You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. (1 Thessalonians 2:1)
Slander is a favorite tactic against the gospel. It refers to false criticisms, accusations, and representations, and can be directed against our doctrine, motive, behavior, and history. It is designed to undermine the credibility of the Christian faith, and in many cases, to inflict pain and loss on the ministers of the gospel. Jesus taught his disciples about those who would “insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). This reflects the kind of people that non-Christians are, and these are the things that they do when they cannot withstand the influence and intelligence of Christianity. Slander can also come from professing believers who disagree with our theological peculiarities. When that happens, of course, they are operating in dishonesty and hypocrisy.
Jesus faced constant slander during his ministry. His opponents branded him a deceiver (Matthew 27:63; John 7:12, 47), and said that he worked miracles by “the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34). At his trial, “many testified falsely against him” (Mark 14:56), although their statements did not agree. He faced slander even after his death and resurrection, since his opponents spread false theories about what happened to him (Matthew 28:12-15). He remains the most slandered person today, as unbelievers malign him, and professing believers misrepresent him. “If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:25). We worship and preach the one whom evil men slander, and because of this we have become their targets as well. As Jesus said, they will “falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Instances in Scripture abound. The Jews, for example, “produced false witnesses” (Acts 6:13) against Stephen and murdered him (7:57-58).
Paul faced slander throughout his ministry. During his second missionary journey, he was slandered in Philippi (Acts 16:20-21), Thessalonica (17:6), Athens (17:18), and Corinth (18:12-13). Since the Jews from Thessalonica who encouraged slander against him were the ones who incited persecution in Berea, it is probable that he was slandered in Berea as well (17:13). Thus he was slandered in every major location in his second missionary journey. When we also take into account all the other instances of slander against him recorded by Luke in Acts and indicated (although sometimes only by implication) by Paul in his own letters, we should become acutely aware that slander plays a large part in the opposition against the gospel and its ministers. Therefore, adequate ministry training must include instructions on how to handle slander, and believers in general must also be taught how to respond to slander against themselves and against their ministers, “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
It is widely held that 2:1 begins a section in which Paul refutes the slander that has been leveled against him. Although this is possible, the assumption is unnecessary for an accurate interpretation of the passage, since what Paul says is true and intelligible regardless of whether it is something that he asserts for his own purpose, such as to reinforce the credibility of his person and message, and to enhance his relationship with his converts, or whether it is something that he asserts in defense of his person and message. The meaning of what he says is the same. Indeed, it would not surprise us that those who are so eager to slander him to his face would be much more ready to slander him in his absence. Still, an accurate interpretation of the letter does not depend on this assumption. There is nothing in the passage or in the entire letter that could be distorted or misunderstood apart from such an unverified background.
The hermeneutical tendency insisting that extra-biblical conjectures regarding the historical context are necessary in even gaining a basically reliable understanding of Paul’s words is false, incompetent, and dishonest. The nature of these statements is such that their meaning remain essentially unchanged regardless of the historical context as to whether there is any slander involved. It is common for hermeneutic-happy individuals to require more (any?) extra-biblical information than we need in blatant disregard to the clarity and richness of the passages examined. This error in hermeneutics occurs because exegetes are sometimes more interested in preserving a sense of importance for their specialized discipline than in promoting Scripture’s sufficiency and perspicuity, and in principle the right and ability of every believer to understand it.
If Paul is answering slander, then we can infer that at least some of his statements correspond to the false criticisms against him, so that at least some of these statements would represent the opposite of what the slander entails. We will discuss what he says in the next chapter of this commentary. However, to correct another common hermeneutical tendency, even if Paul is answering slander, it would be illegitimate to assume that every detail is written in answer to a corresponding false criticism or accusation made against him. That is, if a person responds to a slander by saying, “I came to you without any greed or ulterior motive,” it does not follow that the slander has stated that he came with “greed” and “ulterior motive.” It could be that the slander only accused the man of greed, but it is natural or desirable for the person so falsely maligned to complete the declaration of innocence or to make a general disclaimer against other possible accusations regarding his motive. Whatever the nature of the slander may be, or whether there is any slander at all, notice that “I came to you without any greed or ulterior motive” would carry the same meaning.
As with everything else, we desire to learn God’s perspective on this form of persecution, for in divine wisdom is the response of confidence and holiness. Slander is not reserved for great apostles, but Jesus assumes that it could happen to any person who represents him. If you stand for the truth of the gospel before the church and the world, then it is likely that at some point people will misunderstand you, misrepresent you, and spread lies about you. Jesus calls those of us targeted by slander for his sake blessed. In enduring slander because of our allegiance to Christ, we are identified with the prophets, since they were also likewise persecuted, and our rewards will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). May the Spirit grant illumination and sincere faith, so that this admonition takes root in us; otherwise, it will not persist in our minds when actual slander occurs against us. But if by God’s power we truly believe that our rewards will be great for enduring slander for his sake and for joining the company of the prophets, we will indeed rejoice in the face of slander, and the stigma, inconvenience, and persecution that it generates.
Our response is characterized by faith, rejoicing in our participation of the kingdom and looking toward God for justice and vindication. So we do not resort to dishonorable methods, such as repaying slander with slander, or to physical violence. Rather, we will entreat and intercede for their sake, so that perhaps God may save some of them. And if they do not repent, there is no need for us to punish them ourselves. God is just, and he will punish those who slander the gospel and its ministers, even throwing them into the lake of fire that burns forever. As for those who claim to be Christians and yet slander other believers, they should examine themselves to see if they are in the faith.
This does not mean that we may never answer slander and attempt to correct false criticisms, accusations, and representations against us, especially when the credibility of the Christian faith is at stake. If 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is indeed a response to false allegations against Paul, then it serves as another example in handling slander. But even if not, we know from other places that he indeed addresses slander at times. In any case, even as he defends himself, he could not address every charge at length and he could not constantly maintain his defense. And certainly no one can actively defend himself after death. Much is left for God’s providence to sort out apart from the labor of the slandered minister or believer. God calls us to serve him, not to replace him. Therefore, whether or not we defend ourselves, and whether or not we take much time to do it, we must look to God for the vindication of his name, and if it is his will, ours as well. But let no one suppose that the effect of our work will be in exact proportion to our effort; rather, by God’s providence and blessing the effect will be greater than what our effort appears to be able to produce.
If we preach and practice the gospel, it is likely that we will be slandered. The proper response is to rejoice, defend, and believe. Then, the awareness that we as individual believers might be slandered alerts us to the possibility that other believers, Christians other than ourselves, might also be falsely maligned at times. This realization is significant because it reminds us that many criticisms and accusations against other Christians are untrue, and just as we would not want people to slander us, we should not slander others, spread slander about others, or to believe slander about others.
It is especially important to keep this in mind when allegations are made against our theological opponents, such as Christians with whom we disagree. In fact, we should not believe slander or unjustified accusations even against unbelievers. Christians have no business inventing or encouraging slander against anyone, not even the devil himself. There are professing Christians who invent and promote slander against their theological rivals. This is of Satan and of the spirit of the Pharisees, who murdered the Lord Jesus and thought that they did God a favor. But God will judge such men. A lie is a lie, and we should not endorse it. For the sake of truth and justice, at times we may need to defend the victims of slander, even if we must then turn around to make some accurate criticisms against them instead.
Some Christians, it seems, will believe any accusation against their ministers. It is true that ministers of the gospel can betray their commitment to Christ and sin grievously – failing in doctrinal purity, in sexual morality, in financial accountability, and so on – and at least in the current spiritual climate, many of them are not believers at all, so “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20). But let us always keep in mind that slander is a weapon of the enemy, to introduce suspicion, strife, and chaos into the church; therefore, Paul instructs, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses” (5:19).
Christians are likely to agree with what I say here, that we should not endorse or promote slander, whether it is directed against Christians or non-Christians, or whether against those whom we support or oppose. But unless they jealously hold themselves to a strict standard of truth and justice, the temptation to take advantage of slander in order to advance their own agenda at times takes control of them. Slander capitalizes on the thrill that many professing Christians experience upon hearing a negative report about someone they disapprove, and their eagerness to see this person destroyed. So they gloat when they hear accusations against those that they dislike or oppose, and they add fuel to the fire, so to speak, by building additional criticisms on top of the current fury. This behavior is of the evil one. It does not become the children of light. Any hearsay can also be slander, and to encourage it makes one a tool in the devil’s hand.
There was a church that appeared promising for a time. There were numerous problems with it, but at least it had maintained some semblance of loyalty to the biblical faith until it began to increasingly deviate from the spirit and doctrine of Christianity. I would not consider myself an insider, and I had no authority in that church, but I did have minimal access to the leadership’s attention. So I vehemently complained about the direction that the church was heading, but my effort was of no avail.
The church’s teaching became so outrageous and so endangered the congregation, that it caught the media’s attention. Reports about the church soon appeared on television, magazines, and newspapers. However, I noticed that these media reports carried very little accurate information about the church, its practices, and its teachings. The errors did not consist of differences in biblical or religious interpretation, but numerous factual errors concerning what the church taught, what certain leaders had said and done, and so on. Regardless of the reason for these inaccuracies – perhaps the reporters had defective sources, misunderstandings, or outright disregard for the truth, etc. – most of the criticisms were in effect invented. The church had many problems, so many and so serious that I no longer considered it a Christian church, but they were not the ones reported.
Here is what I wish to say by the illustration: For a Christian leader to then warn his congregation about this church on the basis of media reports would be to endorse and preach slander, that is, if he had spoken as if these reports were true. Now consider how often Christian polemics issued by pastors and anti-cult ministries depend on media reports about those that they wish to annihilate, and the seriousness of the situation becomes apparent. The church is a culture of slanderers.
If the world does not offer accurate reports on our Master, why would you expect it to offer accurate reports about you? And if the world does not hesitate to slander you, why would you expect it to tell the truth about another believer? If the world is unjust toward you, why would you expect it to be blameless when it tells about another Christian, even if you do not think that person is much of a Christian? Why make Satan your ally just because you consider the person a threat? Handle it with truth or not at all.
False teachers can always be exposed by an examination of their own statements. Media reports about their numerous extravagant purchases and torrid sexual affairs are unusable unless you can verify these allegations apart from the media reports. But all this is unnecessary ammunition. If it can be shown from their own publications that they promote heresy and perverse behavior, this is all that is necessary to expose them and to warn believers against them.