This is part of a series of posts on the sin of Assimilation. Click here to see the entire series.
Exodus 20: 16 says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
This is a commandment that is generally misunderstood. The pietistic understanding of this commandment is that God is saying that it is always wrong to make a verbal statement that you know is not true. A lie is properly defined as any statement that contains untrue or misleading information. A lie is improperly understood as always being a case of bearing false witness and, therefore, a sin.
It comes as a surprise to many pietists that God has often approved of the telling of a lie. The story of Rahab recorded in Joshua 2 is one of the better examples of a lie not being a sin. Rahab had taken in the Israelite spies and given them shelter from the local authorities. When Rahab was ordered to disclose their location to the authorities she told a bold and flagrant lie. The reward for her lie telling was life for her and her family when the Israeli army attacked and destroyed Jericho. Clearly, giving false information does not always constitute an act of bearing false witness.
The whole concept of bearing false witness is steeped in legal nuances. It assumes that a person is being called to give testimony as a witness to something. That only occurs in a courtroom environment. Furthermore, it assumes that the person doing the interrogation has a right to the information that the witness is aware of. That was the problem with the Jericho police; they had no right to information that would have thwarted the revealed will of God to destroy Jericho. Rahab realized that fact and refused to divulge her information. Her lie did not make her a traitor. Her lie made her a member of the covenant people of God. The Ninth Commandment, therefore, does not prohibit all inaccurate information. It does prohibit the giving of false and misleading information to anyone who has a right to that information.
Who generally as a right to accurate information? Covenant heads have a right to accurate information. The father, elder, and magistrate have the right to know accurate information. In addition, voluntarily entered contractual agreements presuppose the sharing of accurate, although not necessarily exhaustive, information. Each party to the transaction has a right to know what they are entering into agreement about. Violations in these settings are what generally constitute a violation of the prohibition to bear false witness.
The entire system of criminal jurisprudence in this country is based upon the concept of not divulging truth to those who have a right to it. Our system is defined as being an adversarial system. An adversarial system means that both plaintiff and defendant will adopt an adversarial position towards each other, regardless of the truth of the situation. A good defense attorney labors to obtain a “not guilty” verdict for his client, even if he is fully convinced he is guilty. A good defense attorney will use any legal loophole he can crawl through in order to accomplish his goal of freedom for his client. According to our system of jurisprudence the perpetrator of a crime has no responsibility to confess to his sin. If the state is unable to make its case, he is free to walk.
Nothing could be further from the biblical system. Not bearing false witness has the positive counterpart of requiring that true witness be declared. The simple fact that declaring the truth will cause one to be found guilty is not biblical cause to invoke the right to remain silent or to give false information. In fact, the primary reason for swearing an oath to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” is to compel full, honest testimony. Pleading the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (the “right” to not engage in self-incrimination) is as contrary to the system of biblical law as it can possibly be. Anyone convicted of a crime is compelled to testify, and to tell the truth.
The example of Achan in Joshua 7 is particularly enlightening. God had commanded that when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they were to utterly destroy everything. Canaan was “under the ban” and the Israelites were to take no spoils of war. Achan decided to disobey the direct commandment of God and “took some of the things under the ban”. As a result, 36 Israelites were killed. Joshua conducted an investigation that pointed to Achan. Rather than telling Achan that he had the right to remain silent, Joshua issued him this exhortation, “My son, I implore you, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me.” Achan confessed to his crime and he and his family were immediately executed for their sin. When a person sins it is his moral duty to confess to what he has done. To refuse to do so under the provisions of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is a sin against God.
Even when the alleged criminal decides to testify, it is far from certain that the truth will ever be heard. The impeachment hearings of former president Bill Clinton are a great example of legal obfuscation. Lawyers and pundits around the country praised Mr. Clinton on his magnificent ability to deliver testimony that said absolutely nothing. Everyone knew he was guilty and he was not removed from office.
The US legal system is entirely rotten. Everyday the Ninth Commandment is broken in the courtrooms of this nation. Everyday Christians are involved in the violations of the commandment. Evangelicals argue that we just need more Christian judges and lawyers. Joining an immoral system is not the way to bring about change. Declaring God’s revealed will that accurate testimony from all parties to a conflict is a biblical requirement is the responsibility of the Church. But, the Church is far too assimilated to the law of the land to ever even consider such an action. Our patriotism and blind love for an immoral legal system guarantee that we continue to be irrelevant as declarers of truth to the nation.