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December 30, 2008Missiology

Bearing False Witness

I must confess that I find many things perplexing in the Christian life-- why does God not always heal?, why are there so many without Christ?, and many other questions. But one question has been really troubling me lately: why do Christians lie about each other so much?

I first noticed this several years ago. I found that speakers came where I served and misquoted and mischaracterized those they did not like (in this case and at that time, it was primarily contemporary churches). So, rather than criticize or challenge (which I think is fine) they build their case up with falsehood, or as the 9th commandment puts it, they "bear false witness," or as I will put it, they lie.

"Do not give false testimony against your neighbor."

Ex. 20:16 (HCSB)

John Wesley said bearing false witness is "speaking falsely in any matter" including "lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbour," or to speak "unjustly against our neighbour, to the prejudice of his reputation." Of course it's not always that men are out to ruin another's reputation, but they care nothing of ruining another's reputation in the pursuit of making their point.

This malady seems to be everywhere, but it is surprising to me how common it is among the most conservative of Christians-- those who speak often of their belief in the authority of Bible. People like me. We are quick to defend the authority of God's word, but are not always as quick to apply what it say about lying to our own words.

It struck me most forcefully when I saw one well-known polemic pastor bear false witness against some friends of mine, be confronted on it, admit he was wrong, and then not publicly address, retract, or apologize for what he said. My guess is, even if he had corrected himself publicly few would have noticed, and fewer would have thought it a big deal. The truth is that "all is fair" in some wars.

We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because they were being passionate for truth; or at least for a truth that they believe is being attacked. John Calvin said, "slander is often praised under the pretext of zeal and conscientiousness. Hence it happens that this vice insinuates itself even among the saints, creeping in under the name of virtue."

And, to my own shame, I think I began to notice it more when I saw the lying directed at churches like mine. It is funny how I did not care as much about all the 9th commandment issues until some of those 9th commandment issues were directed at me. That shows my own carnality. And, it left me wondering how many times I had carelessly provided a false witness before I was sensitive to it.

The benefit of experiencing some of these false allegations is it sensitized me-- and convicted me that I had not been careful in my own speech.

But it's important to note that if we are going to take the 9th commandment seriously we have to do more than not lie-- we must tell the truth, and even defend those who are being lied about. So, occasionally, I have defended the victims of false witness. In some quarters of my denomination and other conservative evangelical expressions, those lied about are often church planters and contemporary or emerging church pastors. (One of the reasons so many contemporary pastors have left my denomination is that they were tired of being misrepresented and caricatured from the platform of the denomination they supported-- something I believe is changing.)

Even people with whom we have differences need to be spoken of truthfully. Although I am not where Bill Hybels is on some issues, this past summer I wrote about the need to be truthful about Willowcreek and their Reveal study in my monthly Outreach Magazine column and here at the blog.

The same goes for people as diverse as Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, and Jeremiah Wright. Regardless of how much we disagree and how passionate we feel, in all cases, people should be spoken of truthfully, even when we are disagreeing with them.

We cannot not let a passion for the truth make it OK to not speak truthfully. God is never honored when we defend His truth by speaking falsely.

Because God does not lie and is always trustworthy we value the truth. As followers of Jesus, who called himself "the truth," we must be a people of truth. This demands that we not bear false witness, but speak honestly and plainly of ourselves and others.

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