campus minister offered to buy his gas if he’d come to Tuscaloosa and see for himself that there is no pool! The minister responded, “I don’t need to come to Tuscaloosa. I already know that you have a pool”!
Perhaps it was pride that kept the bulletin-writing minister from publishing a retraction. Or maybe he’s just one of those people who likes to think the worst in others. But the man’s baptism seems not to have soaked all the way into his heart. I mean, interpreting the first letter as referring to a swimming pool is understandable. Refusing to learn the actual facts is sin of a particularly pernicious kind.
An article in the Firm Foundation illustrates a related concern. An author was concerned that Rubel Shelley and other preachers were speaking before a denominational assembly. The author declared, “I’m told that at least one of them might have even worn the robe of the hosting clergy while delivering his address.”
Was the author reporting a fact? No, he was repeating a rumor. Not even that: he quoted a rumor obviously based on rank speculation. With no evidence of any kind, he sullied the reputation of his intellectual opponent.
The Bible condemns katalalia, variously translated as slander, backbiting, and evil speaking (1 Pet. 2:1; 2 Cor. 12:20). Of course, false witness, lying, gossip, filthy language, whisperings, murmuring, and such are also condemned in the strongest of terms. And yet we sometimes feel that the truth of the gospel is so important that we are justified in these very behaviors in its defense. But you can’t, by sinning, defend freedom from sin! You can’t defend Jesus by denying what he stands for!
In fact, Church of Christ periodicals and sermons ought to be the most carefully fact-checked information on the planet. We ought to be known as a people who love, not only the truth of the Bible, but truth in general.
We can’t lie to defend the truth! Nor can we be casual or careless about the facts. We need to make every effort not to bear false witness, even unintentionally. Unintentional lies do just as much harm to their victims as intentional lies. If you feel compelled to say something negative, then follow the scriptures: be sure you have “two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1).
Jesus’ and Paul’s reference is to Deut. 19:15. Of course, the inspired authors did not intend that we allow rapists to go free if we have no witnesses but we have DNA evidence or a video tape. The point is that we must be very, very careful before we make an accusation, much less a judgment. In the immediately following verses, the Law declares that where it’s one man’s word against another’s (there aren’t two or three witnesses), the judges must “make thorough investigation” and then render judgment. “Thus v. 15 states the general requirement of the Law; vv. 16-21 attempt to provide a means of dealing with cases where circumstances might not allow the normal requirement to be met … .” P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1976), 276.
In other places where judges are to conduct fact-findings, the Law requires that they “must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly.” Deut. 13:14. See also Deut. 17:4. However, in the case of the death penalty, the testimony of single witness is specifically made insufficient to condemn. Deut. 17:6.
In the American criminal system, the more serious the accusation, the higher the standard of proof. Thus, a murder conviction is extremely difficult to obtain. But far too often, in the Church of Christ, we destroy reputations on a whim.
(Prov. 22:1) A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
A man who takes another man’s reputation wrongly is a thief and should be treated as such. Far too often, such men instead receive honors, obeisance, and subscription revenue. Those who aren’t honored are feared. But such men should be called to repentance.