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Journalistic Libel

By Lindell Mitchell

religion, articles, christianity

The church of Christ is engaged in a holy war. Increasingly, Christians understand that a mighty conflict is raging. Combat is unpleasant but, unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary. Those who stand by idle while their brothers do battle are cowards.

The biblical imperative is precious concerning our sacred duty to mark those who cause divisions (Rom. 16:17). The flock of God must be protected from wolves (Acts 20:27-31). Therefore, those who denigrate the nature of the Christ, seek to modify the government of the church, denominationalize her worship, circumvent the authority of elders, denude the Bible of its power via a "new hermeneutic," push neo-pentecostalism, pollute the minds of Christians with the psychobabble of God-hating modern psychology; and otherwise take us onto the broad way leading to destruction, have an adversary in every man who loves the Lord. To resist this ungodliness is not vicious or dishonorable. It is not the morbid craving for controversy condemned by Paul (I Tim. 6:4).

The matters most troubling to the church have been under discussion for decades. Hesitating to mark false teachers permitted a dangerous infiltration of our schools, papers, and congregations to proceed with stunning speed. The time of hesitation has passed! No longer do the adversary's agents lack a challenge. The faithful are sounding the warning. They are boldly contesting every inch of territory. Every false way is fearlessly resisted. Every deception is exposed to the light of truth.

No amount of money can buy our silence. We will not be intimidated by sissy-boys untried in battle. We boldly march under the banner of truth, fearing no one and loving everyone. To lovers of truth we extend our hand, to purveyors of falsehood, the sword of the Spirit. Our cause is just. The hour is late. Soldiers of Christ are arising to press the battle for truth.

Those feeling the sting of the Spirit's sword are wailing in agony. After assaulting the Lord's church with error, corrupting many of her youth, and separating families, they have incurred the righteous wrath of God's army. They started the war but are unable to claim victory. Now that the shooting has started, they whine, "No fair." Their heavy casualties have frightened them.

One lukewarm publication recently carried a spate of articles decrying "vicious personal attacks on various Christians." It is not proper to launch a "vicious personal attack" on anyone. Our words must be true, compassionate, and measured. However, Jim Dobbs raised an interesting question: "Why isn't the best response to a 'vicious attack' the defense of one's thesis, logically set out, rather than sound and fury?"

As brothers in Christ, we must be judicious, avoiding libelous comments that are chargeable before God and man. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual says, "Injury to reputation ... words, pictures, or cartoons that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule, or induce an ill opinion of a person are libelous." It is further noted:

Actions for civil libel result mainly from news stories that allege crime, fraud, dishonesty, immoral or dishonorable conduct, or stories that defame the subject professionally, causing financial loss either personally or to a business.

Such conduct is not only immoral, it is illegal. More compelling to the Christian than being sued is giving an account for his conduct to Yahweh.

"There is only one complete and unconditional defense to a civil action for libel: that the facts stated are provably true." (Note well that word, provably.) If you call someone a monkey's uncle, you had better be able to prove it. If you make an allegation that you cannot prove, you are guilty of libel. It opens you to the possibility of a lawsuit for punitive damages and a prison term. This is serious business from a legal and moral perspective.

Nevertheless, not every cry of "foul" has merit. One is not criminally libel for opposing any erroneous teaching or improper conduct when the charges are provably true. This is not libelous even when shame, disgrace, or loss of income and professional prestige results. When allegations are provably true, the subject has libeled himself and must accept responsibility for his actions, especially when souls are jeopardized.

For example, in the September 1991 issue of the Firm Foundation, I cited an article in the Houston Post which reported that Gayle Napier, Family Life Minister at the Harpeth Hills Church of Christ, said, "The more conservative the church, the more incest you have in families." Initially Dr. Napier said "[T]he Houston Post did misrepresent what I said." They did not misrepresent Dr. Napier as tapes of his speech clearly show. Additionally, in a letter to Jim Boyd of McMinnville, Tenn., under the date 11-19-91, Napier finally conceded: "I did use the phrase 'conservative churches encourage incest.'" If I had made that allegation without being able to substantiate it, it would have opened me to God's wrath and the sanctions of the legal system.

In addition to provability, I considered the effect that exposure could have on Dr. Napier personally and professionally. The potential for embarrassing his family, David Lipscomb University, and the Harpeth Hills Church of Christ were prayerfully weighed. Most compelling was the damage Dr. Napier's unsubstantiated charges would continue to cause in Christian families, if left unchallenged. Thus I went to press demanding to know what authoritative studies supported his assertions. I called on him to tell us who did the study and to inform us concerning the circumstances surrounding the work. I asked that he tell us what sort of measuring instrument was used and what type of research model was employed. Dr. Napier was urged to tell us how rigorous the statistical analysis was. He was asked where the findings were published and subjected to competent peer review. To this day he has not proven his damning allegations because he cannot. My prayer is that he will never again repeat unfounded charges. However, the only libel that occurred in this incident was self-inflicted - by Dr. Napier. All that was reported in the Firm Foundation was provably true.

Readers of the Firm Foundation are familiar with the open letter sent to Dr. Money of Abilene Christian University via the June 1993 issue. You may not know that Dr. Money was supplied with a copy of the letter more than two months in advance of publication. This was done so that he might indicate if any of the errors cited in the article had been corrected. While it is not his job to edit the paper, he was provided ample opportunity to note any flaws or inaccuracies. Brother Dobbs wrote an accompanying letter under the date of March 19, 1993, saying in part:

Enclosed is another photocopy of an editorial we plan to run in the Firm Foundation. ... If you have comment, I would be glad to hear from you. ... I sincerely regret that wholesale departures from truth come from the faculty during your administration.

Dr. Money wrote in response under the date of March 29, 1993, saying in part:

I have chosen not to take up your offer to respond to anything in the Firm Foundation. Rest assured that I have plenty to say. To discuss these matters through the pages of the paper would require a degree of trust that I just do, not have. Over and over you have printed accusations about ACU that are simply not true and have attacked and undermined the credibility of people in this institution with little regard for the truth.

When Dr. Money made this response, there was no choice but to proceed with the open letter. It was essential that the brotherhood know the truth.

The open letter noted several egregious errors. I named names. If those allegations were not provably true, I would be subject to the judgment of God and punitive legal sanctions. However, the allegations are easily proven, and I am prepared to do so in any forum. Virtually everything cited comes from material published by ACU or Wineskins. These are matters of public record.

For example, I asserted that Dr. Doug Foster modified the words of a Landmark Baptist and attributed them to David Lipscomb." Please note the entire quote from the Baptist preacher, which Dr. Foster attributed to David Lipscomb. I have put the words omitted from the quotation in italics:

There is no one thing taught with greater clearness in the New Testament, than that the new birth precedes and qualifies for baptism. It is Christian baptism in one sense, because it is the baptism of a Christian, and not of sinner. Faith unites and makes us one with Christ, and such a believer is a Christian, and saved, not with a conditional but with an everlasting salvation, and can never perish, and no one in heaven or earth can separate him from the love of God.

Dr. Foster admitted he mistakenly attributed those words to brother Lipscomb. However, the problem is much more complex than mistakenly assigning the quotation. He has not explained how he handled the original sentences, as he had to have handled them, in order to produce the quotation that he published. He has not explained how a man with his credentials could have missed seeing that severe problems of historical accuracy and religious interpretation were present. His use of the modified quotation in a polemic piece without the use of an ellipsis to indicate the omission of words, magnifies his responsibility in the matter. Dr. Foster was not misrepresented. Dr. Foster did misrepresent David Lipscomb. Consequently, the only libel that occurred was self-inflicted.

In each of the instances cited in my open letter to Dr. Money, the accusations are provable. In each instance they represent matters that are dangerous to the cause of Christ. We do not enjoy controversy nor the hurt, embarrassment, and estrangement that it sometimes causes. But error cannot be allowed to corrupt the church. Those who teach must meet a higher standard because of the potential for harming the innocent (Jam. 3:1). Let us be careful to say and write only those things that are provably true. When legitimate questions arise, let us make our case instead of whining that those who question us are guilty of libel.

The other side of this question deals with the imperative of being fair and accurate, especially in our dealings with another Christian (John 13:34, 35). When damaging things are said which are not provably true, criminal libel has occurred.

For example, Dr. Money has made libelous statements about Buster Dobbs. Note again his statement of 3-29-93: "Over and over you have printed accusations about ACU that are simply not true and have attacked and undermined the credibility of people in this institution with little regard for the truth." In response to a letter of concern Dr. Money wrote on 10-1-92: "I regret that your sole source of information is the Firm Foundation. I cannot tell you how distrustful and disgusted I am about the whole situation that Buster Dobbs has concocted." On 3-2-93 Money wrote: "I will tell you with all the force I can muster that what Buster Dobbs said about Professor Andre Resner is a lie." On 3-26-93 in yet another letter Money wrote: "I would hasten to say that I hope you are not getting your information from the Firm Foundation. That account that the editor has written is full of distortions."

Dr. Money's accusations against brother Dobbs are not provably true. He made libelous accusations and cannot establish the validity of what he has written. No one associated with the Firm Foundation has lied about ACU. The errors exposed are not concocted. Truth has not been distorted. Brother Money's words are criminally libelous.

We will not be intimidated by shameful deeds or ugly words, but we are deeply saddened to see brethren thus debase themselves. We will continue to oppose vigorously every falsehood in every honorable way. Listen as the armies of God gird for war (Eph. 6:10-18). See his banner floating proudly on the breeze. Hear the thundering hooves of his war stallions (Rev. 19:11-18).

Let your words be true!

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Published November 1993