Gossip is an often misunderstood sin. Some people think of it as the harmless sharing of personal information for entertainment like the gossip sections in newspapers or tabloids in the supermarket. Others consider it sin to ever share negative information about anyone else.
What Gossip is not
In order to define what true gossip is we first need establish what it is not. One modern definition goes like this, “Gossip is talking about someone behind their back.” Yet, if we adopt this definition we must accuse the Apostles and our Lord of this very action. In fact, I am not sure we could function as a society. How many necessary tasks require us to talk about someone when they are not around, including details that may not be flattering? Any leader knows this. In Galatians 2:11-13 Paul seems to be in violation of this definition for gossip.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. — Gal 2:11-13
Was Paul a “gossip” for publicly highlighting Peter’s hypocrisy? Consider these other examples of Paul talking about others in negative ways in his personal letters to individuals and churches:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. — Phil. 4:2
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. . . I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. — 1 Cor. 5:1, 5 (The Corinthians no doubt knew exactly who Paul was talking about)
You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.— 2 Timothy 1:15
for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. — 2 Tim. 4:10
Obviously, Paul was not a gossip. In fact, Paul includes the term psithuristes, translated “gossip,” alongside “murder” and “deceit.” According to Strong’s, this term refers to someone who is “a whisperer, secret slanderer, detractor.” Gossip must be more than sharing unflattering information when someone is not around. Someone obviously told Paul about situations he corrected that he was not present for.
Jesus also spoke about people in negative ways at times behind their back. In Matt. 19:23, after the rich young ruler left His presence, Jesus told his disciples: “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is there really any doubt as to whom Christ was referring? Christ also condemned the Pharisees both publicly and privately, sometimes even using sarcasm. (Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11:37-52)
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus instructed what Christians call today the steps of church discipline.
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
We should note again that there must be a conversation taking place between the person who initially confronts and those in the church who jointly confront during the second step. This means that something negative is shared behind someone’s back for the purpose of restoring them to a right relationship with God. In the last step this negative information is given to the rest of the church. If we defined gossip the way some people do, as talking about someone behind their back, we could not obey the Lord’s commands.
What Gossip Is
Scripture does give us a clear picture of what actually constitutes gossip.
Prov. 20:19 says: “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip.” The Hebrew word pathah, translated “gossip,” is largely defined by context. The context here includes the word rakiyl, translated slanderer, and can also also be translated “tale-bearer” or “informer.” Someone who tells stories that should be kept secret is a gossip. According to Strong’s, the word for gossip here can be defined “to be spacious, be open, be wide.” The common expression “loose lips sink ships” expresses the idea. Someone who is too open reveals stories that should be kept quiet.
Prov. 26:20 states: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.” The word ragan, translated “whisperer,” tells us something about the nature of gossip. It is defined by the action of speaking low so others will not hear what is being said. Gossips are not only loose with information, but they are only loose with certain people. A gossip does not want you to know what they say about you. They do not reveal their gossip to the people they gossip about. This is the opposite of Paul’s example in Gal. 2:11 when he “opposed Peter to his face.” If you are sharing personal information about someone else that you refuse to reveal to them yourself you are likely in danger of gossip. The phrase, “you didn’t hear it from me,” exemplifies this.
Proverbs 18:8 says: “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body.” According to Strong’s, the word for “dainty” means “ to gulp, swallow greedily.” When someone is put down it can make the people doing it feel good because at least they can tell themselves they are not as bad as that person.
Jesus tells us exactly where gossip comes from in Matt. 15:19 when He preached: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” According to Strong’s, the word blasphemia, translated “slanders” means “detraction, speech injurious, to another’s good name.” When applied to God we call it “blasphemy.” In blasphemy someone takes away from God’s attributes or attributes to Him characteristics that do not belong to Him. At the root, blasphemy is an attempt by man to subvert God—to make Him less and us more. When applied to people in the form of slander it is much the same thing. We lie by attributing false attributes to someone else’s character to make us feel self-righteous. We can sometimes even do this by sharing the truth, but not the whole truth.
My working definition for gossip is the act of secretly sharing damaging information about someone else for the purpose of elevating oneself. It often includes lying and produces slander.
In 1Tim 5:19 Paul tells the young pastor to “not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” This means there must by necessity be some “talking behind someone’s back” for Timothy to be aware of more than one accusation made against a particular elder.
Sometimes it is a sin to say nothing when we can prevent harm to others by being honest about what we know. Asking ourselves if we are part of the problem or the solution will help determine whether we should share information or not.
1 Tim. 5:13 associates gossips with idleness and being a busybody. “At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house ; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.” According to Strong’s, the word phluaros, traslated here as “gossips” refers to a person “uttering or doing silly things.” So if you take what you share seriously, chances are you are not going to gossip.
Here are some questions to help serious people determine whether something should be shared or should not.
- Is it any of your business? (Prov. 26:17)
- No – Then do not say anything and pray to God on your own. Perhaps you can share it with your wife or husband since the two are one flesh, but that is it, and even then be careful to protect a spouse from information that they cannot handle.
- Yes – This is my business because it directly affects something I am responsible for. This rule takes some wisdom, but most of the time the answer is obvious. For example, if you are trying to protect someone else you are connected to, you have a responsibility.
- To what degree am I responsible? In every institution there are levels of hierarchy established by God. We must be very careful to leave the things we are not responsible for in His hands. As a general rule we have the responsibility to confront a brother in sin (Matt. 18:15-17). There are other times where we must notify a spiritual authority (Gal 6:1, 1 Tim. 5:19). When it comes to those who are dangerous (especially heretics), we must warn those who they could be harmed (Matt 12:38, 1 John 1:10, Rom. 16:17, 2 Thess. 3:14, Titus 1:11). Sometimes you may also need to warn people about slander against yourself. Jesus did this in Matt 5:17. It is right to protect your own reputation, or the reputation of those you love. (Jer. 37:13-14, 2 Pet. 3:16) When in doubt talk to someone godly who can offer counsel (Prov. 15:22).
- What’s your motivation? If you have a pure heart and you want to warn someone about someone else, or warn someone themselves about their own personal sin, then do it. But if you know your heart is wickedly trying to elevate yourself and put them down then consider whether you should share the information. A wise general practice for most situations is asking yourself if you are concerned that what you say might get back to the person you are talking about. If this is the case, refrain from saying anything (Gal. 2:11).
One final piece of advice: Always keep yourself in prayer when considering these matters. Leonard Ravenhill said “Notice, we never pray for folks we gossip about, and we never gossip about the folk for whom we pray! For prayer is a great deterrent.”
Proverbs 16:28 states, “A perverse man spreads strife, And a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Plain and simply put, gossip is wrong because it reveals a prideful heart that results in destruction. Many of us have experienced the hardship of a broken relationship due to gossip. Those are the kind of wounds that never seem to go away. We need to be very careful what we say and check our motivations daily.
James 3:6 describes the tongue as “a fire, the very world of iniquity. . . that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” James goes on, “from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” These are serious words. Our tongue is a powerful source of both joy and hatred. If we can master it, we can master the whole body. The health of our relationships depends on our knowing when to open our mouth, when to keep it shut, and when to apologize for failing to do either when we should have.