[ 5 minutes to read ]
A stack of hot takes and the syrup, oh so good.A hot word has dropped on your ear. What should you do? You heard that somebody said or did something, somewhere, sometime. In other words, someone spilled the piping hot tea. What do you do with that? You have options—ignore it, speak about it to somebody, speak about it to a group of somebodies, like in a church, post about it online in specific language, post about it online in vague language, or go directly to the person and ask about it. I realize that last option is so extreme it’s seldom exercised but just know it’s in the toolbox.
Social media have given us an unprecedented ability to speak out early and often about anything and everything. Our words can reach the uttermost parts of the earth and the International Space Station in seconds. Such ability is powerful and very new. People have adapted quickly to using it. In our new age, people can speak about things and also think they should speak about everything. It’s as if we’ve been endowed with the inalienable right to speak about everything by the creators of the internet. To hear something is to feel the obligation that we must say something. Should we say something? How do we decide?
I want to try to keep this as general as possible, because a host of factors affects what you might do with or about something you’ve heard. I also want to focus on speaking out publicly about what you’ve heard someone said or did. I want to take a flowchart approach to walk through this biblically. If we consider the biblical principles of justice, we find a sure guide to when is a time to speak and when is a time to keep silent.
All statements come irreducibly to one of two conditions—true or false. I realize words can be true or false in different ways. Something can be partly true, where some information is accurate and some is not. Something could simply be a mistake and, though false, not malicious. I don’t want to get all knotted up in those variations. Distilled to the essence, words are either true or false. This is the best starting point because we cannot get any further back of it.
I can’t possibly cover all variations so we are going to consider the two primary conditions of true and false. So you have received information and the statement is either true of false. Let’s begin.
Condition 1: The Statement is True
The first condition means that you have heard a report of something someone said or did. This doesn’t mean it’s a word-for-word quote, but that it is an accurate representation of the facts. The person(s) in question really did say or do as reported. Remember you are receiving second-hand information, at best. You have been told by someone that someone else said or did something. Old covenant law required the truthfulness of a report to be established with the accused given opportunity to speak to his own case (Deuteronomy 19:17-19), which principle is a continued expectation of righteous judgment in the New Testament (Matthew 18:16; 1 Timothy 5:19). Hearsay was inadmissible (Leviticus 5:1). Failure to establish the truthfulness of a report is to be unjust, a gossiper (Leviticus 19:16; Psalms 15:3; Proverbs 11:13; 20:19, 27; 1 Timothy 5:13; 1 Peter 4:5), and perhaps an unrighteous witness (Exodus 23:1). In common law, we refer to that as due process.
Next, we must consider if the meaning of the report is understood. Let’s say a friend comes to you after church and says, “I just heard the pastor tell the deacon, ‘Get out of here.'” This is an accurate report of what was said, but what does it mean? From this brief report, you might conclude the pastor was angry with the deacon and maybe they had been arguing. You would easily come to that conclusion if the friend delivered the report with a concerned look and tone. However, the friend didn’t know, or tell you, that the pastor and the deacon had been joking around and the pastor laughingly told him, “Get out of here.” If words and actions are reported accurately but the meaning is misunderstood, then there has been a misrepresentation. Misrepresentation can be unintentional and would be folly (Proverbs 18:2, 13, 17). Intentional misrepresentation is a false witness (Exodus 20:16; Proverbs 25:18). This goes back to the need to establish truthfulness.
Accurately understood words and actions have to be evaluated according to Scripture. Do they agree or contradict Scripture? If they agree, you commend them, and if they contradict, you condemn them. Now we are ready for one last consideration before we speak to the report: is it your business or place to speak to it? If it is your business or place to speak to it, you are being faithful to do so (Galatians 6:1; Titus 3:10; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). If it isn’t your business or place to speak to it, you should hold your peace and not be a busybody in other men’s affairs (Proverbs 11:13; 17:9; 1 Peter 4:15).
Condition 2: The Statement is False
The second condition is a false report. The statement you heard is not true. In the case of a false report, the teller either knows it’s false or doesn’t know it’s false. If the informer doesn’t know it is false, he is sharing gossip and slandering someone. He may not have malicious intent, but his carelessness marks him a fool (Proverbs 18:2, 13, 17). You take part in his folly by sharing it and add fuel to a destructive fire (Proverbs 26:20-21). If someone knowingly shares a false report, he is a liar, deliberate slanderer, and sower of discord (Proverbs 6:16-19). Speaking to it in this case makes you participate in his sins. It means you are putting your hand in to raise a false report (Exodus 23:1).
The truthfulness of a report is not enough of itself to justify to your speaking to it publicly, but established truthfulness is absolutely required if speaking to it publicly. Further, we should remember our words should always be governed by wisdom as taught extensively in the book of Proverbs. I will end with a short dose of wisdom for our words in a list I have adapted from Kidner’s Proverbs commentary.
- Words are powerful for good or bad (Proverbs 12:18; 16:24; 18:21; 29:5).
- Words are cheap, easily manipulated, but cannot change reality (Proverbs 14:23; 24:12; 26:23-28; 29:19).
- Words should be honest and few (10:19; 16:13; 17:28; 24:24-26).
- Words should be thoughtful and well considered (Proverbs 10:20; 15:2, 23, 28; 16:1; 25:11).
- Words should be calm and calming (Proverbs 15:1; 17:27; 18:13, 17; 25:15).