We want our families to enjoy being together. Conversations we have at the dinner table, on the couch, and in the van are essential activities for robust family culture. Yet those talks bring with them temptations particularly alluring for close-knit families.. One such sin is gossip.
What Is Gossip?
In Scripture, a gossip is a person who “reveals secrets” (Proverbs 11:13, 20:19) and thereby “separates close friends” (16:28). This “tale-bearer” (KJV) tells stories about others that are not his to tell. Gossip keeps the “fire” of conflict burning when silence would douse the drama (Proverbs 26:20). The gossip is not so much dishonest—saying things that aren’t true—as tactless: she shares things about others that are better kept secret.
A vice related to this juicy-story-telling is slander: bad-mouthing other people. Leviticus 19:16 forbids God’s covenant people from “spreading slander among [them].” Slander makes one unworthy to set foot on God’s “holy hill” (Psalm 15:3), and the slander-spreader “is a fool” (Proverbs 10:18). Bad-mouthing a servant to his master will incur guilt (Proverbs 30:10); and according to Jesus Himself, slander is one of the verbal sins coming “out of the heart” which “defiles a person” (Matthew 15:19). Paul calls us to “put [it] away” as a vestige of our former fallen nature (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8).
Both gossip and slander, and the people who chronically engage in them, are categorically condemned in Scripture. Although their biblical usage is distinct, gossip and slander are so often intertwined that we lump them together in our modern usage of the term, gossip: telling one-sided stories as negative commentary on others.
Can We Ever Talk about Others?
Defining gossip requires discernment.1 Spirit-led believers will sometimes need to discuss others’ faults for the ultimate spiritual good of all involved.2 For purposes of this article, let’s agree that gossip is the kind of people-talk that stems from the flesh and not the Spirit. The classic school-marm definition for gossip is still a good one: “sharing a fact or story with someone who is neither a part of the problem nor a part of the solution.”
Why We Gossip
What makes gossip gossip is not so much its topic—people’s shortcomings—as its motives. When we share gossip, it’s usually for one of several sinful motivations:
1. Sympathy Gossip
The gossip subject has hurt or displeased us in some way, and we want to be vindicated by our hearers’ agreement or sympathy. For example, Person A mistreats you, and you rehash it to Person B in hopes that they will reinforce your side in the conflict.3
2. Earning Gossip
We deride the gossip subject to earn our hearer’s approval. We want to prove we belong in his or her “inner circle,” and the juicy story is our currency. This type of gossip is evident in a classic “teenage drama” scenario. Wannabe alerts Cool Kid(s) of Dork’s uncool behavior (perhaps with as little as a facial expression) for admission into the Cool Kid Club. This gossip is not really about the subject, who is usually oblivious to the interchange; the story is just an entrance fee.4
3. Tribal Gossip
This third kind of gossip reinforces our group’s identity and values, not by careful positive defense, but by smear stories and soundbites about people on the Other Side. “Cheap shots” are very much allowed in this gossip style, and everyone in the tribe takes a turn. Each story reiterates the clear lines between Us and Them.
Now, to be clear, God’s Word does make just such important distinctions: we are either redeemed or condemned, in truth or in error, walking in the flesh or walking in the Spirit. Lines worth drawing. At best, tribal gossip can turn legitimate distinctions between groups into petty nit-picking. At worst, this style of gossip is enlisted to reinforce “tribal” distinctions that are non-essential, ungodly, and harmful. (Imagine here the Corinthians “of Apollos” coming up with derogatory nicknames for Paul.)
Yet in every gossip style, we are trying to “gain altitude” on others. We want to push ourselves above the offender, the outcast, the Other Side, by pushing them down. Gossip is arrogance, talking. The humble “mind [of] Christ Jesus” stands in stark contrast to this “selfish ambition [or] conceit” (Philippians 2:3, 5) underneath all gossip. It should have no place on our tongues or in our homes.
Why Families Gossip
Whereas gossip “separates close friends” (Proverb 16:28), it can strengthen an unhealthy bond between the gossips–your own family members. Every family has its own set of values and viewpoints, its own miniature culture.5 Families bond over their shared commentary of the world. But this natural behavior turns sour when to celebrate your values, you belittle those who don’t share them. This is Tribal Gossip, family-style. Family culture outsiders are such easy targets.
But hasn’t God called parents to guard and warn their children of certain kinds of people and their behaviors (as does the Bible’s Wisdom Literature)? Yes. This makes the line between constructive discipleship and unhealthy tribal reinforcement almost invisible when it comes to talking about other people. Let us agree, though, that there is a category of speech that sins in celebrating others’ flaws, faults, and shortcomings. We still must avoid this sin, even as we speak frankly behind our closed front door.
Consequences of Family Gossip
Hypothetical situations are endless when it comes to family gossip. Let us end instead by noting some of the negative consequences of gossip in the home among family members.6
It burdens your wife.
Husband, you may be able to absorb the force of some negative people-facts without it affecting your mindset and behavior toward that person. But it might not be so easy for your wife to compartmentalize and dismiss that knowledge—especially when the gossip subject has wronged someone she loves (you or your child). Choose carefully the information burdens you lay upon her; what for you could be a passing grace-less comment could become in her a root of bitterness.
It encourages hypocrisy.
Deriding family friends and acquaintances in private can encourage hypocrisy in public. Your children easily watch and learn from their parents how to keep up a polite façade to veil “what we really think about those people.” We must never encourage feigned “blessing” and private “cursing” to come “out of the same mouth” (James 3:10).
It fosters family arrogance.
“Tribal Gossip” in the home can build a sense of inordinate family pride. “We are the best. Our way is the best. We know how things really are.” Of course we want our family habits and choices to apply God’s Word as best as we know how. But family gossip can present all other people, all other families, as inferior to us by comparison.
It counters gospel grace.
Gossip is by nature one-sided; it presents the worst of a person without context or caveat. God’s forgiving love to us in the gospel should produce discretion regarding the flaws of others; we ourselves “have been forgiven much” more (Luke 7:47). “Love covers a multitude of [others’] sins” (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8), but family gossip uncovers them—parading them for ridicule and self-righteous comparison. Gossip announces others flaws without owning our own. Gossip runs counter to the gospel.
Let’s Keep Growing
When I set out to write this article, I must admit I did not realize how easily I fall into this snare of gossip in my own home. Let’s refuse this vice entrance into our households. Let’s battle its many forms back out the front door. Let’s temper our honesty about others’ flaws with grace in our words.
Speaking about someone negatively to someone else cannot always be a sin, or else Jesus was gossiping when he warned His disciples of the “leaven of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6, et al), and Paul was wrong to call out Demas’s worldly desertion to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:10). ↩
Also, some of our greatest spiritual struggles involve responding to the flaws and sins of others. So as we counsel one another within the body of Christ, we will sometimes have to name names and tell stories. ↩
Yet if Person B’s role in your life is of counselor and confidante, intent on helping you toward reconciliation, sharing the story could be constructive; it’s all in your motive. ↩
Earning Gossip isn’t limited to teens. Parents can be tempted to gossip with their teenage children (or allow their children gossip freely) as an entrance fee into their child’s “peer sphere.” Steer clear! ↩
The in-law spouses in my family semi-affectionately call our family’s strong sense of values “The French Way.” It is the unwritten (but oh-so-specific) code for the best way to approach every conceivable task; most entries in that manual also have a clearly stated “wrong way,” as well. To be fair, many of these were application of biblical wisdom. But yeah, we probably struggled with our share of the tendencies this article warns against. I speak from some experience. ↩
Sinful gossip in the home probably occurs most easily between husband and wife. ↩