Saturday, May 3, 2008

Gossip Reconsidered: What Exactly Is It?

"Gossip needn't be false to be evil - there's a lot of truth that shouldn't be passed around." ~Frank A. Clark

Most of us know the sting and pain from being gossiped about. The distrust and sense of betrayal is something that pretty much all of us have experienced sometimes in our lives. Not to mention the fact that we have all done it (and some of us are probably addicted to it). It's a bit difficult to define though. For instance if you looked up "gossip" in a dictionary you'd get things like this:

1. (noun) idle talk or rumor, esp. about the personal or private affairs of others: the endless gossip about Hollywood stars.
2. (verb) to talk idly, esp. about the affairs of others; go about tattling.
-Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

1. (noun) Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature.
2. (noun) A person who habitually spreads intimate or private facts or rumors.
-American Heritage Dictionary

As you can see each of these sources puts a little bit of their own spin on it. If you break it down to it's essence though what is it? Eric Foster's common definition of gossip is any conversation between two or more people about another person (or person's) who is not there. Indeed, Wesley agreed with and condemned it. Wesley established two such rules about gossip for the early Methodist small-group class meetings: "1) Now we are to talk of no absent person, but simply of God and our own souls, and 2) the rule of our conversation here is to be the rule of all our conversation." I like Wesley's rule; it places honoring people at the highest level, something I wish our churches would do more of (imagine if your church actually held to this rule!). This definition though does seem a little extreme as there are times when this may be impractical.

Personally I think that a definition of gossip should include the element of slander (an abusive attack on a person's character or good name). This what I read in the Bible passages about the topic. When we talk about people behind their backs in a way that damages their reputation or calls into question their character we are gossiping about them - no matter how truthful the information is. When we add, even in the most subtle way a judgment against them, we are gossiping. Willow Spring Church has 5 Guidelines to Guard Against Gossip which I find useful:

1. If you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all. (Eph. 5:4)
2. Never speak about a person in any way other than compliments and praise, unless they are present, and even when they are present, “Let all that you do be done in love.” (I Cor. 16:14)
3. Never share any information about another person unless they have given you their specific permission to do so. (Prov. 6:19)
4. Never speak about another person in any other way than how you would share it if they were present. (Prov. 25:23 & Mt. 5:37)
5. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. (Romans 14:23)

Proverbs 20:19 tells us not to associate with a gossip. Why? Because in our association with them, we will become like them (see Prov. 13:20).

Romans 1:29 tells us that those who continually practice gossip will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Gossip is listed with such sins as homosexuality, murder, inventors of evil, and haters of God. Clearly, we are to aggressively guard the body of Christ against gossip!

2 Corinthians 12:20 tells us that gossip is a reflection of a lack of acknowledgment of God. It further tells us that gossip is a reflection of an unrepentant heart.

1 Timothy 3:11; 2 Timothy 3: 3; Titus 2: 3 indicate that “Malicious gossips,” are not to be tolerated in the church. Amazingly, the term that we translate, “malicious gossip,” diabolous, is also translated, “devil.” A malicious gossip is a slanderer, one who spreads stories, true or false, that hurt and bring pain to others.
Gossip is a serious problem in our churches. Imagine what an evangelistic force it would be if people came to see the church as an intimate community where gossip was not only unacceptable but actively fought against every time it raised it's ugly head? Now that would be a witness! Sadly I fear it often the other way around. I have spoken to too many people who have been severely damaged by fellow Christians talking about them behind their backs. How do we fix this problem? I think it all starts with some of us taking a stand against it - on a personal level. As I write these things I am convicted because I realize that this is a problem for me. I believe that with God's power one person can make a difference, even in the most gossip ridden family or church. May you and I be that person.
May Light increase!


Elayne said...

I'm sure that if everyone who gossips would always be confronted immediately it might do away with this problem to a large extent. I have to say I struggle with doing that with my friends.
I have been trying to figure out some personal relationship techniques in the last while (few years) that have really surprised me. The latest was exactly this issue you are talking about.
I would say it was more slandering than gossiping. I know that if I would have said something, it would have hurt my friendship with this person. Since I knew about this "problem" between these two people, I decided that instead of saying anything I would pray for them, knowing specifically what I needed to pray about. I could see that my friend was very convicted and yet was not ready to do what was right even though she made feeble attempts at clearing her conscience. Then came the day when she told me that she went to the person, confessed and asked for forgiveness.
In this case, if I would have said something I don't believe anything would have changed. I watched though, and could see clearly how God was taking her one step at a time to that point where she would be willing to admit the sin and deal with it. It was absolutely amazing to see it unfold before my eyes, and for me at least, so much better to see God change someone's heart than for me to in a sense, remind her of the "rule" - not to gossip.
It was the work of God in this woman's life that "cured" her. It did some amazing things for our friendship too: she did not know I was praying about this and was humbled to think I simply prayed and didn't say anything; it stretched my faith to let God be God even though sometimes I wanted so badly to tell her to stop what she was doing; it increased my faith and my prayer life and it blessed me beyond words to share in a Christian sister's growth. PTL!
That's been my latest experience on this topic!

Mark said...

Hey Mom, great story. Yes confronting people on gossip/slander (they almost always go together don't they?) is really hard. It sounds like you feel that you made the right decision by not talking to your friend and instead praying about it. That dilemma; to confront about gossip/slander is one we all face so often. For me, I usually feel like I've made the wrong choice if I don't confront them - it is simply me choosing "the relationship" (whatever that means!) over what I believe to be right. I find its so easy to justify not saying anything. Here are some of my excuses:

1. I don't want to destroy my relationship with that person (even though I am being inauthentic).
2. They'll figure out their sin on their own (though they rarely do).
3. It's not my place to do it (in a group context it's easy to dilute responsibility or pass it onto others/whoever is in charge. This is of course not remotely Biblical!)
4. It's not the right time or place to confront them (thus I put it off until it's too late)
5. I'm just too scared of saying the wrong thing (so I say nothing at all).
6. I don't know this person well enough (Sometimes we don't know someone well enough but I use this excuse way too often),

There are times when I haven't said anything and it has felt like the right decision but those times are few and far between.

After writing about the topic I've been more aware of gossip lately and I was amazed at how much of it I head at Olive Garden last night. Wow! I think the problem is even worse then I thought. As I mentioned before I'm quite convicted about it and am going to try to both rid myself of doing it and confront others when they do it. Thanks for commenting Mom!

Elayne said...

Just another word about this topic that I wanted to mention last time and didn't:

I think the most important thing to do is to not repeat the gossip you hear.

Secondly, we don't HAVE to listen. I have tried to say something to the effect that since the person being gossiped about is not present we should continue this conversation when they are, so that they can have some input. This has never really worked for me. Which is why I lean more towards not repeating the gossip and in the future I will be praying about it. If you know the person like I knew my friend, I was sure that eventually she would listen to what God was telling her, because she truly wants to allow God to 'search her heart and point out anything that should not be in there' and have a clear conscience. I thought God's timing was perfect and I know mine usually is not.

Mark said...

Good points Mom! Choosing not to listen is a very brave thing to do, almost as much as openly confronting the person. In fact, I guess not listening is kind of a low level confrontation in and of itself?

The thing about listening to gossip/slander is that if affects us. Even if we know that it is slander/gossip, and that parts of it/all of it may not be true we are damaged by it and the person being slandered is damaged in our eyes. How many times have you struggled to meet someone with an open mind after they have been slandered previously to us meeting them? The same thing happens with churches. I know so many people who have slagged Springs Church here in the city without ever going there! Essentially they have gossiped and slandered it to me and now it affects my view - even though I don't want it to. Choosing to not listen to gossip not only stops the sin of it from happening but protects you as well.