I was asked to write a post about gossip by some friends in the UK. It appears that our authoritative American brethren have exported their self-protective, pastor-centric harshness to the UK. Apparently, they rail against *gossip,* especially *gossip* that makes those in magisterial positions feel a bit threatened. But is it really gossip or something else entirely?
I wrote this post in 2014. I have updated a few broken links. Hopefully this gets the discussion underway.
The Puritan’s idea of hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business. Wendell Phillips
George Orwell got it right in Nineteen Eighty Four. Words can be manipulated to mean whatever we want them to mean. Take a look at a few examples from the book.
As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries:
- the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), which deals with war,
- the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty), which deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation),
- the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), which deals with law and order (torture),
- the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), which deals with propaganda (news, entertainment, education and art)
I always find it amusing when someone attempts to define a secondary issue by starting with the words “The Bible says…” Everyone who holds to a conviction, be it the age of the earth, election, the role of women, forms of church discipline, etc., will spout their “proof texts” and appear startled when another person doesn’t see the obvious biblical logic of their argument. That is the reason that there are a gazillion denominations and Christianity is divided between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox expressions. Every last one of them are absolutely convinced they have the truth and that everyone else is just plain illogical or not paying attention to what the Bible says.
Gossip and slander are often used interchangeably.
A number of months ago, I did a post on the use of the word slander in the Bible called Slander or an Inconvenient Truth. In the post we explored the Bible verses surrounding slander to prove a point.
It is vital to the discussion to understand that slander is an act of making a false statement in order to damage another’s reputation, etc. It is a big fat lie, and the person making it knows it, just as Satan knows it.
Therefore, the expression of a legitimate concern, based on a number of reports, is not slander but a form of Christian love. It is meant to protect the church from serious error; to help those who are being hurt by the church; to prevent harm to others in the church; and to exhort those in leadership to follow the example of Jesus.
Slander is a lie and the person making the claim knows that it is a lie. Unfortunately, many use the word to mean saying anything negative about an individual. What is interesting is that word “gossip” often appears in the same list of sins as slander. 2 Corinthians 12:20 NIV:
For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip,arrogance and disorder.
What I found even more fascinating is that, when I plugged in the word “gossip” into word search sites, I found the majority links listed verses that had the word “slander,” even without the word “gossip” being mentioned (here and here.) I found it interesting that when Justin Taylor wrote How to Stop Church Killing Gossip, he doesn’t use the Bible to prove his chosen definition of gossip which is:
Gossip involves saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his or her face.
When I researched the word gossip, I found a number of business and psychology websites which deal with gossip in the workplace and in any other venue in which people gather. It is obvious that gossip is of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. In general, it is considered a net negative
Gossip has been around since the dawn of man. In a Forbes article, we learn some of the history of gossip.(Ed. note The entire article, Might Office Gossip Be Good For You?, is worth a read.)
Talking trash is hardly a modern invention. It’s been around for ages, dating back to caveman days, when sharing information about others (Is he faithful? Is she a hard worker?) contributed to basic survival.
In ancient Egypt a hieroglyph from 1550 B.C. detailed the spread of gossip and suggested ways to curtail it. The Romans also partook: In Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics, Gail Collins notes that Mark Antony spread word that Caesar Augustus assumed the throne by bedding Julius Caesar.
Definitions for gossip include:
- a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others
- rumor or report of an intimate nature (Merriam Webster)
A number of other sources connect gossip with slander. (Wikipedia) I believe that this connection is key.
Gossip is idle talk or rumor, especially about personal or private affairs of others. It is one of the oldest and most common means of sharing facts, views and slander. This term is used pejoratively by its reputation for the introduction of errors and variations into the information transmitted, and it also describes idle chat, a rumor of personal, or trivial nature.
When is gossip bad?
It is obviously bad when it is slander which means a false tale which is intended to hurt another. However, sometimes the intent is good but the results are bad. This occurs when a confidence is shared with the expectation that it will be kept. It is vital to know the rules of the game when one is talking confidentially as I learned the hard way.
Years ago, I was in a Bible study with a family whose husband had done something very hurtful to his wife. In fact, it was grounds for a divorce and that was being discussed. We all were trying to support the entire family but especially the wife. Several Bible studies were filled up trying to give her support and letting her vent. The day before the third meeting, another neighbor was joining the study. Due to the anticipated nature of the discussion, I decided to inform this person of the issue so that she would be prepared. I told her of the confidential nature of the problem and assumed all would be well since I had known her for years.
Hours before the study, the woman who was so hurt called me, crying hysterically. That neighbor had decided to inform a few other neighbors of the issue and now it was all in the open. I tried to explain my reasoning to her but to no avail. She told me that I had no right to say anything and that she had planned on not discussing the matter that evening. She was right. I apologized. Lesson learned. Even good intent can sometimes lead to inadvertent pain. That was one incident that I should have discussed with the hurt wife before I discussed it with anyone else, even a prospective member of the group.
The key may be found in the public nature of the person or organization.
We are a culture of gossips. People Magazine, Perez Hilton, the supermarket tabloids, etc. are replete with stories and rumors of public figures. When you are a public figure, you can expect the public to focus on you.You trade your private life for the public arena. Therefore, you open yourself up to examination and critique.
The law recognizes deliberate slander which is a lie with the intent to harm another person. You, as the critic, can say what you believe to be true. For example, there are many who still believe that Casey Anthony is guilty in the death of her daughter even though she is innocent in the eyes of the law. Many talking heads have stated their beliefs on this matter. However, they cannot not say that Casey Anthony has murdered other people since no such evidence has been found or discussed.
Does the person or organization vie for attention in the media or community?
When a person opens themselves up to public recognition and/or declares themselves to be a role model, they are open for critique. How many politicians, espousing “family values” have been caught in embarrassing situations which appear to contradict their belief system? How many pastors have done the same thing?
Even more importantly, many of today’s Christian leaders and pastors often hold themselves us to be examples for the Christian and secular community. As I often say, they jump up and down, wanting to be recognized so that people will come to their church. They are handing out an invitation to the world to look at them, quite closely. When they do so, they should expect that their lives will come under the microscope.
They cannot tell others to sacrifice and still hold onto their houses and private jet rides. They cannot condemn Jerry Sandusky and expect a pass on a poorly handled pedophile situation in their friend’s church.
One church leader put out a stupid tweet in which he declared that God caused a destructive hurricane because the USA was looking at ratifying gay marriage. Then he, and his friends, got bent out of shape when people disagreed with his apparent understanding of the Almighty. It was his fault. He went public, he gets to be criticized in the public. If you can’t take the heat of being under a microscope, then don’t run for Congress and don’t be a pastor. It is part of the territory. To claim that discussing a stupid tweet is gossip, is ridiculous.
Accusations of gossip are often “gag orders.”
The vast majority of posts under a Google search for “gossip” comes from churches and are written by pastors or leaders condemning gossip. I found an excellent post by Joy at Joy in the Journey called Gossip, Accountability and the Myth of Pastor Infallibility commenting on gossip. She called the following pastor’s assumptions a “gag order.”
I recently read a series on gossip written by the pastor of a local church. In it, he defines gossip as “secret slander. Or as one lexicon defines it, gossip is ‘providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.’” In the series, he describes at length all the harm that can be done by engaging in this kind of talk, whether or not it’s the truth about a person, and he calls on people to Jesus Christ’s standard of perfection – only godly speech always.
Churches and leaders are still sinful.
We have to accept that people at all levels are going to screw up, mistreat one another, break laws, and then try to cover it up. What are we to do then? If we are forbidden from ever discussing issues with anyone except the person involved, how can we hold one another accountable? How can we bring abuse, lying, stealing, cheating, manipulation, and any other sort of corruption to light?
The key to discussing negative things is the word “Why.”
Are you trying to trash their reputation? Or are you seeking their best interests, and those of everyone else involved? Are you trying to confirm whether your impressions or observations are true or accurate? Have you gone to that person directly and been rebuffed? Are you trying to remedy a bad situation, protect someone from being abused, prevent laws from being broken, or just help a person do the right thing or break a harmful habit? These are all right, good, healthy, and important reasons to discuss something harmful about a person.
When is it not gossip?
It is really quite simple. It is not gossip when you, as a church member, have a question or concern and need an answer. If one is a member of a church, (s)he has the right, and even the obligation, to question the use of tithes and the lifestyles of the pastors and church leaders. They have a moral duty to raise concerns about the safety and care of children as well as any doctrine that is being taught. They should question changes in church bylaws and constitutions. They have a right to know about the theological stances of the pastors and leaders They should expect that pastors and church leaders will answer both thoroughly and truthfully.
Church leaders and pastors need to pull on their big boy pants and be willing to discuss the concerns of any member, even if it is awkward. They should be willing to take critique and role model how big boys in Christ handle criticism and concerns. Otherwise, they will come off looking like wussy Pharisees.
Here are some examples of problems which should be discussed and do not constitute gossip. In each of these circumstances, the people involved have been accused of gossip and slander.Some details have been changed.
- Recently we received communication from a woman who expressed concern about the handling of money matters in her church. It appears that the lead pastor (YRR megachurch) had moved to a very large home. During this time, he has been involved in massive fund raising in the church. The budget was presented to the congregation with little time to look it over prior to the vote. There was a significant amount of money that was being held in an account to “bless the pastors.” When she raised her hand and asked a question about this, she was told that they needed the money to hold onto the great pastors they already had. They refused to answer more questions. This person had given a great deal of money to the church and was now questioning the use of that money.The elders refuse to answer any further inquiries on the matter.
- There is a large church in which a pedophile badly harmed a group of boys. He is serving a lengthy sentence for his crimes. A mother of one of the boys let some church members know that they had reported an incident a year previous to the church. Their report was not only ignored but the psychological well-being of her son was called into question. The church had elected not to report the incident and did not have to because of lax reporting laws in that state.
- A pastor, along with his buddies, ran up a $60 million debt. The pastor is living in a $2 million home. He is asking people to sacrifice to pay of the debt and he is still living in his mansion.
- The Sovereign Grace Survivors site has documented years of alleged reports of child sex abuse and harsh discipline. Lawsuits have been filed. Yet many of the YRR crowd defend the ministry.
- A husband and wife spent many years telling people how to live a biblical, Christian marriage. They gave classes and were brought in on tough situations. They often made people feel bad because they would hold up their marriage as an example on how to do marriage. They got a divorce. Some folks who were the recipients of their “wisdom” have discussed it with one another, trying to figure what went wrong.
- A pastor who decided to change the entire Sunday school program to better prepare kids for “the world” was highly critical of parents who enjoyed the old system. He was adamant, saying this program would prevent children from leaving the faith when they went to college. Two of his kids have left the faith after years of the “perfect” SS program.
In each of the above circumstances, the people attempting to confront the situation were accused of gossip and slander. But, was it? I would say no.
In Justin Taylor’s post How to Stop Church Killing Gossip, he quotes Ray Ortlund who lists the outcomes of “gossip.” It is important to remember that Ray Ortlund has been a supporter of CJ Mahaney. As you read the following list, I have an assignment for you. Read it in light of today’s church scandals and ask yourself this question. “Is he talking about gossip or gag orders?” I also have a question. Where are the Bible verses to back up his assertions?
- Gossip is our dark moral fervor eagerly seeking gratification.
- Gossip makes us feel important and needed as we declare our judgments.
- It makes us feel powerful to cut someone else down to size, especially someone we are jealous of.
- Gossip is a sin rarely disciplined but often more socially destructive than the sensational sins.
- Gossip leaves a wide trail of devastation wherever and however it goes – word of mouth, email, blogging, YouTube.
- It ruins hard-won reputations with cowardly but effective weapons of misrepresentation.
- It makes the Body of Christ look like the Body of Antichrist – destroyers rather than healers.
- It exposes the hostility in our hearts and discredits the gospel in the eyes of the world. Then we wonder why we don’t see more conversions, why “the ground is so hard.”