y Bob and Gretchen Passantino 1992
Of course Christians should tell the truth! And yet, Christians today seem to forget about the importance of telling the truth when it comes to being truthful about a Christian leader’s secret moral failures. Why is it right to tell the truth about a corrupt politician’s extra-marital affairs, but wrong to reveal the truth about a Christian evangelist’s sexual immorality? Why do Christians applaud truth telling about fraudulent medical research, but scorn the Christian who exposes the false testimony of a Christian celebrity? Do we Christians really care about truth? If we do, why do we abandon unpleasant truths about sin in the Body and immorality in Christian leadership?
Two issues are fundamental to understanding the biblical basis for telling the truth about Christian sin: (1) the nature and importance of truth; and (2) biblical principles for integrity and honesty in Christian leadership [who is in sin].
The Nature of Truth
Does it really matter if Jesus always told the truth? Of course, the Bible describes him as the “faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14), and he calls himself “the truth” (John 14:6). But are there situations in which he didn’t tell the truth? Some liberal theologians, for example, say that Jesus so “emptied” himself in the incarnation that he was ignorant of certain facts. They say Jesus made a mistake when he called the mustard seed the smallest seed in the world (Mk. 4:31), but it was justified because he had the limited knowledge of a first century inhabitant of Palestine. They say Jesus promised his disciples he would return within their lifetimes, but that was understandable, because that’s what Jesus believed at the time. Rather than using sound hermeneutical principles to understand the idiomatic and apocalyptic meanings of these passages, and in rejecting a comprehensive, biblical theology of the incarnation, such liberal theologians instead compromise the meaning and importance of truth telling. Think of the ramifications if Jesus could be wrong! If he didn’t know what the smallest seed was, how do we know he knows the truth about our salvation? If he were so mistaken about his Second Coming, how do we know he isn’t mistaken about our future resurrection and eternal life?
Conservative, biblical Christians have always understood God’s standards of truth to be absolute and uncompromising. [God cannot lie, deceive, or be ignorant.] Jesus, the divine Person who became man, cannot lie, deceive, or be ignorant. His standard of truth telling is perfect. But what does this mean for us, his followers, Christians who are not omnipotent and omniscient? Should — and can — Christians tell the truth?
Fortunately, we do not have to grope in the dark concerning Christian behavior and truth. The Bible has given us clear outlines of our moral and intellectual responsibilities for truth telling. God’s revealed will in his Word recognizes and supplements man’s limitations regarding knowledge and moral certitude. We can look to God’s Word to discern our truth-telling responsibilities.
A Christian’s commitment to truth derives from God’s attribute of truth. The Psalmist declares that God’s truthfulness and right judgment come from his righteousness (Ps. 119:142, 160). Isaiah 65:16 says we serve[d] the God of truth, the “Amen,” or the one who determines what will be. As Jesus calls himself the Truth in John 14:6, the Holy Spirit is called “the spirit of truth” in verse seventeen of the same chapter.
Our response to the embodiment of truth in God is to “worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23, 24). This is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son “sanctifies” us in the truth (John 17:17, 19), and establishes us in the truth (2 Peter 1:12). The scriptures are called “the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and the Christian faith is compared to walking “in the truth” (3 John 3, 4). The truth makes us free (John 8:31, 32).
Telling the truth is not merely an intellectual exercise, nor even simply a moral imperative. Truth telling should flow naturally from our moral character, redeemed by Christ’s death on the cross and nurtured by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:25 commands believers to “put away lying.” Romans 2:8 contrasts the unredeemed as those who reject truth, and the redeemed as those who “obey the truth,” a concept stated positively in 1 Peter 1:22. Paul couples truth with love in Ephesians 4:15, a passage which should assure us that we do not abandon Christian love by telling the truth. Psalm 15:2 equates walking “upright” with both righteousness and speaking the truth in one’s own heart.
The world has challenged the truthfulness of Christianity for almost 2000 years and Christianity has always passed the test. Christianity is a faith based on fact, a faith that claims to accurately represent history and reality. Jesus challenged the skeptics of his day to test his words or testimony by investigating his works: “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know . . . ” (John 10:37, 38). The apostle Thomas did not simply believe in the resurrection because the other disciples told him a fantastic story: he needed to check the facts and be convinced. Jesus physically demonstrated the reality of his resurrection to Thomas, and then commended Thomas for his reasonable faith (John 20:28ff). Luke was a discerning researcher and investigator who “had perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:1-4). Paul pointed to eyewitness testimony to support his “story” of Jesus’ resurrection when he listed the eyewitnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5-8). Peter asserted the testability of the facts of Christianity when he declared, “we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Journalists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, and others have investigated the claims of Christianity for 2000 years in efforts to destroy its credibility. Instead, responsible investigation repeatedly affirms the truthfulness of Christianity.
In the Christian’s life, truthfulness and integrity go hand in hand. Truthfulness is a necessary part of calling a sinner to repentance and also of restoring fallen Christians to faithfulness. When a Christian fails to respond to an opportunity to tell a nonbeliever the truth about the consequences of unbelief, he is held responsible by God (Ezek. 33:1-9). If a Christian fails to confront a fellow believer who is in sin, God calls him a participant in sin (1 Cor. 5).
The biblical references above show us that Christians lives should be characterized by truth. The Bible also gives us principles governing difficult truth telling situations as well. For example, a general biblical ethic of truth-telling allows for remaining silent when to speak would endanger human life (Ex. 1:15-22). In a hierarchical sense, some Christian ethicists interpret Rahab’s lie concerning the Israelite spies (Josh. 2:1-24) as subordinate to her obligation to protect innocent human life. Most Christians see no ethical dilemma in leaving lights and a television on at night in an empty house to “deceive” a would-be burglar into thinking the house is occupied. Yet even with these ethical complexities, Christians should be committed to integrity and truth telling. Graduated aboslutism does not justify relativism, false testimonies, immorality, or irresponsibility concerning truth.
We become rightly outraged that women with crisis pregnancies are not told the truth about fetal development by abortion providers. We are justified in resenting the secular media for using emotive, biased vocabulary to obscure the truth of biblical ethical standards. We approve of investigations that uncover political corruption in Washington, insider trading on Wall Street, and consumer fraud in the corporate world.
One would think that our outspoken faithfulness to truth telling would extend to telling the truth about sin within the Church. And yet at this point many Christians shrink from truth telling, instead hiding behind empty platitudes such as “don’t judge;” “forgive and forget;” [“don’t turn people away from the gospel;”] “don’t shoot your own wounded;” “look at all the people who came to the Lord through this ministry;” etc. [Sadly, we have unbiblically dichotomized between truth telling and Christian accountability.] Sadly, we have unbiblically acted as though telling the truth contradicts biblical concern for a sinning Christian leader. Christians who cry out, “It’s wrong to judge,” are ignoring the context of the passage (Matt. 7:1-2), which does not forbid judging, but instead insists on judgment according to God’s word. In addition, a judgmental criticism of judgement is self-refuting. If it is wrong for a Christian journalist to publicly criticize a Christian leader whose testimony is false or who is immoral, then isn’t the critic also wrong for publicly criticizing the Christian journalist? A political candidate who falsely accuses his opponent of lying, and who is himself found to be a liar loses all credibility. Paul points out this contradiction among some Jews, saying, “You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom. 2:22). A critic who says it is wrong to criticize is condemned by his own conviction. One who speaks English to utter the sentence “I can’t utter a word in English” has refuted himself. Aren’t those who accuse Christian investigative journalism of being the “Christian Gestapo” are themselves acting Gestopo-ish!
To equate forgiveness with absolution from personal responsibility is to cheapen biblical forgiveness and to deny biblical justice.
Assuming that integrity and accountability exclude compassion unfairly brands truth telling as “shooting” and ignores that “the wounded” have been wounded by their own sin.
Christians who try to excuse false testimonies and immorality by pointing to the “fruits” of a ministry deny Paul’s forceful argument in Romans 3:8 that to do evil that good may come is slanderous and contrary to biblical ethics.
The Bible clearly states that Christian leaders should be accountable both to the Word of God and also to God’s people, whom the leader serves. Among the requirements Paul describes for a Christian leader are that he be “blameless,” and “of good behavior” (1 Tim. 3:2). A Christian leader must “have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). This does not mean that the Christian leader is simply good at covering up his sin. Christian leaders must display integrity and honesty — they must prove themselves worthy of Christians’ trust.
The objections cited above against revealing a Christian leader’s sin seem to imply that it is possible for one to have a valid Christian ministry or profession, and yet have a private life of corruption. However, the Bible explains that it is not possible for one’s sinful conduct to have no negative effect on one’s profession of godliness. Titus 1:6-8 summarizes the same qualifications for a Christian leader Paul gave in 1 Timothy 3, but goes on to condemn one whose says he believes, and yet whose works deny his profession of faith:
To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. The profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work (1:15-16).
To attempt to combine immorality with godliness to produce spiritual fruit is completely contrary to scriptural teaching. In fact, Paul ranks it with “profane and vain babblings” and warns Timothy to avoid “contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20).
In addition, Jesus openly rebuked Peter when Peter argued against Jesus going to the cross (Matt. 16:22, 23). Paul writes Titus that it is the responsibility of the church to hold the leader accountable for his sin: “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Paul also commands Christians to rebuke sinning leaders publicly, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). Paul took his own advice, as recorded in Galatians 2, and publicly rebuked Peter “before them all” (Gal. 2:14).
If we neglect to uncover sin within the Church, we rob the Church of the integrity it should expect from its members. The Church becomes weak through compromise, and the leader becomes weak because of his or her immorality. Fallen leaders betray the trust of those they lead. Maturity in the Lord, which is an essential part of qualifying one for spiritual leadership, can be confirmed only by an established pattern of resisting sin and walking faithfully with God, family, and others.
Second Thessalonians 5:21-22 commands us to “test all things,” and Paul commended the Bereans for “searching the scriptures” to test what he himself had taught them (Acts 17:11). The Christian whose life is characterized by truth telling must support spiritual leaders whose lives exemplify Christian maturity, and must hold those leaders accountable. If a Christian leader is chosen whose life is bound by immorality, the Christian has the obligation then to expose that sin publicly since the leader is public and his actions impact the church he leads.
Fallen leaders damage the trust relationship established between them and their followers, a relationship mirroring the trusting relationship we are to have with the Lord. In addition, they break the trust relationship Peter tells us to have with the world; that is, we are to live so that even the world will note our trustworthiness and be unable to speak against us, but will, instead, glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).
It is unethical for Christians to cover up for leaders who have achieved their position through false qualifications or stories, or who are living immorally. Can the Church claim a higher ethical standard than the world when we adopt a “code of silence” worthy of the most pernicious organized crime conspiracy or even some suspected invisible satanic ring?
Some people in society have a greater responsibility for honesty and integrity than others. This does not mean that it’s less wrong for one person to lie than another, but a public leader has a greater responsibility because the consequences of his failure have greater ramifications. A lay person who has a mistaken medical opinion will not affect the lives and health of as many people as a doctor with a misunderstanding of medicine.
An individual in a position of public trust surrenders his privacy regarding his suitability and trustworthiness. He has asked the public to trust him for specific reasons or qualifications. Those reasons and qualifications are open to public scrutiny. If the leader is trustworthy, they will withstand examination. If he is not, close examination will reveal their inadequacies. Christians who are committed to truth must preserve this fundamental right and obligation to know in whom they are asked to trust.
The examples of Jesus and his disciples’ commitment to truthfulness and integrity gives us our model for investigative Christian journalism and for holding our Christian leaders accountable. If we do not expose false testimonies and revisionist histories, especially when they are propagated by Christians, then all truth claims and all historical knowledge comes into doubt. We can have no certainty of the truth of Christianity or the objective reality of the resurrection. In the first century, the apostle Paul could claim that the resurrection “was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Should Christians be so careless with the truth that we need to hide our corrupt leaders “in a corner” to preserve the faith rather than speak the truth and call those corrupt leaders to repentance and reconciliation? God forbid!