“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels. They go down to the inmost parts.” Proverbs 18:8
Having had the privilege of counseling or mentoring hundreds of pastors, I know what a sacred trust I have been given. A few weeks back a pastor I’ve met with many times surprised me when he introduced me to another pastor. “Don knows more about my life than I know myself,” he said laughing.
Letting out a big breath he added, “Thank goodness he can hold a confidence.”
Well, I appreciate that. Keeping a confidence is a very high value for me. In my ministry with pastors, it better be. I know my counseling with pastors would end tomorrow if I couldn’t hold a confidence.
A few days later I bumped into a church parishioner who had met me casually a time or two. “Say, I saw you in the back of a coffee shop the other day talking with our pastor,” he said. “Looked like a serious conversation. How’s he doing?”
“You’d have to ask him,” I said.
“Oops,” he said, “I didn’t mean to prod.”
Well, I thought, maybe.
With so many well-known pastors in the country falling from grace in the last couple of years, I’ve had several people ask me about situations going in their church. They want some counsel about sticky issues in their church. One person approached me earnestly and said, “I don’t mean to gossip. I just need a little help.” Even after we talked a bit, he said, “I hope this is not gossip.”
Church folk, the group I have worked with the most, know that a vital part of church life involves interpersonal relationships, handling conflict, discerning true teaching vs. false teaching and deciding whether they should stay or leave a certain church. You can’t be very involved in a church and not encounter this kind of stuff.
I’ve often met people who wonder who they can talk to about personal matters in a way that does not, well, constitute gossip. Since I’ve pretty much been a churchman my whole life, I know how easy it is to talk behind someone’s back, especially that of the pastor or a church leader.
Now, I think speaking face to face is good, but not always as easy as we think. Jesus said to speak face to face, if we can and the circumstances merit it. But the book of Proverbs says there is wisdom in many counselors.
Recently a piece by Dr. Barry York, President at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, along with some instruction from the Westminster Larger Catechism, helped me sharpen my ideas about how to think about gossip.
One question in the catechism asks, “What are the duties required in the 9th commandment?” The 9th commandment is: “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” Essentially, don’t lie because God puts a high premium on telling the truth.
As I mulled the 9th commandment, I thought of 5 guidelines to help discern what a person can or can’t say.
It is not gossip when:
** The matter is public record. I’ve seen people hesitate to convey information that is recorded in civil or church documents as a matter of public information. I knew of a person who was accused of not following the principles of Matthew 18, where Jesus says to speak to a person privately about an issue at hand. But the issue at hand already was known in print and had been posted on social media. That is situation is not gossip.
** You are seeking counsel about a matter. If deep Christian concern about someone causes you to discreetly seek counsel about how to handle a matter, that is not gossip. I’ve been in situations just like this many, many times. I’m always very careful and do my best to treat others, or to think about others, in the way I would want to be treated. It becomes gossip when it is done for the pleasure of revealing juicy news with no real concern for the individual. Seeking advice from someone whose character and wisdom you trust about how to hand a dicey matter is not gossip. Actually, it’s love. I try to listen carefully and ask good questions, and then very often I say, “You need to go talk to that person.”
** Justice is at stake. If we are called by a civil or ecclesiastical court to give testimony, it is not gossip to reveal the truth under oath as it pertains to the case, regardless of how “private” some claim the information is. Who of us hasn’t heard, “I swear that the evidence I give is true, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” To not do that is to swear a false oath. That would be an affront to God.
** You are a whistleblower against evil. I follow journalist Julie Roys whose “The Roys Report” shines a light on abuse in the church. Roys calls out those who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. She’s clear and frank but not mean. What Roys exposes sometimes causes me to cringe and sigh. And yet, her mission strikes me as an honorable calling. The Apostle Paul said, “Speak the truth in love.”
** You are protecting your neighbor’s good name. Speaking about someone’s affairs does not constitute gossip. The Westminster catechism says by speaking about someone else, we may actually counter gossip by “preserving and promoting the truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor.” If you are not slandering or speaking evil about a neighbor (Psalm 15:3), it is not gossip.
Stopping gossip is like trying to stop eating candy corn and peanuts. Not easy for me! It takes real discipline and intentionality. That’s why none of us can ever stop praying the prayer from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”