The ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Two or three witnesses were needed in ancient Hebrew law to establish a claim under civil law or a crime under criminal law. A false witness could lie under oath during judicial proceedings in order to establish guilt in a criminal case, or fault in a civil case. Since judgment based on false testimony could destroy the life or property of innocent human beings and discredit a country’s system of justice, the penalty for perjury was very severe.
But the commandment against bearing false witness has a much broader application. Outside the context of the courts, it is termed slander. It is possible to bear false witness or slander by spreading rumors. For example, a well-known gospel singer was picked up in Los Angeles because of his careless driving. A search of his care revealed some white powder, and he was booked on a drug charge. It turned out that the white powder was a diet mix, and so the singer was discharged from his arrest and confinement.
It was too late to stop the false rumors that this man was involved in drug dealing. These rumors hurt the man’s career and reputation. Those who spread them were guilty of bearing false witness.
Frequently people say untrue things about others. Marriages are broken up because of false rumors that someone has spread. Reputations of honest and honorable people are damaged. I can think of several times when rumors have started about me. Christian people not only believe falsehoods but also pass these stories on without even stopping to investigate. Starting lies about someone or spreading them is bearing false witness, a terrible offense in the sight of God.
A Christian might not be involved in drug addiction, drunkenness, fornication, adultery, or homosexuality, but a Christian may be big on slander and backbiting. I can think of no practice–other than deep-seated hatred and lack of forgiveness–that will so quickly cut off the blessing and power of God in a Christian’s life.