“A number of people – I can’t tell you who – are saying that…”
“I have heard that… and feel it needed to be brought to your attention”
“I’m telling you this because I want an objective viewpoint before addressing it”
“Keep this just between us, I really need a sounding board”
“I am just telling you so that you can pray”
Thus run the justifications for gossip in the church. Sure, we may dress it up in spiritual terms, couch it in the language of love or claim that we simply needed advice. But if we are passing on stories, or acting as an intermediary for such stories, then we are gossiping.
Gossip is often only considered to be the passing on of stories that aren’t true. Certainly gossip can carry such stories but spreading untruth is properly called slander, something which the Bible also talks about. Gossip, properly defined, is any negative speech that (a) is not shared with the purpose of building up the person spoken about and (b) shares information with those whom it does not concern. It is usually borne out of a selfish pride that desires to be “in the know”. You are sharing in gossip – whether bringing the news or simply listening to it – if you are enjoying a negative story about someone else of which it is none of your business to know. John Piper offers some further helpful defining features of gossip here.
Here are just a few of the things the Bible has to say about gossip:
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)
An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue. (Proverbs 17:4)
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. (Proverbs 20:19)
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. (Proverbs 26:20)
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak (Matthew 12:36)
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (1 Corinthians 12:20)
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10f)
One of the common threads in the biblical view of gossip is that it stirs up unnecessary division and dissension amongst brothers and sisters in Christ. It is particularly interesting that such gossip is one of the things that God calls an abomination – it is utterly detestable to him. Indeed, Paul viewed it in such a way as to see gossip as a cause for excommunication from the church!
Let’s compare the view of gossip listed above to the way Jesus tells us we ought to work out our differences in the church:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Note what Jesus says: if you have a problem with your brother, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Notice Jesus does not say “if you have a problem with your brother, go and chat with a bunch of people first just to make sure you’re in the right and then have it out with him.” Nor does he say “if you have an issue with your brother, tell as many people as possible so they can pray for you.” He especially does not say “if you have a problem with your brother, go and tell somebody else close to you and get them to approach your brother on your behalf.” If you note nothing else about Jesus’ words here, note this: the first discussion of any problem you may have with anybody else in the church must be handled privately between you and the other person alone.
If you do anything else – if you have a discussion about it with a third party, or you discuss it with a series of other people, or you disclose it with friends under the guise that they may pray for you, or you begin a whispering campaign – it is gossip. If you do these things, you are doing that which is an abomination before God. You are acting in such a way that God finds utterly detestable. It is doing that which is so destructive and divisive to the church that Paul considers it legitimate – in fact, necessary – grounds for removing somebody from the fellowship altogether.
The Bible also has much to say about those who listen to this sort of gossip. It is not only the one speaking who causes problems but those who entertain it, who give credence to the story or at least do nothing to dissuade the gossip from gossiping. The proverbs tell us that “an evildoer listens to wicked lips.” That is, you partake in the sin if you entertain the one bringing the gossip.
So how do we address this sin the church. First, and this should go without saying but it bears saying anyway, don’t be a gossip yourself. Do not share tittle-tattle with people who do not need to know. Tend to share only what is good and positive and for the upbuilding of others. If you must share something negative with another person, be sure it is only after having spoken to the person in question first. Even then, be sure that your motives are pure and you are sharing only because you love the other person and want to lead them to repentance about a particular sin (which you have tried addressing privately already). Otherwise, simply keep it to yourself.
Second, don’t encourage the gossipers. If somebody comes to you with one of the lines listed at the beginning, make sure you ask some questions of that person. For example, your very first question ought to be “have you spoken to the person under scrutiny privately already? If not, why not?” Make sure you ask whether you really need to know this information and, if you do, why? There will be very few times, if you are not an elder, why this ought necessarily to be your business and why you will be called upon to take any sort of action at all.
Third, if a person comes to you about a problem relating to a third party, send them away until they have spoken directly to the person with whom they have the issue. Do not even let them finish what they are saying if they have not had a direct conversation in private with the person with whom they have an issue. If they are coming to raise a problem between a third and fourth party which the second party (the bearer of the news) is bringing to you (the first party), tell them that the parties involved in the dispute need to see you themselves. It is impossible to adjudicate in a situation in which you have only received second, third or even fourth-hand information (and that is even when it is appropriate for you to adjudicate in such matters!)
Fourth, if the gossip concerns you – that is, somebody has come to you with a criticism about you which begins “some people are saying…”, “I’ve heard that…” or “somebody – but I can’t tell you who – has asked me to talk to you about…” – be sure not to listen. Send the messenger back to the person who sent them and explain, in no uncertain terms, that you will not listen unless the person who has taken issue with you comes and talks to you directly. Unless the individual with the problem comes to you directly, it is to be treated as gossip and is rightly ignored. At the very least, the individual coming to you must give you the name of the offended party before you will entertain the information (only so you can then have a direct conversation with them to sort it out), otherwise the information is rightly to be ignored.
If you are inclined to listen when people bring these sorts of things to you, then you are a gossip. You may not be bringing the news but you are encouraging those who do so to continue in that sin. You are also partaking in that sin by listening and giving it credence. The only time it is appropriate to entertain such things, as Jesus himself points out, is if a private conversation between the affected parties has already taken place and the one in sin simply refuses to listen. Under such circumstances, the offended party is right to seek two or three other witnesses so that the matter may be confronted again. This seeking of witnesses is never a private affair in which the end is the cathartic unburdening of our perceived slight. Rather, it is for the purpose of further direct conversations in the presence of objective witnesses in order to win the person back to repentance.
Do not underestimate the severity and destructiveness of gossip. We may wish to dress it up in spiritual language, or make out we are somehow doing something noble, but the Bible will hear none of that. It could not be more stark in defining gossip as an abomination to the Lord and treats it with the utmost seriousness, deeming it worthy of excommunication. Gossip at your peril; entertain gossip at the expense of your church.