This is our second installment in a series on gossip. Last time we took a quick look at the biblical words translated “gossip” in both the Old and New Testaments. One of the best definitions of the word is found in The Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (Louw-Nida): “providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.” A more succinct definition might be secret slander.
It is important to note the connection that we find in the Bible between gossip and slander, because the one helps us to understand the other. The two are found side by side repeatedly in the Word. For example, in Ezekiel 36:3, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet regarding Israel’s treatment at the hands of the nations. He talks of how the people “became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became the talk and evil gossip of the people…” (English Standard Version). Consider what other translations use there:
“the talk and the whispering of the people” (New American Standard)
“an object of people's gossip and slander” (Holman Christian Standard)
So we have two concepts, obviously related. That the Israelites were the object of both the “talking” and “whispering” (or “gossip” and “slander”) indicates that the content of the speech was the same. Apparently, the difference between the two was simply one of secrecy.
Romans 1:29-30 seems to show the same relationship. Here in a list of the attributes the debased mind, Paul writes, “They are gossips, slanderers…” Alternate translations are helpful here, too:
“They are whisperers, evil-speakers…” (Young’s Literal Translation)
“They are whisperers, back-biters…” (King James Version)
As with the Hebrew word for gossip (ribah), the element of whispering is inherent in the Greek word, psithurismos. The key is that it is a whisper the content of which makes it sinful. Slander seems to be similar – the act of speaking evil – but there is no element of secrecy.
The connection between the concepts of gossip and slander is so strong that the New American Standard three times uses the phrase “malicious gossips” where most other translations have “slanderers” (1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim3:3; Titus 2:3). All of this is to say that we are pretty safe to conclude that gossip can be thought of as secret (or whispered) slander.
This is significant because of how light a sin we tend to consider gossip. It is one of the “respectable sins” mentioned by Jerry Bridges’ in his book by the same name. Such sins are subtle by nature, according to Bridges. They are not the obvious sins of the culture. As a respectable sin, gossip slips under the radar all too often in the church. We either don’t notice it all around us or it is so commonplace that it would seem petty to address it.
But if we could begin to see gossip as a form of slander, I’m not so sure that it would be able to maintain such a low profile, at least in our own estimation of its seriousness. Slander is intentionally sharing harmful information about someone to damage the person’s reputation. It is intended to cause a person to be diminished in the minds of others. That may not sound so horrible, but most people don’t know that the word “devil” in our New Testament comes from the Greek word for slander. The word is diabolos. If our Bibles were super literal, we would read in Matthew4:1 that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the slanderer.” Likewise, 1 Pet 5:8 would read, “your adversary, the slanderer, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
You see, the sin of slander is so closely tied to the character of the devil that he is referred to as “the slanderer” 33 times in the New Testament, only two times fewer than he is referred to by his proper name, Satan. The Bible teaches that the devil occupies himself day and night slandering and accusing the saints before God (Rev 12:10). So when we slander, we engage in the same activity as the devil, the very activity with which he is most closely associated.
And gossip is nothing less than secret slander. We could think of it as surreptitiously engaging in the same deeds as the devil. Gossip is not an innocuous activity. No wonder we find it listed in the Bible alongside quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, conceit, disorder, impurity, sexual immorality, sensuality, unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, hatred of God, insolence, pride, boasting, invention of evil, rebelliousness, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness, and the celebration of all these things (Rom 1:29-32; 2 Cor 12:20-21). We must take gossip seriously.
Next time, we’ll begin to look at how this and other sins of the tongue can affect our relationships in the family, the church, the workplace, and the community. It will become clear that not only is gossip not a small sin, but it is one of the most harmful sins we can commit against one another.
May we all examine ourselves in light of this. And may the Lord help us to grow so that our every word is edifying, fitting, and grace-giving (Eph 4:29).
Posted by Greg Birdwell