With the advent of social media and its collision with an incredibly acrimonious election season, it’s a fight to distinguish truth from slander on Facebook, Twitter, and online news sources. Perhaps you have a family member or friend who sends you online articles disparaging a particular politician or public figure. Maybe you follow folks on Twitter who retweet inflammatory messages. A man was arrested at a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., that one of my family members regularly visits, all because he believed incendiary messages that alleged the pizzeria was a front for a political child sex ring.
Closer to home, I too have friends and loved ones who share with me unsettling rumors from both sides of the political aisle. I’m regularly tempted on social media to believe things that sound true, especially if they fit my political preferences. Thankfully, despite the contrast between our modern age of social media and the flow of information during biblical times, we’re not left as orphans without instructions for separating facts from gossip.
Good Faith, Good Fight
It’s good first to understand the types of speech and sharing of information Christians are to put off. Ephesians 4:31–32 is the classic passage on the subject, which instructs us to put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. The interesting thing about all of these words is the underlying negative emotion. They infer dislike, maybe even hate. It reminds me I’m most tempted to engage in God-offending language about individuals I’m already predisposed not to like. These negative types of speech and attitudes are contrasted with the warm responses of the next verse: kindness and tenderheartedness. The call here is to good faith. And yet the passage ends with a call to forgiveness, so this good faith isn’t necessarily directed toward someone who naturally engenders it. After all, “If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” (Luke 6:33).
That said, we know there’s a time to stand against evil, to rebuke, and to discipline according to Scripture. What are the distinguishing elements in political realms between times to give the benefit of the doubt in good faith and times to stand up against evil? When we witness a person directly stating a position offensive to God, particularly when they say so publicly for all to hear, we don’t engage in gossip or slander to rebuke it. After Hillary Clinton stated in the final debate, witnessed by millions, her unequivocal support for late-term abortion, no Christian who spoke against that evil was gossiping or slandering. And when Donald Trump gloried in his sexual deviancy on multiple Howard Stern interviews, also broadcasted to millions, Christians who denounced him weren’t either.
Deuteronomy 19 in the New Testament
What’s trickier is relaying information not received firsthand. Jesus gives us a standard in such cases: “But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established” (Matt. 18:16).
This instruction to establish facts in the case of one believer’s sin against another is tied to the Mosaic law: “One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut. 19:15).
This is the standard of the law, the ground of Judeo-Christian ethics. And though we know Jesus fulfilled the law and there’s no condemnation for those united to him, this standard is repeated multiple times in the New Testament. Just as Old Testament instructions on sexual ethics and murder still constrain us today, so too do Old Testament instructions on entertaining an accusation.
- “This is the third time I am coming to you. Every fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1).
- “Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
Note that a witness is a person with a firsthand account of the issue in question—not someone who merely talked with a person who says he or she was present. And one witness isn’t sufficient. There must be at least two, and three seems to seal the deal. Entertaining or relaying accusations not so established results in the sin of slander we’re to “put away” (Eph. 4:31).
God’s Verification Standard
Especially in our fast-paced media climate today, this standard causes us to slow down a little, to stop, to think, and to verify. The Verification Handbook, a resource of the Society of Professional Journalists, gives an important example. The reporting of a 2006 mine accident reminds us of the importance of verification:
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters in 2006 that 12 of 13 miners trapped underground had been rescued from the Sago mine. What reporter wouldn’t run with that story?
But the governor was wrong. Twelve of the miners died; only one was rescued. The governor relied on second- and thirdhand accounts, and was not challenged on how he knew the miners were alive. We need to question seemingly authoritative sources as aggressively as we challenge any source.
The book goes on to give a journalistic standard for verification, primarily involving the need for multiple sources, which sounds a lot like the standard Scripture gives. When listening to news outlets, I listen for that magic phrase, “confirmed by multiple sources.” And, better yet, I wait to see the stories confirmed on multiple news outlets.
If two or three witnesses sounds like an impossible standard, recognize that God himself established it. We’re constrained by his good Word. And it’s for our good and the good of political society that Christians avoid speculation or slander, that we slow down and wait for verification. Like the boy who cried wolf, sinful speculation only undermines our integrity to speak out against a politician’s established positions or proven conduct that violates Scripture and harms others.