Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor: The Surfer Boy and the Receptionist
"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16
Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.
After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?" She looked surprised then hesitant.
“I guess you could say I’m a Christian,” she replied.
“Oh, that’s cool,” said the surfer boy. “You know I used to think I was a Christian. I went to church sometimes, and my parents and everyone I knew were Christians, so I just figured I was Christian too, but I wasn’t saved; I wasn’t really a Christian.”
The surfer boy paused to make sure the receptionist was following. “But now I’m saved because I told Jesus that I’m a sinner – I recognized all my sins — and then I professed Jesus as the son of God and the savior of the world, so now I will go to heaven and I know I’m a Christian.”
“I see,” said the receptionist. “Well, I also think it’s really important to be a good person.”
“Well sure,” responded the surfer boy, “we should all be good people, but that’s not going to get us into heaven. Take Judaism or Islam, for example. In Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there; it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.”
“Really?” asked the receptionist.
“Yeah, totally. Muslims have to pray five times a day or they don’t get into heaven, and Jews have to keep all of the Old Testament commandments or they don’t get into heaven. Can you imagine having to keep up with that? No one can get into heaven on their own – it’s impossible to be perfect.”
With that, the surfer boy invited the receptionist to attend his church, bid her a good day, and was on his way — just another Tuesday afternoon.
I’m very familiar with this routine, it’s one I know well. I used to be quite skilled in turning a seemingly mundane encounter with another person into an opportunity to evangelize. While this is no longer part of my everyday routine (I don’t personally feel called to this style of witness), I really don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of evangelism. That being said – did you catch what the surfer boy said about Islam and Judaism?
Take Judaism or Islam, for example. In Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there; it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.
These claims aren’t actually wholly true.
To start with, in Judaism there are various understandings about how to observe Torah. The religion of Judaism isn’t theologically singular as many assume. There are many sects of Judaism and many teachings on how one can or should follow Torah. Some are quite strict while others are more flexible. For example, in Reform Judaism, many do not even keep Kosher. The concept of grace, however, does exist in Judaism (where do you think we Christians got it?). Many Jews believe God chose the nation of Israel to be God’s light in the world and to lead the way in righteousness, not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the mightiest, or because of anything Israel did or was (Deuteronomy 7:7). Rather, God chose Israel because God simply favored Israel. Further, the goal of observing Torah is not necessarily to get into heaven. Many Jews do not even believe in heaven; nor is the goal to gain favor with God. According to Jewish theology, as a Jew, one is already part of God’s favored people.
It is true that in Islam, Muslims are called to pray fives times a day, but this does not guarantee them entrance into heaven. A Muslim woman once told me that Muslims believe that no matter what we do here on Earth, or no matter how much faith we have in God, none of us are guaranteed entrance into heaven; there is always the possibility that we will end up in Hell. Therefore, if we do enter heaven, it was because we did something good and because ultimately God allowed it according to God’s goodness. Again, we mustn’t assume that Muslim theology is singular.
While I do not pretend to be an expert on Jewish or Islamic theology — in fact, I’m far from an expert (I’m barely literate) — I bring up the story of the surfer boy and the receptionist as an illustration of a mistake us evangelicals regularly make: bearing false witness against our neighbor. Yes – that pesky ninth commandment can be such a pain in my rear, but it’s one we should really take seriously. The Ten Commandments is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian values system (is there one Judeo-Christian values system? probably not – but I digress), and as the foundation of said values system, each one should be considered carefully.
The ninth commandment is often paraphrased as, “do not lie,” but the more accurate translation is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” If this sounds like legal language to you, you would be right. It is widely understood that this is a reference to ancient Jewish court systems. In a court case, the accuser also acted as witness, so to bear false witness would also include wrongful accusation. While this particular commandment pertains specifically to the court of law – it seems fair to say that the sin carries forward into the ins and outs of daily life. Just as it is sinful to bear false witness and bring wrongful accusation in court, it is sinful to do so outside of court.
What does any of this have to do with living Christian in a religiously diverse world?
It is sometimes the case that in the attempt to share the Gospel with another person, or bring them to Jesus, we talk about Christianity in relation to other religions – we compare and contrast. This a pretty common sales tactic used to convince consumers your option is the best option. It may seem distasteful to describe evangelism as sales – but in many ways that’s often the evangelical’s hope, is it not? To “sell” others on the idea of Christianity? So it’s natural in many ways to say, “hey, yeah Christianity is a religion – like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism – but it’s actually different from these other religions and here’s why.” And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with comparing.
What’s wrong — actually let’s take this a step further — what’s sinful is comparing Christianity with other religions in a way that is dishonest, untrue, or misrepresents other religions or the followers of those other religions. In other words, it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor’s religion.
That ninth commandment is one of the reasons I find interfaith cooperation and dialogue so important. A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Young, introduced me to this idea in a class I took called “Pluralism, Dialogue and Witness.” We are not good neighbors, we do not love our neighbors, when we are bearing false witness against them by sharing untruths about them to others.
Bearing false witness against another’s religion while acting as a witness to the Gospel, in the end, is not really witnessing to the Gospel. After all, the Gospel of Jesus is supposed to reveal truth in its most ultimate form. The truth of God is love and grace and redemption – themes that aren’t really congruent with claims of non-truth.
It is incredibly easy to bear false witness against your neighbor, or your neighbor’s religion, when you don’t know your neighbor. I truly believe that it is the rare case when a person bears false witness against another religion, or one of its followers, it is on purpose. The truth is we are almost always ignorant of our ignorance. We don’t always know the truth about the truth claims we’re making.
Interfaith dialogue and building interfaith friendships and relationships, gives us ample opportunity to know our neighbors and to better understand their ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The new knowledge, insights, and understandings gained from these relationships better equip us to obey the ninth commandment in a new and profound way.
So I would really challenge you to think about what you’re saying about other religions before you say it. Where did you get your information? Why are you sharing it? Remember those words from God – the ones God spoke to Moses and Moses carried all the way down from that mountain,
Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Consider speaking the truth when sharing the Gospel, and if you don’t know that you know the truth, consider speaking to the truth of the Gospel without sales tactics that may cause you to inadvertently sin.
Rachael McNeal is the programming coordinator for the Interfaith Center at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., and an adjunct professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. She is a contributor for the blog Faith Line Protestants, a blog dedicated to encouraging Evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions through social action. Rachael is an alum of the Interfaith Youth Core’s programming and is on IFYC’s Alumni Speakers Bureau.
Image: The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com