What is Gossip and Why is it So Bad For Us? #305
Hello friends and happy Tuesday to you! Today’s podcast presents a topic we’ve covered before, but not in the exact same way. You see, way back in 2019, which feels like a century ago, this podcast was born as the Bible Questions podcast…then, it became the Bible Mystery podcast, and then at the end of 2019, thanks in part to the encouragement of my dear wife, I sensed a leading to lead our church through a Bible reading plan for the whole year of 2020. The Bible reading podcast was sort of an offspring out of that initiative, and though not a smash hit by any means, has actually reached around the world with listeners in over 80 different countries. Thank you all for joining us on this journey! Early on in the Bible Questions podcast, episode 5, I believe – we covered the topic of gossip, and today we are revisiting that. This won’t be an exact copy of that episode, but it will be derived from it – just saying that for the small handful of people that have somehow been around since Summer of 2019.
Our Bible readings for this fair Tuesday will feature 2 Kings 8, Psalms 119:49-72, Daniel 12 and 1 Timothy 5. Our discussion of gossip derives from 1 Timothy 5 where Paul warns that some younger widows have gotten into the habit of being idle and gossips, and warns against such practice. Many other places in the Word feature warning against gossiping for all of us, and when we carefully look at Scripture, we discover that gossip is actually a far more serious and harmful practice than most of us realize.
Allow me to open with a great warning against gossip from pastor and Gospel Coalition member Ray Ortlund:
Gossip leaves a wide trail of devastation wherever and however it goes – word of mouth, email, blogging, YouTube, social media. It erodes trust and destroys morale. It creates a social environment of suspicion where everyone must wonder what is being said behind their backs and whether appearances of friendship are sincere. It ruins hard-won reputations with cowardly but effective weapons of misrepresentation. It manipulates people into taking sides when no such action is necessary or beneficial. It unleashes the dark powers of psychological transference, doing violence to the gossiper, to the one receiving the gossip and to the person being spoken against. It makes the Body of Christ look like the Body of Antichrist – destroyers rather than healers. It exhausts the energies we would otherwise devote to positive witness. It robs our Lord of the Church he deserves. 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.”
The church has been talking about gossip for a very, very long time!
Clement of Rome, who likely knew Peter and John (and died in 99AD) Wrote this about gossip: Since, then, we are a holy portion, we should do everything that makes for holiness. We should flee from slandering, vile and impure embraces, drunkenness, rioting, filthy lusts, detestable adultery and disgusting arrogance. “For God,” says Scripture, “resists the arrogant but gives grace to the humble.” We should attach ourselves to those to whom God’s grace has been given. We should clothe ourselves with concord, being humble, self-controlled, far removed from all gossiping and slandering, and justified by our deeds, not by words.
Some might consider gossip a sin that females have a particular proclivity towards, but I don’t find that to be the case in the Bible, nor in pastoral experience, nor in my own heart. The Bible describes gossip as a tasty (but spiritually deadly) morsel, and I can attest that gossip is a genuine temptation for me as a very, very curious person. Spurgeon challenges us all – men and women – about the dangers of gossip:
Spurgeon: GOSSIPS of both genders, give up the shameful trade of tale-bearing; don’t be the devil’s bellows any longer to blow up the fire of strife. Leave off setting people by the ears. If you do not cut a bit off your tongues, at least season them with the salt of grace. Praise God more and blame neighbours less. Any goose can cackle, any fly can find out a sore place, any empty barrel can give forth sound, any brier can tear a man’s flesh. No flies will go down your throat if you keep your mouth shut, and no evil-speaking will come up. Think much, but say little: be quick at work and slow at talk; and above all, ask the great Lord to set a watch over your lips.
H. Spurgeon, Flashes of Thought (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1874), 184.
What, exactly, is gossip? I find that several times over the past year, I have wondered about that, and even been asked about it more than once.
Gossip is mentioned less than 10 times in the Bible, 8 times in the NIV and 4 times in the ESV. In the NIV, 6 of those 8 times are in the OT, and all six are in Proverbs. In the ESV, 3 of those 4 times are in the NT, and the one OT reference is in Ezekiel. What does that tell us? I think it tells us that our best Bible scholars don’t really have a great grip on what gossip is either!
It is very clear in the Bible that gossip is a harmful practice – damaging to the unity of the church and damaging to those who participate in it. What’s not terrible clear to everybody is precisely what gossip designates. But we are going to try our level best to help clear that up today. That Scripture doesn’t explicitly define gossip should give us pause – particularly when we decide to point the finger at somebody and identify their actions as gossip. I’ve seen and received more than one accusation of gossip that did not seem to line up with what Scripture identifies as gossip.
Though the Bible never precisely defines what is meant by gossip it is crystal clear about how we should act towards other people, and what is allowed and what isn’t allowed in our conversations with each other and about each other. Here’s a shocking truth that should be the fact of the podcast: When it comes to the Bible, pummelling people with your words is JUST AS BAD as pummelling them with your fists. Let me reiterate, because most people who engage in the activities of criticism, gossip, slander, cut-downs, etc probably aren’t physical bullies. It’s easy for them to say dank words about people, but they probably wouldn’t take a swing at those people if they bumped into them at Walmart. When it comes to the Bible, there’s no difference between the wounds we inflict with our fists and knives and swords, than with the wounds we inflict with our words. Witness these two warnings:
James 3:8 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Paul gives a general rule in Romans 14:19, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.“ Here’s a good place to start our discussion of gossip – we are to make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual upbuilding or edification. Our words and actions must be delivered with a heart of blessing, peace and building up. Encouragement, not criticism – upbuilding, not tearing down. Conversations that are not intended to edify – or build somebody up – or work towards their ultimate good, therefore are not allowed for Christians.
Ephesians 4:29 says it pretty clearly: No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. 30 And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit.
Gossip does not build people up. In the NIV, we are told in Proverbs 11:13 and 16:28 that a gossip separates close friends, and in 26:20 that gossip causes a quarrel to continue. In Proverbs 18:8 and 20:19, we learn that gossips betray confidences and that the words they share are choice morsels – so interesting that people want to hear them – words of gossip are delicious to our ears, so to speak.
In Romans 1, Paul gives a long description of the actions of wicked people and along with sexual perversity, envy, strife, murder and malice, is that they are gossips.
The Greek word there for gossip is psithyristēs, psith-oo-ris-tace’ which means literally means “whisperers.” Beyond that, Paul here gives no real description of what gossip is. Similarly, Paul doesn’t describe gossip in detail in 2nd Corinthians 12:20, where the same Greek word is used in this way: “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.“
In both of those passages, the KJV translates the word psith-oo-ris-tace’ as ‘whisperings,’ which I think is a very good translation that gets at the heart of the word meaning. One other time in the Bible where that word is used is in Ecclesiastes 10, in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, where a snake charmer is described as using psith-oo-ris-tace’/whisperings as a way to charm a snake.
The final appearance of the English word ‘gossip’ in the NT is in our focus passage today, 1 Timothy 5:13, where the word used is “phlyaros,” flü’-ä-ros A Greek word that means, “a person uttering foolish things, babbling. Of things foolish, trifling, vain.” The passage reads, “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” This seems to be a little different than the above uses. That Greek word for gossip, translated as tattlers in the KJV, actually comes from a verb, which means, ‘to bubble.’ and can also mean, to babble.
A few other passages:
A gossip goes around revealing a secret, but a trustworthy person keeps a confidence.
A contrary man spreads conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.
Whoever conceals an offense promotes love, but whoever gossips about it separates friends
The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip; avoid someone with a big mouth.
Without wood, fire goes out; without a gossip, conflict dies down.
Putting the biblical testimony above together, I believe we can reasonably conclude that gossip entails: #1 Privately/secretly/ Telling secrets or unauthorized juicy details about somebody else in a non-edifying manner – with a non-edifying goal. #2 Discussing other people excessively (in a nosy/babbling sort of way) bubbling over with information and guessings and speculation that gets into the realm of foolish babble and speculation. Gossip betrays trusts, it ruins friendship, throws gasoline on conflicts, and separates close people. It is the opposite of wisdom, integrity and being trustworthy.
I note here that Proverbs, the book of wisdom, has the absolute most to say about the topic of gossip in the Bible. For instance, in the HCSB, the word gossip makes 13 appearances, and OVER HALF OF THOSE MENTIONS – 7 – are warnings in the book of Proverbs. I believe we can extrapolate that gossip is the very OPPOSITE of wise behavior. People who spend their time gossiping and reading about gossip are wasting their time on incredibly foolish activities and becoming foolish, shallow and vapid themselves. Run away from such things. AND DON’T READ ABOUT THEM online either. When I originally wrote this article, a daily gossip site had just released a picture of a popular celebrity from the 90s, criticizing his appearance as disheveled. The poor guy has just spent months in the hospital with a terrible GI issue, and now has to deal with his picture being made fun of by a prominent national gossip newspaper/website. It’s sad, really, and we should avoid such things. Gossiping about celebrities AND politicians is still gossip, and it makes us increasingly foolish, instead of increasingly wise.
What is the takeaway? Be very, very careful when communicating about somebody that is not present to somebody else. Don’t share their secrets. Don’t share juicy details about their lives. DON’T speculate about their motives, what they are thinking, and why they did such and such thing – especially when that speculation is negative. The fact of the matter is that you and I don’t actually know somebody’s motive at all, and such things are notoriously difficult to guess from the outside. Sometimes I don’t even know what motivates my OWN ACTIONS, so I should run away from predicting what is motivating the actions of others. Don’t try to combine all of the juicy details you know about their lives into some sort of cohesive narrative. Those sorts of gossipy ‘investigations’ are almost always wrong in their conclusions. Not only are they wrong, for a Christian, they are off limits entirely.
It should be noted that some conversation about other people can take place without their being present. Just talking about another person without that person being there does not qualify as gossip, otherwise, Paul would be guilty of gossip in Galatians 2:11-15 and 2nd Timothy 4:10) As well, not everything that happens that is negative is prohibited from being a point of discussion – see 1 Corinthians 1:11 “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.“What is the dividing line? I think the answer goes back to Romans 14:19, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” – If the purpose of a discreet conversation is genuinely and truly the building up, or the well-being of somebody being discussed, then I don’t believe that qualifies as gossip.
Two church elders discussing a church member who might be struggling with alcohol addiction, and their motivation is to lovingly help the person? Probably not gossip. Two pastors discussing a third pastor of a church larger than theirs, and speculating that he has underhanded and worldly character as evidenced by his big house and nice car? Almost certainly gossip. I believe the determining factor is a HEART ISSUE, and thus we must be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit when talking about others.
We should be very, very careful with every discussion we have about a third/fourth party who isn’t around to defend themselves. If that discussion is 100 percent motivated by love and a desire for the greater good, encouragement and building up of the person being discussed, then that conversation is probably not gossip. (Be led by the gentle nudges of the Holy Spirit, however – better safe than sorry.) James guides us well here, writing that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
One important note: The distinguishing mark of gossip is not whether or not the information is true. RAY ORTLUND: “Gossip is not necessarily false information. Slander is false. Gossip might include true information, and maybe that’s why gossip doesn’t always feel sinful. What makes it sin is, first and foremost, that God says it’s sin. But gossip spreads what can include accurate information to diminish another person. That is not how people behave when they are living in the power of the grace of God.”
You know who is guilty of gossip? You and I. We need the Word and the Spirit to help tame our tongues. I know I do.
How does one avoid gossip? I believe that this is an issue that is less about what the precise definition of gossip is and more about the state of the heart and the predominance of love in it towards those who are being discussed; as well as a deep and sincere desire for the object of discussion to be edified and blessed. I believe a group of church leaders can, in a godly way, discuss rumors of a certain member of the fellowship engaging in drunkenness or adultery. I believe, at the same time, it is possible for those same church leaders to discuss those issues in a way that is salacious and therefore qualifies as gossip. What distinguishes the two? The best I can tell you is that it is the attitude of the heart and its love, as well as a genuine desire for edification that is the distinguishing factor. Ultimately, it should be repeated that judicious care needs to be taken in any conversation about a party that is not privy to the conversation.
I want to close with some words of wisdom from my good friend, pastor David McConnell at Agape Baptist in Pinson, Alabama:
In an age when anyone with a smartphone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online, with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution, is what the world calls trolling and what the New Testament calls slander (the Greek word means ‘to speak against’). Online slander includes spreading false information, rumors, or negative reports about others with the intent to hurt, harm, or destroy. This would include private text or email communication, the same as it would face to face discussions. Criticism behind another person’s back, in any format, is gossip which is forbidden by the New Testament.
Additionally Christians are called to do their best to handle disputes face to face and not publicly, even if your posts remain anonymous (i.e. ‘subtweeting’ – posting a critical or mocking post about a particular person without mentioning their name). And engaging in online arguments or extremely heated debates run the risk of ruining your witness to others and dishonoring the name of Jesus (especially among “the gentiles”).