Is gossip really a sin? And what’s the big deal about gossip anyway? The topic has been on my mind a lot lately, and I have some thoughts I’d like to share. But first let’s define our terms. What is gossip?
According to Merriam-Webster, a gossip is either “a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others” or else the actual “rumor or report of an intimate nature.” For practical purposes, a gossip is either the person talking about your private business with other people, or else the rumor someone is spreading about you.
We probably all know at least a few gossips. Think about your family, former classmates, co-workers, or fellow churchgoers. The gossips are the ones you don’t trust to know the intimate details of your life because you’d fear them blabbing about them when you weren’t around. Perhaps of more concern still, gossips are the ones you worry will habitually and even instinctively misrepresent you to others.
Yes, gossips are aggravating sometimes, and we are reluctant to tell them overmuch about the details of our lives. But even blatant wrongs are dismissed as mere lifestyle choices these days. Less egregious vices like gossip entirely escape our notice and comment. I want to consider gossip because I think we miss something important in overlooking it.
What The Bible Says About Gossip
In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul famously talks about God’s wrath on unrighteousness. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (v. 18)
He continues: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips…” (v. 28-29)
Wait a second. Didn’t I just say gossip is a minor vice? Isn’t gossiping small potatoes next to, say, murder? Yet here Paul talks about “all manner of unrighteousness” and evil in one breath, then mentions murder in the next, then gossip in the next. Perhaps gossip is a bigger deal than we realized.
Paul continues: “…slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (v. 30-31)
There’s a theme here. It’s along very similar lines to what Jesus teaches in Luke 6:45 (ESV).
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
What The Bible Says About Slander
In Romans 1 Paul mentions slanderers alongside gossips. But what is a slanderer? What is slander? Again, let’s define our terms.
According to Dictionary.com, slander is “a malicious, false, and defamatory statement or report.” Note the potential overlap with gossip, especially where a rumor spread about you is both false and intended to hurt your reputation.
Slanderous gossip is the worst kind of slander because you don’t know what’s being said about you or to whom. Therefore, you don’t have the chance to defend your reputation. You’re like a soldier out in the open being sniped at from some hiding place. If the sniper is a practiced shot, you won’t even know you’re a target until you’ve been hit.
However, one of The Ten Commandments is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16, ESV) This means spreading rumors about other people which are untrue and damaging is not a minor annoyance. Rather, it is a cardinal sin to be repented of.
But even Jesus was slandered. In Matthew 12 we read about a blind and mute man who was demon-oppressed until Jesus healed him. Afterwards the man could speak and see. Most people were amazed. The Pharisees responded with an accusation. “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
Jesus doesn’t let the accusation go without comment. Instead he addresses its premise and draws a clear line in the sand.
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (v. 25) “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (v. 30)
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Jesus says this like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.
“Go ahead, make my day.”
When Honor And Reputation Mattered
Speaking of movies and answering accusations, my family and I started watching the A&E historical drama series Horatio Hornblower this past weekend. Set during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the show is based on a series of ten historical fiction novels following the British naval career of a young man named, predictably enough, Horatio Hornblower.
In the first part, Horatio comes aboard his first vessel as a midshipman and encounters the show’s first antagonist, a senior midshipman who gets a sadistic pleasure out of dominating and abusing all the officers under him. Horatio’s peers are all cowed, yet Horatio is defiant.
When the villain tries to punish Horatio’s defiance by accusing him of cheating at cards in front of officers from another ship, Horatio has had enough. Coolly, calmly, Horatio demands an apology. When the villain insists no apology will be given, Horatio demands “satisfaction” on account of his honor having been offended. A duel must be fought to settle the question.
It goes without saying that duels have fallen out of public favor since the days of Hornblower. We no longer settle things with “pistols at dawn.” And that’s probably for the best. Maybe.
Yet we in Western society have also lost sight of the importance of honor since those days, and that is lamentable. Today there is seemingly no such thing as honor and shame. Instead of referring to honor or shame, we characterize people as either proud or humble, stuck-up or easy-going.
There should be some happy medium wherein we don’t go so far as fighting duels whenever someone offends us, yet where we care enough about honor and reputation to protect those things – both our own and one another’s.
The Proper Response To Gossip And Slander
Dueling may not be the appropriate response to our character being impugned, but what is? As Christians, we should refer back to Christ and what he taught and commanded, as well as his personal example.
In the case I mentioned earlier – as well as several other places throughout the gospels – it says “Jesus knew their thoughts.” This may be literally true. Perhaps Jesus was mindreading. It may be too that he was expert enough at human nature – and the Pharisees – to read and interpret their non-verbal cues with total accuracy. Or perhaps rumors of their accusations got back to him from his disciples.
We are not mind-readers, nor total experts on human nature to where we can perfectly read and interpret non-verbal cues. Surely, we are justified in asking questions sometimes based on the non-verbal signals others are sending. But practically speaking, the only way we can know for certain someone is gossiping about or slandering us is if word gets back to us, either from them or from others. And then what do we do?
Some will say we must turn the other cheek, that this is exactly why Jesus taught and commanded what he did in place of the old “eye for an eye” standard of justice. But this is not the whole story.
If Jesus sets our example, we confront. We cannot excuse passivity by saying Jesus was God, as if only he has the right, or as if he was only confronting because he as God was being maligned. Jesus commands “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15, ESV)
And gossip and slander are sin.