How should we view unofficial information that comes to us through several people?
By Bill Butler
You may have heard about how a certain military message became garbled in transmission. The story goes something like this:
It seems an important colonel gave the following set of instructions to his second-in-command:
“Major Healy, at 0900 tomorrow there will be an eclipse of the sun, something that doesn’t occur every day. Have the company fall in on the street in fatigues to see this rare phenomenon. I will explain it to the men. If it should rain, we won’t be able to see the eclipse, so have the men muster in the gym.”
The major, in turn, passed this on to Captain Drew:
“Captain Drew, the colonel has ordered an eclipse of the sun for 0900 tomorrow. If it rains, you won’t be able to see it from the street, so the eclipse will take place in the gym, in fatigues. Naturally this doesn’t happen every day.”
The captain passed it on to the lieutenant:
“Lieutenant Allen, tomorrow at 0900 the colonel will hold an eclipse of the sun in the gym. This doesn’t happen every day. If the colonel gives the order for rain, muster will take place in fatigues in the street.”
The lieutenant gave this message to the sergeant:
“At 0900 tomorrow the sun will eclipse the colonel in fatigues in the company gym. If it rains in the gym, you will fall out in the street.”
Finally the sergeant told the men:
“OK, men, if it rains tomorrow, the sun will eclipse the colonel in the gym. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen every day!”
During the American Civil War, telegraph wires were strung loosely from tree to tree in the manner of a grapevine. People were interested in how things were going on the front lines, and the telegraph operators were known to spend their idle time conveying unofficial and sometimes garbled information about the action. Therefore, rumors about the war were said to have come “from the grapevine.”
John 21 records an interesting example of the grapevine at work. Jesus was telling Peter about what Peter could expect in the future (verses 18-19). Peter then asked Christ what would happen in John’s future.
Jesus answered, “If I choose that he should survive till I come back, what does that matter to you?” (verse 22, Moffatt version).
This started a “saying” (King James Version) or, as the Moffatt version words it, a “report” among the brethren that John would not die.
This, of course, was not what Jesus said at all: “Jesus, however, did not say he was not to die; what he said was, ‘If I choose that he should survive till I come back, what does that matter to you?’ ” (verse 23).
Exact words not used
Stories or messages frequently become less complete as they are retold. One communications expert says that after a story has changed hands four times, it often retains less than 5 percent of the original details. However, even when a story is retold completely, if exactly the same words are not used, the meaning can have a totally different impact.
For example, suppose a young man was advised to whisper the following sweet sentiment into his fiancée’s ear: “Darling, to look in your eyes makes time stand still for me.” But he forgets the exact words and says, instead, “Darling, you have a face that would stop a clock!” Not the same thing at all!
As you can see, we must be careful how we hear something and how we repeat it.
Other problems arise when extra, unfounded details are added to a story. You may have played the game where someone whispers a message to one of a group of people in a room. The person who heard the message whispers it to the next person and so on, until the message has gone around the room. When the last person repeats aloud the message he heard, it is seldom the same as the one the group started with! Details have been omitted, confused or added.
Confusing or omitting is especially serious when dealing with God’s words. From the beginning, however, man has been changing and adding to what God says.
One example of such an addition is found in I John 5:7-8: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”
Did you know that not one of the words italicized in these verses is found in any of the accepted New Testament Greek manuscripts? The words were added in the fourth century by a monk copyist who wanted to “prove” the false doctrine of the trinity.
(For a more detailed explanation of these scriptures and the trinity doctrine, write for our free article entitled “The God Family and the Holy Spirit.”)
Revelation 22:18 warns about the serious consequences of adding to God’s Word in this way: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” See also Deuteronomy 4:2.
Changing the emphasis
Even if a story is told completely and not embellished with additional information — even if the same words are used — the meaning can still be altered by a change in emphasis.
Take the story of the U.S. senator who was offended when a fellow senator called him a liar. When the senator demanded an apology, the offending party said: “Mr. Jones, I called you a liar it’s true. I’m sorry.”
But after these words were passed on through a few others, the emphasis was misplaced and the “apology” sounded like this: “Mr. Jones, I called you a liar! It’s true! I’m sorry.” Same words, but the reemphasized version sounded like a reaffirmation of the original statement rather than an apology.
The translators of the King James Version of the Bible confused the real meaning of Luke 23:43 by inadvertently shifting the emphasis: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
It should read: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
This slight change alters the whole meaning of the sentence in an important way. The first version implies that the thief would be in paradise with Christ that very day. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Christ was looking into the distant future and making a prophecy — not making a statement about that day. No man has ascended into heaven, and the “paradise” to which Christ referred was not necessarily heaven in the first place! For more information, write for our free booklet, What Is the Reward of the Saved?
Even when we convey a story correctly, we should be sure that passing the information on is appropriate. A story may be understood well enough and even conveyed well enough that none of the distortions mentioned above occur. However, it still may not be proper for us to pass the information on at that time — or at any time.
Information distributed by the wrong person could be referred to as counterfeit information. It’s a good deal like counterfeit money.
Do you know what makes a dollar bill counterfeit? Is it because something is wrong with the printing — perhaps a low-quality ink or paper was used? No, that of itself would not make money counterfeit.
For money to be legitimate, it must be authorized by the government. In other words, it is the source from which money comes that determines whether it is genuine. The same can be true of information.
We may sometimes become privy to information that may be true, but which should be conveyed only by someone in authority.
For instance, we in God’s Church may somehow hear certain “news” from headquarters in Pasadena; the “news” may be the type of information our local pastor should announce. Even if it is good news, we should not upstage the minister whose responsibility it is to make formal announcements on certain subjects.
We may not present the information in the proper context, or we may not have the proper background information. When the proper person makes a statement in the appropriate forum, the statement has the maximum chance of being complete and accurate.
Bridling the tongue
The grapevine is often used — innocently, we think — to convey interesting stories about people or occurrences. However, such stories may defame another person’s character or cause him to be viewed in a bad light. A careless comment or negative story can undermine other people’s confidence in a brother or sister in God’s Church and can cause divisions in Christ’s Body.
The Bible offers many serious warnings against using our tongues and ears inappropriately. The apostle Paul labeled backbiters unrighteous (Rom. 1:29-30). But in Psalms we’re told that refraining from backbiting is righteousness (Ps. 15:1-3). Backbiting means to speak evil of an absent party or to slander. This is one of the worst uses of the grapevine method of communication.
When we hear blatant slander, we need to apply Proverbs 25:23: “The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.”
Human nature wants to talk about bad news, carry evil reports and gossip, rather than talking about such positive subjects as news about growth in the Work or new truths Christ uses His apostle to reveal.
We should always keep in mind what we are told in James 1:26: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.”
Also read James 3:2-8, which shows the damage we can cause by misusing our tongues.
Edify and uplift
We as Christians should exercise the right and proper uses of communication. God’s Word instructs us about these uses as well.
God wants us to spread encouraging and positive news — and there is a lot of that about God’s Work at this time. “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Prov. 25:25).
God is putting His Church back on the right track and preparing the Church as a bride for Christ when He returns. Good news is all around us! And that news is what this magazine strives to present.
Romans 14:19 tells us to “follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
And God inspired the apostle Paul to write, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29).
If we practice positive and uplifting conversation with one another in true Christian fellowship, God will bless us: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3:16).
Spreading news from person to person is not evil in itself, but we should be careful that the news we spread is accurate and edifying and that we are the ones who should be spreading it.