You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour. (Exodus 20:16, NIV)
Today in Newcastle Crown Court, Carl Beech has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for making false allegations against prominent public figures, and thus perverting the course of justice.
Rightly, we condemn such actions. But are any of us also in danger of forgetting the ninth commandment? There is an urgent need for our generation to be reminded of it.
The ninth commandment is God’s prohibition of making untrue allegations against another, or passing such allegations on. You can break this by being the one who brings such charges in the first place, but you can also break it by passing on such untruths, received unchecked from others, even just as gossip or a re-tweet. If it comes out of your mouth or from your keyboard, you bear responsibility.
The commandment stems from God’s great concern, all over Scripture, for justice. It is a terrible thing when an innocent person is wrongly declared guilty, or has their reputation destroyed on the basis of a false allegation. God hates that because He is just.
Indeed, He hates it so much that in the law of ancient Israel, anyone found guilty of bringing a false allegation had to receive themselves the same penalty the alleged offence would have incurred. Think about that!
Of course, justice also requires that the truly guilty are punished, and so the commandment does not mean we should never be a whistleblower. Rather, the point is that those who receive such charges must check them before action is taken or allegations assumed to be true. So in Deuteronomy 19:15 we read: One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offence he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. This is why we have courts to assess evidence; and it is this Biblical principle that lies behind the assumption in UK law that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
In the case of reputational damage, we have laws of slander and libel, but these, sadly, tend to give protection only for those rich enough to fight their case. However, at least they make newspapers and mainstream media careful to check their facts.
With social media, such care seems to evaporate. Maybe there is thought to be safety in numbers! And it’s incredibly easy to tap our comments into our phones without pausing to ask whether there is any hard evidence for what we say.
This is why our generation needs to hear the commandment again.
I sometimes see things posted - even by professing Christians - that would never pass the tests of the secular press. Speculation, rumour and gossip are treated like fact, and without regard to truth, justice or reputation. This should not be so!
Have we forgotten the ninth? There are only ten commandments which the Lord gave us - and in His wisdom, this is one of them.