A few days ago Tim Challies posted two blog posts about the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” here and here. He focused on how the ninth commandment applies in a day of social media.
Tim Challies and I go way back. Just kidding; he doesn’t know who I am, except as the author of a devotional book he had his daughter read and promoted in the video I referred to in my explanation of awkwardness in this Facebook post. (The awkwardness is born of the crossover between my two fields of writing: first, missionary books and biographies, and then, abuse in the worlds of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, which is Tim Challies’s world.)
To be fair, his accusations of lies in social media weren’t directed at me at all, directed at much larger websites like perhaps The Wartburg Watch. They expose evil; I generally only examine the teachings of those who support the evildoers (and in some cases those who turn out to be the evildoers themselves).
What does the ninth commandment encompass?
Based on the Westminster Larger Catechism’s lengthy expansion of the ninth commandment, Tim Challies draws out many applications to Christians as they interact on social media. Here is part of his introduction to his two posts about the ninth commandment:
I had become convinced I was violating the spirit, even if not the letter, of [the ninth] commandment, especially through social media. I wasn’t telling lies about other people, but I was reading lies.
I notice two things about this statement. For one thing, he has expanded the law from speaking or writing false witness to hearing or reading false witness. Expanding the law to claim other things to be sins beyond what the law stated is what the Pharisees did. (Which is different from what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount when He examined heart intent.)
Another thing I wonder about here is, since he doesn’t give any examples of the falsehoods about others he was reading, how he knew for sure the things that were being posted were lies? Is it simply because he wanted to maintain unity with certain people, such as in the case of the scandal involving Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches, and so would refuse to hear anything negative about them?
I wasn’t bearing false witness against brothers or sisters in Christ, but I also wasn’t deliberately protecting their names and reputations.
Again, he somehow seems to think the ninth commandment should encompass far more than it says.
And again, I ponder. The best way to righteously protect someone’s name or reputation in cases where there are many accusers would be to allow the accusations against them to come forward and for there to be a trial. In the case of CJ Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches child sex abuse scandal (which, among others, attorney Rachael Denhollander has sought to bring to light), Tim Challies instructed all his readers to refrain from trying to get information but instead to refuse to look at it.
So whose “names and reputations” end up being belittled in a case like that? Those who have claimed the child sexual abuse who are ignored and shamed as tarnishing the “names and reputations” of important men. For example, when Al Mohler joked about CJ Mahaney’s name being discussed by bloggers, all his audience, primarily seminarians, guffawed. Whose names and reputations were being scorned and unprotected? The accusers—those who had been sexually violated as children.
So here’s the challenge: Think of the people you follow on Twitter, the blogs you read, the news sites you browse, the videos you watch on YouTube, the friends you engage with on Facebook. Think of the topics you discuss with your family in the home and friends in the church. Think not only of what you say, but also what you read or listen to; the ninth commandment is not just meant to govern your mouth, but also your eyes, your ears, your heart, and your mind.
I believe his application of the ninth commandment is inaccurate—throughout the Scriptures, the description of “false witness” is only about ones who disseminate lies, and that is all. Those who listen aren’t held responsible, I would assume largely because they might not know they’re lies.
Here is where his misapplication of the ninth commandment is so devastating. Though God told His people not to “bear false witness,” Tim Challies expands it to all of us not to listen to or read “false witness.” But is he going to be the one to tell us, “this is false witness”? We must, in this land of free speech, be free to listen, read, and ponder different viewpoints. There should never be anyone telling us, “Do not listen to that person”—we need to learn on our own that the person is a liar, a hypocrite, or a charlatan. Mature adults need to be able to judge for themselves who proves to be telling the truth and who seems to be hiding something.
Challies highlights the expansion of the ninth commandment executed by the Westminster Larger Catechism, which, of course, is not the Scriptures. The majority of this Catechism promotes truth, with which I fully agree, but some parts of it I believe do not. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism says the ninth commandment applies to:
the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own;
Yes, we are to preserve and promote truth in regard to others. That’s the point of the ninth commandment.
However, I beg to differ about preserving and promoting “the good name” of anyone who is a secret evildoer, which might indeed even be our neighbor. That person needs to be exposed.
Is this really about reputations?
Tim Challies then goes on to draw applications out of the various statements of the Westminster Larger Catechism, rather than looking at the actual Scriptures. I’m quoting his applications:
[A]re you willing to . . . spend time reading, writing, or sharing things that tarnish reputations, especially of other believers?
Here’s the thing about reputations: If that person is an evildoer, then his reputation deserves to be tarnished. Reputation should match character. If a reputation is good while the character is evil, then the reputation is a lie. Jimmy Hinton tells the story of his father, a very well-liked and well-respected hero with a good reputation in the community, a man that Jimmy called his “childhood hero” . . . who, as it turned out, was a pedophile with dozens of victims.
Are you hopeful that other people will maintain a good reputation and do you rejoice in all that enhances their reputation as faithful Christians? Are you as quick to read, believe, and share information that will enhance their reputation as to tarnish it?
Again, I will say, if the “good reputation” is a false one, then it deserves to be exposed. Brenda Ratcliff was married for over thirty years to a respected professor of Wheaton College who was eventually exposed to be a pedophile. His reputation deserved to be tarnished.
The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character. If his character is good, then his reputation should not be tarnished. But if his character is bad, then his “good reputation” deserves to be exposed as false.
Do you feel grief (rather than mere outrage) over the sins and weaknesses of others and a willingness to overlook their offenses (when those offenses are not so egregious that they threaten to undermine the gospel of Christ)?
Yes I do feel grief when I see the sins of others that are the kinds of things I write about. But the grief I feel is for the ones who have been harmed.
And when it comes to identifying sins that are “so egregious that they threaten to undermine the gospel of Christ,” I think Challies may not be the best person to identify them. I wonder if he has any awareness how many former Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches members have walked away from Christianity because of the abysmal way their leaders handled the many allegations of sexual abuse? “If this is Christianity, I want none of it,” they say. Don’t you see that this kind of behavior, focused on protecting the “good reputations” of those who have covered for abuse (and perhaps have participated in abuse) is absolutely undermining the gospel of Christ in the lives of these survivors?
What about “slander”?
Do you refuse to hear or to read the words of people who tell tales, who spread gossip, or who slander others?
Again, how do you know these reports you’re referring to are slander? How do you know they aren’t true? There were many people who said that the reports coming out about Bill Gothard and his brother Steve were simply slander, but under the weight of testimony and evidence, the wrongdoing was finally acknowledged by several who had been in leadership under him.
Slander is lies spread purposely. When I wrote a critique of a sermon by Ryan Fullerton of Immanuel Baptist Church (which later confessed to being Rachael Denhollander’s former church, the one she lost because she spoke out for abuse survivors), one of the elders of that church wrote to me telling me I was slandering his pastor. Actually what I was doing was analyzing his pastor’s sermon in light of truth, but this is an example of how easily the word “slander” can be tossed around to be defined as “anything that makes me or someone I care about look bad.”
Do you visit sites and read material committed primarily to exposing the transgressions of other people, and especially fellow believers?
Interesting word choice, “transgressions.” This means “law breaking,” so if these websites are talking about people who have actually broken the law, then this has nothing to do with the ninth commandment. Thomas Chantry would be an example of one of those, a formerly well-respected pastor who has been accused of child abuse.
Doesn’t Ephesians 5:11 say, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them”? Why, yes. Yes, it does.
If big name church and ministry leaders are covering for each other’s transgressions, they why shouldn’t someone expose them? We want the church to be purified, according to 1 Corinthians 5, Hebrews 12:15-16, and other Scriptures. What about when Paige Patterson covered for Darrell Gilyard, who had raped many women? Should the church at large have continued ot have been kept in the dark, simply because Paige Patterson is a believer?
Do you love to receive a good report about another believer, even one with whom you have substantial disagreements?
This is a good thing, yes, as are a few other things he says. If another believer, even someone I may differ with theologically, is progressing in his or her love for God and others, I’m delighted to hear about it.
Do you refuse to receive an evil report on another believer, especially when that information is unsubstantiated or no business of yours?
What in the world? When a woman wants to tell you about her rape by a Christian leader, you will refuse to hear her because she can’t substantiate it? I have listened to many, many, many women, and some of them have named pastors and Christian leaders and other impressive people as their abusers. Should I refuse to hear them because they can’t substantiate their claims? This kind of response is exactly what abusers are counting on.
And wouldn’t we say that when predators are in the church, it’s the business of everyone? When I first started learning about abuses in some of these circles (through the bloggers), I thought, “Well, I don’t know any of these people,” and I turned aside. I was wrong. When I began to get to know the people themselves, I believed it was right to get involved in a larger way, so my initial offering was the website www.bjugrace.com, started with some friends, and then blogging more and more about this issues here. My response, as I continued to learn what was happening, was, “How can I turn away?” Indeed, I wonder how Tim Challies can say this is no business of ours.
Challies had two blog posts about the subject of the ninth commandment, and I’m going to need to do the same in responding to his words. But this isn’t the first time I’ve addressed the silencing some have tried to impose on bloggers in the name of the ninth commandment. In this post I wrote
When you silence the advocates, you often silence the victims along with them . . . . If those of us who “don’t have all the facts” . . . refuse to say anything, we are in effect turning our backs on those who need support and help. Not all of us are called to advocate, but some are, and those of us who are, if we do it with grace and truth, don’t need to fear the ninth commandment. Instead we can speak in the spirit of Proverbs 31:9. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.”
This article contains many links, some giving further information about the abuses I refer to, and some giving commentary. The Here’s the Joy blog posts I link to in this article are these: