Ronald Reagan used to quote an old Russian proverb: Trust, but verify. Long before Ronald Reagan, some of the earliest Christian believers in Berea were commended for being discerning regarding what Paul and other preachers taught.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Acts 17:10-11 (ESV)
As we study the Bible we are called to be discerning. Our faith is not a blind or an uninformed faith, but a faith handed down to us through the word of God. If we want to hear from God, Scripture is where He speaks to us. We need to look for evidence to corroborate what we are told, and to learn for ourselves what the Bible says. This not only applies to our study of Scripture, but the insistence on truth should be paramount in how we live our lives together with others as people of God.
There is a movement in politics and culture known as #metoo to which the sounding cry is “Believe Women!” It is true that women have been sexually harassed and abused by men in power in the workplace. It is true that women have suffered the effects of domestic violence in the home. It is also true that many women have been intimidated or coerced into remaining silent and not reporting abuse. Many women who have truly been abused have been ignored when they tried to tell their stories. Many women live in fear of their abusers. Many women live with abuse for years, in silence, for economic or other reasons. Some become so paralyzed by fear that they convince themselves that they either deserve the abuse, or that it is somehow “normal.”
These acts of harassment, abuse and violence against women are illegal as well as being morally reprehensible and sinful. When these acts occur, they should be reported and investigated. When a person is proven guilty of perpetrating such acts, that person should be punished to the full extent of the law. There should be no tolerance in our society for sexual harassment and abuse. However, women who exploit and malign innocent men for their own personal revenge or gain must also be called out. A woman should not get a free pass for using false testimony to incriminate or tarnish the reputation of an innocent man. Not every woman who cries “wolf” is telling the truth.
When anyone’s testimony about abuse could be tied to destroying the credibility of another for political expediency (both political “sides” have been guilty of this- think Monica Lewinsky or Anita Hill) or in one way or another can be levied to his or her own personal gain, or used to preserve one’s hide (to cover for a consensual affair, for instance), that testimony should invite heavy scrutiny. The proverb, Trust, but verify, certainly should be in play.
We learn in the story of Joseph that not everyone’s testimony- even a woman’s- should be taken at face value.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.
But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. Genesis 39:6-20 (ESV)
We should take the story of Potiphar’s wife as a cautionary tale. Accusations of misconduct or abuse should be taken seriously, but there should also be a burden of proof beyond the circular argument of “he said-she said.” It is just as much of an error to dismiss an honest witness as it is to believe a groundless witness without proof.
Humanity was good at breaking the Ten Commandments even before God handed down the tablets of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Breaking the Eighth Commandment seems to be just as rampant in today’s society and in the media as it was back in Joseph’s time.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16 (ESV)
Don Henley mentioned in the 1985 song, “Dirty Laundry,” that we all love dirty laundry. Even though we might try to avoid the more salacious stories in the news, we still find ourselves gravitated to “the bubble headed bleach blonde that comes on at five,” and we all ask ourselves, “Is the head dead yet?”
Humans love a tasty piece of gossip. Some people also crave the attention that comes from being portrayed as a victim. Not every claim can be taken at face value as true.
We must take the time to listen to each other- and to investigate the facts before we make decisions that will affect another’s life or reputation. Gossip has the capacity to destroy others’ reputations and cause them undeserved suffering and harm.
As Christian people we are called to look at our lives through the lens of how our actions affect our neighbors. Many women who come forward with testimonies of harassment and abuse are telling the truth. Those who have truly suffered from harassment and abuse should be heard and civil justice must be sought whenever possible. The reality is though, that some women are false accusers such as Potiphar’s wife. Her false testimony landed Joseph in prison even though he committed no crime against her, her husband or God.
The good news for all of us is that in our fallen world Jesus forgives us when we confess our sins to Him and ask Him for forgiveness. We are free to call on the Holy Spirit for help to love our neighbor- to care for those who have truly been damaged by sexual misconduct, abuse, or domestic violence, and to be discerning when people slander others for their own personal gain.