From Kay Meyer's column in the St. Louis Metro Voice newspaper from 1994 to 2013.
“The Board of Elders requested that I tell them about the slander that had hurt me so much at my previous congregation. They assured me that anything I told them would be held in the strictest confidence. So I was open with them. Then last week, three months after this information was shared, a member asked me a very personal question. The only way she could have known about the situation she brought up was that one of these elders told her about it. This member thought the slander was true. I can’t express how much this situation has hurt me and my family.”
“The chairman of the Board of Human Care and I had several disagreements during meetings. I didn’t think too much about it at first. Disagreements often occur in the church among leaders. Then I learned he had spread malicious lies about me. He’d told several members that I was having an affair! This was a lie! I try to live my faith using Matt. 18 and always try to use biblical reconciliation when disagreements arise. I invited him to meet with me privately. I told him I’d heard rumors that he’d said I was having an affair. I told him how much this hurt me and my wife. I asked him if he’d really said this. He admitted he had. He wasn’t sorry. He believed that these lies were true and that this gave him the right to spread the slander. Unfortunately, many of the members believed these lies. My wife and I left the congregation over this slander three years ago.”
A Director of Christian Education
I was a trained biblical reconciler for my church body for many years. Because of this training, and my work with Family Shield Ministries, I frequently listen to church workers and Christians who have had their lives damaged by slander. Slander can have tragic consequences. Some consequences include: separation, divorce, loss of job, depression, and suicide. Think these are bad? The consequences of slander can be far worse than this. There is spiritual damage, too. Slander sometimes causes Christians to confuse the slander of men with the work of God in their lives. They assume God is doing to them what is really the work of human sinfulness. They begin to doubt their faith, fall away from active worship attendance, and Bible studies, or even hate God. And, sometimes slander keeps those who do not know Christ from coming to faith. This last fact is the greatest tragedy of all!
What is slander? In 1886, Joseph Roux described it this way: “A verdict of guilty pronounced in the absence of the accused, with closed doors, without defense or appeal, by an interested and prejudiced judge.” Here is another way to think about it: Did you ever play “telephone” as a child? It’s played like this. You whisper a long story into the ear of the person next to you. Then that person whispers it to the person next to them. Around the circle it goes. When the story gets to the last person, you repeat it out loud for the group. You’ll find that the words that were shared at the beginning are nothing like what is said at the end. That’s often what happens when stories are repeated. This is also why the slanderer is often called “a talebearer.”
Galatians 5:19-21 talks about inward sins (or evil thoughts). In God’s eyes, pride and an undisciplined tongue are just as damaging as inflicting physical harm. ‘Sins affect not only us, but others as well.’ Psalm 101:5 says “whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy.” Psalm 16:28 says, “A slanderer separates intimate friends.” How many of you had intimate friends, but slander demolished that relationship? Slander can destroy lives, and relationships!
Proverbs 6:16-19 talks about six things the Lord hates. Sometimes they are called the “deadly sins.” They include: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to mischief, ‘a false witness that utters lies,’ and one that spreads strife among the brothers. Why do you think God’s word calls them deadly sins?
When we slander anyone, whether it’s a Christian or not, we are breaking one of God’s commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:20). The reformer Martin Luther had some good things to say about this topic in his Large Catechism. He says, “This commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure or approach too closely to our neighbor. For to bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue…Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on…for it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor.”
‘Slander’ is spreading ‘untrue’ stories about someone. And, slander, according to God’s Word, is sin. Slander is preceded by another sin: judging others. The Lord Jesus has told us not to do this (Matthew 7:1-5). When we judge others, we think we are something and they are nothing. Galatians 6:3-4 warns us against this, for we should not think we are something when we are nothing. When we judge others, we take the role of God and pass judgment on another fellow sinner. Martin Luther once wrote, “To avoid this vice we should all note that no one is allowed to publicly judge and reprove his neighbor, although he may see him sin…for there is a great difference between these two things, knowing sin and judging sin. You may indeed know it, but you are not to judge it…now if I rush in, judging and passing sentence, I fall into a sin which is greater than his.” Judgment belongs to God alone, and even God is merciful. Therefore, God tells His forgiven people to show mercy too, for “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b).
Sometimes slander takes another just-as-deadly form: gossip. Even sharing true information in a way which harms people is still sinful. Christians should be like God and love one another. To harm them, even with our words, is not to do God’s work, but the work of the devil. Galatians 6:1-2 tells us that if we are aware that someone is sinning, we should “deal with them gently.” To ‘deal with them gently’ means to remember that you are also a sinner and God has forgiven you. Remember, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2a).
If we don’t deal with others in gentleness, the outcome will be that “you also may be tempted.” You may be tempted to do their sin or you may be tempted to gossip about them. Either way, you yourself will sin. So if you hear or see someone in a sin, either use your knowledge to help them, or do nothing at all. You can help them by leading them to repentance or by bearing their burden with them. But to do nothing, is that right? Yes. Listen to Luther’s excellent advice: “But if you know about it, do nothing else than turn your ears into a grave.” The next time someone begins slandering a friend, co-worker, or a member of your congregation, walk away. Don’t listen. And don’t repeat the slander! If we all pointed out each other’s faults and sins, that’s all we would ever do and our lives would be miserable, but our lives are to be about pointing to Jesus and His forgiveness, so we are filled with joy!
Gossip, then, naturally leads to slander because most people alter what they hear or see. Yet, many people, including Christians who are leaders within their congregations, often don’t have a problem repeating things they heard from others. Beware! Satan prowls around like a roaring lion seeing who he can devour. He is the father of lies! Don’t fall for his schemes (Eph. 6:11). One of his schemes is that ‘slander doesn’t really hurt anyone, it’s just a small sin.’ If you really understand the damage slander causes, then you’ll realize that it is, in fact, a large sin, because it does so much long-term damage.
Has slander become a part of your life? If so, let’s review a few biblical ways to deal with it. First, confess your sin to the Lord and receive His forgiveness! And then ask the Lord to help you to stop gossip and slander! Next, if you have done a lot of damage with your sins, true repentance will lead you to publicly correct the damage you have done. Don’t think you can just tell God you’re sorry and move on. The people you have hurt with your slander may not be able to move on, especially if it has become public. God will forgive you as soon as you ask, of course, but His mercy leads us to true repentance, which is about change. And that change leads us to reformative action. John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8, 10-14). God forgives you. Now do your best to fix the damage you have done in other lives.
If the situation is right, such as if you hear severe, public slander, you may want to confront the person who is sinning and remind them of God’s will. If you do this, say a prayer first. Martin Luther was so offended by this sin that he said you should stop slander just as you would stop murder. In other words, you would not be so concerned about their feelings, but you’d be more concerned about the feelings of the person being sinned against. Remember slander destroys lives! Luther’s suggestion was that we should confront the slanderer to his face, so that he blushes and he’ll never do it again. This last piece of advise is only for exceptional situations and it would be a challenge to do. Most people would not like either doing it or having it done to them.
But whatever approach you take to the sin of slander, we who know God should all stop doing it. We can stop by the grace of God, for “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘NO’ to ungodliness…” (Titus 2:11-12a). God’s grace is the way. God’s grace gives life, it does not destroy life. It is the way of salvation, as well as the way to stop slander.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitatiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world”. (1 John 2:1-2).
Kay L. Meyer co-authored this article, originally published in her column in the St. Louis MetroVoice newspaper some years ago, with her son, Rev. Kevin Meyer. Kevin passed away in 2009.