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Should I Believe Online Accusations?

A while back, I was at a gathering of pastors from all across the country. This gathering of pastors was a very mixed bag. There were pastors in that room that are famous. You know their names and have heard of their ministries. There were other pastors in that room that you’ve never heard of. They’re just serving faithfully in their congregations in their local context. And one of the things that I noticed after that time together with those pastors is that every single pastor that I had a conversation with every single one lamented. Some were in tears. Many were brokenhearted. But every single one lamented that in the last year, there had been some attempt to destroy their lives and their ministries with lies told about them online, maybe on a social media platform, maybe on blogs, and they felt overwhelmed with the burden of this destruction, and even more overwhelmed with the responsibility of how in the world do you respond to these kinds of accusations? Now, that’s, that’s one side of the story. Another side of the story is I live my life with normal people who love Jesus and love the Bible. They attend the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. They are insurance salesmen and car mechanics, and insurance adjusters. They have landscaping businesses, they are stay-at-home moms and teachers and firemen and police officers, the most normal people in the whole world. And one of the most regular conversations I have with these people is I was online, and I read an accusation about so and so. Is that true? Is that accurate? Is that a true story? And so, two sides of a really nasty coin.

Three Kinds of People

We live in a world where it has become popular in the last decade or so to take to social media, with accusations with accounts of betrayal and mistreatment and all the rest, and to try to expose religious leaders. It is just going to be a thing. And in fact, already is a thing that you’re not going to be able to do faithful ministry without encountering some kind of online accusation about your character, the quality of your ministry, and all the rest. Now in the old days, if you wanted to say something bad about somebody, if you had some gossip that you wanted to share, you had to do it in the hallway, you had to do it on the landline, there were chain letters back in the day. There weren’t many ways for you to get your story out. But in a new generation, the internet and blogs and social media platforms and podcasts give everyone a platform. There are no editors, there’s no board, you don’t need to be able to afford a sound system. You just have to be able to publish a tweet. And what that does is it weaponizes these sorts of conversations that used to happen only in hallways.

Now listen, I need to be honest with you. There are blessings and curses to this. The blessing of these kinds of online forums and places where we can make these kinds of exposures is that it creates a mechanism of accountability for rotten leaders. If you are the kind of leader who has something to hide, who wants to be a control freak in the dark behind a curtain, you could do that in the 1980s and the 1990s. It’s really hard to do that these days. So that kind of accountability that exposes darkness to the light is a good thing. And in that sense, it can aid the cause of truth that’s a blessing, but there are curses as well. Anyone being able to say anything, as I said a moment ago, weaponizes gossip and creates a situation where people can say things that are untrue, be believed, and destroy people, for no good reason. There are, it seems to me, about three kinds of people who make their accusations online. Sometimes this is on a blog, sometimes it’s on a Facebook post, sometimes it’s on Twitter, or you pick the medium. But there are about three different kinds of people who do it. One kind of person is a terrible person trying to destroy someone. They feel aggrieved. They feel offended, they don’t like what the other person stands for, and they are going to ruin their ministry, they’re going to ruin their life, they’re going to ruin their family, a terrible person trying to destroy. They’re also on the equal and opposite ends of the continuum, really, really good people who have tried to solve problems in different other ways but are out of options and have decided to, quote-unquote, go public because nobody else is listening to them. They haven’t gotten to hearing anywhere else. Then the third kind of person is the person who just parrots whatever they hear they read this article,  they don’t know if it’s true or not, they suspect that maybe it is, but they don’t have evidence that it is. And so they retweet, or they add their own comment to it. It’s just unwise people who don’t know the first thing about what’s going on out there. And they just are parroting what they heard from somebody else.

Regardless of which of the three of those kinds of people you encounter online, and regardless of the forum where you find their accusations, there is a choice being presented to everyone who encounters an accusation in one of those places. And the choice is, will I believe it or not? The accusation is out there because the person making the accusation wants you to hear it, wants you to believe it, and wants you to take action because of it. And we got a lot of people out there who take action based on things they heard, and they decided they believed it, and bad things happen. We also have had good exposure with all sorts of good actions from people believing true claims, and there have been good and meaningful claims. But the question is, as I’m sitting there, looking at the tweet or reading the blog, what am I supposed to do with this? How do I process it? Well, I want to give you several suggestions in the form of four questions that can help you process that allegation that you read, blog, tweet, wherever it is. Four questions you should ask to help you decide whether you should believe what you’re reading.

1. Do I Know Both Sides of the Story?

Here’s the first question. Do I know both sides of the story? Do I know both sides of the story? It is biblical to know both sides of the story. In Proverbs 18:17, the Bible says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” That’s a biblical way of saying that there are two sides to every story. And the loudest side of the story is not necessarily the true side of the story. The story you heard, or the story you heard first, biblically, is not necessarily the true side. There is an obligation that you have if you’re going to make a judgment about an accusation that you’ve heard that this is the case where they read it online, or whether you heard it from your friend in the hallway or a text message or whatever, you have a moral obligation to understand both sides before you make a judgment and take action. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame.” You are a shameful fool if you believe one side of the story. If you hear somebody say some kind of accusatory thing, and you get online and say your own thing, or you believe it and take all these rash actions, the Bible says if you do that without knowing the other side of the story, you’re a fool. And that’s shameful behavior. And so, before you believe in online accusations, just ask, do I know the other side of this? Have I heard from all sides of this? Or am I being a fool and only listening to one side?

2. Is It Important for Me to Have an Opinion on This?

Here’s a second question. That’s really important. Is it important for me to have an opinion on this? Is it important for me to make a judgment on this issue? Do I need to take a stand on this? This is a question that we need to ask because the Bible encourages us to ask it, but the internet doesn’t encourage us to ask this question. 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “We are to aspire to live quietly and to mind your own affairs.” The Bible says, Christian, you need to manage your own business. Not everything out there is your business. The Internet demands you’re supposed to have a hot take on everything. You’re supposed to have an immediate understanding and appreciation of every issue. The Apostle Paul thinks you should live quietly and mind your business. Do you need to have a judgment about this? Honestly, on most things, you probably don’t. If you’re reading some online gossip rag about a pastor in another part of the country. You don’t need to quit what you’re doing that evening, avoid spending time with your kids or show up late for work or quit doing your work and take an extra long lunch break to do a deep dive on what the internet says about this person. They’re just plenty of things that aren’t your business, and they don’t need to have an opinion about. So is this in my radius of responsibility? Is it important for me to understand this? That’s a question we need to answer before we get into this and believe online accusations.

3. Has There Been Enough Time For Me to Process What I’m Hearing?

A third question, has there been enough time for me to process what I’m hearing? Has there been enough time for me to think about and really understand this lesson? We talked about Proverbs 18 a moment ago about how there are two sides to every story. Sometimes there are multiple sides to every story, and you’re a fool if you only understand one side of the story. Well, here we can say that hearing out all sides and finding out what really happened usually takes time. In James 1:19, the Bible says, “Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak.” My goodness, how often do we switch those around? How often we are quick to speak, quick with a take, quick with an opinion, and slow to hear? This is the biblical teaching that we should reserve judgment. We should wait and hear this out. That’s why wise members of the legal profession, wise people with honest and judicious, and upright members of the legal profession. They understand there is due process, they understand that there is a legal process, an order of operations, that takes time, so we can figure out if the person who has been accused of something is that accusation legitimate. Is it right? And you have to prove it. And we ask people to reserve judgment by saying that person’s innocent until proven guilty because we realize it takes time to figure these things out. So have you taken enough time to figure this out? Or did you take a five-minute search on Twitter, and now you think you know everything and you’ve got a full-blown opinion? We need to be careful and make sure we’ve taken time before we believe those accusations we read.

4. Is the Source of the Information Communicating Biblically?

Finally, lastly, there are other things I could talk about. But the last thing I’ll mention this week is this question is the source of the information, communicating biblically. My goodness, this is so important. Is the source of the information communicating biblically? In general terms, the Bible wants us to keep matters as private as possible. In biblical terms, it’s a pretty aggressive act to go public with someone’s sin. Now, of course, public sin needs a public rebuke. But in the Bible, there is this effort that we try to keep things close and personal. Because the Bible isn’t concerned about exposure. The Bible isn’t concerned about hits on a blog, the Bible is concerned about redemption and restoration. So Jesus will say in Matthew 18 that if your brother sins against you, you need to go to him, just the two of you alone. Now, if he won’t listen to that, you need to take a couple of others with you. And then if he won’t listen to those people, then we go to the church. But the public thing, the public outing only happens after there have been numerous attempts to deal with the person privately. Listen, the online rules are not that. The online rules are I gotta go public and loud quickly. I need to be the first one out there with the story. I need to scoop this person that’s different from the kingdom of Christ. You can have a blog, and you can have a lot of Twitter followers, you can get a lot of hits, you can get a lot of views, and be opposed to the spirit of Christ. Just because somebody has a named blog doesn’t mean that they are communicating biblically. And here’s what you need to know. And you just better believe it. A person who will not follow biblical guidelines on how to handle the information they’re sharing does not deserve your trust with the information they’re sharing with you. All they’re doing is proving that they don’t care what Jesus says. They don’t care what the Bible says. They’re going to communicate what they want, how they want when they want. And all that means is that person is not trustworthy. So is the source of the information communicating biblically? You got to answer that question. That’s the fourth question. Those are some things to help us think about this problem that is not going away. There are going to be more and more accusations there are going to be more and more threats to ministries. Some of them are going to be true. Some of them are going to be false. How will you know? We have to test it according to Scripture.