For the past four years I have been mulling over a matter which I have read about and discussed with others, but have never till this time written anything on the subject. By the title of this post, it’s not hard to figure out the subject I’m referring to: it’s that dirty little word called, “Gossip.” For me personally, this term and the concept it defines biblically has been an issue of critical importance – and this, for a few weighty reasons.
First of all, since gossip is such a common sin, in both the world and the church, we tend to forget how ungodly it really is. Second of all, while this sin is so common, yet it also suffers a terrible confusion as to what it really means. What exactly is gossip? This question alone has to be settled by what God’s Word reveals and not what we might think it is. I have actually witnessed a local church destroyed due to a gross confusion over gossip. In fact, next to the sin of censoriousness (see Matt. 7:1), the sin of gossip is perhaps the one sin so many are charged with who are not guilty by those who are in fact the real gossips themselves! Hence, we desperately need clarity pertaining to this sin. Third of all, since the seed of every sin resides in all our hearts, then as Christians we must watch ourselves with great care that we’re not ensnared by this sin. Indeed, let me be clear on this point: there’s no believer in Christ who is incapable of committing the sin of gossip. Though regenerated by the Holy Spirit with a new nature in spiritual union with Christ, yet every child of God preceding eternal glory is plagued every day with remaining sin (Rom. 6:12-13a; 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17). Therefore, we have to be on constant guard against the sin of gossip, as we would any other sin. So then, we need to seek to understand what this sin is and how we can combat it by the Word and the Spirit (Rom. 8:13).
To begin with, I believe clearing the confusion away would be a good place to start. In the first place then, the sin of gossip is not committed when we’re having casual conversation about other people who are not present. If this were gossip, imagine how quickly our conversations would be limited and even cease to exist. This is where we have to be realistic. We live in a world full of people we know personally, are acquainted with, or hear about from afar. It is not possible for all such people to be in our presence every time we may bring up something about them in a benign conversation. To restrict the meaning of gossip to such an maddening rule is in many respects denying both our humanity and the world wherein we live. Moreover, it is laying a burden on us all which none can carry and God’s Word itself does not warrant.
In the second place, the sin of gossip is not committed when we have to warn others of false teachers or divisive people who are not in our presence. We see this practice replete in God’s Word. For instance, how often did our Lord Himself warn His disciples in private of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matt. 15:12-13; 16:5-12)? Or what about the apostle Paul warning Timothy in a letter of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus or Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 2:17-18; 4:14-15). And then, there is the apostle John who warned a local church in a letter of a man named Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, [and] does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 9). What these examples prove clearly is that calling people out by name and warning others of their doctrine or conduct which is destructive cannot be classified as the sin of gossip – even if such persons are not present while the warnings are expressed.
In the third place, the sin of gossip is not committed when in the process of church discipline you have to involve other church members (or the church as a whole) to charges of sin against another fellow member. This point is crucial. Christians who misunderstand gossip as reporting anything negative about another person cannot carry out the plain instructions and imperatives of corrective church discipline as taught by Christ (see Matt. 18:15-17). Yet sadly, this is why in many respects there is no church discipline practiced in a local church! Christians misinterpret the command of Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up,” to mean that we can only say “positive things” about others – thus, overlooking to the point of ignoring if not denying the sins of those who are grieving the Spirit and destroying the church! This is a tragedy on so many levels. But a large cause of this tragedy is a warped and distorted idea about gossip. It’s that twisted idea that says, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone then don’t say anything at all.” I have heard this axiom all my life – and have heard it coming largely from well-meaning Christians. However, as right and good as it sounds, it is a secular adage. There’s nothing Christian about it! It flies in the face of how God has revealed the necessity for sin to be confronted, challenged and corrected in the church. And to do this God’s way, you have to address people in their sin and even warn others about their sin (if unrepented!), whether they’re present or not.
It should be obvious by these three clarifications as to what gossip is not, that I have emphasized as a recurring motif this point regarding the actual physical presence of the person under discussion. The reason for my emphasis here is because I saw personally the majority of a local church come under the delusion that if someone is not physically present, then they cannot be brought up in a conversation. What made this fallacy however so destructive and even insidious, is that it was spawned by a church elder as some bizarre policing tactic to bind the conscience and tongues of church members from committing what he wrongly believed was “gossip.” And despite how I and other pastors stepped in to override this ill-founded concept, the damage had been already done. To this very day, the members who left this church are still carried away by this bogus idea that “gossip” is when you say anything about another person in the absence of their presence – especially if their sins are reported!
Well, what then is gossip? Since gossip is a sin, then what makes it a sin? Gossip, as defined by God’s Word, is talking about other people laced with fabrications, hearsay, conjecture, and innuendo with the sole intent on ruining their reputation. Gossip as a sin stands in direct violation of Exodus 20:16, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The immediate context of this commandment is in a court of law – having to do with the legal testimony a witness gives in a public trial before a jury. What the Lord therefore is obviously prohibiting and thereby condemning here is a lying witness. But what we should see at the heart of this commandment, is what God says is the worst kind of lying: it is charging an innocent man of a crime he didn’t commit, which in turn, will work to destroy his public reputation. When this is carried out in speech it is called “slander.” When it is put in print it is called “libel.” Either way, as one writer put it so solemnly, “the victims of gossip never to get to defend themselves. They never have a chance to explain their circumstances, clarify their motives, or correct the misconceptions people have about them. Instead they are charged, tried, and convicted in the court of private opinion.” And sadly, in the wake of a gossip tsunami (if you will), Martin Luther (1483-1546) said,”Reputation is something quickly stolen, but not quickly returned.”
To gossip then, is to bear a false witness against another person. It is to tell tales about what someone said or did but always in a report that is never the whole story. And it’ll never be the whole story, otherwise the complete and collected facts will undermine the wicked intent of the one gossiping – which is to annihilate the person’s reputation. This is why before we open our own mouths and begin to speak about anyone, we need to ask some hard questions: Is what I am about to say true? Is it the whole truth? Am I dealing with facts or is this hearsay or conjecture? Will what I say impugn anything evil to this person’s motive, which I cannot see but God? If what I am about to report is true and not impugning any evil to this person’s motive, then how necessary is it for the other person to hear this? Will what I am reporting sow discord against this person? Will what I am reporting stand under careful scrutiny and investigation – in short, can my report be proven?
These kind of questions should cause any of us as God’s people to be slow to speak on the one hand; and ponder carefully what we’re considering to say, on the other hand (see Prov. 10:19; 15:28; James 1:19). Moreover, it should also cause us to be careful when we do hear about others as it pertains to things they have allegedly said or done which threatens their credibility. Proverbs 18:13 and verse 17 are always a helpful guide in this matter: “If anyone gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame,” and then, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” What both of these proverbs teach us is that before we go making conclusions and rushing to judgment, we need to pause and consider first what we’re being told and seek to find out if this is the whole story. One critical question we should ask in this regard is whether the credibility of the person reporting this can be trusted. A definite “no,no” would be to trust anonymous letters or emails! Documents of this sort can never be trusted since the person who wrote it cannot be questioned as to the trustworthiness of their report. Considering the source then is a huge factor to whatever we hear.
Needless to say, gossip is an horrific sin which works to destroy peoples lives and ruin their credibility. It is a sin which works against the love of both neighbor and brethren – stealing one of our most precious treasures: a good name that is to be chosen rather than great riches (see Prov. 22:1). May God sanctify us all to be more careful in both our speech and hearing.