How can an assembly deal with damaging rumors about an assembly believer?
Apart from a personal confession, the Old Testament principle of "two or three witnesses" (Deuteronomy 17:6) applies in all assembly matters. An assembly can't act on rumors.
"Two or three witnesses" does not include two or three stories about similar incidents. Each incident must have "two or three witness" to receive consideration. In the case of drunkenness, for instance, elders would need to verify sufficient incidences of this kind before guiding the assembly to put away the individual.
In the case of serious but unsupported rumors, the assembly can take no action. The overseers would help the individual by visiting him and helping him to understand that he is responsible for the appearance of wrongdoing in his life (Romans 12:17b). If anything he is doing contributes to these rumors, even though the rumors are not accurate, he would be wise, safe, and godly to make changes so that no one would even consider repeating such obvious lies.
If a damaging rumor about a believer proves to be false, should the person be cleared publicly?
If the inaccurate rumors were dealt with publicly (for example, by a public rebuke, 1 Timothy 5:20), they should be cleared publicly. Otherwise, as is more usually the case, those who become aware that what they have heard or repeated is false should be as diligent to correct and contain the damage as they were to further it. They would do the right thing if they apologized to the individual, too. As far as the wronged believer is concerned, he may kindly request the believers who have told others these inaccuracies to repair the damage to the assembly's testimony by correcting their mistakes. Beyond that, the wronged believer should leave it to the Lord to vindicate his name (Proverbs 20:22). It's a safe "rule of thumb," that when a believer can trust the Lord to clear his name he is in the right; when he insists that others clear his name, he casts suspicion on his cause.
What can believers do for a believer who is the subject of damaging rumors?
If the rumors are just passing stories that no one would take seriously, let them drift into nothingness. More harm than good might come from telling the person what others said. For example, if the person insisted on knowing who repeated the rumor, he would either be upset with you if you refused to tell him or upset with the person who told the rumor. You have become a talebearer who stirs up strife (Proverbs 26:20).
We should always ask for evidence to substantiate rumors about others, especially for persistent, harmful rumors. If supporting evidence is not available, make your disapproval clear. And never repeat damaging rumors (Titus 3:2; James 4:11). Wrongly damaging the reputation of others is serious (Proverbs 6:16-19).
Discussing the rumors in a friendly manner with the accused, without assuming the truthfulness of the rumors, would be a kindness, especially when accompanied by a sincere expression of concern that anyone would say such a thing. That would make it easier for the individual to admit that the rumor is true or partly true or else to affirm that it is totally false. Depending on its seriousness, you could even mention the supporting evidence you had been given. Every attempt should be made to contain the problem (Matthew 18:15). If the rumor arose from a clear case of misunderstanding, don't give the wronged person a case against the source of the rumor, but volunteer to try to correct the misunderstanding yourself.
If the rumor appears likely to be true and involves issues of concern to the assembly, a believer is responsible to go to an overseer and kindly, humbly, confidentially, carefully inform him. If the believer did not inform the assembly's leadership, he would be responsible for wrongfully covering the sin (Acts 5:2, 8-10). It is a mistaken kindness to support a believer in sinning against God.
When the overseers become aware of a possible problem, they are responsible to thoroughly investigate (Proverbs 25:2), visit the individual, and guide the assembly to act in keeping with the facts. The believer who passed on the information to the overseers has no further responsibility and must submit to their judgment (Hebrews 13:17).
How should assembly believers handle rumors about the further wrong behavior of a person put away from assembly fellowship?
The greatest concern about rumors involving assembly Christians is the impact of those rumors on the assembly's testimony. Nevertheless, whether the subject of rumors is a believer or an unbeliever, a Christian should protect individuals from being harmed by lies. For any harmful stories about another, always request supporting evidence. That is merely loving your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 7:12). If the rumor about the individual whom the assembly has put away appears to be true, you have no further responsibility to act on that information except to pray for the fallen believer. Don't be a party to spreading the story. Always work to contain the problem. Your fondest wish for that person is his recovery and you would want as little harm as possible to result from his wrongdoing.