“I hate to have to do this,” said the voice on the telephone, but I must warn you that pastor so-and-so is teaching heresy.”
“Are you sure?” I inquired.
“Absolutely. It was explained to our whole class at the seminary. Then I heard it again at campmeeting.”
“What heresy is the pastor accused of teaching?”
“They said it was something called ‘the morally influential theory.'”
“Actually it’s pronounced ‘moral influence,'” I corrected. “But do you know what this theory is all about?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. But at least I understand it has something to do with the cross and atonement. Evidently the pastor is confusing people by saying that Jesus didn’t have to die.”
“That’s a very serious charge. Have you told many others about it?”
“Yes, I think we owe it to our fellow believers to help protect them from such false theology.”
“Why did you say earlier that you hated to have to pass on this information?”
“Because the pastor is a good friend of mine, and I’ve found some of his ideas very helpful to me personally.”
“Well, since you’re both such good friends, can I assume that his reputation is safe in your hands?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you agree that one of the great joys of friendship is that friends can always be trusted to protect each other’s reputation? This means to me that if you should hear a damaging report about someone of whom you claim to be a friend, you would never think of passing it along without first checking the accuracy of the accusation. Can I assume, then, that as the pastor’s friend, you have already given him a face-to-face opportunity to explain what he is actually teaching?”
“I don’t believe I need to do that,” concluded the voice on the phone. “I know enough already to make up my mind.”
THE SPIRIT OF LOVE IS THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH
“I love him, but…” seems a not infrequent introduction to the passing on of hurtful rumor. But the Spirit of love is also the Spirit of truth. It is always possible that the rumor of heresy may prove later to be correct. But until such a destructive report has been verified by presentation of specific evidence, it remains just irresponsible rumor, mere theological gossip. And the tale-bearer’s claims of friendship have a somewhat hollow sound.
THEOLOGICAL GOSSIP STARTED THE WAR UP IN HEAVEN
“Of course I still love Him, but…” explained the father of lies (John 8:44) as he spread his malicious rumors about God. Lacking evidence to support his claims, the deceiver resorted to “misconstruing and distorting the purposes of God.” Under the guise of pretentious piety, and protesting his perfect loyalty, he confused even brilliant angels with his “subtle arguments.” “Everything that was simple he shrouded in mystery, and by artful perversion cast doubt upon the plainest statements of Jehovah. And his high position, so closely connected with the divine government, gave greater force to his representations.” (See Patriarchs and Prolphets 38, 41) As the theological gossip spread among the angels, there was a ready reply to those who might ask for verification of such shocking reports: “They came straight from top administration. The Lightbearer himself says they’re true.”
How different was the method used by Jesus on the Emmaus road. He knew that if He revealed Himself as the resurrected Son of God, the two disciples would be all too ready to believe anything He said, just on the basis of “His personal testimony,” just because of who He was. But Satan too, the one who can transform himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), could have walked with those men, presenting himself as the Son of God. And they would have been just as ready to believe what he said. Therefore, Jesus “maintained His disguise” as humbly just one of us until He had led them to “an intelligent faith” based on “unquestionable evidence.” Only then did He reveal who He was. (See Ellen White’s memorable explanation in Vol 3 of Spirit of Prophesy 214)
When Satan comes claiming to be Christ, he hopes to win our faith and worship by an overwhelming display of might and power. On that day we shall do well to remember the meaning of the story of the Emmaus road. God never asks us to believe on any other basis than the clear, calm presentation of truth and evidence.
THE SCOURGE IS REACHING EPIDEMIC PROPORTIONS
The purpose for writing this article is to submit the observation that once again the scourge of theological gossip seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. More and more unverified rumors are finding their way into print, onto television, even onto world wide Internet.
As I look back over my seventy-five years, I recall that one of the unique hazards of growing up with Uncle Arthur as our dad was that any significant misbehavior on our part could well become the substance of another Bedtime Story. Telling falsehoods that would hurt other people was recognized as a particularly despicable crime and would have run special risk of inclusion in the next volume of Bedthnes.
As a young minister I often sat with my father at various councils of the church. I listened with some awe to the forceful arguments of Carlyle B. Haynes, H. M. S. Richards, F. D. Nichol and others. I found it reassuring to observe that our church seemed to encourage honest disagreement and discussion. If these leaders were alive today, I cannot imagine them not rising to deplore the wide circulation of so much unverified rumor.
In rereading the extensive correspondence between my father and Elder Nichol during the many years they served as editors of the Signs of the Times and the Review and Herald, the utter candor of their disagreements, their total commitment to the truth, and their warm affection for each other were all equally conspicuous.
But now I sense an undermining of such freedom to trust. And one villain is theological gossip. Have we forgotten how this scourge has hurt us before?
False rumors, coupled with much bias and meanness of spirit, wounded our church severely in the days of Minneapolis and Battle Creek.
False rumors, motivated by prejudice and jealousy, cut short the ministry of the apostle Paul. On his last visit to the headquarters of the Christian church, he knew that unfavorable reports about him and his work had already reached the ears of church leaders. He also knew that among them “he would find few friends and many enemies…and some, even of the apostles and elders, had received these reports as truth, making no attempt to contradict them.” (Acts of the Apostles 397, 398. Read the rest of the sad story on pp. 399-418.)
Above all, false rumors, false witnesses, and the malicious twisting of his words, were used to justify arresting Jesus and sending Him to the cross.
WHAT DID YOU SAY? WHAT DID YOU MEAN?
Theological gossip can do irreparable damage to the influence and reputation of the one falsely accused. But fortunately, as Ellen White has observed, “while slander may blacken the reputation, it cannot stain the character.” (Mount of Blessing 32)
In this respect, it is the publisher of gossip who suffers the most serious damage, both to his character and reputation. He becomes known as an untrustworthy purveyor of rumor based at best on superficial research. And since hurtful gossip is never inspired by the Spirit of truth, he leaves himself vulnerable to the perverting influence of Satan, the father of lies.
There is damage, too, to the one who uncritically accepts unverified gossip. He is forming habits that leave him susceptible to deception at the hands of the master deceiver.
As Hebrews 5:14 advises, we need to have “our faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” There is one helpful procedure that can be readily practiced. If, for example, you should hear a rumor of heresy, and if the accused is still alive, go to him personally if you can and ask these two basic questions: “Have you actually said such things? If so, what did you mean?”
Until these inquiries have been honestly made, no one has any right to accuse. We may be censuring someone for beliefs he has never held, of teaching ideas he may have opposed all his life. To do this is folly. Worse, it is sin. And Ellen White spoke of it very seriously.
“If a brother differ with you on some points of truth, do not stoop to ridicule, do not place him in a false light or misconstrue his words, making sport of them; do not misinterpret his words and wrest them of their true meaning. This is not conscientious argument. Do not present him before others as a heretic, when you have not with him investigated his positions… You do not yourself really know the evidence he has for his faith, and you cannot really clearly define your own position.” (Letter 21, 1888; also Counsels to Writers and Editors 50)
“To condemn that which you have not heard and do not understand will not exalt your wisdom in the eyes of those who are candid in their investigations of truth.” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work 32, 33, 1892; also Counsels To Writers and Editors 50, 51)
CURBING THE SCOURGE
What can be done to bring the scourge of theological gossip under some measure of control and to limit the damage to individuals and the church? In 1897, during a crisis in Australia, Ellen White offered this advice: “When man assails his fellowmen, and presents in a ridiculous light those whom God has appointed to do work for him, we would not be doing justice to the accusers, or to those who are misled by their accusations should we keep silent, leaving the people to think that their brethren and sisters, in whom they have had confidence, are no longer worthy of their love and fellowship.
“This work, arising in our very midst, and resembling the work of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, is an offense to God, and should be met. And on every point the accusers should be called upon to bring their proof. Every charge should be carefully investigated; it should not be left in any uncertain way. The people should not be left to think that it may be or it may not be.” (3 Selected Messages 348, 349)
And what should be done if all else fails to curb the gossip? “The hasty, reckless use of the faculty of speech lies at the foundation of nearly all the church troubles that exist. Evilspeaking should be dealt with as a misdemeanor that is subject to church trial and separation from church membership if persisted in; for the church cannot be set in order in any other way.” (Ms 74, 1897; also The Voice in Speech and Song 31)
If this should seem too severe, remember how Paul describes the worst of sinners in his letter to believers in Rome. Having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” they are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers… foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (See Rom. 1:25, 29-32, NRSV.)
To admit gossips and rumormongers into God’s kingdom would be to risk starting the war all over again. Sin began in heaven and on earth with a lie. But John assures us that in the hereafter there will be no one who loves and tells a lie. (See Rev. 14:4; cf. 21:8, 27; 22:15.)
As we face the devil’s final efforts to deceive, we shall need our faculties trained by practice to distinguish falsehood from truth. Then let us resist irresponsible gossip and put an end to circulation of malicious rumors and unverified reports.
We shall need the help and encouragement that trustworthy friends can give. If we have gossiped ourselves, we should apologize to those we may have hurt and try to repair the damage to their ministry and reputation.
I believe we would do well to follow the example of the board chairman of one of our church colleges. The religion faculty had been summoned to the president’s office to hear charges of teaching heresy brought by a distressed alumnus who claimed to have heard it in their classes. The president voiced his opinion that “where there is smoke there is fire.” But the chairman called for evidence. And finding that there was none, he solemnly tore up the lengthy document and dropped it in the wastebasket right by the president’s desk.
I still cherish the memory of that decisive act, now forty-five years ago. I recommend it as an example of what should be done today.
This article is ©1996 by Graham Maxwell and originally appears at Pineknoll.