I once thought gossip was a bit like the well-known quote by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he described his test for hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Or perhaps in the case of gossip, I know it when I hear it. But as a friend and I talked recently, we admitted that in our years of ministry we’ve found it isn’t always that clear-cut.
I’ve often heard it said, “Don’t gossip.” As if the period at the end of that short command was enough to exhaust all we need to know about the topic. But how do you define ‘gossip’?
Is it gossip to share with a trusted friend a struggle in my marriage or another friendship? Can I update my church small group on how my children are doing and where they may need additional prayers? Or is asking someone else to pray about another’s struggle automatically considered gossip?
What exactly does the Bible say about gossip?
Defining Our Topic
A real Christian is a person who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip. ~
Before we continue, we need to talk about a couple of terms. Yes, we’re going to get more specific about gossip, but we must start at the same place if we’re going to walk forward together.
Two words that many get confused are gossip and rumors, and they are closely related. So let’s define those.
The difference between gossip and rumors.
According to Dictionary.com, gossip is idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. Martin Manser, a British lexicographer (dictionary compiler) and author of Dictionary of Bible Themes, adds a detail that will be helpful. He says gossip is “idle talk which foolishly or maliciously spreads rumours or facts. The effects of gossiping are divisive and destructive.”
A rumor, according to Dictionary.com, is a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts. Mr. Manser adds in Bible Themes, that not only are rumors “frequently not factual,” they lead “to groundless fears.”
See the difference? Gossip may be true or false but leads to division. Rumors are either uncertain or outright lies and lead to fear. While the Bible mentions both, we’re going to focus from here forward on gossip.
What the Bible Says about Gossip
Thankfully, the Bible is not silent about gossip. In fact, several verses use words translated to English as gossip, mostly in the Old Testament. As you may suspect, none of it is positive, but we need to pay attention to the details so we can best understand the whole counsel of God’s Word. To help us do this, I pulled information from the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew.
The New International Version uses the word gossip eight times, primarily in the book of Proverbs. However, each use of the English word is not exactly the same Hebrew word. Let me show you.
Betraying a confidence.
Proverbs 11:13: A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.
Proverbs 20:19: A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.
These verses are clear. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages, the word used here means a person who spreads “harmful information about another person, as a semi-private, hushed communication.” In other words, you’ve told someone something, and instead of keeping it to themselves, they are quietly telling others. What does the Bible say? Don’t trust someone who does this.
The effects of a person who gossips.
Proverbs 16:28: A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.
Proverbs 18:8: The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.
Proverbs 26:20: Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
Proverbs 26:22: The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.
These three verses dig into the effects a person who gossips has on the people around them, and the meaning behind the word is revealing. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages says it means to “complain, grumble, i.e., to express discontent in low tones.”
Oh, that might encompass more of our conversations than any of us are comfortable with.
Romans 1:29-31, speaking about those who know about God but do not follow Him: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
2 Corinthians 12:20, addressing the Corinthian church as a group: I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.
Here, the words used are related, one naming the person (psithyristes) while the other names the action itself (psithyrismos). The Dictionary defines them as “one who gossips in whispers and hushed tones,” and “gossip spoken in low tones and whispers.”
One final verse.
This final verse does not mention the word gossip specifically. However, one of the words includes that meaning, and the English translation helps to guide our thinking about this topic.
1 Timothy 5:13, speaking about Christian women who become widows at a young age: Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.
That word for nonsense is phluaros. In the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, authors Louw and Nida say that it should possibly “be rendered as ‘gossipy’ in view of the fact that one who speaks nonsense about someone else is normally gossiping.” Either way, Paul’s declaration is that they are saying things they ought not to.
Watch out for the joy-stealers: gossip, criticism, complaining, faultfinding, and a negative, judgmental attitude. ~Joyce Meyer
This has been a lot, and we still have much to discuss. After all, I asked a lot of questions at the beginning of this and still need to talk about those. But this week I wanted to lay the groundwork for the reasons behind my answers. Don’t worry. I’ll get to those questions next week!
Let me know if you have any questions about gossip or thoughts on what we’ve covered so far by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!
Manser, Martin H. Dictionary of Bible Themes.1996.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). 1997.
Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996.