ˈslan-dər: the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation (Webster)
To slander is to throw acid onto the face of another’s reputation. It mars them in the cruelest ways. In one biblical example, the slanders that people spread in fact aimed to have someone killed (Ezek 22:9). This illustrates what is at the heart of slander: assassination, if not of the person then at least of their character. It is no wonder that Jesus listed slander right in the midst of the clearest examples of evil he could name: “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22). Nor is it a surprise that slander has a slot in Paul’s list of the sins of a “depraved mind” that deserve judgment (Rom 1:28-32). Slander is Sin with a capital S.
It used to be that slander was more or less contained to a small community since it could only spread by word of mouth. In such settings, there was also the possibility for it to be quickly stopped as members of the community stepped in to set the record straight.
But everything is different now. With one slanderous blogpost or tweet, we can destroy someone’s reputation in the eyes of thousands—all within a few hours. And because we do it from the privacy of our home, any reproof from the community comes too late. Once the bell of slander has been rung, it cannot be unheard. Some people will never look at the slandered person in the same way. The acid of slander has permanently marred them.
How to repent of slandering
But what happens if we have slandered someone publicly and want to repent? What does true repentance look like?
The Lord does not leave us to guess, and the answer comes from a place we might not expect: the book of Leviticus. In Leviticus 6:1-7, we find a law that describes what a person is to do when caught sinning against another. In this case, the guilty party has defrauded someone by means of lying, and the repentance the Lord requires is that they confess their wrong (cf. 5:5 and Matt 5:23-24), repay what they have stolen, and then add 20% on top for damages. In other words, true repentance is characterized by three actions:
- Acknowledging and repenting of your sin to the person you have wronged.
- Correcting the wrong where possible.
- Paying damages on top.
What does this type of repentance look like in the case of public slander?
First, it means directly contacting the person you have slandered, confessing your wrong and asking forgiveness. The more directly we know the person we have slandered, the more personally we should reach out to them. Someone in our immediate circle deserves a phone call or face to face conversation. In other cases, where we might not have ever met the person, it may be okay to send an email. The key is that the slanderer repents to the person he or she wronged.
Second, we must correct the wrong by setting the record straight in as public a way as our original act of slander. In the case of slander done on social media, this does not mean simply taking down the blogpost or tweet. It means taking it down as well as reposting a new one that sets the record straight, reaches as far as the slanderous one did, and repents for having slandered in the first place. If we do not do this, have we really repented? The scope of our public repentance must match the scope of our public sin.
Third, we must “pay damages,” that is, try to go over and above in correcting the wrong. In the context of slander on social media, paying damages could take on different forms. It could mean:
- Writing several blogposts or tweets to help rehabilitate the person’s character we’ve destroyed, trying to reach more people with these true posts than we reached with the slanderous ones.
- Spending a year re-posting and re-tweeting that person’s content or the content of those speaking positively of that person.
- Literally paying damages. Has our slander in some way brought financial harm to a person or the ministry they represent? We need to consider seriously how to compensate them financially for the financial harm we’ve done.
A final thought. Much of the online slander I have seen happens because we think another person has sinned. In such contexts, we sometimes post slanderous comments because we wrongly believed a false report and then passed it on. At other times, we come to realize our own evaluation of the situation was wrong or that we were unfair in how we characterized someone’s position. In either case, our motivation was often to try and put a stop to sin. Hatred of sin is of course a good thing! But the real test of our hatred of sin is seen in whether we publicly repent of our own sin of public slander. Let us hate the sin of slander as much as any other.
Dr. Jay Sklar is Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He is the author of a highly regarded commentary on Leviticus in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series.