This is being written as a result of two situations in which I was recently involved, and seeks to address another issue within the issue of gossip.
Case #1– A cult-watching group began receiving complaints about a friend of mine — complaints calling him a mind-controlling cult-leader in the nature of a Jim Jones. Never once did a representative of the group go to my friend to “test the spirit of the man,” nor did the group ever require one of those with a complaint against my friend to go with them to confront my friend.
When I challenged the group with their actions, they justified their actions on the bases of “investigating to see if my friend enjoyed a good reputation in the community.” They later closed the investigation but never called any person back to whom they spoke to say that my friend was a reasonable man. Meanwhile, those from whom they received the negative reports used the fact that there was an investigation to further slander my friend. The organization said it was not responsible for this, nor were they responsible for “setting the record straight.”
Case #2 — A major religious figure received negative reports about an employee of another Christian organization. Having heard the reports, he went to the Boss of the employee and said: “If you do not get rid of this employee, I will not be able to suggest to the thousands under my influence that they contribute to your ministry, or come to you for your services.” The employee was subsequently fired.
When confronted, the man admitted he had never met the employee, and knew nothing of him except what he had been told. He claimed he was righteous in passing the negative reports onto the Boss “so that the Boss would not suffer from the acts of the employee”.
These cases seem to raise the following questions: (1) “How, other than directly speaking with Party A, may I Godly find out the reputation of Party A? (2) “May I approach Godly leaders of a particular community and inquire about A without engaging in listening to gossip?”
Case #1 raises the question: “May I receive a negative report about one who professes Christ and then act upon it in a way other than to bring the one with the complaint into the presence of the one against whom they have the complaint?”
I suggest that the biblical answer is, “no.” The moment I listen to the negative report, even my silence is wrong. By silence, I fail to offer needed correction and instruction to the one apparently gossiping. By silence, I refuse service as a possible peacemaker between brothers who are separated. By silence I give the appearance of “hearty approval” to the one engaged in slanderous conduct (Rom. 1:32).
Case #2 raises the question: “May I receive a negative report about one who professes Christ and pass the report on to another and be righteous?”
I suggest that the biblical answer is, “no.” My act of passing the information on carries with it my implied endorsement of the facts; I certify to truths I do not know first hand.
Both of these cases point us to the Lord’s instruction in Matt. 18 where we are considering efforts to recover straying sheep (18:12-35). A negative report designates someone as a straying sheep, and places us into the requirement of attempting rescue via the Matt. 18 process.
I wish to make this very clear: Doing anything other than this is sin.
Now it may be that those having authority over a person are the ones who come to you with the negative report. They say, in essence: “This man is under discipline; he will not listen; have nothing to do with him.”
As I read Scripture, I must “listen and receive” this negative report, and it is to then govern my behavior towards the individual. I must limit my fellowship with that individual. But beware — after all, it was the religious leaders who carried the negative reports concerning Jesus! Thus, you may also do what I tried to do in Case #1.
In the case, my friend had been disfellowshiped by his church in the past. That fact is a part of the negative reports which travel about concerning him. So I contacted the church which had exercised discipline against my friend, and asked if I might come with my friend and sit and talk about the things of the past in an effort to find reconciliation and restoration. The church refused! In their refusal, they foreclosed restoration of the very stray sheep (their opinion) which Scripture commands them to seek to restore — even when the sheep is at the door crying for an opportunity to be restored!
Today, I relate to my friend on the basis of my knowledge of and history of interacting with my friend. I did not cease relationship with my friend because of the negative report when those spreading the report are unwilling to meet with him.
So, is there a Godly process for determining reputation in the community?
At the risk of giving worldly council rather than biblical, I will say, “yes, provided that: (1) you have first spoken personally to the person you desire to investigate; and, (2) you know what to do when you receive a negative report.”
But first, what are the settings in which you may be needing to discover the reputation? A potential employment relation is one, as would be a possible business relationship, as might checking upon a person before admitting them to membership in the congregation. And there are others, I am sure. However, note that in all of these you will have (or are able to) automatically meet the person personally. Instead of acting in avoidance of meeting them (as in my two cases), you begin by meeting them, a better way to begin any relationship. In such a meeting (and I suggest using two or more people), there is an opportunity to test the Spirit.
So, having met the person, you now go forth asking others about their opinion of this person. Asking the questions will lead to, essentially, one of three response:
“He is a good man”;
“I do not know him”; or,
“He is an bad man.”
The first two answers pose no problem. The third is a stick of dynamite now waiting to explode within you. “Like one who takes a dog by the ears is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him.” (Pro. 26:17) Having received a negative report, the risk is very high that you will “meddle.” In Hebrew, the word means, “passes bounds of reasonableness.” That means there is now a reasonable and an unreasonable thing to do when you hear, “He is a bad man.”
Asking, “Why do you say that he is a bad man,” passes the boundary as it opens the door for gossip — the man himself is not present to respond to any accusation. Of course, the same thing happens if the one you are questioning simply begins to spew forth — in which case you must stop him before he contaminates you (“The words of the whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body” — Pro. 26:22).
Instead, proceed in your “investigation” as follows:
“Is your opinion based upon your personal interaction with the man, or upon reports from others?” If the answer is “personal,” then proceed. If “reports,” then rebuke him for having listened to gossip and now having gossiped to you.
“Have you, pursuant to Matt. 18:15, shared with this man his sin as you see it?” If the answer is, “yes,” proceed. If “no,” then instruct him in the ways of biblical conflict resolution, and gently rebuke him for his sin of giving a negative report having not confronted in love.
“I assume that your speaking to him did not resolve the matter or you would not be still calling him a bad man. Did you then take one or two as witnesses to further confront him in his sin (Matt. 18:16), that you might recover the sheep which is going astray (Matt. 18:12-14)?” If the answer is, “yes,” proceed. If “no,” then rebuke, instruct, and offer to be a “one or two”.
“May I know the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the witnesses?” Assuming the information is given, thank the man for his time and obedience, and leave. It is the testimony of these Matt. 18:16 witnesses which you need, not the potentially prejudiced view of the offended party.
If at any point in this process the man gives the wrong answer then erase the negative report from your mind — you cannot hang on to it and allow it to determine your relationship with the other.
Then call the one or two and confirm there was a face-to-face confrontation within Matt. 18:16. If they confirm that there was a meeting, and that, in their opinion, Party A did not “listen,” then ask if they “told it to any church.” If they say, “yes,” ask for the identity of the church. Ask if there is any evidence of subsequent repentance, or if they know if anyone has attempt to contact the man to see if there has been a repentant heart.
Now, at this point, you may — but you do not need to — go and see Party A. In so far as your investigation is concerned, it is completed — the bad report has been confirmed by witnesses and by proper process, although the facts of the offense have not (nor do you need the facts). You may choose your manner of relating to Party A as the relating to an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17b) or a stray sheep (Matt. 18:12-14).
So if you go to Party A, you go offering to take him back to fellowship through the church, the witnesses, and the other party. You do not ask Party A for his version, any more than you needed to ask the first man, the witnesses, or the church, for their version.
Please note that I have not said you need to know particulars of the negative report. I am very unsure if we should ever ask for the reason for the bad report; rather, we should accept the witness of the witnesses. But I am open for a lot of discussion on this matter.