It’s not a controversial statement to observe that our culture is morally bankrupt. Western society has barreled through the checkpoints of God’s judgment of abandonment as outlined in Romans 1:18–32. From the denial of God’s existence to pervasive idolatry, from unfettered fornication to rampant adultery and divorce, from homosexuality and the virulent attempts to destroy anyone who doesn’t “give hearty approval” to the reprobate mind that can no longer discern between male and female: we live in an uncommonly wicked society. Add to that the systematic extermination of the most defenseless of our population—the 60 million babies murdered in their mothers’ wombs in the last 45 years, all under the protection of federal law—and it makes one cry out for the mercy, or the judgment, of God.
But in the midst of a culture so morally upside-down as ours, even those of us in the visible church can become desensitized to the sinister nature of what we might think of as less sensationalistic sins. Jerry Bridges called them “Respectable Sins” several years ago, and evangelicalism has understood what he meant. Sins like anxiety, discontentment, impatience, and jealousy all seem to be small potatoes compared to the great societal evils outlined above. And while we know they’re wrong, we tend to think of them as things that are just a part of life—even life in the church of God. But it’s these “respectable” sins that have the greatest potential to destroy the moral fiber of a people, because they’re the most covered-for and rationalized-away. Like the slow rot of tooth decay, these sins imperceptibly wear away at our moral enamel until the pain they cause is unbearable and requires drastic action.
The Wretched Injustice of Slander
I don’t know if there’s a more damaging and destructive “respectable” sin as slander and gossip. In our climate of perpetual offendedness where our most celebrated heroes seem to be those who have projected themselves as victims, combined with the lack of accountability and reputability that social media affords one attempting to spread information, any quasi-plausible accusation—no matter how outrageous its content, no matter how reputable its victim—is regarded as true until proven false. And that means that the one accused in the matter is guilty until proven innocent.
This phenomenon approaches the epitome of injustice, biblically defined—the irony of which seems to be lost on self-styled social justice mavens, who are often disproportionately likely to be giving credence to this kind of slander. And the reason it’s so heinous is because of how great the potential for destruction is. James reminds us that great forests are set ablaze by such a small fire that is the unglorified human tongue. It is the very world of iniquity, set on fire by hell itself (Jas 3:2–6).
Slander is Murderous
There’s a passage of Scripture concerning the harmfulness of gossip and slander that I would imagine is easily overlooked because of where it’s found in the canon. And that is Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am Yahweh.” Notice the synonymous parallelism in that verse. “Going about as a slanderer” is synonymized with “acting against the life of your neighbor.” That force of that text needs to land on us. “Slander? Just repeating unsubstantiated information about someone, put on the same moral level as premeditated murder?”
Yes indeed. Scripture couldn’t be clearer. Proverbs 11:9 says, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor.” Two verses later, we’re told that entire cities are torn down by the mouth of the wicked (Prov 11:11). One verse after that, the man of understanding who keeps silent is contrasted with the one who despises his neighbor, and, lacking sense, ostensibly doesn’t keep silent (Prov 11:12). And then Proverbs 12:6 personifies wicked words by styling them as premeditating murderers: “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood.” Such quotations could be multiplied.
How can that be? Well, in our day of unsubstantiated accusations being hurled all over the place—from news media, to social media, from the grapevine of the church pews to the weekend potluck—it shouldn’t be that hard to imagine. Some salacious, horrifying accusation is made against a somewhat public person, and almost immediately that person is found guilty in the court of public opinion—at least until they can clear their name beyond a reasonable doubt. Entire livelihoods can be destroyed by the circulation of just one unsubstantiated claim, if it’s juicy enough (just ask Naboth; 1 Kings 21:8–14). Scripture is undoubtedly justified in equating slander with acting against the life of one’s neighbor. Proverbs 10:12 even exposes that it is hatred that stirs up strife, and Jesus clearly teaches that anger and hatred are but the committing of murder in one’s heart (Matt 5:21–22).
Slander is murderous. Do you want to kill your neighbor? Slander his character. Or pass along an unsubstantiated accusation.
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But what if you don’t want to kill your neighbor? What if you want to actually obey Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself? What should a faithful follower of Jesus do when he’s confronted with slanderous reports and accounts of unsubstantiated accusations?
Don’t Stoke the Fire
The first thing that needs to be said is that you must not repeat them. And that needs to be said first because that’s precisely the natural inclination of our unglorified flesh. We hear a juicy rumor that strains credulity, we can’t quite believe it ourselves, and we seek solace in venting our frustrations to our friends and having them affirm our unfettered feelings. But Scripture explicitly condemns this.
Proverbs 26:20–21 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down. Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife.” If the tongue is like a fire that sets entire forests ablaze, we must remember that if we deprive a fire of wood there’s nothing for it to burn. So also, the sage says, if we deprive a controversy of whispering (or shouting!) repetitions of unsubstantiated claims, that controversy eventually peters out and dies down. However, the opposite is true as well. If you’re a contentious person, rather than remove the wood from the fire, you only add to it and stoke the flames. You kindle strife, and you act against the life of your neighbor.
So don’t repeat the slander. Not even in vague generalities that leave out details but which give just enough information to make your hearers curious. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body.” You need to recognize that it’s just naturally interesting (for unglorified sinners) to listen to gossip. When people tell you about a matter—even if they only start talking about it and leave enough details out—you’re hooked. You need to know now. It’s like dainty morsels going down into your soul, and you need more of them. So recognize that if you “whisper” like this, you’re unfairly laying a snare for these neighbors as well. You’re tempting them to push for more information, which you might be more likely to give them once you know they’re interested. Don’t act against the life of the neighbor affected by the slander, and don’t spread a net for the steps of those tempted to listen to you.
The Duty of Disbelief
Secondly, not only must you not repeat the slander; Scripture commands you to not even listen to it. Proverbs 17:4 says, “An evildoer listens to wicked lips; A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.”
When we hear something that we know we shouldn’t be hearing, we often don’t know how to react. We don’t want to come off as holier-than-thou with respect to the person we’re talking with. We’re uneasy about rebuking that person for repeating things they shouldn’t be repeating. So in a cowardly fashion, we awkwardly smile, look away, stay silent, and listen. But this verse says that it’s sin even to listen to gossip—even to entertain it as plausible unless it is substantiated. You must stop the person, even in mid-sentence if necessary, and allow them to have no audience with you until the biblical standards for corroboration have been met. And until they have, you have a duty to disbelieve the accusations.
What are those standards of corroboration? Well, Deuteronomy 19:15: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” This standard is repeated in the New Testament both by Jesus (Matt 18:16, 20) and by Paul (2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). In that last reference, Paul specifically addresses how to deal with accusations made against elders. 1 Timothy 5:19 says, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” So there must be direct, firsthand knowledge of the sin issue that is the substance of the accusation corroborated by at least two and perhaps even three separate individuals. Why? Because “the first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). This is to ensure that justice be maintained and that the lives of men and women are not needlessly destroyed by a malicious witness (cf. Deut 19:16–21).
What if that standard is not met? What if there are not two or three witnesses that have direct, firsthand knowledge of the sin in question? Then you have the duty of disbelief. “Do not receive [such] an accusation” (1 Tim 5:19). If someone comes to you with a distressing rumor about this or that person in your church, but it’s a matter that has not been confirmed by two or three credible witnesses, then, out of love for your neighbor who is being accused, you have a duty to disbelieve that accusation. You must move forward as if you didn’t hear what you heard until it has been substantiated according to the biblical prescriptions, because “he who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him” (Prov 18:13). The moment you give credence to unsubstantiated gossip, even in your own heart, you violate these texts of Scripture and act against the life of your neighbor.
In the third place, beyond not repeating unsubstantiated accusations, beyond not listening to them and not believing them, Scripture admonishes not even to associate with those who gossip. Proverbs 20:19 says, “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.” In other words, you have a duty not only to disbelieve unsubstantiated accusations, but a duty to separate from those who speak them.
If someone demonstrates that they will persist in repeating slanderous charges which have not been corroborated on the basis of two or three witnesses, they are engaging in divisive behavior that threatens the health of Christ’s Church. This is not loving, protecting, serving, or edifying to the sheep; it is only harmful to them. It’s no wonder, then, that Paul speaks very strongly about the church’s need to protect the flock from such people: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. (Rom 16:17–18). And again: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11). The shepherds are to protect the sheep from those who are intent upon acting against the lives of their neighbors.
Speak Truth, Dwell on the Praiseworthy
Finally, don’t just aim to put off slanderous speech; put on the God-honoring, edifying speaking of truth to one another. In Ephesians 4:25, Paul says, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” If we belong to Jesus, we are members of His body (1 Cor 12:27) and therefore we belong to one another as much as we belong to Him. Since we are members of one another, we ought not to traffic in the falsehood which is to act against one another’s life; their life is our life! We who would act against the life of our brother or sister in the body of Christ would act against ourselves! Proverbs 11:29 says, “He who troubles his own house will inherit wind, and the foolish will be servant to the wisehearted.” We don’t want to inherit wind, and therefore we ought not to trouble our own house.
Instead of falsehood, we ought to speak truth to our neighbors. We ought to occupy our thoughts and conversations with the truth of God’s Word, heeding Paul’s exhortation to dwell on whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, any excellence and anything worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Our hearts and our minds ought to be occupied with the glories of God revealed in Christ and His great salvation. And, being filled with the Spirit of Truth, we ought to overflow in speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19; cf. Col 3:16–17). Praise is becoming to the upright (Ps 33:1). “Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment. Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but counselors of peace have joy” (Prov 12:19–20).
May we who have so much to praise God for, so much truth to delight in, be preoccupied with what is lovely and praiseworthy rather than what is base and corrupt. May we embrace the way of wisdom and put folly far from our house. May God keep His people from acting against the lives of their neighbors, and may He always and in every place vindicate the cause of righteousness.