What does it mean to bear false witness against our neighbor? Here is the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer followed by some commentary by me.
What is the aim of the ninth commandment?
That I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing. Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are the very devices the devil uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath. I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.
Never give false testimony~This refers primarily to a court situation. Don’t lie about someone in court. But as the answer says later this applies both in and out of court. We should never lie about someone else’s deeds, character, or words nor should we lie about ourselves or a particular situation. In short, unless we are at war, we should never lie. Never twist someone’s words~We do this a lot more than we think. We twist someone’s words to our favor by leaving out certain parts or adding something. Often movie advertisements will pull out the one positive line of a negative review and leave out all the negative that was said. We do the same thing. We give a false impression of what someone said. Kids are great at this. But so are many adults I have met. Christians are more likely to do this than outright lie. But twisting someone’s words is just as wicked as an outright lie.
Never gossip or slander~ For more on this see these two blog posts: Spotting a gossip and stopping a gossip.
Never join others in condemning without a proper hearing~There are times where a person’s actions should be condemned. But this must come after careful inquiry into the facts. In our age where we quickly judge a situation based a just a few select facts this is important to remember. Only rarely are we in a position to condemn someone, especially someone outside our close circle of friends. We are not to judge too hastily, but also we are not join with others when they judging without hearing the facts.
Avoid lying and deceit of every kind~Even if we do lie we usually know we are doing it and know it is wrong. But deceit is a different animal. We deceive in so many ways, often unknowingly because we have become accustom to it along the way. We talk about ourselves or present ourselves in a false way. We speak too highly of our situation or we do the opposite and make our situation sound worse than it is. But we can also be deceitful about others, twisting actions and words to give an impression about someone that is false.
One thing I love about the catechisms is that they do not just tell you what is wrong, but they point in the right direction as well. Don’t lie is not enough. We also must love the truth. The catechism does not begin with “speak it candidly” and “openly acknowledge it.” It begins with loving the truth. Why? We will all speak candidly in certain situations where the truth is on our side. But if we do not love the truth then when the truth does not benefit us we will replace it with lying and deception. Often people who say, “I just tell the truth” really mean, “I tell the truth about others, but refuse to acknowledge the truth about myself.” A love of the truth, no matter the personal cost, will help us maintain our integrity in difficult situations.
Finally, the catechism ends with guarding and advancing our neighbor’s good name. Bearing false witness is form of theft. We steal our neighbor’s good name. The opposite, speaking well of them, elevating their name, is a type of generosity. Just as we are to be generous with our time and money we are also to be generous with our praise of those around us. We are to speak well of them, especially when they are not around. This does not mean we can never disagree with them or express differences. But it is always done with gracious honesty. Do we believe it is enough to not speak ill of someone or to not lie about them? If so, we have come short of the goal. The goal is generous praise that elevates our neighbor in the eyes of those we are speaking to.