The Ninth Commandment: You Shall Not Give False Testimony

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We all know the familiar words used when someone stands before a judge and jury with his or her right hand raised and the officer says: “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”1This is a very carefully worded legal statement designed to stop not only lying, but also deception and “half-truths.” That famous legal phrase finds its origin in the ninth commandment, which establishes the moral basis for absolute truthfulness in all our statements, whether written or verbal. It is found in Exodus 20:16.

As Christians, we do not need to raise our right hands and be placed “under oath” to be compelled to speak truthfully. Rather, we live our whole lives, public or private, under the ninth commandment, which carries immeasurably more force than any court of law. The ninth commandment might be best understood as a bright, searing light. The light is so bright that it is able to dispel the darkness from even the most elusive corners and shadows. Let’s take a look at some of these layers exposed by this light.

The first, most obvious, way to keep this commandment is by not lying. To lie is to intentionally give a false statement about someone or something that we know to be false. This is sometimes called a “bald-faced” lie. It is done intention-ally and knowingly. There are times when we unknowingly state something that we think is true, but is, in fact, false. For example, occasionally someone will say that even after a person is dead, his or her fingernails and hair will continue to grow for a period of time. This is a factually false statement, but it would not be considered a lie since the person truly believed it to be true.

There are also times when people lie about matters that seem small because they do not involve someone else’s life or reputation. This is sometimes called a “white lie,” which refers to a statement that, though still a lie, is socially permitted. However, there is no allowance in the ninth commandment for any kind of lie. All of the Ten Commandments are rooted in God’s character, and therefore, any breach, even a small one, impugns God’s character and reputation.

The second layer that is exposed by the ninth commandment is deceptions or so-called half-truths. In this case, the statement may contain some element of truth, but for the purpose of misleading someone, the complete picture is not given. For example, take the case of a police officer who stops a swerving car, approaches the inebriated driver, and asks if he has been drinking. If the driver responds by saying, “I have only had two beers,” it could be a technically factual statement. But if the driver had actually consumed two beers and several pints of vodka, then his statement was a half-truth intended to deceive. There are many examples in politics and in the world of advertising where half-truths are used to lead the hearer to a conclusion that may not be warranted if all the facts were known. This is why the courtroom oath includes the phrase “the whole truth.” All such withholding of truth, or adding any deceptive statements, are forms of “giving false testimony,” or “bear[ing] false witness,” as the King James Version puts it.

The third layer exposed by the ninth commandment is keeping silent when our silence either leads someone to a false conclusion, or gives an impression that is false. There are certain situations where someone’s life or reputation is at stake, and we have information that could lead to his or her exoneration or at least clarify a misperception. If we withhold that information by keeping silent, it is a violation of the ninth commandment. This third layer has many practical applications. One of the social maxims we have all heard is the phrase, “Silence is consent.” It is a very ancient principle, but was made famous in the sixteenth century by Sir Thomas More, who used this defense in his interaction with King Henry VIII. Formally, the maxim is “Qui tacet consentiret”(Silence gives consent).

If you place a dozen plastic pink flamingos in your front yard, and no one complains, then it is commonly accepted that this implies that your neighbors are granting consent to the presence of plastic flamingos in their neighborhood. This widely accepted principle serves to heighten the impli-cation of silence in Western culture. In fact, this principle has given rise to a number of well-known sayings such as, “Silence speaks louder than words,” or, “Silence can be like the thunder,” and so forth.

Thus, if you are standing around the water cooler at work and someone makes a false or misleading statement about your employer or one of your coworkers and you don’t speak up, but just listen in silence, there is an implied acceptance of the statement. It requires courage and honest candor to speak up in these situations and, in the process, separate yourself from any tacit complicity in bearing false witness against your neighbor. Like a searing light, the ninth commandment shines into our lives and calls us to the highest standards of truth and integrity. We live our whole lives under the moral mandate to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, remembering the words of Jesus: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2–3).

Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, Ten Words, Two Signs, One Prayer: Core Practices of the Christian Faith. In its pages, Tennent casts a vision for a long tradition of Christian discipleship and catechesis focusing on the Ten Commandments, the two sacraments of baptism and Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer. It will helps individuals and groups:

  • Gain a deeper Christian appreciation of God’s Ten Commandments to his people Israel
  • Learn the meaning of the two sacraments—baptism and communion
  • Discover the value of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray (the “Lord’s Prayer”)

 

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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