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Tim Keller and David Powlison recently collaborated to provide some biblical wisdom and guidelines on speech and relationships. Our thinking was that perhaps bloggers would want to adopt these and spread the word about them as a way, in Keller’s words, to “spiritually season Christian conversation in cyberspace.”

So if this perspective resonates with you (and I hope it does), I’d encourage you to pass it along or post it on your blog.

May the Lord help each of us to have truth-in-love speech that is always gracious, salt-seasoned, gentle, respectful, peaceful, and edifying (Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:15; 1 Pet. 3:15; Rom. 14:19)

Should You Pass on Bad Reports?
by Tim Keller & David Powlison

One obvious genius of the internet is that it's "viral." Information explodes to the whole world. The old neighborhood grapevine and the postal service seem like ox-carts in a speed-of-light universe. (Do twenty-somethings even know what those antiquities once were? In the old days, people had to talk to each other or stick a stamp on an envelope.) Instantaneous transmission produces some wonderfully good things. Truth, like joy, is infectious. A great idea feeds into a million inboxes. But it also produces some disastrous evils. Lies, rumors, and disinformation travel just as far and just as fast.

So what should you do when you hear "bad reports" about a person or church or ministry? We want to offer a few thoughts on how to remain constructive. To paraphrase Ephesians 4:29, "Let no unwholesome words come out of your computer, but only what is constructive, in order to meet the need of the moment, that what you communicate will give grace to everyone who ever reads it." That Greek word translated "unwholesome" is sapros. It means something that is inedible, either devoid of nutritional value or rotten and even poisonous. It applies to thorny briars or to fish or fruit that's gone bad. At best, it's of no benefit to anyone. At worst, it's sickening and destructive. Consider three things in how to stay constructive.

What Does James Say about Passing Along Bad Reports?

Humble yourselves before the Lord.
Brothers, don't slander or attack one another.
(James 4:10-11)

The verb "slander" simply means to "speak against" (Gk. kata-lalein). It is not necessarily a false report, just an "against-report." The intent is to belittle another. To pour out contempt. To mock. To hurt. To harm. To destroy. To rejoice in purported evil. This can't mean simple disagreement with ideas--that would mean that we could never have a debate over a point. This isn't respectful disagreement with ideas. James warns against attacking a person's motives and character, so that the listeners' respect and love for the person is undermined. "As the north wind brings rain, so slander brings angry looks" (Prov. 25:23). Everybody gets upset at somebody else: slanderer, slanderee, slander-hearer.

The link of slander to pride in James 4:10 shows that slander is not the humble evaluation of error or fault, which we must constantly be doing. Rather, in slander the speaker speaks as if he never would do the same thing himself. It acts self-righteous and superior toward one's obviously idiotic inferiors. Non-slanderous evaluation is fair-minded, constructive, gentle, guarded, and always demonstrates that speakers sense how much they share the same frailty, humanity, and sinful nature with the one being criticized. It shows a profound awareness of your own sin. It is never "against-speaking."

James 5:9 adds a nuance: “Don't grumble against one another.” Literally, it means don't moan and groan and roll your eyes. This refers to a kind of against-speaking that is not as specific as a focused slander or attack. It hints at others flaws, not only with words, but by body language and tone. In print, such attitudes are communicated by innuendo, guilt by association, sneering, pejorative vocabulary. In person, it means shaking your head, rolling your eyes, and re-enforcing the erosion of love and respect for someone else. For example, "You know how they do things around here. Yadda, yadda. What do you expect?" Such a "groan" accomplishes the same thing as outright slander. It brings "angry looks" to all concerned. Passing on negative stuff always undermines love and respect. It's never nourishing, never constructive, never timely, never grace-giving.

What Does the Book of Proverbs Say about Receiving Bad Reports?

He who covers over an offense promotes love,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.
(Proverbs 17:9)

The first thing to do when hearing or seeing something negative is to seek to "cover" the offense rather than speak about it to others. That is, rather than let a bad report "pass in" to your heart as truth, and then get "passed along" to others, you should seek to keep the matter from destroying your love and regard for a person. How?

Start by remembering your own sinfulness. “All a man's ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Prov. 16:2). To know this automatically keeps you from being too sure of your position and of speaking too strongly against people that you hear about or people on the other side of a conflict. You intuitively realize that you may not be seeing things right. Your motives are never as pure as you think they are. To know this acts to keep you from being too sure of the facts, too sure of your position, and of speaking too quickly and too negatively about other people. Knowing your own sinfulness helps you not make snap judgments that take what you hear too seriously.

When you remember your sinfulness, remember God's mercies. “Love covers all offenses” (Prov. 10:12). The God who is love has covered all your offenses. He knows everything about you (and the whole story about that other person). He has chosen to forgive you, and life-saving mercy cost Jesus his life. He could write you up with a 100% True Bad Report, but he has chosen to bury your sins in the depths of the ocean. That makes the life and death difference. If your sins are not buried in the ocean of his mercy, then you will be justly exposed and will justly perish. But when you've known mercy, then even when you hear report of grievous evil, an instinct toward mercy should arise within you. To savor the tasty morsels of gossip and bad reports is very different from grieving, caring, and wishing nothing less than the mercies of Christ upon all involved. And most bad reports are much more trivial. They are the stuff of busybodies and gossips going "tut-tut-tut."

Then remember that there is always another side. “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Prov. 18:17). You never have all the facts. And you never have all the facts you need all at once. You are never in a position to see the whole picture, and therefore when you hear the first report, you should assume you have far too little information to draw an immediate conclusion. What you've heard from someone else is only "hear-say" evidence. It has no standing or validity unless it is confirmed in other ways.

So when you hear a negative report about another, you must keep it from passing into your heart as though it were true. If you pass judgment based on hear-say, you are a fool. That doesn't mean you shouldn't check out the facts. Go to the person. Hear other witnesses. If you're far away from the scene, wait for more of the story to come out. Suspend judgment. Don't get panicked or stampeded by mob-psychology and rumors. Be content not to know many things. You don't need to have an opinion about everything and everyone.

Third, what should you do if you are close enough to the situation to be involved AND you think the injustice or matter is too great or grievous for you to ignore? For starters, notice that you only really need to know something if it touches your sphere of life and relationships. In that case, you should do what will help you to express God's call upon you to speak Ephesians 4:29 words of wise love.

In Derek Kidner's commentary on Prov. 25:7-10, he writes that when you think someone has done wrong you should remember, "One seldom knows the full facts (v.8) and one's motives in spreading a story are seldom as pure as one pretends (v.10). To run to the law or to the neighbors is usually to run away from the duty of personal relationship." See Christ's clinching comment in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In short, if you feel the problem is too great and you can't keep it from destroying your regard for the person, you must go personally before you go to anyone else.

When Should You Go?
Galatians 6:1 says we are to go when a person is caught in a trespass. That means there should be some kind of “pattern” or the unmistakeable exposure of a wrong. Don't go the first time you hear a bad report about someone doing wrong. As we said above, there's another side to most stories, and our motives are never totally pure when we get indignant. Go if the person seems caught--that is, trapped or stuck in a habit pattern of wrong behavior or falsehood.

How Should You Go?
Galatians 6:1 says we are to restore gently and in humility, bearing all the fruit of the Spirit. Beware of your own tendencies to be tempted--perhaps to the same sin, perhaps to reactive sins of self-righteousness or judgmentalism, perhaps to avoidance sins of cover-up and pretending. Galatians 6:2 goes on to say that we actually fulfill the law of Christ by bearing each other's burdens. We become nothing less than lesser redeemers in the pattern of our Great Redeemer. Jesus in Matthew 18:15ff says we should also go persistently, and not give up in the process. Patience is one fruit of the Spirit because problems don't always clear up quickly. There is a progression in efforts to get to the bottom of a bad report, to confirm the facts, and to work at bringing restoration.

Who Should Go?

Galatians 6 says you--plural--who are spiritual should go to the straying one. That both defines how you should go and it calls for multiple people to get involved. Similarly Matthew 18:15ff says to bring in other people if matters don't resolve one to one. The right kind of checking out a bad report is always done in person and often will be done by involving multiple wise persons.

Why Should You Go?
In both Galatians 6 and Matthew 18 the goal is to restore the person and to re-establish sin-broken relationships. You are working to restore people both to God and to others.

Conclusion

In summary, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the principle is this. If you hear bad reports about other Christians you must either cover it with love or go to them personally before speaking of it to any others.

  • The first thing to do is to simply suspend judgment. Don't pass on bad reports.
  • The second thing to do is "cover" it in love, reminding yourself that you don't know all about the heart of the person who may have done evil--and you know your own frailty. Don't allow bad reports to pass into your own heart.
  • The final thing to do is go and speak to them personally.

What you should never do is rush to judgment, or withdraw from loving another, or pass on the negative report to others. This is challenge enough when you're dealing with the local grapevine or slow-moving postal service. In a world of instant world-wide communication of information it's an even bigger challenge, because you can do bigger damage more quickly. Whether the bad report offers true information, or partial information, or disinformation, or false information--it is even more important that you exercise great discretion, and that you take pains to maximize boots-on-the-ground interpersonal relationships.


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Comments:


27 thoughts on “Keller and Powlison: Should You Pass on Bad Reports?”

  1. Michael Dewalt says:

    GREAT POST!! Much needed!!

  2. CR says:

    I’m hearing nothing but cricket sounds in the background.

    Also, if we pass this along, you would be requiring every single person to admit their hypocrisy.

  3. ReformedMommy says:

    One of the most helpful and brutally convicting things I’ve read in a while. Thanks (sort of :).

  4. Boaly says:

    Yeh, really good! Thanks for posting this!

  5. Frank Turk says:

    So is this a bad report on the bringers of a bad report?

    I respect the vision here — a Biblical vision of turning a brother away from his sin. I reject the idea that every “bad report” is inherently sinful. The book of Galatians is, itself, a public “bad report” from Paul against those in Galatia who were defacing the Gospel — and Paul didn’t go to these guys first and say, “listen, I didn’t want to say anything in front of the whole church, and I certainly am not suggesting that you are bad guys, but is your paradigm for the inclusivity of Christ’s work excessively biased to Old-Covenant mores and boundary markers?” I think Paul’s language is markedly more aggressive and pointed than that.

    I’m fairly on-record against the excesses of watch-blogging, and if that’s what this brief essay is trying to get at, so be it. But it is one thing to repudiate hyperbolic accusations for matters of secondary (or tertiary) importance, and another entirely to say that all disagreements are inherently private disagreements which need to be settled over a cup of coffee, face to face, without any regard to the public scope of the point in contention.

    The proof of this lies simply in answering the question, “How does one refute or repudiate the excesses of watch-bloggers?” The way that engagement would have to unfold — as a mixture of public exposition and private mediation — seems to me to look a lot more like the multiform method of engaging error in the NT than the (if I can be forgiven for saying so) simplistic view being advanced here.

  6. Frank Turk says:

    You know: at 4:05 AM when all good watchbloggers are just getting started. Because someone on the internet is wrong.

  7. dac says:

    How does one refute or repudiate the excesses of watch-bloggers?

    Step one – Do not link to them. Not in thier articles, not in your sidebar, not anywhere

    As to Frank’s comments – I don’t see this post as a simplistic screed against saying anything, but a stand against saying things “unknowingly” Keller/Powlison posit three points, based on James, Psalms and Galations (not just Galations). They present a full picture, fairly nuanced as to all the implications associated with their topic.

    I think passing on information without knowing the full facts is a fairly common action, exacerbated by the internet (it used to be relegated to just dead paper publications like newspapers)

  8. dac says:

    Step 1 was don’t link to watch bloggers (although I think Fault Finders is a better description)- dont expand thier platform

    Step 2 – act knowingly
    Go to the source material. Blog reports present bits and piecies of something – seldom the whole picture. In this electronic world, it is much easier to actually read (or listen to) the source – don’t pass judgement based on what someone else says. Take the time to evaluate the report. And don’t take as “proofs” a circular loop of interconnected blog posts by the same author that you have to work through multiple times to find “proof” Go to the actual source

  9. Michael says:

    I’ve felt this way about some posts I’ve seen on Joel Osteen. People absolutely hate on that guy.

  10. Daryl says:

    Michael,

    Well there is the little thing of whether or not public sin (including un-biblical preaching) being publicly criticized…

    And Osteen’s preaching is publicker and unbiblicaller than most…

  11. Michael says:

    Daryl,

    Even if his preaching is unbiblical (even though I don’t think its “completly” unbiblical) and he is a public figure, is it still possible that people on the internet sin against him by making mocking him? Is it still possible that he is a brother in Christ? Sometimes when we scandalize people it says more about our sin then theirs (although I agree with you about his doctrine).

  12. ChrisB says:

    Wow, someone really should have told Paul about this.

  13. Daryl says:

    Michael,

    Yes, it’s possible. But it’s not inevitable, as some seem to think.

  14. CR says:

    Hmmm…I kinda see Frank’s point a little bit also.

    Of course, the only way to prevent the disastrous effects of the internet (if you really want to get technical) is to not publish the comments (like the Desiring God blog does, they don’t publish comments).

    I mean, if you really wanted to get technical you could go to a blogger like JT and say, your blog causes me to sin (and a bunch of other people to sin – I mean just look at all the nasty comments that appear once in a while) – and the Bible teaches that you shouldn’t make your brother stumble so, you should stop your blog or at least not publish the comments.

    Can’t one argue that the blogger who manages the blogs and publishes these bad reports that people pass along, have any responsibility? I mean one could take to task a blogger and say, you need to hire moderators to make sure that the posts that are posted fit the principle of love in the Bible before you allow them to be published. I mean, one could really go to town on this.

    Of course, as a bloggee, I don’t have to worry about these things. I’m only accountable for myself and for the persons I cause to stumble. But I do know the internet is full with people that really like to push buttons. I have one friend that likes to stalk me in the internet and likes to push my buttons – thank goodness he hasn’t found me here, yet.

    I wonder if the internet was around during the Reformation what the blog world would like? Probably just as bad (and even worse) than it is now.

  15. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “Keller and Powlison: Should You Pass on Bad Reports?”

    A question for the question: Would people or could people, whether they’re Christian or not, honestly and truthfully say that there are heroes in the Bible who have passed on “bad reports”?

  16. Terry Rayburn says:

    Sidenote on Watchbloggers:

    In this brave new world of blogging, I have greater respect for a so-called watchblogger who allows comments than for those who pontificate with their “last word” and give no access to those who may correct, admonish, or even sharpen iron with them.

    The latter I consider “ivory tower” watchbloggers, and have mostly stopped reading them.

    The former I have seen molded and shaped by their commenters, even their detractors, in a good way, at least from time to time.

    Blessings,
    Terry

  17. candyinsierras says:

    Terry said: Sidenote on Watchbloggers:

    In this brave new world of blogging, I have greater respect for a so-called watchblogger who allows comments than for those who pontificate with their “last word” and give no access to those who may correct, admonish, or even sharpen iron with them.

    Hmmm…many watchbloggers I have read seem to superficially allow correction, admonishment, or iron sharpening iron, with not much repentence on their part or change to their blogging stance when they go overboard on their hunt for all things wrong in the Christian world in their opinion.

    They also pick and choose whom they will accept correction, admonishment and iron sharpening iron. Certainly the “little guy” comment has little effect on their excesses.

    May God grant us all what we need to speak a word in season with humility and truth, and not for sensationalism or self-promotion. We all have strayed here and there in that regard. It is all in our motive, in my opinion.

  18. Rob Christianson says:

    Forgive me if I’m new here, but this was a great post and it brought to mind my own attitudes toward “prosperity preachers”. My wife and I were having a talk this morning about Casey Treat, a local prosperity preacher. I caught myself from being judgemental, as more often than naught I tend to be an outspoken critic of this doctrine and the personalities featured on TBN at large. This post came on just the right morning for me. It caused me to reflect on my holding my tongue this morning to not condemn pastor Treat. We might not agree with the finer points of this fellow’s theology, but if he proclaims Christ as the only means by which man must be saved, he is a Christian and therefore my brother. And therefore, the scriptures this article highlights commend me to not speak against Mr. Treat. And also, Mr. Osteen, correct?

    I may not agree with the finer points of the worship service of the church down the street from mine, but as long as it is a true “Christian” church, I’m not going to stand in front with a picket sign reading “HERETIC” – and therefore I should maintain the same respect for those “more visible” pastors as well.

    Am I off base in this? (Now, Mormonism or JW.. that’s another story)

  19. Terry Rayburn says:

    Candy,

    “…many watchbloggers I have read seem to superficially allow correction, admonishment, or iron sharpening iron, with not much repentence on their part or change to their blogging stance when they go overboard on their hunt for all things wrong in the Christian world in their opinion.”

    Agreed! May we all seek to be in such a state of surrender to Christ that we really mean it when we say, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

    And have the Barnabas (Son of Encouragement) attitude which God used through Barnabas to reclaim John Mark for useful ministry.

    Terry

  20. Shannon says:

    I understand the article and agree on many points. They challenged me to check my heart before speaking. But their conclusions do seem to be a bit oversimplified to me. I just taught our Sunday School class on 3 John 9-15 in which John speaks quite harshly of Deotrephes and in what seems to me as sarcastic tones. Am I wrong here?

  21. Ray Ortlund says:

    “Be content not to know many things.” A wise place to settle into.

    I wonder if “Flee youthful passions” (2 Tim 2:22) is relevant here. That command, as I see it, isn’t about sex as much as the lust to be in the know, to be heard, to get in the last word, to win an argument, to draw blood. We may cover it with a theological surface, but our feelings of moral fervor are very primitive and the darkest part of us.

    May the peace of the Lord be upon us all.

    Thank you, Tim and David. I am instructed and edified.

  22. candyinsierras says:

    I wonder if “Flee youthful passions” (2 Tim 2:22) is relevant Ray said: That command, as I see it, isn’t about sex as much as the lust to be in the know, to be heard, to get in the last word, to win an argument, to draw blood. We may cover it with a theological surface, but our feelings of moral fervor are very primitive and the darkest part of us.

    Ray. Well put.

  23. Rick says:

    I like what chrisb said. The Apostle Paul wouldn’t even have passed the test that these men are suggesting. :-).

  24. Gordon Cheng says:

    ChrisB has it. The apostle Paul would have failed this test.

    Chris links to 2 Tim 4, but we could also mention Philippians 4:2, where Euodia and Syntyche’s disagreement is recorded for posterity and for our edification; we might also quiz Luke on why he had to name Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, for their names are surely not necessary to convey the warning that the passage intends.

    Returning to Paul, we could mention his public shaming of the apostle Peter in Galatians 2. If it had happened in the heat of the moment, we might excuse the event, but Paul is reporting on it some time later and using it as a part of the justification of his apostolic ministry.

    And, I wonder if you could take any Cretan seriously after reading Titus 2:12.

    Also, what do you make of the gospel writers exposing the betrayal of Judas, the spinelessness of Peter, and the inconsistency, hypocrisy and cowardice of the entire group of disciples right through Jesus’ ministry, and even after his resurrection (see Mt 28: 17b)?

    I suppose you could argue that this was not slandering Christians, since the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet come, but I can see a few holes in that line of thinking.

    So the advice that Tim and David give is useful but flawed, because it relies on selective attention to New Testament teaching.

  25. Caron says:

    I have seen some truly wicked assaults on Christians by other Christians on blog sites. When I offered they curb it for the sake of a watching world at least, I only got sarcasm to the likes of “Ooo, we must be big now, the whole world is watching,” and so forth.

    Sarcasm is from a root word that actually means “to tear flesh.” Yet, Paul, indeed was sarcastic to make his points to the churches at times.

    I think we have to look at the general principles laid out here… The bottom line is pointing out rank heresy is certainly not wrong as John makes clear,
    but when it is done, there is no need to go on and on about it with little digs here and there on issues of no real importance.

    There is a great need for all of us to search our own hearts and remember, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”

    The world really is watching. More importantly, the Lord is watching and we are His ambassadors.

    I have to pray daily for God to put a guard on my mouth bc I can quickly pour out all the defilements of my heart.

  26. Rick says:

    To Anyone
    Are Keller and Powlison implying that there shouldn’t ever be any negative or critical responses to what people write or say publicly? It sounds like a “bad report” in their thinking is synonymous for “negative reply.”

    Curious.

  27. Blue, with a hint of amber says:

    This is a very interesting post and good discussion.

    I think the broadly they hit a few home runs and make a very strong case.

    The flip side is that we are in a wired world where information does travel fast and the samne media that help us communicate also create huge opportunities for gossip and slander to be passed on, sometimes inadvertently.

    If the “highs” get beamed around the world at a flick of a switch but then no-one is able to comments on any negatives then we are in a position where the power is in the hands of the few, and those few are often driven by profit, even in Christian circles, and that is a very weak position.

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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