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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO 81326

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DEALING WITH GOSSIP

There are, generally, three ways in which we discover we are in some form of conflict: (1) we realize that we hold something against another (Matt. 18:12-35); (2) we realize another holds something against us (Matt. 5:21-26); and (3) we discover, or are being drawn into, a conflict of others.

Now, conflict is neither good nor bad, but neutral. It exists because we are sinners -- seekers of self-interest, in rebellion against God's ways. And we live in a fallen world. But because it exists, it must be brought under the Lordship of Christ.

In the Bible, and the life of Christ, God has given us instruction on how to deal with conflict so He will be glorified. These conflicts have the ability to prove the accuracy of Rom. 8:28: that even sinful things can be turned to God's glory when we deal with them according to His plan. This article will deal with how we are to behave when someone begins to, often unintentionally, draw us into the conflict of others.

Gossip is a means by which we are often drawn into the conflicts of others. We need to know what it is and how to deal with it biblically. It is critical for the Church, individual Christians, and Christian leaders, to know the part gossip plays in conflict, for gossip causes great division in our churches.

First, let's define gossip. Webster says: "Idle talk and rumors about others; chatter." The Greek word in the New Testament is defined "whisperer" (one who will not speak openly or aloud). The Old Testament Hebrew word meant "slanderer or tale-bearer".

I want to propose the following as a definition: "Gossip is the vocalization of potentially destructive things about another, whether true or false, when that other person is either specifically identified or readily identifiable, and when that other person is not present and able to respond."

You may believe this definition is too broad. Please reserve such a judgment until we look at how God views gossip, and how He instructs us to deal with it.

What does God think about gossips?

He tells us to not associate with gossips: "He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets; Therefore, do not associate with a gossip." (Prov. 20:19)

God lists gossip alongside people who: do not acknowledge God; have a depraved mind; are full of unrighteousness, slander, wickedness, greed, malice, murder, strife, deceit, and envy; who hate God; are insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and people who approve such things. (Rom. 1:28-32)

In short, God hates gossip. Gossip is an unmistakable evil, reprehensible and detestable -- an abomination. But, why?

Gossip is always making an accusation against another. Prov. 3:30 says: "Do not contend with a man without cause, if he has done you no harm." We need to understand that an accusation against another must be made to the person themselves, within the process of Matt. 18:12-35.

Gossip reveals things God would rather see kept secret. Prov. 11:13 says: "He who goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter."

Gossip is just an outlet for hatred. Prov. 10:12 says: "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions."

Worst of all, gossip causes division. Prov. 12:18 says: "There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." Prov. 16:28 says: "A perverse man spreads strife and a slanderer separates intimate friends." Pro. 17:9 adds: "He who covers (does not repeat) a transgression promotes love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends."

Gossip causes offenses. It will separate because the one who gossips must now justify and defend their sin of gossip, preventing them from dealing with other sins in their life. The victim of gossip gets angry and bitter and senses having been wronged, which prevents them from receiving admonition about areas of their life which may need change. Each person becomes, as is shown in Prov. 18:19: "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle."

Gossip keeps conflict going, and peace away: "For lack of wood the fire goes out, where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down." (Prov. 26:20)

But there are people who are just as bad as a gossip, although you find no direct references to them in Scripture. The people I am speaking about might be called "listening posts". They are the people who allow the gossiper to gossip. They can terminate gossip and lessen its negative impact if they know how to recognize gossip, and deal with a gossiper. I am afraid that "they" are "us".

There are other people just as bad as a gossiper, although, again, you find no ready reference to them in Scripture. They might be called "rejecters", or possibly "condemners". They are people who allow gossip to separate them from another person or, as a result of gossip, deal unrighteously with another person. They choose up sides without knowledge. They also must know how to recognize gossip and deal with a gossiper. "They" are also "us".

We need to realize that: (1) God has provided instruction on how to deal with conflicts; and, (2) the act of gossip is an act done outside of that process. That is why merely speaking words about the actions or inactions of another person which harm the image of that person, except in furtherance of God's restorative process (Matt. 18:15-17) is sin, even if we speak truth.

And listening to the words of gossip, except when participating in God's process, is also sin.

Finally, acting upon what we hear and then cutting off our relationship from another is also sin -- and possibly the worst sin of the three.

God's process for dealing with disputes, in its simplest form, is that any person who discovers that they have a dispute with another, or believes another is in sin, must, at once, seek out the other -- regardless of who is at fault -- and attempt to resolve the dispute and become reconciled in relationship (Matt 5:21-26 and Matt. 18:12-35). This is more important to God than being in church or giving an offering.

It is to be done with an eye to restoration of relationship of each person to God, and to one another. It is to be done because we are sinners saved only by His grace (Matt. 5:22), who were straying sheep for whom He died (Matt. 18:12-14) and we have been forgiven more than any other could possibly owe us (Matt. 18:21-35).

If this were practiced, in right manner and attitude, there would never be gossip, for matters would be "covered" between the people directly involved, or they would be brought before witnesses in Matt. 18:16.

So, how should we deal with gossip?

If someone (Party #1) gossips to you, it automatically means they have a conflict with another (Party #2). Gossip always discloses the existence of a conflict. When #1 gossips to you, they are doing so because: (a) they want you to empathize with them in a sense of victimization, anger and bitterness; and, (b) they want you to alter your relationship with #2.

Thus when #1 begins to gossip to you -- to give you information about #2 which you have no need to know -- interrupt! Then, open the Scriptures to #1, at Matt. 5 or Matt. 18, and ask them if they have spoken personally to #2 about whatever it is that they feel needs to be dealt with. Explain the evils of gossip.

At this point, #1 will say either "no" or "yes". If "no", speak to them about the need for them to go to #2 and confront the matter which is causing them so much concern that they are gossiping about it. Explain to #1 that if they have gossiped to others about this, they must confess that sin to #2 (Jas. 5:16), ask forgiveness, and that this must be done before they can begin to speak to #2 about their concerns. #1 also needs to go to those to whom they gossiped and ask forgiveness for making them listening posts. Say to #1 that you will ask them, within a week, what they have done with your admonition and instruction.

Or, let's assume that when you stop #1 in the midst of their gossip, they repent, they have not spread this to others, and they received it in gossip. Then they need not go to #2, but they ought to go to the one from whom they received the gossip, ask forgiveness for receiving the gossip, and teach that person what that person needs to do.

Let's assume that the week goes by, you ask #1, and they have not gone and made things right. Let's also assume that the matter is something which needs to be set right. For example, we may discuss open and public actions or words of another person as a learning process, without being gossips (as Paul discussed matters concerning Peter in the letter to the Galatians, and also discussed the acts of the man in I Cor. 5). In such a discussion, however, statements without foundation may not be made, nor judgments of heart or motive cast about.

Well, #1 has done nothing. Your next move is to explain to #1 that your relationship with them is now a relationship within Matt. 18:15-17a. Explain to them of the desperate need for them to get this matter right with God. Exhort them. Maybe offer to go with them to #2. But also explain to them that if they persist in not being obedient to the Word, you may have to gather others to come and confront them -- Matt. 18:16.

You now have the right (not necessarily obligation) -- in manner, speed and spirit as directed by the Holy Spirit -- to move up the ladder of Matt. 18:15-17a in confronting #1 of their sin. The sin of #1 is unrepentance concerning their gossip.

Now, let's move back to your first confrontation with #1, and assume that they say that they have gone to #2, and that it did no good. Commend them for their action, but explain to them that you, and others, still do not need any information about the issues between #1 and #2; that is, #1's telling you of this matter is still gossip. Explain to #1 that he/she now has two choices: (1) move up the Matt. 18 ladder with #2; or (2) overlook the matter and let it go, having exercised the role of watchman (Ezekiel 33).

Should #1 want you to go with them to #2, as a "witness" (Matt. 18:16), agree. But to go as a witness, you still do not need any information other than the fact that #1 has a dispute with #2, and needs people to help bring peace.

Let's assume that #1 says they have taken one or two and #2 is still not listening and continuing in their sinful behavior. What do you then do?

Ask for the names of the witnesses of Matt. 18:16. Ask if the matter has been told to a church. You still do not need information on the issues involved from #1, but you may -- particularly if you are in relationship with #2 -- want to confirm with the witnesses that there was a meeting and #2 did not listen.

If the witnesses do confirm, you can then become an exhorter to #2 to make matters right because you do have a relationship with them. You may need to modify your relationship with #2, not because of the underlying issues between #1 and #2, but because #2 does not heed your exhortation. You may want to try to get #1, #2, and the witnesses to all meet with leaders of the church to discuss the matter further (Matt. 18:17).

Please note that in this process you never alter relationship with #2 until #2 shows unwillingness to proceed further in the biblical process of conflict resolution. Also note that your relationship with #1 is also dependent upon their accepting your instruction and admonition. In short, if you practice this process there is no danger of your ever picking up a dog by its ears (Pro. 26:17), for you will never "meddle" -- pass the bounds of reasonableness. You will always be on God's side.

There are two other things which you can initially do. Each of these has a risk attached to it. The first, and less risky, is to become a constant exhorter of both parties to get together and resolve the matter (Matt. 18:15). You exhort them to agree upon some others to help them (Matt. 18:16), or even to get them to agree to have some others decide the dispute for them and tell them what they are to do (I Cor. 6:5). The risk is obvious: you may lose two friends. But there is no great spiritual risk to you.

The other thing, which also risks loss of friendships, also has a spiritual risk to you. You may become a counselor to #1. The risk is that you become subverted to #1's position, lose all objectivity and neutrality, help #1 continue in sin by failing to confront their wrongs, make #1's offense against #2 your own, and wrong #2 by altering your relationship with them. Then you have the dog by its ears!

Let's assume that from reading this you have been convicted of being guilty of gossip, or of being a listening-post, or of altering your relationship with another because gossip influenced you. Go to the one from whom you received the gossip, ask them to forgive you for receiving it, and share these thoughts with them. Go to anyone to whom you gossiped, ask them to forgive you, and share these thoughts with them. Go to any person who was the object of your gossip and ask them to forgive you, offering to go with them to the one with whom they have conflict (thus helping undo the wrong you have participated in).

As you take these steps, you give God the opportunity to turn your sins of the past into good for His glory -- Rom. 8:28 -- and all who become aware of your acts of repentance will be bettered for those acts.