What is Gossip? Maybe Not What You Think

Gossip is a subject I’ve been meditating on for awhile now. I truly desire to please the Lord and encourage others with my tongue, but there are times I utterly fail. As I began thinking more about gossip, I realized that I couldn’t come up with a great definition for it. I want to address the sin of gossip in my life, but it’s difficult to do so without really even knowing what it is and is not. Dictionary.com wasn’t much help in clarifying it for me, so I took the question to facebook to see how others defined it. I received a lot of interesting responses from people who really put some thought into it, and for the rest of the day I pondered their answers. By the end of the day, I was still questioning the validity of many responses I received, so I decided to do a thorough scriptural study on gossip. It was very interesting and eye-opening for me, and below are the results I came up with. I’ll begin with addressing some of the definitions that people came up with, and why they are actually NOT gossip (at least as a black and white rule):

  • Conjecture 1: It is (always) gossip if the person would not want you to talk about them in that way.
  • Conjecture 2: It is (always) gossip to speak about someone in a way that portrays them poorly.

False: If this is true, then Jesus (a sinless man), would be considered a gossiper. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). I highly doubt the pharisees wanted to be spoken of in this way and Jesus was obviously not portraying them in a good light. Also, Jesus wasn’t the only one – Paul and other New Testament writers spoke like this about various people plenty of times in their writings.

  • Conjecture 3: It is (always) gossip if the person you are talking about doesn’t know you are talking about them.

False: Again, Jesus talked poorly about people when they weren’t physically present and were unaware they were being spoken of. “And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod'” (Mark 8:15). Paul did the same: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Tim. 4:14-15).

  • Conjecture 4: It is (always) gossip if it betrays someone’s confidence.

False: For instance, a fellow Christian may tell you in confidence that she is stealing from her company. You directly confront her about it, but she refuses to acknowledge that it is wrong and continues to steal. You are then actually instructed to tell others: “If your brother sins…go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matt 18:15-17).

  • Conjecture 5: It is (always) gossip if your words are judging another.

False: In 1 Corinthians 5:1-3, Paul says: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife…for though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” Paul actually states that he has passed judgment on this person. This is a whole other blog topic for another time, but the scriptures tell us not to judge those who do not call themselves Christians, but actually DOES call us to judge those who do.

  • Conjecture 6: It is (always) gossip if you use specific people’s names.

False: Paul reprimanded people by name: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). Moreover, whoever told Paul about the quarreling obviously used specific names. Also, Paul wrote to Timothy saying: “for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).

  • Conjecture 7: It is (always) gossip to share negative information or news about others.

False: 1 Corinthians 1:11 says “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.” Paul then goes on to address the quarreling and divisiveness it’s causing; he does not go on to scold Chloe and her people for gossiping. There are many other examples of people passing negative news between one another in the New Testament that are never condemned as gossip.

  • Conjecture 8: It is (always) gossip if you wouldn’t want what you are saying about another to be said about yourself.

False: See above examples about the pharisees, Alexander the coppersmith, Demas, etc. No one wants negative things said about them, but in those instances, it was not considered gossip.

To be clear, the above conjectures can be gossip, they just don’t work as a definition for it. In my study of the scriptures, the word “slander/slanderer” and “talebearer” were used much more often than the word “gossip,” which I found interesting. As I studied each verse, I came up with four categories that all the verses related to gossip/slander/talebearers fell into. Based upon the Bible, here is what I found gossip to be:

1. Viciously and intentionally using your words to hurt someone or ruin someone’s reputation, whether in public or private (Ex. 23:1, Lev. 19:16, Ps. 34:13, Ps. 101:5, Prov. 11:9, Prov. 12:6, Eph. 4:31, 1 Tim. 3:10-11, 1 Pet. 2:1, 1 Pet. 3:10, James 4:11, Titus 3:2).

2. Making up or spreading false rumors. If you hear something you are not sure is true, confirm its truth before passing it along (Ex. 20:16, Ex. 23:1, Deut. 13:12-15, Ps. 34:13, Eph. 4:25, Eph. 4:31, 1 Tim. 5:13).

3. Revealing something told to you in confidence in order to do damage to the person who told you or to gain favor with your listeners (Prov. 11:13, Prov. 20:19).

4. It is gossip if your heart delights in telling or hearing negative things about others, or in creating quarrels or division among others (Prov. 16:28, Prov. 18:8, Prov. 26:20-21, 1 Tim. 5:13).

One additional category I created consists of verses directing us on the proper use of our tongue:

5. Believers in Christ should use their words to help people move towards Christ, rather than to encourage sin and move them away from Christ. Make a conscious effort to align your speech with God’s heart and to encourage others. Be aware of how powerful your words are (Ps. 19:14, Prov. 22:11, Acts 15:32, Acts 20:2, Eph. 4:29, 1 Pet. 3:10, 1 Pet. 4:11, James 3:5-6).

This was a great study for me and here are some of my notes for practical application:

*As I originally thought, the motive/heart behind your words is ultimately what is important. Always consider if your words will be helpful/neutral/harmful for the listeners, the person being talked about, and yourself. I think Jeanette Spradley really hit it on the nose when she said: “Jesus was always concerned with the heart. One of his greatest commands is to love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to your conscience. When you speak badly to hurt someone it’s wrong, but just like every other biblical principle it’s not black and white. I can feel in my heart when my intentions are wrong.”

*I should be slower to speak, and in general more careful with my words. I’m not the stereotypical “chatter box” woman, but I think I could avoid a lot of gossip if I evaluated my heart before I spoke rather than after. Sometimes I can just blurt something out without really considering what I am saying.

*I should confront people directly more often. This conclusion is a less obvious one, but one that I think would definitely cut down on the amount of gossip I do. For example – if my friend doesn’t follow through on a commitment she made to me and I find that really irritating, I should just go to her and tell her I found it irritating and hurtful, rather than spending an hour telling my husband all about it. I like to think I’m pretty decent at speaking truth (in love) to people about ways they have hurt me/sin in their life, but I still don’t do it nearly enough.

*I should care less about what others think of me. If I did this, I wouldn’t feel the need to gain favor from people by sharing gossip.

*Pray more. Firstly, this would encourage me to talk to God about my grievances with someone rather than gossip about it. Secondly, more prayer would most likely change and soften my heart towards that person.

*Constantly strive to align my heart and mind with God. Again, I like what Jeanette said about this: “I think [gossip] hardens our hearts and makes it so we are much less forgiving and understanding.” I would add that the opposite is true as well – when our heart is hardened and less forgiving, we are more likely to gossip. It can become a vicious cycle. What comes out of my mouth is a reflection of what is in my heart – and too often it is sin and ugliness.

*Be intentional about using my words to build others up more.

*Fixate on the positive – Philippians 4:8 says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

*It is helpful for me to have a better idea of what gossip really is, because I previously had a tendency to heap unnecessary guilt upon myself for saying things I thought might be gossip, but actually were not.

*I should hold others accountable for the gossip that comes out of their mouths. This actually sounds much more difficult than avoiding gossip myself. I need to be diligent about asking someone to stop gossiping to me if they start to do so, and to make it clear to everyone that I am not interested in listening to gossip.

*I need to take gossip and the things that come out of my mouth much more seriously. There are numerous times I have said something I immediately knew I shouldn’t have said, but just brush it aside like it wasn’t a huge deal. However, Matthew 12:36-37 says “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” James 1:26 also says “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Ouch!!! If those verses don’t make me take the topic of gossip seriously, I don’t know what will. I don’t think I should beat myself up over it or become legalistic about it, but I DO think I need to be better in tune with the weight and potential consequences of my words. After all, since I call myself a follower of Christ, I am a representative of Him and I must take this role incredibly seriously.

Wow, guess I learned a lot and I’ll continue to meditate on these things and hopefully grow to gossip less!! I know this was long, as most my posts are, but if you made it this far, hopefully you learned something too. If there is anything in this post you disagree with or have additional thoughts on, I’d love for you to comment – it would help me grow and I welcome (friendly/loving) disagreement on my blog. In case your brain feels completely overloaded and about to explode at this point, here is a silly/fun/entertaining video on gossip to revive you: