HIGHER THINKING BLOG

A Yardstick for Slander By Paul Swamidass

The Biblical Yardstick for Slander

A Biblical yardstick is needed for slander otherwise it destroys trust within organizations. It causes the members of an organization become wary of each other.  It harshly cuts down its victim. And finally, the Bible says, slander is ungodly sin, again and again. If not controlled in Christian organizations, it may eventually weaken or end the ministry altogether.

No wonder, the Bible has several explicit warnings about this sin:

“Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? …The one whose walk is blameless…whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others.” (Psalm 151:103)

“Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees.” (Psalm 119:23)

“For out of heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:19-20)

 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. ” (Ephesians 4:31)

King David was a victim of it, and this is what we learn from him about it:

  • Several Psalms bear witness to the pain he endured (Psalm 34:15; 41:6; 54:5; 119.23).
  • David recognizes that rulers, or those in authority, when they get together, may indulge in slander.
  • He records that it is an act perpetrated by one’s enemies and, once they begin to slander, they do not cease from it (Psalm 35:15).

United States Law

United States (US)  law on defamation (including slander) may confuse Christians. Unlike the Bible, US law defines slander/defamation in the context of truth and untruth. If slanderous words are true, it does not come under the legal definition of slander/defamation. According to Emily Doskow, an Attorney[1],

“’Defamation’ is the catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone’s reputation [emphasis added]. Written defamation is called ‘libel,’ and spoken defamation is called, ‘slander.’” Further, she says, “A defamatory statement must be false—otherwise it’s not considered damaging. Even terribly mean or disparaging things are not defamatory if the shoe fits. Most opinions don’t count as defamation [i.e. slander] because they can’t be proved to be objectively false. For instance, when a reviewer says, “That was the worst book I’ve read all year,” she’s not defaming the author, because the statement can’t be proven to be false [emphasis added].”

Once slander/defamation based on untrue statements is established, US law allows for damages to be recovered from the slanderer/defamer through the courts system.

In the above legal definition, carefully note the exceptions such as: “statements can’t be proven to be false.”

In contrast, the Bible has numerous passages prohibiting slander outright, without exceptions, whatsoever. Any derogatory statement, true or untrue, to diminish and/or harm another person, intentionally or unintentionally, could be considered slander according to the Bible.

Consider this verse:

 “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:1)

“Slander of every kind” is an exceptions-free definition of slander in the Bible—it is much broader than the narrow legal definition for defamation/slander limited to only untrue statements.

The Biblical Yardstick

We are surrounded by a culture of slander magnified by the media and now, the social media. There is little to stop this corrosive culture from seeping unhindered into churches and Christian organizations. However, clear teaching and explicit policies of Christian organizations against Biblical slander could help prevent unintended slander and/or slander born out of ignorance.

Given the conflicting definitions under US law and in the Bible, Christian organizations will be wise to adopt short and simple guidelines that set a superior, Bible-based, yardstick for slander.  Here is a sample:

A sample policy:

We teach and practice that “all forms of slander” with or without malice is prohibited in the Bible as exemplified in 1 Peter 2:2. Further, in order to remove any confusion, we explicitly state that, even the legally defensible slander/defamation “based on facts” or “that which cannot be proven to be false,” are prohibited in the Bible.

I was once asked by a Christian leader,

“Is it slander, when our ‘fact-finding’ committee of our Christian organization invited a witness to describe in detail his complaint concerning an absent Christian’s alleged misconduct that was unknown to others?”

According to the above sample policy,

“Yes, the Bible would consider it slander.”

What did Jesus teach us?  

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matt 18: 15; NIV).

In the above verse, the words of Jesus, “just between the two of you,” is the blessed initial step for killing slander before it can take root.

We have two choices, legal or Biblical; choose the Biblical yardstick, slander is slander, no ifs or buts.

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Acknowledgement:

The author is grateful to a retired judge and a sitting judge, both Christians, who read an earlier draft of this blog and concurred on the matters concerning US law. However, any errors concerning US law that remain in this blog are entirely the responsibility of the author.  This blog is not a legal document or legal advice. Consult an attorney, if a specific or general legal opinion or guidance is needed. The goal of this blog is to alert Christian leaders to the stringent expectations of the Bible concerning slander, and it is unwise to bend the Biblical yardstick for slander using US law.

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[1] http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/defamation-law-made-simple-29718.html  April 30, 2016.

Paul Swamidass, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, Harbert College of Business, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA. He retired from Auburn University in 2016 after teaching there for 24 years. He was an industrial manager with an engineering degree before graduate education in business administration and a university career as a faculty member lasting 33 years.

 

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