Question: "How should the church deal with gossip?"
Answer: Gossip is repeating information that should not be repeated, even if it is true. Often, the person who repeats gossip that turns out to be true does it before the truth is substantiated or permission is given to share. What makes news gossip, even if true, is its repetition by or to someone who does not need to know. Gossip might be shared information that was gained in confidence, but it might be information that one has simply “heard” or “overheard.”
The appeal of gossip is that people like to find out secrets and people like to share secrets, especially if the secret is only shared with people who can be “trusted” to keep it. Additionally, when a secret is shared, it may make another person look bad and thus improve the self-image of the gossiper and his audience.
In addition to the many passages in Scripture that warn about the misuse of words and the tongue are passages that warn against gossip specifically:
Proverbs 11:13, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”
Proverbs 20:19, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.”
Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.”
In the New Testament, the condemnation of gossip is harsh. In Romans 1:28–30, gossip is one of the sins that signifies mankind’s deepest depravity: “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents” (emphasis added).
Paul lists gossip as one of the sins he fears that he will find in the church in Corinth: “I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20, emphasis added).
Gossip causes division within the church, and it should be addressed.
In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus explains how sin should be dealt with in the church: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
When a person gossips, he or she needs to be confronted according to the pattern Jesus laid down.
Sometimes it may be difficult to recognize gossip, or it may be couched in such a way as to hide its true nature. It may appear to be motivated by genuine concern: “I heard that Frank and his wife are about to split up. I am really concerned. Have you heard anything about that?” It could be couched as a prayer request: “Please pray for Frank and his wife. I hear they are really having problems.” In these cases, the gossip is spreading information that he or she does not have Frank’s permission to share, even if it is true.
In these cases, the one who hears the gossip must respond properly. It would be helpful if the church had specific teaching from the pulpit on these scenarios.
When a church member hears something like the above illustration, he or she should first refuse to listen and direct the gossip back to the source. For instance, when the gossip says, “Have you heard that Frank and his wife having trouble?” the other party might respond, “No, I haven’t, and I don’t want to hear it. You should not be repeating things about Frank that may or may not be true. If you have genuine concern about Frank’s marriage, you need to go talk to him and see if he needs help.” If there really is concern for Frank and his wife, then the “concerned person” will follow up with Frank, and if the only motivation was gossip, perhaps this response will nip it. If the person persists in gossip, the steps in Matthew 18:15–17 should be followed.
When we hear a potentially gossipy prayer request, it would be appropriate to ask some questions: “Did Frank tell you this?” “No—then how do know it is true?” “Yes—then did he tell you to let other people know and ask them to pray for him?”
The point is to challenge the gossip, refuse to engage the story, and to redirect the gossip’s concern into more productive activity. Before anyone talks about Frank, he or she should speak with him directly to determine the facts, what assistance he might need, and whether it is appropriate to tell others.
The person who hears the gossip cannot—must not—repeat it. That person has only two options in response to the information that was communicated. The first is to simply let it go, and the second is to go to the source (Frank in this case) and try to ascertain the facts (assuming that this person has a relationship with Frank and that such an approach would be warranted.)
There may be occasions when a person is genuinely concerned and goes to a pastor or mature Christian to get help in formulating a proper response to something he or she has seen or heard. In this case, it might not be gossip, but it could easily turn into it. “Pastor, I am concerned about Frank’s marriage. I have heard some things, and I fear they may be true. What should I do?” Here the pastor or mature believer should certainly caution against gossip, impress the fact that this information should not be repeated again, and then encourage the “concerned” party to talk to Frank. If there is not an adequate relationship with Frank, then perhaps it would be appropriate for the pastor or mature Christian to “take over” and go to Frank himself.
When it comes to gossip (or potential gossip), the appropriate response is to confront the one repeating gossip, refuse to listen, and, if it is too late for that, refuse to repeat it. If some action seems to be warranted, then the information must be confirmed with a person in a position to know and give permission to share it. If these steps were followed in every case, much that should not be repeated would be kept quiet, and a person who really does need help would likely receive it.