7-4-1 Gossip in the Church
Our Community has many strong points, and many indications of real spiritual growth. But there are some practical areas to which we have all paid insufficient attention. One of these is the terrible human tendency to repeat rumour, to draw unsupported conclusions, and to get disaffected with others until we imagine untrue things about them which we then state to others. I am not innocent in this area. And neither are any of us (not that this fact in any way comforts me). Let's not pretend that any of us don't gossip. And let's admit that our ears love to hear gossip. " The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's innermost parts" (Prov. 18:8 NIV), i.e. we dwell on what we hear very deeply. This is one reason to interrupt a gossiping brother or sister before they go further; for the words of gossip will go deep down within us, and we will ruminate on them. Gossip in the church is, sadly, becoming a real sin amongst us. If a community becomes full of gossip, allegation and counter-claims, very soon we will destroy ourselves. A house divided will fall. And don’t think gossip is just words. Proverbs teaches that gossip stirs up dissension; but Prov. 6:12-14 parallels “a corrupt mouth” with winking with the eye, signalling with the feet, motioning with the fingers (NIV). Our body language is effectively gossip. A flick of the hands, the slight suggestion of a shrug of the shoulders, a certain glance in the corner of the eye...it all gives negative messages.
As gossip in the church spreads, it becomes distorted, sometimes horrendously. The result is that when the victim hears it, they inevitably become angry, and often feel that they cannot associate with their brethren and sisters if such things are thought about them. They are ashamed, angry because what was said was untrue, and they are tempted to become vindictive against those whom they hold to be responsible. In extreme cases, this can lead to resignation from the community. An offended brother is harder to be won back than a fortified city (Prov. 18:19). Over the past year as you read this, this will have happened. But often the result is simply a decreased enthusiasm to attend the meetings, to break close contact with the brethren and sisters who ought to be our true friends. This results in a community which is cold and untrusting of each other, with every one of us internalizing our struggles, appearing righteous on the surface but never opening our hearts. And this also is happening amongst us. For all concerned, the process of gossip and counter-claiming all saps real spirituality out of us. We have enough wonderful things to contemplate: the supremacy of the love of Christ, far above our human knowledge; the sublime intricacy of God's word and character; the fulfilment of prophecy; the wonder of our Hope. These things ought to fill our thinking- and our conversation with each other. If they don't, and gossip in the church becomes the main diet of our conversation, something is very seriously wrong with us. We only have a few years at most (probably far less) to sort ourselves out before we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. We need to be using every moment.
The Biblical Verdict
The Bible could not be clearer in it's analysis of gossip in the church. It is like shooting an arrow from a secret place at a person (Ps. 64:4 RV). It is no coincidence that the word translated " devil" essentially means a false accuser, a slanderer (so it is translated in 1 Tim. 3:11; 2 Tim. 3:3). Slandering others is the very epitome of all that is wrong with the flesh. Strife amongst us comes from the expression of passive anger and pride (Prov. 28:25; 29:22); and strife is sown by gossip (Prov. 16:28). Therefore gossip is a way of expressing our anger and pride, no matter how nicely dressed up we make them. Or to put it in human terms, we pull a man down to make ourselves look taller. So be aware: our own frustrations, our passive resentments, the hurt we have experienced from others, all this if left to itself will result in a critical attitude towards our brethren, and will be expressed in gossip. Because gossip is such an epitome of the flesh, it is ranked along with sins like fornication, idolatry and murder in Ez. 22:9. There are passages in Jeremiah which describe slander and gossiping as being the reason why God condemned Judah (Jer. 6:28; 9:3-8). The soap operas of the world are full of this kind of gossip and intrigue; they glorify it. And the more we feed ourselves with these things, the more likely we will be to see gossip as just part of life. And yet let's not mistake the words of the prophets; it is seen as murder, because effectively it puts to death a man's relationship with his fellows. God hates the man who sows such discord among brethren through gossip in the church (Prov. 6:19). " The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly" (Prov. 26:22). That casual remark, that passing on of information under the guise of 'concern'- it was a body blow to the one you gossiped about, a blow so hard that it caused deep internal damage.
David took a strong view against slander- having suffered so much of it himself. He vowed to put to death, i.e. to set up the death sentence, for anyone caught privately slandering or backbiting against a neighbour (Ps. 101:5 Heb.). That’s how bad are backbiting and slander, however quietly (“privily”, the AV quaintly says) they’re done. And of course the Lord shared this understanding, by teaching that hatred of our brother is in fact the kind of murder which carried the death penalty in Old Testament times.
Loving Our Neighbour
Proverbs is often a commentary upon the Law. The many passages there about gossiping are based upon just one passage, in Lev. 19:16-18: " Thou shall not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people...thou shalt not hate thy neighbour in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise (frankly, NIV) rebuke thy neighbour...thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge...but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" . The fact this passage is expanded upon so many times in Proverbs would indicate that gossip was as major a problem among the old Israel as it is among the new. But notice the fine psychology of the Spirit here: gossip in the church is related to having a grudge, to hating your neighbour in your heart, to not loving your neighbour as you love yourself (and we are very conservative about our own failings). When the Lord spoke about hating your brother being the same as murdering him (Mt. 5:22; 1 Jn. 3:15), he may well have been thinking of this passage in Leviticus. To hate your brother in your heart, to gossip about him, was and is as bad as murdering him. And this same connection between gossip and murder is made in the prophets (Ez. 22:9 cp. Prov. 26:22). But the Law provided a way out. If you had something against your brother, frankly tell him about his failure, so that you would not hate him in your heart. If we don't do this, or try to get someone else to do it, we will end up hating our brother in our heart and we will gossip about him.
The Lord Jesus more or less instated this command as relevant for His ecclesia (Mt. 18:15). The purpose of it is not just for the sake of the brother who has erred, it isn't just a polite protocol to follow; it is for our sake too, who have seen the weakness of our brother. Unless we talk frankly to him about it, between us alone, then we will end up hating him in our heart (even though it may not feel like that) and we will gossip about him. The frank raising of the issue with our brother is associated with loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is actually the opposite to what we would think; we would imagine that it would be more 'loving' to say nothing to our brother. But in this case, we will inevitably gossip about him and be bitter against him. The practice of true love will result in an open community in which we can frankly discuss with each other the issues which concern us, with love and not hatred in our hearts. This is the teaching of Lev. 19:16-18. No wonder the Proverbs expand upon it so much. And no wonder the Lord appropriated it as a ground rule for His ecclesia- there must be no gossip in the church.
Ps. 15:3 offers further commentary upon gossip in relation to our “neighbour”: “He that...speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor receiveth / endureth a reproach against his neighbour” (Ps. 15:2,3 AVmg.). To gossip / backbite is paralleled with receiving gossip. To listen to it and accept it is as bad as to create it in the first place. The antidote is to have a mind that thinks of those things which “are true...lovely....of good report”. We live in a world of conscious untruth and half truth. In our unshareable self, our inner thoughts and musings, let us seek to have only that which is true passing through our meditations. And then we will not want to receive a gossip against our brother, indeed by implication we will not ‘endure’ it, we will tell the gossiper to cease, and certainly not act upon it.
Like all sin, gossip in the church has a price attached to it. " Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself (cp. Lev. 19:17; Mt. 18:15); and discover not a secret to another, for he who hears it may shame you, and you will never lose your bad reputation" (Prov. 25:9,10 AV with NIV). 'Gossip usually backfires on you', that's the message. And a reputation as a gossip is very difficult to shake off. It means that none of your brethren will want to be close to you. Remember that Prov. 20:19 was spoken within the context of the ecclesia of Israel, not the world generally: " A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much" (NIV). The New Testament equivalent to this may be the command to avoid those in the ecclesia who cause divisions and arguments (Rom. 16:17). The sin of gossip is not only because it upsets the victim, but because it upsets unity in the family of God. The Lord's agonizing death was so that we might be one; to upset that unity is therefore to undo what His cross was intended to achieve. A talebearer is called one who flatters with his lips (Prov. 20:19). The motive for gossip is therefore for us to flatter or impress others, to make us look better because we have dragged others down lower. This is the Biblical analysis of the psychosis of gossiping. Words have more effect and hurt than we realize. A lying tongue wounds or crushes those it attacks (Prov. 26:28 RVmg.). This is the power of words.
The Hebrew word translated " talebearer" is a compound of the word for merchant or barterer; one who trades, in tales. The suggestion is that every gossip is traded for (i.e. provokes) another piece. And how many of our own conversations prove the truth of this! A gossip is made, and the other party to the conversation invariably says something which they also ought not to. Gossip in the church very quickly becomes a way of life, both in individuals and in the whole community. In Jeremiah's time, gossiping was associated with 'proceeding from evil to evil' (Jer. 9:3); it is part of a downward spiral of spirituality. Once gossip starts a quarrel, it's like water bursting out of a dam; soon the whole land of Israel will be flooded (Prov. 17:14 NIV). So it's best not to start it, not only for our own sakes, but because of the effect it will have on the rest of the body. Peter likewise points an antithesis between gossiping and receiving " the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet. 2:1,2). Real spiritual growth is impossible if we are taken up with gossiping; and this is true on the communal as well as individual level.
Prov. 17:9 says that seeking love by covering a transgression is the opposite of ‘repeating a matter’. Think through this. It implies that we gossip, i.e. we repeat others’s sins, because we chose not to cover their sin by forgiving it.
If you feel you have been slandered by gossip in the church, remember that almost every servant of God has been through this at the hands of those they counted as their brethren: Joseph, Moses, Job, David, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Paul, and above all the Lord Himself. Saul implied David and Jonathan were homosexual (1 Sam. 20:30); Miriam and Aaron implied Moses (their own brother!) was immoral (Num. 12:1). The comment that Moses was the humblest man on earth is made in the very context of his enduring unjust criticism in a spiritual way (Num. 12:3). The way Paul commanded Timothy not to even consider a complaint against an elder unless another two or three had been eye-witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19) is proof enough that he expected elders to be slandered from within the ecclesia. The more you read between the lines of Paul's letters, the more evident it is that his very own brethren almost unbelievably slandered him. Thus the Galatians whispered that Paul still preached circumcision (Gal. 5:11), probably basing that nasty rumour on the fact he had circumcised Timothy. He has to remind the Thessalonians that he isn't preaching because he wants to take money and have relationships with women (1 Thess. 2:3-12). There were some wealthy women in Thessalonica who accepted the Gospel (Acts 17:4 Western Text), and no doubt gossip spread from this. We could almost conclude that being unfairly gossiped about is a characteristic of the true servant of God. Indeed, when Paul lists the things which confirm his apostleship, he not only lists his imprisonments and shipwrecks; he says that the fact he has been slandered is another proof that he is a servant of Christ (2 Cor. 6:8)! None of these men quit the community because they had been slandered. They stuck it out. And so must we. To quit because of gossip in the church will lead to us being eaten up with bitterness- which is a cancer, it will spread to every part of our spiritual lives and destroy us; and it will spread out of us into the whole ecclesia (Heb. 12:15). This has happened all too often. So don't get bitter! We must learn that God is our justifier, He is the One who counts us as being righteous. Our faith in this aspect of the atonement is never what it could be: that here and now, God counts you as if you are completely righteous. Being slandered drives us to the realization that our own protestations of innocence are never enough, and thereby we learn something about the whole process of justification, and we draw closer to the Father and Son. If we run away, we are running away from the test which the Lord has given us in order to develop our faith in and love of Him. He will try to teach us the same humility another way; there can be no escape of the cross, if we are to be His.
If God is the only and ultimate judge, human judgment, gossip and criticism shouldn’t mean so much to us. Jude 9 gives guidance about how to deal with slander and attacks from false brethren. Jude alludes to the well known Jewish legend, The Testament Of Moses. In it, the ‘devil’ slanders Moses, accusing him of having murdered the Egyptian and therefore being worthy of condemnation, and tries to drag Moses’ body down to punishment. Jude points out that in the story, the Angel Michael doesn’t indulge in justification but rather says that “the Lord rebuke thee”. And may this be our pattern.
On a practical note, it has been suggested that a new convert should not be made an elder because he may fall into “the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6,7). Diabolos is often used in the pastorals in relation to gossipers (1 Tim. 3:6,7,11; 2 Tim. 3:3; Tit. 2:3). Gossip is the clearest manifestation of the ‘devil’ within our natures, and we should be aware of this. “The condemnation of the devil” may therefore mean that the gossipers, whether within or outside the ecclesia, will more easily condemn a novice. If a brother has behind him all the qualifications listed in 1 Tim. 3, of faithful children, a reputation as stable, patient etc., then such gossips will have less power to condemn him in the eyes of others. Paul indicates that he understands the power of gossip in the church- he knew that a spiritually young elder was going to face slander, as sure as day follows night. And therefore, young elders aren’t a good idea, he concludes. We too need to face up to the reality of gossip, that it will happen, and we need to seek to protect those vulnerable to it before it starts.
It may be that we hear gossip in the church. It is my suggestion that we ought to challenge this, gently, of course, but with the weight of the above passages on our side. A gossiper entices others to gossip; he reveals and also elicits secrets (Heb.); " therefore meddle not with him" (Prov. 20:19). Don't closely mix with such a brother or sister if they won't change their ways (there are degrees of fellowship within the one body). The command to go and discuss with our brother alone (Mt. 18:15) ought to be taken far more seriously. Statements like: " She smokes, you know. I really don't think she ought to smoke, do you?" are an absolute sin. Our response ought to be something like: " You must go and speak to the sister herself about it if she smokes. If you don't do this, you don't have a sincere objection to her smoking. I don't want to hear about somebody else's weakness" . Biblically: “Keep thee far from a false matter” (Ex. 23:7). As many of you know, I don't always have the courage to make this kind of response. But it needs to be made. Often gossip is justified as being said out of concern for someone. The deed is done unthinkingly, dressed up with the appearance of spiritual concern. The Spirit foresaw this. " The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's innermost parts" (Prov. 18:8 NIV) uses language elsewhere used in Proverbs about the " choice morsels" of true spiritual wisdom, which also go into " a man's innermost parts" (16:21,23; 20:27; 24:4 Heb.). The point of the similarity is that within the ecclesia of Israel, it would be easy to mistake gossip for true spirituality (" like choice morsels" ). We must really watch out for this. There are times when it is necessary to discuss ecclesial problems; but the need for personal appeal to the person(s) concerned as outlined above is paramount.
The Source Of Gossip In The Church
One result of a works-based mentality is that we become very critical of others, rather than positive and affirmative, after the spirit of grace. A great ability to sense and pick up tension in relationships, “to make a man an offender for a word” as the works-centred Jews did, fearing where a “thin end of the wedge” may lead; a fear of sin rather than the perfect love which casts out fear. And all this leads to conversations which are talking about people, often third parties, rather than to the person you are with. There must be very few of us who feel confident that we are so grace-filled that none of this applies to us.
" A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth (Heb. covereth) the matter" (Prov. 11:13). The principles of the atonement and the redemption we have experienced ought to be finding expression in every part of our lives. Instead of gossiping, we ought to cover over the confidences which we have been let into. We should abstain from every appearing of sin; wherever it comes up, we should abstain (1 Thess. 5:22; this verse doesn't mean 'don't do things which look as if they're sinful'). Whenever we hear of sin we should seek to cover it, not to show it forth more widely, and especially seek for it to be forgiven. By doing so we will reflect our own experience of how God has dealt with His knowledge of our sins. To gossip is to show that we don't know God, that we haven't known or experienced His gracious overlooking of our dark side (Jer. 9:3,4). But yet in the face of this, we all gossip. We say things we shouldn't about our brethren. Let's admit it. And the gossips of others in the church are 'tasty morsels' to us. Therefore let's all pray, seriously pray, that privately and collectively we'll improve.