Slander seems to arise out of bitterness and anger. When we feel wronged, no matter how slight it may be, if we allow bitterness to take root, our sinful nature will tend toward slandering and malice, the desire to do the other person harm. Hence, we are cautioned to deal with slander at its root, our own bitterness toward another. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32).
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The Bible Strongly Cautions Us Against Slander
Slander is addressed clearly in both the Old and New Testaments. God prohibits it by name in Leviticus. “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:16). Slander would be included in the prohibition of the ninth commandment as well, a particular kind of false witness against our neighbor. “And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deut. 5:20).
God hates slander so much that he warns us that he will destroy the slanderer. “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy” (Ps. 101:5). Jeremiah denounces the slander common among the people of God. “Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer” (Jer. 9:4).
In the New Testament, Jesus lists slander among those sins that defile the person who practices it. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt. 15:19–20). It is interesting to note that while our slander may injure the person we target, it has a worse impact on us, defiling us.
The wives of deacons are to be found free of slander. “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers,” (1 Tim. 3:11). We are to resist the temptation to slander and put it away entirely from our practice. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Pet. 2:1).
The sins of the tongue, like slander, are so heinous that we are warned about our misuse of our words. “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (Jam. 3:8–10). Full of deadly poison. Is that not the story behind slander? We curse those whom God intends to bless.
Slander seems to arise out of bitterness and anger. When we feel wronged, no matter how slight it may be, if we allow bitterness to take root, our sinful nature will tend toward slandering and malice, the desire to do the other person harm. Hence, we are cautioned to deal with slander at its root, our own bitterness toward another. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32). Slander is bitterness incarnated, the fruit of malice. Slander is the sign that forgiveness, kindness, and tenderheartedness are no longer controlling the person. Hence, God wants his children to have nothing to do with slander.
A Case Study of Slander: The Slander of Jesus
We can easily see the deadly power of slander when we realize that Jesus was slandered to death. Think about that. The only perfect man who ever lived was killed through slander! The religious leaders of Jesus’ day wanted him killed. They were threatened by his holy life, a life that made their lives seem flat, lifeless, and unrighteous by comparison. They were threatened by Jesus’ success with the crowds as they were drawn to his teaching, that left the Pharisees with fewer admirers. Most of all, they were threatened when he exposed their hypocrisy, for Pharisees depend on their external displays of uprightness to justify their lives. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence,” (Matt. 23:25).
They needed some believable accusation against Jesus that they could use to destroy him. But imagine their real frustration. He never did, or said, anything wrong. How to get him convicted of a crime to justify their hatred, destroy his reputation, and remove him—permanently—from his ministry so they could be in control again? Slander. It was the single most perfect and economical solution.
During his ministry in Jerusalem the Sanhedrin intentionally sought false testimony against Jesus so they could justify ending his life.
Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Matt. 26:59–62).
Note the cleverness of the slander. It takes something that is partially true and twists it, making an innocent statement from Jesus into something sinister, sinful. What had Jesus actually said?
“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19–21).
See how they twisted the words of Jesus? Jesus never said, “I am able to destroy the temple,” but rather, “Destroy this temple.” He said in effect, “If you destroy this temple, I will rebuild it in three days.” Of course, he was speaking of an entirely different temple, his body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which he did raise up in three days.
The powerful religious leaders of Jesus’ day used slander to falsely accuse Jesus and have him executed. They used a religious sounding rationale to conceal their bitter desire to murder him. Certainly, they would claim that they were protecting the people of God from a blasphemer. Their motives were “pure”!
Here we find an important axiom: slander is more powerful than an upright life. If Jesus, in all his perfection of uprightness of life can be slandered to death, then no one is immune from the destructive power of slander.
Beyond the obvious, that the Sanhedrin were threatened by the ministry Jesus, what moved them to such deep, irrational hatred for one so inoffensive? It became clear, even to Pontius Pilate, that the Jews hated Jesus from simple jealously. “So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matt. 27:17–18). They despised him, not because they believed he was a worse man than they were, but because they envied him as a better man than themselves.
The Bible lays out this dynamic of the wicked hating those more righteous than themselves. “Bloodthirsty men hate one who is blameless and seek the life of the upright” (Prov. 29:10). The blameworthy hate the blameless, so much so that they want to kill the upright. Jesus decried the undeserved nature of the hatred that he received from those who slandered him to death. “But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:25). There was nothing bad in Jesus that justified their hatred. It was the evil in their own hearts that gave rise to it.
David cried out, protesting the wrong done against him, when he had done no fault. His innocence did not stop his enemies from lying, slandering him, demanding he repay what he had not taken. “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies. What I did not steal must I now restore?” (Ps. 69:4).
Jealousy is the dynamic that leads wicked people to utterly despise those more upright than themselves. “One whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked” (Prov. 29:27). This aptly explains the violence of the hatred that the Pharisees felt for Jesus.
In his book Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes of the natural jealousy that those in power have for their social inferiors, who are yet their moral superiors.
Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours—watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.
This is a good description of the irrational hatred that the Pharisees had for Jesus, the root of their envy. Seeing a man better than themselves they developed “an unconquerable dislike and bitterness,” for him. They applied all their energy to make his life, or so they thought, “a little heap of dust.” Until, of course, the dust cleared, and Jesus stepped out from the ground very much alive. So, they attempted to cover their sin with another lie, a slander against the disciples and Christ: “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Matt. 28:13).
The Bible clearly leads us away from slander, encouraging us to see not only the evil of slander, but the evil in the heart of the slanderer.
Dr. Thomas D. Hawkes is a Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves a Director of Church Planting for the ARP Florida Presbytery, and as Lead Pastor of Christ ARP Mission in Fernandina Beach, Fla.