A few preacher friends and I were recently discussing our concerns with some of the current trends we’ve seen during this pandemic. One of the concerning trends is the support many Christians have given to what might be described as, “conspiracy theories.” From my perspective, one of the biggest problems with supporting a conspiracy theory is the tendency people have to bear false witness. What does it mean to bear false witness and how do conspiracy theories thrive on this very serious sin? Let’s explore that for a moment.
A Recent Story
My wife and I were signing some legal papers recently. While the notary did her work, my wife casually remarked to me that she had been talking to our sons about the coronavirus and possibility of a vaccine. The notary stopped what she was doing and interrupted our conversation, “I’m sorry…if I may,” she said, “Are you talking about the vaccine?” She proceeded to tell us all kinds of interesting “facts” about the COVID-19 vaccine.
If she had simply said she would not be taking the vaccine, or even that she was uncomfortable with some of the things she had heard about possible vaccines, I would not be telling you this story. However, she said, “As a believer, you need to know that they are doing evil things with this vaccine. Very evil things.”
Of course, she didn’t specify who “they” were or what sorts of “evil” things were being done, but she stated everything as a matter of fact. And that was the problem. She didn’t express these ideas as possibilities or opinions, but as facts that every “believer” needed to take seriously. Though she was somewhat vague, she was adamant that her unsolicited testimony against the vaccine industry was true.
I suppose there is a remote possibility that someone out there is doing something “evil” with a vaccine. However, I find it far more likely that there are countless researchers working overtime to try to save lives and curtail the spread of a deadly virus. Maybe their vaccine won’t work. Maybe it will do more harm than good. I truly don’t know. But I do know these researchers and developers are real people and unfounded accusations about them doing “evil” things is very serious
I don’t tell you this story to vilify this woman; she really was a sweet lady. I tell you this story because it exemplifies the kind of slanderous accusations that get thrown around constantly.
Bearing False Witness
As a child, when learning the Ten Commandments, I often heard the Ninth as, “Do not lie.” But it actually says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Which means, if you accuse your neighbor of committing a crime, your accusation better NOT be false.
Imagine how important testimony was in the ancient world. There were no security cameras, DNA evidence, or fingerprinting. Guilt or innocence was determined by the testimony of witnesses. A person could be convicted and condemned to death based solely on the word of others. And because the possibility of false testimony was so high, a person could not be put to death on the evidence of just one witness (Deuteronomy 17:6). But, of course, it was still possible for two or three people to corroborate a false testimony and wrongly accuse someone.
This is why the Law so strongly mandated speaking the truth about others. False testimony can ruin a person’s reputation, career, relationships, and even life. That was true in the ancient world and it remains true in the modern world. If you falsely accuse someone of wrongdoing, you could very well ruin that person’s life.
Gossip and Slander
The idea of bearing false witness is closely tied to the ideas of gossip and slander. You don’t have to be in a law court to have your testimony or accusation ruin someone’s life. Even casual gossip (online or in-person) can have devastating effects on the lives of other people.
When the apostle Paul made lists of what evil and wickedness looked like, three things very often made the list: slander, gossip, and malice (see Romans 1:29-30; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20). When we spread rumors about people, especially with the intention of ruining reputations, we are engaging in this sort of wicked behavior. It is made even worse when we consider the possibility that we might be spreading untrue, misleading, or half-true rumors.
If you have ever had someone spread a rumor about you, then you know how devastating it can be. Once something is said and repeated, the rumor takes on a destructive life of its own. The record will likely never be completely set straight. That’s the key here. When you share information about a person or a group of people, stop and ask yourself how you would feel if the roles were reversed and someone was speaking this way about you.
Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill Gates are all real people. They all have families and feelings, strengths and weaknesses, critics and fans. But most importantly, they are image-bearers of God. Every Republican and every Democrat, every conservative and every liberal, every politician and every celebrity, every single person in the world is made in the image of our God. And how we speak about them should reflect the fact that we regard them as God’s image-bearers.
This doesn’t mean we should never disagree with public figures or accuse them of wrongdoing. But it does mean we should NEVER repeat something about someone that even has the possibility of being false, misleading, or only half true. If we say something about a person as fact, it needs to be a fact. Period.
“But, if that’s the case,” you might argue, “what information could I possibly share and be 100% sure it is true? Isn’t there a degree of possibility anything might be false?” My advice would be to accuse and criticize very few people and do it very seldom. The more you accuse others, the higher the possibility you will be guilty of falsely accusing. Proverbs says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).
The more gossip, news, and memes you share, the more likely you are to be guilty of bearing false witness. So, share very little negative information and try very hard to make sure what you are sharing is true.
I love you and God loves you,