While Christians currently debate a host of ethical issues that are very important to the life and well-being of the church I fear that too few of us are willing to actually address a sin that destroys the work of the Spirit as fast, if not faster, than almost any other sin. I refer to the sin of slander.
Slander, as I wrote two days ago, is false and malicious talk about others. Gossip may selectively use information, even truth, to just chatter and talk too much. This is bad enough, as we saw yesterday. But slander is much worse. It plunges straight ahead knowing full-well that the facts have been carelessly used or altered to suit the opinions and views of those committing the sin. Slander is listed in Mark 7:21-23 as one of those sins that comes from deep inside the human heart. It comes out of the “heart” and is “vile.” There are thirteen things listed in Mark 7 that defile a person from within. Along with sexual immorality, murder and theft, which many of us talk a great deal about, there is slander. The Law actually refers to “slanderous gossip” in the personal holiness code, showing that these two are very close. In fact, they are so close that it is hard to separate them at times. The gossip is very likely going to engage in slander even if they think they are not doing it.
In reading the Scripture about this a few days ago I discovered again that insults, false witness, lies and slander are all closely related in the biblical worldview. There are a number of ways to deal with this sin but one of the most important is to never listen to slander. “Wrongdoers eagerly listen to gossip; liars pay close attention to slander” (Prov. 17:4, NLT). The basic answer to this problem is to recognize that the problem exists, then to devote yourself to getting a biblical view of how destructive this sin really is and to simply stop it!
I mentioned two days ago my own attempts to deal with this sin. I do not think I have ever been a vicious or malicious gossip. I do not think I have engaged, knowingly at least, in a great deal of slander over the course of my sixty-one years. But when I began to take honest inventory of my life, especially in the late 1990s when I came to see clearly that I was a sectarian in my attitude toward Christians that I disagreed with, I knew that I had to act. I began to pray that God would reveal to me times and places where I had committed this sin. As I prayed several instances of using public Christian leaders as “examples” for a point that I wanted to make came to mind. I would accurately quote this person, maybe from a sermon or a book, and then launch into my critique. I justified this by telling myself that I was seeking to lead people to the truth and exposing the errors of this person (I wondered if they were really real Christians on a few occasions) in order to protect people. I could marshal verses to support my case, especially from the pastoral letters. I paid little attention to context and felt good about my courage and conviction.
One time I was sitting at a baseball game, in another city, and talking to a well-known pastor. He mentioned a man I had routinely criticized in this manner. I asked him if he knew the man and what he could tell me about him? His answer disarmed me. The next week the same thing happened again in a totally unrelated context. Then I intentionally asked a brother who I knew, and who is quite a bit older than me, if he knew this same man. He warmly affirmed the character and ministry of this well-known leader. I was so deeply aware that I had used this man to frame my own public position in the past that I needed to write to him and ask his forgiveness. Thankfully he wrote me a precious letter, which I have kept to remind me of this whole episode. I did the same with several other men only to have some never answer me. Later they would again use me in a critical way in a book or spoken context. This whole experience showed me how much my pride and self-image were connected to the need to attack other people with whom I differed. The Spirit took me deeper into the love of Christ and showed me that I was to never engage in this kind of slander (or gossip) again. I may fail again but if I do I hope I will as quickly repent.
My other experience with this issue has come in the opposite direction. I have been slandered, with my views being considerably misrepresented, and frequently gossiped about. Let me make this as clear as I can. It is right to review what I write and to critically disagree with it in any appropriate way. No human teacher is above disagreement or challenge. I read reviews of my current book, Your Church Is Too Small, regularly. Most reviews are amazingly favorable but some are critical. (Some are written by people who clearly have not even read the book. This is about as bad as it gets I think.) I believe all of these reviews serve a good purpose. This is to be expected if you write theology. But there is a right way to do this and most of us know what that is; e.g, the way of love. Love involves more than civility and gracious tone but surely it can never allow for less.
I also believe that it is not the way of love to write or talk about a friend in public so as to cast a decidedly negative light on that person until you have first approached your friend in private. Even then you are not free to talk about that person in any way that you please. Clearly, you should never talk about them in a way that includes gossip and slander. I have experienced the effect of these particular sins on my life many, many times. Some friends have publicly spoken about me and my failures (even heresies they will suggest) and done so without ever engaging me in private. In some cases I have asked to meet with these individuals and they have refused. I have also offered evidence that I affirm a solidly orthodox statement of faith only to have these same individuals still question my doctrine in ways that slander me. (As an example, they will say I say one thing but clearly mean something else. I ask you, “How can you defend yourself when this approach is employed?”)
Disagree with me about any of my views. Please do. We can do this and still genuinely love one another. If you think I am wrong about something you have every reason to say so and to respond in the right venue if it is needed. If you are my friend then please help me. If you are my enemy then you should still love me even if you think I am wrong. But you should never slander me or gossip about me. There is never any place for this in the kingdom of God.
I have a number of deep and abiding friendships with Christians that I really do disagree with. I share friendship with many non-Christians and value these friendships very deeply. But those who have done me the greatest harm have been Christians. These Christians believe it is God’s will to tell everyone what my sins are and where they believe I have departed from the true faith even though they continually refuse to talk to me personally. This tells me “something is rotten in Denmark,” to quote one of Shakespeare’s best known lines from Hamlet.