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Now Reading: Do Christians Need to Start Taking Gossip Seriously?
10 months ago
When was the last time a Christian you know worshipped the Canaanite god Baal?
Personally, I’ve never caught someone in that particular act of idolatry.
What about violence? When was the last time someone from church committed assault?
Still pretty rare, but you might be able to think of an example or two.
What about gossip? When was the last time you caught a Christian unnecessarily speaking negatively about someone behind their back?
Which day in the last week was it?
While 21st century Christians tend to steer clear of blatant idolatry or violence, there are a few sins we seem happy to commit without a second thought. Right at the top of that list is gossip.
Shortly after I began working in ministry, a mentor gave me some advice that has proven incredibly valuable. She said “Sam, the world of ministry is incredibly small. Never say anything bad about anyone else unless you absolutely have to. More likely than not, that person will learn what you’ve said about them, or someone close to them will, and it will come back to bite you.”
The worlds that we human beings exist in are all pretty small. Your workplace, your church, your family and your friends are all small worlds. Even if some of these worlds have thousands of people in them, when it comes to gossip, they are small worlds. Word travels fast.
When you gossip, there is a reasonable chance that the person you’re speaking about will learn of it. If you asked a gossiper what they think this likelihood is, I suspect they’d estimate it as being somewhere between 0.1% and 5%. In most situations, the real likelihood is a lot closer to between 10% and 50%.
Even if the person you’re gossiping about doesn’t become aware of it, there’s an even higher likelihood that someone who is close to that person is going to find out what you’ve said. I’m writing this article because I’ve lost count of all the times that I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being this third person, hearing gossip about someone I care about.
Gossip is like setting your curtains on fire and then hoping that the fire will put itself out instead of burning down your house.
I doubt you’ve ever read a headline that states “Lead Pastor steps down after becoming emotionally burnt out by gossip in his congregation” or “Board of Directors for Christian Ministry implodes due to malicious rumours.”
Gossip doesn’t attract as many headlines as sexual or financial immorality, but it’s far more common and can be almost as damaging. There is more than one ministry whose leadership I have seen fall apart because of gossip. There is more than one workplace culture that has been soured by nasty rumours. There is more than one pair of “loving Christians” I know who aren’t on speaking terms, again because of gossip.
The fact that gossip is a sin just seems self-evident when you consider the damage it causes. If I drink something and immediately start choking and frothing at the mouth, you’d reasonably conclude that the thing I drank was poison. If something destroys relationships as effectively as gossip does, you can reasonably conclude that it’s a sin.
Gossip isn’t sin because it breaks a rule in God’s special rulebook. It’s a sin because it fails to abide by Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbour and treat others the way that we would want to be treated.
Gossip is the act of unnecessarily speaking negatively about someone behind their back. That word unnecessarily is important. There are times when it is necessary to speak negatively about someone. At work, for example, you may need to speak with your boss about another employee who isn’t performing well. This is necessary so that the employee can be corrected and better managed.
At times, it may also be necessary to speak to someone for advice and/or emotional support. Say John from the church leadership team does something that really hurts you. You might not know how to deal with the situation, so you tell Barbara, a personal mentor of yours. Barbara has a lot of experience in church leadership, and you’re hoping she can give you some advice for resolving this situation.
There are many situations where it is necessary for us to get the advice or support of a third person. However, we need to be cautious. It’s easy to lie to ourselves about what is “necessary.” I’ve definitely been guilty of using the excuse, “I need to vent about this,” to speak negatively about someone when it wasn’t really necessary.
To help us discern when it is appropriate to speak negatively about someone, here are a few key principles:
Before speaking negatively about another person, pause and ask yourself, “What is my intent?” There might be a simple answer, “I need to tell the person in charge about this situation, because it was a significant breach of our code of conduct.”
Other times, the answer won’t be so clear cut. You might be thinking “I need some advice” or “I need to get this off my chest.” In these moments, I’d encourage you to reflect on your intent.
Do you really need someone else’s input, or do you just want to ‘spill the tea’ about this situation with your friend? Is there part of you that wants to tarnish this person’s character, as payback for whatever they did that hurt you?
We aren’t perfect. Situations may arise where it is both necessary to speak to someone AND some of our motives for doing so aren’t great. Whenever we identify poor motives within ourselves, we should be very cautious of speaking unnecessarily. Where we are certain it is necessary, we should pray for God’s grace, that we would forgive the person and overcome any ill-will towards them.
As Christians, our final goal in any situation that requires us to speak negatively about someone should be to resolve that situation and/or to forgive that person. Everything we do in response to the situation, including speaking negatively about that person, should be directed towards that end.
An excellent principle that a mentor shared with me is that if she needs to speak negatively about someone, she will get the person she is speaking with to hold her accountable to resolving the situation. She will ask the person to follow up with her in a week’s time and inquire about whether she has taken the necessary steps to resolve the situation.
I challenge you to do the same. If you share with someone to get their advice or to vent, finish by asking that person to hold you accountable.
Whenever you speak negatively about someone, you are doing a degree of harm. That harm may be minimal – it may be that you slightly tarnish their reputation in the eyes of someone who they will never meet. Or the harm you inflict may be reputation or career destroying.
As people who are called to love even our enemies, our goal should always be to minimise the harm we are going to cause someone else.
How do we do this? Well, it may be that you can get the advice you need while keeping the identity of the person you are speaking about anonymous.
Where this isn’t possible, you should at least minimise the number of people who you speak with. Do you need to get the advice or one person, or perhaps even two in serious situations? Sure. But do you need to speak with four or five people? Unless it’s part of a formal disciplinary process, the answer is almost certainly not.
Throughout the Bible, there are many stories of faith communities suffering great damage because of sin hidden in their midst. For the Israelites, it’s idolatry (Eze 14:1-14). For the early church, it’s financial or sexual immorality (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 6:18-20).
For Christians today, our hidden sin is often gossip. We need to address this in our own lives. We should be careful only to speak negatively of others where it is necessary. Even then, it should always be with the intention of resolving the situation and we should seek to minimise the damage our words have.
In our faith communities, we need to stop tolerating this sin in our midst. When confronted with gossip, it’s not enough to passively nod your head or utter some banal response like “I’m sure he means well.” Would you passively nod your head while witnessing someone commit sexual immorality? Would you utter some bland reply in response to financial misconduct?
If we don’t want our house to burn down, we need to actively work to put out the flames. It’s time we start taking gossip seriously.