Slander, Gossip and the Internet

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism, Ethics, Love, Personal, Web/Tech

Geisler_Norman I was recently forwarded a statement written by Dr. Norman L. Geisler (photo left) in defense of Dr. Ergun Caner, the dean at Liberty University. Caner has been a major target of accusations about lying, and thus deceiving the public, for some months. The story of these accusations against Canter, and the school’s response to them, has been a feature of major news sources as well as fodder for massive Internet discussion.  What made reading this defense so interesting for me is the following:

1. I have no “horse” in this race. I do not know Ergun Caner or any of those who have attacked him regarding lies and deceptions about his Muslim past or his wider life experience in general. The link above will provide you with the entire list of accusations.

2. I am not a friend of either Ergun Caner or Norman Geisler. In fact, I have had friends and associations with other Christian leaders over the years who have routinely criticized Dr. Geisler's theology and approach to apologetics. I have met Dr. Geisler but doubt that he would recall the occasion. I was a very young pastor and he was the lecturer in a local church. He was on the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at the time. I have never heard, read or met Ergun Caner. I knew nothing about this debate until I read the news in Christianity Today. Furthermore, I know no one on the board at Liberty University.

3. I am more than willing to consider serious accusations against public figures and to act responsibly when accusations are proven as real moral failures and my personal responsibility makes a response necessary. I believe, in other words, that I have moral courage and will take a stand on clearly established facts.

4. In another public  controversy, regarding the doctrinal orthodoxy of the movement called The Local Church (Watchman Nee, Witness Lee, etc.), I have come to agree with those who believe that the Local Church is not heterodox and thus I do disagree with Dr. Geisler's open criticism of the Christian Research Institute's defense of this group. (This is a very developed, long-drawn-out controversy that would take some time for readers to understand but if you wish to see some this for yourself you can begin by reading here.)

Having said the above I think the reader can readily see I am not emotionally or personally invested in this conflict. I am, however, a Christian leader who understands the way slander, gossip and the Internet can work in tandem to create the perfect storm, a storm that virtually destroys a good person’s reputation and ministry. No, I have not been the subject of the blitz that Ergun Caner has undergone. Yes, I have experienced enough of this kind of slander and gossip to read Geisler’s defense with a great deal of appreciation and sympathy. Again, I urge you to read it to see how he argues and develops his case for defending Canter.

I have no idea what the relationship between Geisler and Caner is personally but I have to say that I respect Dr. Geisler for coming to the defense of a man besieged by such an avalanche of criticism. Whatever you think of Norman Geisler, and he has taken positions both theologically and practically that I disagree with, it says a lot of good things about him that he would defend Caner when he is down and under such a blistering attack. His arguments, explaining the various charges against Caner, are stated simply and answered cogently. I am sure, however, that Caner’s critics could (and will) refute Geisler’s statements with counter-statements. The facts here are clear: once this kind of debate begins it will never end. Caner’s future is damaged and many of his critics will not stop the gossip even if a court vindicated him completely.

After reading Geisler’s defense of Caner I went back to Scripture to study a few texts about gossip and slander. Gossip is a form of idle talk which foolishly or maliciously spreads rumors or (even) facts. The effect of gossip is division and brings destructive consequences to those who are spoken about. Some of the accusations against Caner involve things that he has admitted have elements of truth in them. He has even apologized for several statements about his own life story that were not entirely accurate. (Geisler puts these in a context that helps to show that these things can happen and are not necessarily real proof of the intent to lie!) But in the case of Ergun Caner there appears to be slander as well gossip. Slander is even more serious. It false and malicious talk. Slander harms those against whom it is uttered and it will eventually bring spiritual ruin to those who promote it.

Tomorrow I will explain more of what the Scripture has to say about gossip and slander and provide some personal reflection on how I have been guilty of these sins. More times than I care to remember I have been required by the Holy Spirit to repent of these sins. And these sins have, in turn, publicly harmed me as a servant of Christ.

I have found it compelling to ponder what Paul says about the depths of human sin in Romans 1. Romans 1:28 speaks of God abandoning sinful people to “their foolish thinking” and of how he “let them do things that should never be done.” Verse 29 concludes: “Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.” One of the sins that God gives people over to is “gossip.” It does seem quite clear that no amount of proof-texting about the necessity of exposing supposedly false teachers justifies the kind of response some Christians routinely promote, especially on the Internet. I do not think this is a minor problem. After writing on the Internet for nearly a decade now I think this problem only grows worse as more and more people use this medium to promote their opinions without faith, hope and love. The Internet has not created this problem. It has only allowed it to grow in terms of the freedom some people have to be empowered while they sit at a keyboard and write just about anything they want to write without any accountability for their words or actions.