If you read a newspaper story, especially in this day and age of investigative journalism and the pressure to be the first to break a story, you will frequently read about credible or reliable sources. It’s also about protecting anonymity. Increasingly, I’m hearing and reading such language in Christian circles, especially when it comes to controversy.
I’d like to challenge our use of the term and reliance on such terms. This relates to something I said when I recently wrote about the problem of gossip. You may recall that I said at the time that when we receive information, before we act on it, including by passing it on, that we need to determine a couple of things. One was “Do I have jurisdiction here?” and the other was “do I have competency?” In other words is it anything to do with me and am I competent and authorised to assess it.
We tend to be more confident than perhaps we should be in our own capabilities when it comes to both questions. That’s why I’m wary of the term “reliable source” (I suspect the “credible source” option is a little better. You see, when we hear that there is a reliable source, we should be asking “Who has assessed them as such and on what basis?”
It’s important to say at this stage that in any of the examples where you might have seen the term, it’s presence does not mean that the story is false anymore than it guarantees its truth. It is also important to note that we might decide that someone isn’t a reliable source in this context but that doesn’t mean they are an unreliable person generally or that they are lying. It simply means that they may well be wrong on this occasion, it simply means that they may have a particular perspective on a situation but for all sorts of reasons be offering an incomplete or distorted picture. Remember, that isn’t to say that their motives are wrong, just that they might be wrong on this occasion. The challenge is that we are being directed away from examining the actual evidence of a sitation to deciding whether or not we are going to rely on someone’s word. Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got to go on but it shouldn’t be our starting point and certainly, I would argue should not be the basis for us repeating a story to others.
To illustrate the dangers, a few years back I was contacted and asked to confirm some reports that a person had heard about a previous controversy going back quite a few years earlier. They were basing this on what they regarded as reliable sources.
Now, as it happens, I have no reason to doubt the general reliability of said sources. However, their sources were not actual eye witnesses to the situation but had heard about it second hand themselves, after the event. Furthermore, I believe that the reports were wrong. Though even as a closer eye witness I would recognise that I was not party to all information about the situation.
We have to be so careful and this is also because I think there is a particular danger in our church culture, it’s a danger that is rooted in fallen human nature. We love intrigue and speculation and this leaves us prone to the temptation of gossip. That’s why I would encourage us to steer clear of phrases and methods that might further encourage such a culture.