John Piper’s gossip post needs Part 2, to address double standards

When our daughter was a teenager, I remember her coming to Tim and me in tears over what some peers of hers were talking about. Turns out one of the peers had just informed another, when my daughter was part of the conversation, that a teenager they both knew was pregnant outside of marriage. They were laughing over it. Laughing. It was very clear they didn’t care about the girl at all, but found the information quite juicy.

This is perhaps one of the most stark cases of gossip I’ve seen, and this is what came into my mind when I read John Piper’s recent post about gossip (link), in which he concludes, with Scripture, that gossip is idle talk about others engaged in by those who are “motivated by pride that loves the delicious feeling of being in the know” who are “indifferent to what the destructive effects may be.” He also observes that in many cases the gossiper actually maliciously desires a destructive effect.

I thought his presentation was Scriptural and sensible.

But I believe John Piper’s gossip post left some gaps, because I see huge problems in our churches regarding gossip that weren’t addressed:

  1. In many churches, certain negative speaking is called gossip when it really isn’t, while true “evil speaking” gets a pass.
  2. People in the church are routinely accused of gossip who are in fact not gossiping. Who are they and what are their circumstances?
  3. There are people in our churches who often gossip but are rarely accused of gossip. Who are they and why is this the case?
  4. Gossip wasn’t as clearly defined as I was hoping it would be.

Since I was wishing for a Part Two, I’m writing one here, addressing the massive double-standard problem we face in the church of Jesus Christ regarding gossip. I believe a discussion of gossip isn’t complete without it.

1. In many churches, certain “negative speaking” is called gossip when it really isn’t, while true “evil speaking” gets a pass.

Especially if you’re from a patriarchal or pastor-dominant background, you may have heard of the no-gossip policy that has been prevalent in many churches. It is presented, more or less, as “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” If you say something that “isn’t nice,” then you are a gossip. As Dan Horn put it in “The Tongue is a Fire” (link), “If you’re not blessing, you’re cursing.”

But in these churches, the no-gossip policy certainly doesn’t mean you’re supposed to say only nice things about everyone in the world, of course. It seems to be understood that it doesn’t apply to certain groups of people: for example, certain well-known political or entertainment figures and even certain nationalities—we can talk negatively about them—and also people outside our specific church culture—we can talk negatively about them—and also people within the group who aren’t conforming to the group as we (leaders) define it. Yes, we can even talk negatively about them.

As it turns out, the no-gossip policy applies very specifically. Ultimately it plays out, with its unspoken rules, as,

<<Though the no-gossip rule is presented as a policy to prevent anyone in the church from speaking evil of others, we have seen that in practice it is about keeping the oppressed from “speaking evil” of their oppressors. When someone in a position of power or perceived power is actually committing evil, the one on whom the evil is perpetrated cannot speak out for fear of “gossip” and has nowhere to turn.>> ~from Tear Down This Wall of Silence

  • “Don’t talk negatively about someone who is your authority in the church (parents, husband, pastor).”
  • “Don’t talk negatively about someone we as a group respect.”
  • “Don’t talk negatively about someone who presents well in public.”
  • “Don’t talk negatively about someone I personally like.”

And this leads to point 2.

2. People in the church are routinely accused of gossip who are not in fact gossiping.

One woman in a destructive marriage was shut down by her church to such a degree that she wasn’t even allowed to speak to anyone in the church except the pastor about anything. She was followed and watched, until she eventually left the church, never to return.

So if a woman is trying to get someone to listen to her so she can get help in her marriage to her cruel and oppressive husband? She is accused of gossip. (The accusations of gossip become far worse if he is well liked, and even greater if he is also a ministry leader.) But the Bible says, in Proverbs 31:9, Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” How in the world are we in the church even supposed to know what’s happening with the poor and needy, especially the poor and needy right in our midst, unless we listen to what might be very uncomfortable truths? No, seeking help in the midst of oppression is not gossip; neither is it gossip to listen to the seeker.

A woman wants to try to process with someone the downfall of a highly-regarded pastor, author, and conference speaker because of his immorality, the very kind of immorality he preached against? She is accused of gossip. (In the case I heard about, the one who had fallen from his pedastal was Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, though there are many other possibilities.) But Jesus Himself had no problem calling out hypocrites in public, and surely there were people in His crowds who discussed His words and tried to understand what He was talking about in order to gain wisdom. After all, the book of Proverbs talks about gaining wisdom from a sluggard (24:30). Surely it’s also important to learn from hypocrites so we’ll know how to recognize them in our own churches. No, trying to understand how a man could live such a double life, that is not gossip.

A teenager tries to get help regarding her malignant narcissistic mother who locks her in her room for days on end? . . . Well, the teenager most likely won’t be accused of gossip; she’ll just be accused of disobedience and rebellion. . . . So maybe this one doesn’t apply.

A couple is trying to find out why their elders are stonewalling their efforts to learn the real reason someone was excommunicated from their church? They are accused of gossip. But because the Scriptures say in I John 1:5-7 that we are to walk in the light, and the end of the Matthew 18 process is to be a public one, they are not gossiping to try to understand what’s happening.

About three years ago on BJUGrace, we published a series of news articles to let our readers know that a former Bob Jones University student had been formally accused of child molestation in Hollywood. Because he was a very nice accused child molester who was a friend of many of our readers, we were, yes indeed, accused of gossip. Simply for posting news articles and asking for anyone with any information to let the authorities know.

A man is trying to let others know about a manipulating liar in their midst, or a manipulating con man, or a formally accused predator (a very nice accused predator)? He is accused of gossip. But the Bible says in Ephesians 5:11-14, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” No, trying to warn someone about the unfruitful works of darkness isn’t gossip.

3. There are people in our churches who often gossip but are rarely accused of gossip.

I’ve heard again and again the stories of those who were oppressed by cruel spouses or ministry leaders who, though they were silenced by the leaders in the name of “not gossiping” (and other tactics) later found that the ministry leaders themselves discussed their situation with no confidentiality, with apparent indifference to the truth of their accusations and the harm their words could cause. This is the very essence of gossip.

Also, once a person falls out of favor in the church—the woman who has tried to get help in her marriage to a cruel man, the teenager who has become “rebellious” in an effort to be noticed, the couple who continue to speak about the wrongs that are being covered in the church, the man who refuses to be quiet about the dangerous person in their midst—then very often those who are “in” the group are free to speak negatively about them, even with intent to harm, in order to silence them.

And especially when leaders speak negatively about others, though they may even maliciously desire evil intent, they are generally not seen by their people as gossips. Because when leaders gossip they do it with greater “authority,” this gives the impression they are speaking the righteous decrees of God rather than gossiping. It seems that because they are the ones who preach about gossip, they and others believe they’re exempt from the charge, just like Queen Elizabeth doesn’t have to get a passport because she’s the one who issues them.

4. What is Biblical gossip, exactly?

I wish John Piper’s post had given a clearer definition of “gossip,” though these phrases give some idea: “whispered words about other people which taste really good,” “some juicy piece of news about someone,” “scuttlebutt,” andnews that may stoke the fires of quarreling or dissension.”

According to Scripture, the Greek word that in modern translations has been rendered “gossip” (an English word that has morphed in its meaning a whole lot over the centuries) expecially because of its association with “whispering,” carries with it two aspects:

(1) The information about the other person is shameful, and (2) the purpose for telling it is more about exaltation of the teller than about love for anyone or a desire to get help or grow in wisdom.

This definition, then, examines both content and intention.

Gothard also said “slander [is] telling part of the truth or error with a design to hurt.” Just clear up a false statement, though, slander is only about spreading falsehood. Not about spreading unbecoming truth.

But what about the old “sharing detrimental information with those who are not part of the problem or part of the solution” definition, as Bill Gothard said in his Basic Seminar session 7? Even Rick Warren said (link), “What is gossip? It’s sharing information with somebody who is not part of the problem or the solution.”

I believe this to be a Biblically unsupported definition of gossip (focusing more on the listener than on the information and the intention of the speaker), but it’s a very common one. In all my years of hearing about gossip defined this way, though, I’ve never seen or heard anything about “how to know if you’re part of the problem” or “how to know if you’re part of the solution.” It is assumed, I guess, that it will be obvious. But what this common definition has produced is that potential hearers have held up their hands to those who are truly in need or truly trying to do the right thing, saying, in effect, “Not my problem,” and “Ask the pastor,” (implying that he is the one and only solution).

Though the intention of speaking shameful information is key for the definition, I actually do think it’s also worthwhile to think about those potential hearers, those who are part of the problem and part of the solution.

So, thinking about it that way, here are some thoughts . . .

Paul Kingsbury, the overseer of Reformers Unanimous where Josh Duggar (of “Duggar family” fame, former employee of the Family Research Council, who was exposed for molestation, pornography, and infidelity) went for rehabilitation, said in a sermon (link), “When you take information that is private and share it with people who are not a part of the problem or a part of the solution, you are speaking evil, blaspheming, destroying someone’s character or reputation by your words, and it probably indicates that you have a root of bitterness.” There’s so much wrong with this statement I hardly know where to start, but I’ll make a stab at it: (1) Kingbury fails to distinguish speaking that comes out of a malicious heart (what we call “gossip” these days) from speaking to expose evil, which is extolled by God. (2) Blaspheming can be done only against God, not against a fellow human. (3) A person’s character can’t be destroyed with your words; his character is only what he makes it himself. Yes, you can destroy a person’s reputation with your words. But a person who is living in evil doesn’t deserve to have a good reputation. Every person has the right to have a reputation that matches with his character. (4) “It probably indicates that you have a root of bitterness.” I’ve written about this one enough elsewhere.

In a church in which a man is refusing to care for his wife and children at home, the people who are part of the problem are all the ones who continue to be his good buddies. By this definition of gossip, then, they are the very ones who should willingly listen to an accusation against this man.

If you refuse to listen to a truth that needs to be brought to light, you are part of the problem. By that very definition, you should in fact listen to the person you think is gossiping in order to get the truth.

And part of the solution? When a person is seeking help from a cruel oppressor, then any one of us who listens has the potential to be part of the solution. Every single one of us who will listen and care.

In the case of the man trying to warn others about the formally accused predator in the church, was he part of the solution? Absolutely, just as Paul was part of the solution when he warned Timothy about Alexander in II Timothy 4:14.

What about if you’re telling someone about patterns you see in a couple in which you’re suspicious that the husband is abusing his wife with a desire to get them help? Again, you’re seeking to be part of the solution.

If there is evil in the church—if there is a two-faced evildoer in your church—then God wants you to expose him or her. You will be part of the solution if you do so.

***

To come back to John Piper’s post, I’d like to emphasize his three final points as statements rather than questions. If you learn shameful information about someone, here are guidelines for knowing when you should speak.

  1. You have a humility that does not need prominence in this “telling.”
  2. You are motivated by love (either love for the person whose reputation hangs in the balance or love for others that he or she has perhaps harmed or may harm, or both).
  3. You have a large-hearted purposefulness in life.  You want to see the Kingdom of Jesus Christ magnified and you want others to truly know who He really is. You want the oppressed to be protected from the oppressors. You want truth to shine as light, rather than the darkness in the corners creeping more and more over the entire church. You want roots of bitterness to be rooted out of our churches, wolves in sheep’s clothing to be exposed, and the glory of God to be made manifest.

Ok, well, that last part wasn’t exactly what John Piper said, so I guess it was my Part Two of his points. I’m sure it was what he meant.

***

In an upcoming post I’d like to address all the Scriptures that describe how we should speak, both the times we should carefully withhold words and the times we should speak boldly. It’s clear from the many sermons and writings about gossip that the Scriptures are not silent about the former, but they are certainly not silent about the latter either. There can be much to learn about speaking the truth with love.

***

 

Edited 11-21-2017 to add some points brought to my attention by others:

A person can be accused of gossip even if the one they’re talking about is unknown to the listener. This could happen, say, in a church small group, where members are supposed to be open with each other. If one is struggling with abuse from the past and tries to explain what happened, he or she can be accused of gossip. The only reason I can come up with for this is that the listeners felt uncomfortable with it. 

And another reason someone might need to speak is because they are grieving. God designed us to need others to help us grieve. Words are essential in order to fully process grief. If others refuse to hear because they might be afraid of gossip, then the one grieving will be left to grieve alone. This must not be in our Christian communities.

12 thoughts on “John Piper’s gossip post needs Part 2, to address double standards

  1. Excellent post, Rebecca!!! The “Gossip Card” gets played far too often in order to silence people who would speak up about wolves in the midst of the church. Write on; thank you for continuing to champion the Truth!

    • Thank you so much. It just breaks my heart that those who need help are living in silence and confusion out of fear of “that most deadly of sins,” as some have called it, perhaps the same ones who want to silence those needing help.

  2. “Yes, you can destroy a person’s reputation with your words. But a person who is living in evil doesn’t deserve to have a good reputation.”

    I liked this line best.

    • That was an important revelation to me a while back, when I was studying rights. Everyone has a right to have a reputation that matches his or her character. No more and no less.

    • Excellent one! This one especially applies to grief, because grieving people NEED others to help them carry their grief. If they’re not allowed to speak for fear of “gossip” about the one who caused their grieving, then they’ll have to carry that burden alone.

  3. This is a good post. I am glad someone mentioned this at another blog (SGM Survivors).

    I am not sure if you are aware of all that was revealed about C.J. Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches). My thought has always been that this group’s broad definition of what “gossip” and “slander” were allowed leadership to hide their sin and hypocrisy for so long.

    It was quite something to see when the SGM Survivors blog and other blogs came out that highlighted questionable actions of SGM Leadership. Also, members found out that other members had similar concerns but thought they were the only one with these concerns. This was information that was kept from other due to IMO SGM’s broad definition of what was “gossip” and “slander.”

    I look forward to reading your future posts on this subject.

    Perhaps at least some of this teaching on “gossip” is more the precepts of men being taught as doctrine that Jesus talked about in Mark 7:7.

  4. Nice post on C.J. Mahaney and his claim to be the “worst sinner” he knows. My thought on this is Mahaney doesn’t realize that Paul was referring to his past life before he came to Christ when using that “worst sinner” description. Paul wasn’t saying that he was currently the worst sinner.

    As I am sure you know, Mahaney’s claim to being “the worst sinner” isn’t nearly as much of an issue as some of the other things that transpired by Mahaney including Mahaney blackmailing the other founder of the group and the other top leaders conspiring to do this and cover it up.

    There was also a sex scandal where the church that C.J. Mahaney was the Sr. Pastor at didn’t report someone that molested boys in the church. Sadly this molestor went on to other churches and other areas molesting other boys. Other incidents also occurred.

    https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/02/14/the-sex-abuse-scandal-that-devastated-a-suburban-megachurch-sovereign-grace-ministries/

    • Yes, I do know about all those things and linked to many of them throughout the article.

      But the purpose of my website isn’t just to expose wrongdoing per se. It’s to expose the wrong teaching that facilitates the wrongdoing, and to offer corrected teaching instead, teaching full of hope that shows us who we really are in Christ and who God really is.

      When the exposure of wrong teaching happens to connect with a particular individual, I’m willing to show how that person’s life doesn’t match with his teaching (CJ Mahaney, Bill Gothard, and others), or on the other hand, how his wrong teaching may in fact logically result in the life we see, according to Scripture (Mark Driscoll, Doug Phillips, Tullian Tchvidjian, et al), but my emphasis is primarily on untwisting the Scriptures.

      There are already many others exposing the wrongdoing, and for them I’m grateful. What I offer is just a little complement to their fine work.

I welcome your thoughts (and of course, please feel free to use a screen name)