Almost all Christians – many from their youth – are familiar with the 9th commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16). We know it forbids not only lying about others but more broadly, any distortion of the truth as this would contradict the very nature of God, who is the source of truth (John 14:6).
Positively, this commandment also exhorts us to promote truth in all our dealings with mankind. As conservative, Bible-believing Christians, we want the truth of God to be zealously promoted and error be vanquished. This is a noble cause, and all of us, especially elders, are commanded to do so:
He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. – Titus 1:9
However, in our zeal to promote what we believe is God’s truth, are we at the same time violating the 9th commandment by distorting and warping it? All of us agree that blatantly telling lies and slandering another person are wrong and we are justifiably angry when it is done to us. Most Christians try to avoid this, but where we fall is being careless and lazy with our public claims about others. Enter the concept of broad-brushing.
The Trap of Careless Speech
Cambridge Dictionary defines “painting with a broad-brush” as “describing or considering something or someone in a very general way, without paying attention to small details or differences.” This has been very common lately among Christians, especially in the social media/online world.
To illustrate this, take the following phrases that have been said in various forms over the past year:
“Covering up sexual abuse is widespread in evangelical churches.”
“Charismatics all promote Word of Faith theology.”
“Christian Nationalists is about promoting kinism and white supremacist ideology.”
“All public schools are out to indoctrinate and groom your children and promote leftist and transgender ideology.”
“Dispensationalists think Jesus will return next week.”
Taking these statements at face value – are these always and perpetually true in all circumstances? Many churches have had congregational rules in place to mitigate abuse for decades. There are charismatics who think Benny Hinn is a heretic. In Cobb County, GA (not exactly a deep-red county politically), a public school teacher was fired for reading a pro-transgender book to her class, and the school board backed up the decision.
There may be some truth to these statements and the reason behind their pronouncement may be to vanquish evil or a perceived threat to the church. But there is a danger. If left unchecked or unqualified, broad-brushing can destroy reputations and livelihoods, promote division in the church, and foster the very falsehood the 9th commandment is given to us to restrain. It also strains our credibility because such statements can also be logical fallacies.
Fallacies of Generalization
There are two types of logical fallacies related to broad-brushing: the hasty generalization and the sweeping generalization. Both of these can project a narrative that is misleading and can lead to the negative consequences mentioned above.
A hasty generalization is defined as “a fallacy in which a conclusion that is reached is not logically justified by sufficient or unbiased evidence.” In other words, there is too small of a sample size to make a general conclusion. If you just bought a Honda and the transmission went out the next day, and the following day your neighbor’s Honda did the same thing, it is wrong to conclude that all Hondas always break down.
A sweeping generalization is defined as “a fallacy in which a general rule or observation is treated as universally true regardless of the circumstances or the individuals concerned.” The examples above regarding Cobb County Schools or charismatics relating to Word of Faith theology illustrate this. While it may be generally true that the majority of charismatics are sympathetic to Word of Faith teaching, your Pentecostal neighbor may not be.
It seems that most Christians commit the latter rather than the former. We realize it is bad logic to assume generalities with too small of a sample size. However, it is more subtle and more believable (and therefore more dangerous) to take a general principle and apply it to an individual, who can bear real and lasting consequences. It was not well received when the #metoo movement trumpeted that abuse in the churches was being ignored at best and promoted at worst. Why do we then fall into the same trap with our like-minded brethren?
It is true that not all generalizations are fallacies or sinful. Jesus himself warned:
“Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” – Matt 16:6
And Paul warned Titus that:
One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. This testimony is true” – Titus 1:12-13.
General statements can help promote truth and warn of impending danger. However, we are neither the Son of God nor inspired apostles. We are often wrong and, especially when it applies unfairly to an individual, can be harmful by being careless in our speech.
Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel:
Do not judge by appearances, but judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24)
There are three ways we can do this:
- Get all the details rather than rely on soundbites or superficial assumptions
We should hold our tongues (or our keyboards) in speaking about someone until we can properly discern their position on a topic, or the circumstances surrounding their life or situation. Find out what they really believe (including any nuanced position) rather than assuming they must adhere to the pre-determined narrative.
Proverbs 15:28 states:
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
- Communicate with people
The best way to do #1 above is to communicate with the person or persons being considered. This can quash any misunderstandings and we may find out we are closer to the person’s position than previously thought. This may not always be possible in an online setting, but at minimum, we need to do as much research as feasibly possible rather than blindly accepting a narrative that’s fed to us.
- Use qualifying statements when making public claims.
Rather than using overly general or universal-sounding words (like “always” or “all”), speak or write with qualifying or more nuanced remarks. For example, “Most Charismatics are sympathetic or even promote Word of Faith theology, but of course some have remained orthodox.”
At the time of this writing, Hamas recently launched the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel’s history. One of the challenges the Israeli Defense Force is facing in their response is how to destroy the terrorists without killing innocent Palestinian civilians in the process.
In previous times, this kind of collateral damage in war was acceptable because there was a higher goal to achieve – destroying the enemy. Do we have the same mindset when it comes to theological conflict? Are we willing to accept this kind of collateral damage?
There are many faithful Christians out there who are trying to protect others from spiritual harm. It is right to warn of dangers to the church and society. But we must earnestly guard the whole truth, and we dare not let the ends justify the means. That is a Machiavellian principle, not a Christian one.