When Christians collide with each other, and get themselves into what I have called “sociological events,” one of the first things to disappear is a sense of measured justice. When this happens, it is not the case that there is no sense of justice, because all the principles of justice can still be articulated, appealed to, and explained, if the circumstance has to do with something that was done to them. The sin involved can be seen in the profound refusal to apply those same principles in the other direction.
The prophet says that God requires of us this: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. What does it mean to do justly? The Bible has a great deal to say about this, and we will start with one example that comes up a lot.
When someone else says something that you believe to be untrue, what do we call that? In time of conflict, it is the easiest thing in the world to call it “a lie,” and this makes the other person “a liar.” When the traffic is going the other way, the choices aren’t so simple. We then call it the truth, or a mistake, or a difference in interpretation, or a lie. And the latter standard (the one we apply readily to ourselves) is the right one. And this means, applying the Golden Rule, that it is the standard we should apply to others, even those others with whom we are in conflict.
A person is lying when two conditions pertain. First, they are saying something that is untrue, and secondly, they know it to be untrue. If someone comes in from outside at jokes that it is raining (because the sun is blazing hot) and yet someone inside who is a little gullible hears this and believes it, and then the second person goes down to the basement and tells someone there that it is raining, he is telling an untruth, but he is not telling a lie. The first person was telling a joke, not telling a lie. The second person is not lying because he honestly believed that what he was saying was true. The first person is not lying because he said something untrue, knowing it to be untrue, but his assumption was that everyone there would know the strict truth and take his manifestly untrue statement for what it was, a joke. Someone tells a lie when he says something untrue, knowing it to be untrue, and seeks to get others to believe it, although it is untrue.
This is not a difficult concept and we all have it mastered . . . with regard to ourselves. If we made a mistake, an honest mistake, and passed it on to others, and we subsequently charged with lying about it, we would all be able to parse the difference between intentional falsehoods and unintentional falsehoods. Moreover, we would demand that others observe the distinction as a matter of fundamental justice.
This is why it is a grave matter to charge someone with lying. If I make such an accusation, I am assuming upon myself the obligation to prove two things, not just one. I must first show that the statement was false (assuming that the truth of it continues to be asserted). In the case of the joke about the rain, this might be very simple — just have everyone walk out into the parking lot. But if the dispute is about words and names and your own law, it may require detailed assembly of proofs and arguments. And the burden is on the one who accuses; in the Scripture this is always the case. The principle of judicial innocence until proven guilty is a bedrock biblical principle. For example, I have charged Brian McLaren with embracing and propagating a great number of false doctrines, and as the one who has made the charge, I have the responsibility to set forth the arguments for making such an assertion. But right now, what is that status of these arguments and proofs on my web site? Judicially, nothing is settled. Those who have read my arguments and accepted them may take action on their own level, which would include things like not buying any more McLaren books, not joining an emergent church, etc. But if, for some reason, Brian McLaren were to show up at our church this coming Lord’s Day, would we offer him the Lord’s Supper? Absolutely, because he is judicially innocent until an appropriately adjudicatory body has found him guilty.
But there is still another level. I have not accused Brian McLaren of lying, because I do not know that he has been filling his books up with false statements knowing them to be false statements. In order to do something like that, I would have to have one of two things — first, an ability to see hearts, which I do not have, or secondly, a “smoking gun” document that proves that McLaren knew that he was making false statements. If I had a email to his publisher, say, in which he said that he was going to say that the Bible teaches x, y, and z, when he knew good and well that it didn’t, and I ascertained that the letter was genuine and not itself a fraud, then I would say that McLaren was teaching falsehood and that he was a liar. But short of that, I have absolutely no business making such a charge.
But we have to return for a moment to the question of seeing hearts. We can know (theologically) that all instances of error (in the teeth of scriptural teaching to the contrary) can be regarded as instances of lying to God. If God were to mark iniquities, who could stand? False teaching is always at some level deception and lying, but this kind of thing is within God’s purview alone. Self-deception is genuine deception, and to a certain extent, we are all guilty of it. But this is not what is meant by saying that someone is “a liar.” Scripture contains clear teaching on this distinction. The psalmist can say that he was conceived in iniquity, and that if God were to mark iniquities, he could not stand, and also maintain that he wanted God to judge and vindicate him because of his righteous behavior. The first is Godward, and the second is horizontal — manward. An elder is called to be blameless. This is one of the qualifications. But this has to mean blameless in the eyes of men, not guilty of rank hypocrisy, false living, deliberate deception, and so on. It cannot mean absolute blamelessness in the eyes of God, for then we would have no elders. Neither can it mean blamelessness because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, for then every Christian would be qualified to be an elder.
Now, what this means practically, is that when someone charges someone else with lying, they have assumed an enormous burden (whether they want to carry it or not). They must first demonstrate that the accused made false statements, and they must secondly demonstrate that they were made by a person who knew them to be false, with an intent to deceive. And it will not do to say that I do not need to make the case because the falsehood is all “public record.” Public records still need to be sifted, assembled, arranged, and the arguments presented. Suppose I had said that Brian McLaren was a false teacher, and when asked why, said simply that I did not need to answer the question because he “had written many books.” This is the response that the RPCUS made when asked why they thought the Auburn guys were heretics. Their “proof” of the charges were the conference tapes themselves. And if I took the next step, and made the accusation that McLaren was lying to us, I am assuming a burden that should never be lightly assumed.
We all know these things to be true. We insist that others remember these principles religiously when they are dealing with us, or with our friends. But the mark of godly Christianity is when we remember these same principles with regard to our enemies and adversaries.