Over the years I have heard much about gossip. Most of the time it has come from church leaders (or para-church leaders) who warn their congregations (or followers) not to engage in gossip to protect the church (or the organization) from division. This makes a lot of sense, and I can see where they are coming from in general. Loose lips sink ships, right?
The Bible talks about both gossip and slander. It is right that we avoid both, as they are both clearly taught as sinful behaviors. We don’t want to engage in these behaviors.
But what is gossip, really? I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone indicate that they did not really understand what gossip was, so they had no idea if anything they said was gossip or not. I have asked some intelligent God-fearing people to define gossip for me, and few have had a good grasp of the answer. Then there are those teachings on gossip that take it further than the Bible does, making almost anything one says open to the charge of gossip.
The result of this confusion about gossip is that many believers are afraid to say anything at all about someone else for fear of sinning. I have heard people question if it was okay to inquire about someone’s well being based on some definitions of gossip. That is living in bondage and fear. If we are going to avoid these sins, and have freedom from fear and bondage, we need to know what gossip really is (as well as slander).
So what does the Bible have to say about gossip? In the ESV, “gossip” only shows up four times, and only once where it gives any description of what gossip is.
From this we find that a gossip (phlyaros) is one who says what they should not (1Tim 5:13). Thayer’s Lexicon defines this term as “to indulge in empty and foolish talk”.
Going to Noah Webster’s 1913 dictionary, we find the following definition, which is in keeping with what we have found in Scripture:
Gossip: To run about and tattle; to tell idle tales. The tattle of a gossip; groundless rumor.
More modern dictionaries give the same definition.
Gossip is simply talking too much. The topic of discussion really makes little difference. A gossip is one who loves to spread news, whether truth or rumor. However, their motive is not malicious. They do not intend anyone harm, though they may cause others harm through their foolishness.
The sin in gossip is found in Prov 10:19 “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise.” Matthew 12:36 also tells us that we will have to give an account of every careless word we utter. So, in other words, gossip is idle talking that leads to (sinful) careless words. That talking can include both facts and groundless rumor. However foolish it may be, it does not appear that gossip includes knowingly telling lies, nor is it malicious. That is where we make a distinction between gossip and slander.
What is slander? In the ESV, there are 30 references to slander. In each case, slander is seen as a sinful act. Most references to slander in the New Testament come from the Greek term blasphēmia. Thayer’s Lexicon defines this term, in this context, as “slander, detraction, speech injurious to another’s good name.”
Noah Webster’s 1913 dictionary says the following about slander: A false tale or report maliciously uttered, tending to injure the reputation of another; the malicious utterance of defamatory reports; the dissemination of malicious tales or suggestions to the injury of another.
One thing is immediately apparent in these definitions: Motive.
The motive of a slanderer is always malicious. The slanderer’s sole intent is to cause injury to the one slandered by telling lies about about them. This is much different than a gossip, who just doesn’t know when to shut their mouth. Slander is cold and calculating, and always engaged in with the intent to cause harm. Slander almost always involves the telling of lies or contrivances about another person. However, there appears to be some room in this definition for using harmful truths for the sole purpose of causing injury to another as well, but that is not the norm. However, damaging someone’s reputation is always the goal behind slander.
So, how do we avoid gossip and slander?
The answer is found in Ephesians chapter 4.
Eph 4:15-16 “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
To avoid gossip and slander, we can employ this simple exhortation from Paul to the Ephesians. Speak the truth in love for the edification of the Body of Christ. If we speak truth, and we are motivated by love for the body, we can communicate with one another, even about difficult and ugly topics, and easily avoid gossip and slander.
Is it always wrong to discuss others without them being present?
If it is always wrong to discuss people without them being present, we could never discuss sensitive topics in an elder meeting without sinning. We could not warn a loved one that there is a convicted child molester in their neighborhood, or working in their church nursery, without sinning. We could not walk through church discipline as described in Matthew 18 without sinning (more on this below). We could not discuss, as parents, how other children in school or in church might be negatively influencing our own children without sinning. We could not discuss our own childrens’ misbehaviors with our spouse without sinning. Were the reformers in sin for standing up and publicly declaring that the church was in sin? Is it wrong for us to teach our children that Hitler was evil, or that the President of the United States is wrong for taking a certain position?
There are numerous ways we can rightly discuss other people, including their sins, without it being gossip, and without it being slander. The defining difference is our motive for doing so. If truly done in love for others (our friends, our children, the Church), it is not gossip or slander.
What if someone has hurt you?
If you are around people long enough, you are going to be hurt in some way or another. This is true in churches as well, because they are full of sinners, even the pastors. If someone has hurt you, and it is possible for you to overlook the sin, then it is best to do so, as love covers a multitude of sins (Prov 10:12, 17:9, 1Pet 4:8). Note that it does not say that love covers all sins.
Matt 18:15 “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.”
If you can’t overlook something, as sometimes (not always) the most loving thing to do is to confront a person, go to that person directly. This is the best first step to take, if possible. However, it may not be possible for you to approach this person on your own. Perhaps that person is dead. Perhaps you have been abused by this person and confronting them is a terrifying prospect. Perhaps you have tried to confront them and they refused to meet with you. Perhaps you did confront them and they refused to repent.
Matt 18:16-17 “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church”
If this is the position you are in, you may have to take the matter to trusted brothers or sisters (or the church) for help (Matt 18:16-17). If done without malice, and for the purpose of winning your brother or sister, or to protect others from abuse, then this is not gossip, nor is it slander. This is biblical behavior. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, particularly the one you are confronting.
Those Who Accuse.
Now that we have covered what gossip and slander are (and are not), and how to avoid these sins, we should address the other side of the issue: accusing others of gossip and slander. Some people seem to be quick to accuse others of these particular sins. To be justified in accusing someone of these sins, particularly slander, it is necessary to be able to prove the motive behind the accused’s behavior. Only God can weigh the heart of a person (Prov 21:2, 1Sam 16:7). Mere men (and women) cannot. Yes, we can try to discern motive from the evidence before us, but this is often very difficult, if not impossible. For this reason, we should be very slow to accuse someone of these sins. We should also check our motives for doing so.
If we readily accuse others of gossip or slander, it suggests some things about us. It suggests that we think we are like God, knowing what is in the heart of another. This speaks to a lack of humility. It might also suggest that we want to control what other people are saying or thinking. It could suggest that we have something to hide.
If we accuse someone of gossip or slander in an effort to discredit them (rather than out of true love for them), or we accuse them to defend our own reputation, then we have just committed slander ourselves. If we feel like many people are “slandering” us, perhaps they see a sin in us that we refuse to see. Instead of fighting them about it, perhaps we should seek to be humble and listen to them (Prov 12:15). Perhaps we should examine ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith (2Cor 13:5, 1John 1:10). Their confronting us might be the most loving thing they could ever do for us, yet we accuse them for it (Prov 9:8-9, Ps 109:4-5). Our humility (or lack of it) might mean the difference between our salvation and our damnation (Prov 16:5, Jas 4:6, 1Pet 5:5). We should take such things seriously.
Resolutions. I want to make it abundantly clear that gossip is wrong, and slander is wrong. We should not engage in these behaviors. They are detrimental to the health of others and the Church. However, let us resolve to use these terms properly, in context, understanding what they mean. Let us also resolve to be very slow in applying these terms to others, and only with our own motivation and the fear of God firmly in mind. And finally, let us resolve to always speak the truth in love, for the edification of the body of Christ.