Thou Shalt Not Slander

If the Internet were scrubbed, if app stores were closed and virtual freeways shut down, if at once all our online friends and followers vanished, the world’s town square emptied, and none could scroll, upload, like, comment, or post — would mankind be happier or sadder, more connected or lonelier? Would we wander into a new Dark Age or rediscover long-lost joys? Would our existence be better or worse?

Whatever your answer, one clear reason to vote “better” would be the slander, gossip, and false accusations that travel through our networked devices. Many neighbors verbally assault their digital neighbor, clan against clan, avatar against avatar, misrepresenting one another, lying about each other, presenting half-truths, and smearing reputations without remorse or apology.

This online world is populated with more than a few who disregard one of God’s most basic and most serious commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Threat of False Witnesses

The ninth commandment, most immediately, refers to false testimony in the courtroom: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor [in court].” But just as Jesus taught us that the commandment to murder prohibits more than physical violence, and the command forbidding adultery applies beyond the bedroom, so, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor” extends into our daily lives (Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:31; James 4:11) — offline and online.

What is a witness? A witness is someone who claims to have seen or heard or “come to know the matter” (Leviticus 5:1). Witnesses ought to speak the truth they know. They testify. Jesus, for example, tells his disciples that they will bear witness about him because they had been with him since the beginning (John 15:27). Meaning, they will attest to what they saw and heard.

Witnesses were a mainstay in the Israelite judicial system, as they are in ours today. Their words often led to vindication or condemnation. When capital punishment stood in the balance, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” quite literally (Proverbs 18:21).

False witnesses, then, were a threat to individual lives and the life of the community at large. A false witness could stir up animosity and division by lying and perverting justice. To understand how God addresses how we bear false witness concerning our neighbor outside the courtroom, consider first what he expects of witnesses inside the courtroom.

What a Witness Must Be

If you were constructing a society, how would you prevent against false witnesses rising up and perverting justice and destroying communities? How might God himself govern that courtroom where jobs, reputations, and credibility lie at the mercy of a few clicks? At least three principles kept Israel from devolving into “he said, she said.”

1. One witness was never sufficient.

In the online world, accusation often equals conviction. One person can be offended, embittered, or claim victim status, and skip judicial courts or church governance and bring it instead before the courts of public opinion. He needs no second. No evidence. The alleged perpetrated speaks, and his word is increasingly not challenged or cross-examined.

But more is required in God’s economy. Solo accusation is not sufficient. God never expects us to just “take somebody’s word for it,” no matter how much we may be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. For serious allegations, he requires multiple witnesses:

A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deuteronomy 19:15)

“Those who bear false witness against their neighbors on social media are rarely held accountable.”

This principle runs throughout the Scriptures, in the courtroom (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Numbers 35:30) and out. Jesus recognized it in establishing the truth of his identity: “If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true” (John 5:31). So too did his enemies: “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true” (John 8:13).

After going first to a brother or sister, one could not establish charges against another Christian without at least a second person testifying (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1), nor could the church admit charges against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19) without at least two witnesses to his indiscretion. And this, just to establish charges — which then must be tried by the appropriate court. Apparently, God thought it better to have some actual criminals (temporarily) escape justice than to wrongly condemn a man.

2. You must be ready to throw the first stone.

Internet communication can easily feel like a video game. As you play, you intuitively learn the rules of the game (how to talk and act) from other players, and in the online medium, what we say can feel trivial or inconsequential compared to “real life.” But the swaying of opinion against our neighbor has real consequences, long after the outraged have moved on to the next round and found something new to be offended by.

Such ability to accuse and move on was not the case in ancient Israel. The witness was not only held accountable for the truthfulness of his testimony, but the law required him to actively participate in the sentence. In the case where a man is sentenced to death, “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17:7).

It is shameful to bear false witness against someone when their life hangs in the balance, but a special kind of wicked to bend over, grab a rock, and be the first to hurl the stone, knowing that you are lying.

3. You are liable to their punishment.

Online justice lacks due process. Not enough time has passed to inquire diligently, the facts remain shrouded, yet the window to show that you stand on the “right side” closes quickly. A declaration of condemnation is expected, and ancient wisdom forgotten: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

But in each case, even cases against the malicious witness,

The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. (Deuteronomy 19:18–19)

Online justice rarely sticks around to see how things end. And those who bear false witness against their neighbors on social media are rarely held accountable. Long-time, faithful pastors are read uncharitably and maligned by impudent young men trying to make a name for themselves. Words like “misogynist” and “racist” and “oppressor” and “spiritual abuser” are thrown like candy at a parade to instantly discredit and dismiss.

But consequences existed for those who perjured themselves in court. False witnesses, after being tried and found guilty, would receive the very punishment they attempted to inflict on their victim. “And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:20–21).

Two Temptations to Falseness

When we revisit the Book of the Law (Exodus 21–23) that followed on the heels of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), we learn of two temptations that our age is especially susceptible to. In both cases, Satan hands us elegant clothing to make our false reporting feel more like compassion — a noble kind of falseness.

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:1–3)

Siding with popular opinion. Whether on the witness stand, or tweeting on a branch, we are tempted to side with the many, even as they commit injustice. Justice, God reminds us, is not the result of a vote, nor decided by a poll or survey. Most of us might not go wholesale toward the spirit of the age, but the temptation to adjust our weights and measures toward the masses is all too real, even for the best of us.

Bending unjustly toward the vulnerable. “You shall not be partial to the poor man in his lawsuit.” We have many today more compassionate, it seems, than God. While God tells us not to be partial in court toward the poor, uncritically siding with the one who claims disadvantage has never been easier. Christian sympathy makes our hearts go toward the weak and broken, but when justice is at stake, God’s word requires impartiality, not tilting the field toward the advantaged (verse 6) or the disadvantaged (verse 3).

We are right to picture Lady Justice with a blindfold. Whether rich or poor, friend or foe, one of us or one of them, justice must use fair balances.

Witness of Truth

How do we talk about our neighbors? Do we publish their faults and mute their virtues? Do we lie and tell half-truths to hurt them? Do we elevate ourselves at their expense? The ninth commandment concerns our name and our neighbor’s name, and our not harming theirs unjustly.

“Our unfulfilled desires lead to murder — occasionally with weapons, but far more often with words.”

Whether or not the world would be better without social media is not the point. These digital platforms display our hearts — “for out of the heart come evil thoughts . . . false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Our unfulfilled desires, our embattled passions within ourselves, lead to murder — occasionally with weapons, but far more often with words (James 4:1–2).

We need new hearts, new hopes, new loves. We need forgiveness from “the faithful and true witness,” Jesus Christ (Revelation 3:14). We need to be people who don’t merely avoid falsehood, but “speak the truth with [our] neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25), realizing that a false witness also may be one who refused to speak what he knew to be true (Leviticus 5:1).

We need to become witnesses of the truth before we rush to speak as if we know it. We must listen to the voice of Truth himself. “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

While the world cancels and devours one another with accusations, those who follow Jesus will pursue a true justice established by true witnesses.