I love talking with people. And I love talking with people about people. There are so many joys and triumphs to be shared and celebrated. The apostle Paul mentions to the Romans, “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you” (Rom 16:19). Again, to the Thessalonians, he rejoices that Timothy “has brought us good news of your faith and love” and because of this, “in all our distress and affliction we were comforted” (1 Thess 3:6, 7). Christians ought to share in the good news and joys of one another.
Unfortunately, Christians are imperfect people. The joys of sharing good news can easily turn into gossip. However, defining gossip seems to be a difficult task. Google defines it as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” Merriam Webster defines gossip as “rumor or report of an intimate nature, or a chatty talk.” Generally speaking, people identify gossip in different ways. To some, sharing anything about someone else can constitute gossip. To others, gossip only pertains to information that is sensitive in nature. To some, sharing facts by nature cannot be gossip, while to others, the veracity of the content has little to do with identifying gossip.
I wrestled with this issue recently when I was personally accused of gossip. I wanted to know what the Bible said about it. How does the Bible address gossip? An improper view of gossip that is overly strict can potentially paralyze someone from sharing anything. Fear of what constitutes gossip can weigh down individuals with a great sense of guilt. Likewise, a loose view of gossip can set the precedent for someone to share hurtful, and often slanderous, information. I believe the Bible helps us guard ourselves from both extremes. When addressing gossip, it is vital for us to look at what God clearly condemns, what God wisely cautions, and what God delightfully commends.
Identifying what God Clearly Condemns
When I started this study, I was expecting to find a wide range of Bible verses that specifically addressed gossip as sin. To my surprise, the actual number of passages that dealt with gossip was fewer than I had anticipated. In the NASB, there are only seven instances of the word “gossip.” Out of those seven instances, three of those are actually the word for “slanderer” (1 Tim 3:11; 1 Tim 5:13; Titus 2:3). In the list of evils (Rom 1:29; 2 Cor 12:20), the word translated gossip (psithyristas and psithyrismoi) is actually “a whispering” which can also be understood as a “secret slanderer” according to Strong’s Concordance and the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. This connotation is also present in the lone Old Testament reference to gossip found in Proverbs 20:19.
From our understanding of the words used to describe gossip in the Bible, it can be concluded that there are two clear evils according to God regarding gossip: first, bearing false witness (slander), and second, secretly scheming to do harm (whispering). We ought to vigorously and aggressively address these evils as sin. There is no place for this sort of “gossip” in the life of a Christian. Such wickedness should never flow from the lips of a man who serves the true and living God.
Understanding what God Wisely Cautions
Although we have identified only two clear evils, this does not mean everything else is fair game. Freedom does not give license, as Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor 6:12). This is especially true with our words. And not surprisingly, the Bible cautions the Christian from being careless with words.
There is another use of the word “gossip” in the Scriptures that should help us apply wisdom to our words. Paul teaches Timothy to encourage younger widows to get married because they “learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention” (1 Tim 5:13). Here the word gossip can be translated, “blabbering” or “empty-talk.” The phrase “not proper to mention” can also be understood as “not necessary” which fits in the context.
In this passage, Paul is saying that the younger widows are bearing no fruit. Not only are the younger widows idle, but they are also expending excessive energy without producing anything. As they go from house to house, they speak a lot of words but do no righteous deed, render no helpful service, bear no good fruit. Paul is not forbidding ladies from visiting one another and spending time sharing good news. However, such activity, when done flippantly and not wisely, can also create an opportunity for Satan and not merely idleness. Therefore, he would much rather that these women get married and bear children in keeping with fruitfulness, as opposed to empty talk leading to fruitlessness.
The Bible also gives us specific guidance and wisdom regarding our speech. It cautions us strongly against sharing secrets (Prov 11:13; 20:19; 25:9) as well as being a man of many words (Prov 10:19; Eccl 5:7). We should view these strong warnings, however, not as ultimatums but as principles by which we should manage our speech. There are times when sharing the secret would be appropriate or when many words are necessary. It takes wisdom to discern when it is appropriate to reveal something or even to speak at all.
For instance, when Paul’s nephew came to him to report about the plot by the Jews to kill him, Paul immediately sent him to the commander (Acts 23:16, 17). To some, this could be viewed as gossip: the nephew was sharing something about the Jews that they would have preferred to be in secret; the content was clearly negative regarding the Jews; and there was probably little corroborating evidence. However, the severity of the situation and the credibility of the nephew meant that relaying this information was not an issue of gossip but wisdom.
In all these instances, the Lord is providing us a framework through which we can apply wisdom to our speech. We should be careful with our words by always asking ourselves if our speech is going to bear fruit, guard our brother’s secrets, and bring safety to our neighbor. God does not give us hard and fast rules as to when these principles apply and when they don’t, but He wisely calls us to consider our words carefully.
Pursuing what God Delightfully Commends
Although we are cautioned against speaking many words, we are also encouraged to speak. There is a kind of speech that God delights in. Paul writes that by “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph 4:15). Again, he encourages the saints, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).
We put off and put on. We put off our old way of speaking falsehood and put on the new way of speaking truth. There is a lot of wasted effort on identifying gossip rather than pursuing godliness. If we focused more of our thoughts and efforts on speaking the truth in love, the issue of gossip would not be an issue at all. The greatest deterrent in speaking gossip is not merely identifying gossip but pursuing something better.
We do not need to live long to experience the devastating hurt that can come from words, especially words that are spoken about us to others. Likewise, we learn early on that the sharing of good news with one another can bring forth great joy. God’s wisdom guides us from extremes concerning our speech. He cautions us from speaking loosely, while encouraging us to speak the truth in love. Through commands, principles, and narrative, He helps us understand speech holistically.
Therefore, there are times we have to tell the truth—tell the secret—to somebody who can intervene in someone’s life. That is not gossip—that is love. There are times we have to tell the truth—tell the secret—to somebody who can administer justice. That is not gossip—that is justice. Identifying these things takes wisdom. And surely, we will fail. No one is perfectly wise. These failures can bring about much hurt, but such failures can also be shown much patience and grace as we all continue to grow in our speech.
In this journey of growing in wisdom so that our words can bear much fruit and do good for others, the words of John Calvin are immensely helpful: “Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.”1 In our speech, if we let love be our guide, I am convinced that the Lord will use our imperfect words to accomplish His good will to the benefit of others. Let us not fear to speak, but speak with love and with wisdom.
1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.10.30.