I recently read a series on gossip written by the pastor of a local church. In it, he defines gossip as “secret slander. Or as one lexicon defines it, gossip is ‘providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.’” In the series, he describes at length all the harm that can be done by engaging in this kind of talk, whether or not it’s the truth about a person, and he calls on people to Jesus Christ’s standard of perfection – only godly speech always.

At face value, this sounds great, albeit unrealistic. We shouldn’t talk bad about people to others. We should take any issues we have with someone directly to them. Absolutely.

But this series has a sinister undertone. It’s a gag order.

I thank God I have such a peaceful church!

Image credit David Hayward.

Let me explain.

We live in the real world. In the real world, people refuse to listen when confronted with something they’ve screwed up on. They deny they’ve made mistakes and they cover them up. Even in churches, where we ought to expect and extend grace to one another when we make mistakes, people still orchestrate circumstances to protect themselves and their reputations, rather than coming clean and making things right. We can see this desire to hide wrongdoing and protect one’s reputation in the Catholic Church abuse scandals, in the fundamentalist church abuse scandals… in pretty much every scandal, actually.

We have to accept that people at all levels are going to screw up, mistreat one another, break laws, and then try to cover it up. What are we to do then? If we are forbidden from ever discussing issues with anyone except the person involved, how can we hold one another accountable? How can we bring abuse, lying, stealing, cheating, manipulation, and any other sort of corruption to light?

The Bible provides one model for confronting wrongdoing in Matthew 18. In that model, you approach a person one on one. If they don’t hear you, you bring 2 or 3 witnesses. If they still don’t hear you, you take it to church leaders. And if they still don’t hear and change, you take it to the church congregation. This is the part where many churches would conduct an excommunication, although I believe this is a gross misunderstanding of what’s being described in Matthew 18. (This is another blog post that has been covered better by others, but basically, if we are to treat a person as if they are an unbeliever, let’s think about how Jesus did that. He reached out. He loved them. He poured out undeserved grace and forgiveness on them. That doesn’t sound like excommunication at all.)

But under this pastor’s definitions of gossip and godly speech, every step between going to the person one-on-one and taking the situation to the church congregation is gossip.

I cannot bring 2 or 3 witnesses without finding out whether they are indeed witnesses and discussing the situation with them first, nor can I go to the church leaders and discuss the situation with them without “providing harmful information about a person… with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.” Nor can church leaders discuss situations within their congregation without being accused of gossip, according to this definition.

Just because some information about a person is harmful doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be discussed. The key is why. Why are you discussing it? Are you trying to trash their reputation? Or are you seeking their best interests, and those of everyone else involved? Are you trying to confirm whether your impressions or observations are true or accurate? Have you gone to that person directly and been rebuffed? Are you trying to remedy a bad situation, protect someone from being abused, prevent laws from being broken, or just help a person do the right thing or break a harmful habit? These are all right, good, healthy, and important reasons to discuss something harmful about a person.

What are you to do if it’s the leaders themselves doing wrong? A series like this, with definitions and applications such as these, is a veiled effort to shut down critical conversation. It causes me to question whether he thinks that he and the other leaders in his church are infallible, or at least exempt from accountability. I don’t see that in Scripture or in real life. No one is infallible, least of all church leaders. Power corrupts, right? And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This pastor has shot himself in the foot. He cannot practice the model of accountability described in Matthew 18 and also hold to this definition of gossip. But it is more than just self-injury. This kind of thinking and teaching is dangerous. He’s telling his congregation, “Don’t talk, or you’re sinning.”

Watch out when leaders refuse to admit they’ve done anything wrong and actively work to shut down the kind of accountability that could bring any wrongdoing to light. Beware the leader who circles the wagons, shuts down discussion and criticism, and makes up rules to protect themselves from being held accountable for their actions.

When have you seen “gossip” use for good? What about leaders shutting it down to cover their actions?