Gossip

Preaching and Worship Resources about Gossip

Gossip is conversation or disclosure about a third party behind their back. It may be helpful; it's more typically hurtful. It may be simply idle chatter. As to its truth, gossip is often unverified or even unverifiable. It is often unconstrained by fairness or charity. Men sometimes unfairly assume that women gossip more than men do. Gossip is ubiquitous wherever people gather, including online. Treating gossip as a species of sinful folly, Scripture focuses on its hurtful instances.

In Scripture

"You shall not spread a false report" (Ex. 23:1).

"Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Ps. 141:3).

"When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech" (Prov. 10:19).

"With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered. . . . A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence" (Prov. 11:9, 13).

"A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends" (Prov. 16:28).

"The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body" (Prov. 18:8).

"A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler" (Prov. 20:19).

"For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal is to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife" (Prov. 26:20 - 21).

"They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil" (Rom. 1:29 - 30).

"I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (2 Cor. 12:20).

"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29).

"They learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say" (1 Tim. 5:13).

"How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire" (James 3:5 - 6).

Points to Ponder

Secrecy is an ingredient in gossip. It's talk behind someone's back, and it may be innocent or even helpful. "John would never tell you this, but he was actually a state champ in high school math." Or suppose you have a newbie in the office. A word or two about ways to avoid irritating the boss might be helpful: "Don't mention the president to him." Sometimes gossip is mere casual chatter: "She drives a Camry and loves it."

But Scripture focusses on the harmful effects gossip often causes. First, gossip is often speculative or plainly false. Gossips will, for example, speculate on other people's motives: "He does that only to curry favor with the boss." Here the gossip can't know what he's talking about unless he has the power to peer into other people's souls.

Second, harmful gossip is not good for the gossiper. If, for example, he knows he spread a damaging secret, and if he has a conscience, he's going to be troubled, just as he should be. Now he must revise his self-image downward. He also has a mortifying assignment — to go to both the recipient of the gossip and to the subject of the gossip and confess his wrongdoing. (Fortunately, if he accepts it, the assignment will prove unpleasant enough to deter him from future spasms of gossip.) If the gossiper doesn't have a conscience, his gossip just reinforces his belief that he is entitled to say whatever he wants behind other people's backs. The gossip thus hardens his own heart.

Third, gossip may puncture the privacy of its subject. "Did you know that he was once hospitalized for mental illness?" "I heard that he lost most of his nest egg at the track." "She can't stand how she looks." Each of us human beings is entitled to a reasonable amount of privacy, safe from the rummaging of a blabbermouth.

Fourth, gossip may damage its recipient. Let's say she's been told a dark and juicy secret about a friend. If she relishes the bad news, she deepens her own schadenfreude. If the secret is unwelcome news, she's now stuck with it. She can't get it unsaid. And it may fester in her. It may contaminate her relationship with both the gossiper and the subject of the gossip.

Classically, bad-news gossip can harm the reputation of its subject. Somebody dishes dirt behind Tom's back, and now he can't figure out why people avoid him, or look at him funny, or don't trust him, or don't laugh at his jokes any more. And he can't figure out what happened. So he asks somebody what's changed between them. Now the recipient of the question is in a bind: If she tells the truth, she must admit that she believed an unsubstantiated, private, or damaging piece of gossip. If she lies to him ("I don't know what you're talking about"), she hides truth Tom has a right to and she corrupts herself.

No wonder James says that "the tongue is a fire."

A problem for Christians who want to discipline their speech and listening by love is that gossip is everywhere and is widely regarded as normal, or harmless, or merely naughty, or actually entertaining. Talk shows, reality TV, social media, school playgrounds, extended families, workplaces, churches and synagogues, and countless other venues where people gather — all of them teem with gossip. National politics is full of gossip. In the US, unscrupulous people for years spread the false rumor that President Barack Obama wasn't an American and therefore wasn't eligible to be president. This racist lie damaged the President's reputation just as the gossips had hoped, endangered the president and his family, and corrupted the nation's consciousness. A prominent participant in this scandalous business finally admitted in public that the "birther" rumor was false but didn't think to apologize for spreading it.

Gossip is everywhere and impossible to avoid. But the wary and conscientious Christian will nonetheless strive to speak and listen with integrity. One of the best descriptions of such integrity is the Heidelberg Catechism's treatment of the ninth commandment ("Do not bear false witness."). Q&A 112 says:

Q. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?

A. That I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one's words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing. Rather, . . . I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor's good name.

An etymological note that preachers might enjoy: According to James Vanden Bosch, professor emeritus of English at Calvin College, "gossip" comes from the Middle English godsib, meaning "godparent." The idea is that a godsib would be trusted inside a family's life and the baptism of their child, perhaps learning interesting secrets there, and then go around tattling about them.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.