The Ecclesiology of Slander And Gossip

“Do not slander one another, brothers” (James 4:11).

What is it about us human beings that we simply cannot seem to resist talking about other people? 

And no. I do not mean saying commendatory or praiseworthy things about others. If we’re all honest, we speak far too often about others in ways that are more gossipy and less commendatory. We just can’t seem to keep from throwing in that one little barb, or that negative innuendo, or that tiny bit of speculation. How much of our conversations with friends or co-workers or peers or neighbors really consists of talking about others in ways that, like it or not, may well fit the category of slander or gossip?

Slander according to Bible scholar Gordan Keddie is “every statement that is made with the purpose of belittling someone, or besmirching his or her reputation, and encompasses everything from out-and-out lies to veiled innuendos, and even includes true statements when these are told only to hurt the person about whom they are made.” 

I like Keddie’s definition because, unlike many other definitions, he includes the possibility that even true statements may well be slanderous. It’s the underlying intent, you see. And therein lies the trap for us. None of us is very good at objectively examining our inner motives. And we’re even worse at admitting when something we said to someone about someone else may well have hurt or potentially injured the person’s reputation, regardless of our intentions. Add to this the doctrine of human depravity, which reminds us that even as Christians, remnants of our old sinful man remain, meaning we’re a mixture of pure and impure at any given moment (Gal 5:16-17). Put simply, our motives in this life are never really sinless and perfectly pure. And deep down, we know it.

Gossip is defined by the online Merriam-Webster dictionary as “someone who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others” or “a rumor or report of an intimate nature.” The Cambridge online dictionary states it this way: “conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or untrue.” Here again, we see in these definitions a blend of true or untrue statements, a requirement to check our heart motives, and we learn that gossip typically involves something of a private nature.         

“No human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8).

Here’s God’s answer. To confess that we, in and of ourselves, do not rule our tongues, but rather are ruled by them! And to know that as Jesus taught, our words always reveal our hearts (Matt 12:34). 

So, the first step or priority in the Christian’s battle against the temptation to slander or gossip is to acknowledge one’s deep-seated propensity to slander or gossip, to acknowledge our need of God’s Holy Spirit and to rely upon fellow believers in this never-ending war against our fleshly desires and nature.

We far too often treat these sins and temptations in isolation, due to our raging American individualism. That is, we just do not truly grasp how much we need the other members of the local church body to keep us on the straight and narrow here. But Jesus describes His people as those who are constantly, by God’s sanctifying grace, removing beams from their own eyes in order to help remove specks in the eyes of others (Matt 7:1-6; Luke 6:39-42). 

That view of my personal, individual sin being far more grotesque than the sin I have noticed in my brother or sister’s life, surely would go far in my battle against slander and gossip! It would incline me to much more eagerly confess my own sins to a brother in my life than to take it upon myself to confess someone else’s sins to him.  

This matter does indeed get sticky and tricky inside a local church, doesn’t it? Especially so inside a church that takes sin seriously, and where members do obey God’s command to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16, see my previous post on confession). In healthy churches, relationships develop that pull us close to one another in ways that demand deeper transparency, and in ways that really do make us holy as we pursue Christ together. In so many ways, sanctification is a community project (Gal 6:1-2; Heb 3:12-13; Heb 12:12-17; James 5:19). 

And herein lies my point: It’s hard enough already for pastors and members to do gospel life together with one another inside a local church in ways that ensure biblical confession of sin and sanctification is happening; so, don’t violate the trust of your local church by talking about church members in ways that may well be slanderous or gossipy. 

If, due to a close relationship inside your church, you are privy to certain sin struggles of others, hold those very tightly. Be a person of integrity. Keep your friend’s confidence. “A whisperer separates close friends” (Prov 16:28). Only in extreme circumstances where someone is in danger of some kind or where laws are being broken, or where a pattern of sin is being followed without repentance, should you even consider bringing another church member into the circle of confidence. 

Even in the matter of a public confession in a local church, we should consider that matter part of the overall discipline of a healthy church. Sharing what was confessed outside the membership of our local church effectively usurps the authority of the local church in matters of both formative and corrective discipline. As a pastor, I can tell you I have often been alarmed at how quickly another local pastor catches wind of an internal church disciplinary matter within the flock I shepherd. That can only mean one thing – someone in our church took it upon himself or herself to share outside the church family, something that was clearly a private matter intended to be dealt with inside the local congregation. 

This appears to be precisely Paul’s concern in public lawsuits among the Corinthian Christians (1 Cor 6). In the previous chapter, Paul exhorted the Church of Corinth to deal swiftly with a sin among a member of a particularly heinous and public nature (1 Cor 5). He does not expect the Church at Philippi to enact the corrective discipline upon the member, and he does not even name the individual who committed the sin. He well could have (as he often names false teachers). But he did not and he needed not to do so. The matter was internal to the local Church at Corinth. The members there already knew enough details that they should have been acting in loving, corrective discipline. And the whole notion of internal church discipline then seems to lead Paul to begin rebuking the Corinthian Christians for taking church affairs into the public square, in this case by lawsuits in secular courts. He excoriates them for not understanding that “the saints will judge the world” and for showing themselves “incompetent to try trivial cases” and for not being “wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers” (1 Cor 6:1-8).

Now, I realize we might have very close relationships with other Christians who are members of other churches, or who once were members of our local fellowship. The transitory nature of our lifestyles in 21st century America all but ensure it. But I think even still, we should always exercise great caution in what we say and how we say it when we are telling others something about our fellow church member(s).  Each local church only has disciplinary and discipleship authority over its own members (Heb 13:17). Once a private sin matter has escaped the bounds of a local congregation, pastors and flock have no ability or authority, then, to try and correct any gossip, slander, mis-conceptions, mis-representations, etc. So, I continue to argue for a robust, holistic, local-church-centered view of the matter of slander and gossip. If we inside our local church cannot trust one another with our private wounds, struggles and sins, then we cannot really say we are in a healthy New Testament Church. I have no doubt that breaches of confidence do indeed hurt a church’s overall health, especially in matters of helping one another rightly war against sin and practice biblical forgiveness. Nobody wants to confess sin to a bunch of gossips.  

Here are a few practical tips for pursuing a biblical ethic in our conversations:

  • Don’t try to divorce what you say about a fellow church member or what you share about him or her from your overall doctrine of the Church. Truth is, our speech always either hurts or helps both the church member and the church body as a whole (Eph 4:25-32). 
  • Avoid “prayer request” gossip or slander. God already knows it all. Asking another believer inside or outside the church to pray with us over a matter is fine. But how we do it and what we say also matters greatly. Keep it basic and as generic as possible. The notion that God only answers specific prayers is hokey and unbiblical (Matt 6:7-13). 
  • Refuse to post anything online about a church member or friend that is not edifying and commendatory. Let’s face it, the proliferation of social media has exacerbated slander and gossip, even within Christian circles, exponentially. Helping one another deal with sin is and should be an in-person, face-to-face business (Matt 18:15). The one exception to this might be a public post that contains theological heresy that requires correction. But even then, it seems preferable to try to take it up with the person privately first. 
  • Ask people permission to share about their situation or struggle. This would solve so much of our problem! Not sure if something should be shared? Then go straight to the source and ask. If you do not have permission, then do not share it. 
  • Follow the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves, as an expression of our all-consuming love for God, really resolves all slander and gossip. 
  • Ask yourself good questions before speaking or posting. Is this information really mine to share? Would I want someone to say this about me, or share in this way if I were the one who could lose standing or reputation? Why am I really compelled to share this detail?
  • Consider what your words will convey to those outside the church regarding the quality of health inside the church. Will saying or sharing this information extol the virtues and wisdom of Christ in my local church? Or will it possibly denigrate or diminish the reputation of Christ as it resides in and comes through my local church? 
  • If you have possibly slandered or gossiped, go ask everyone directly impacted for forgiveness. If you entertained slander or gossip, ask everyone directly impacted for forgiveness. (And yes, this is also a way to rebuke the one who spoke the slander originally.)   
  • If you hear a brother or sister starting to share something that seems to be headed in a potentially slanderous or gossipy direction, gently ask that he or she exercise caution. Truth is, nobody would slander or gossip if we all refused to listen to it!
  • Ask: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? [I have heard this from so many sources that I do not know where to give credit at this point.] 
  • If I have more information than someone else, before I share it, I should plumb the depths of my heart before God to ensure that it is actually necessary for someone else to also know the level of detail that I do. If I am convinced it is necessary, why? What Scripture has convinced me of the necessity? What counsel have I sought in this matter? Prov 11:13-14.   

The potential divisiveness of slander and gossip within a local church ought to give us all great pause to stop and pray and think before we speak (Prov 6:19; Titus 3:10-11). May God help us all and grow us all in His grace, especially so in the bridling of our tongues. For His glory in the Church! 

by Keith McWhorter