“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
The ninth commandment honors the right to one’s own reputation. It finds pointed application in legal proceedings where what people say depicts reality and determines the course of lives. Judicial decisions and other legal processes wield great power. Manipulating them undercuts the ethical fabric of society and thus constitutes a serious offense. Walter Brueggemann says this commandment recognizes “that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”
Although stated in courtroom language, the ninth commandment also applies to a broad range of situations that touch practically every aspect of life. We should never say or do anything that misrepresents someone else. Brueggemann again provides insight:
Politicians seek to destroy one another in negative campaigning; gossip columnists feed off calumny; and in Christian living rooms, reputations are tarnished or destroyed over cups of coffee served in fine china with dessert. These de facto courtrooms are conducted without due process of law. Accusations are made; hearsay allowed; slander, perjury, and libelous comments uttered without objection. No evidence, no defense. As Christians, we must refuse to participate in or to tolerate any conversation in which a person is being defamed or accused without the person being there to defend himself. It is wrong to pass along hearsay in any form, even as prayer requests or pastoral concerns. More than merely not participating, it is up to Christians to stop rumors and those who spread them in their tracks.
This further suggests that workplace gossip is a serious offense. Some of it pertains to personal, off-site matters, which is evil enough. But what about cases when an employee tarnishes the reputation of a co-worker? Can truth ever truly be spoken when the person being talked about is not there to speak for him or herself? And what about assessments of performance? What safeguards ought to be in place to ensure that reports are fair and accurate? On a large scale, the business of marketing and advertisement operates in the public space among organizations and individuals. In the interest of presenting one’s own products and services in the best possible light, to what extent may one point out the flaws and weaknesses of the competition without incorporating their perspective? Is it possible that the rights of “your neighbor” could include the rights of other companies? The scope of our global economy suggests this command may have wide application indeed.
The commandment specifically prohibits speaking falsely about another person, but it brings up the question of whether we must tell the truth in every kind of situation. Is issuing false or misleading financial statements a violation of the ninth commandment? How about exaggerated advertising claims, even if they do not falsely disparage competitors? What about assurances from management that mislead employees about impending layoffs? In a world where perception often counts for reality, the rhetoric of persuasion may care little for truth. But the divine origin of the ninth commandment reminds us that God cannot be fooled. At the same time, we recognize that deception is sometimes practiced, accepted, and even approved in the Scriptures. A complete theology of truth and deception draws on texts including, but not limited to, the ninth commandment. (See Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for a much fuller discussion of this topic, including whether the prohibition of “false witness against your neighbor” includes all forms of lying and deception.)