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Home  >  Articles  >  Menikoff, Aaron


Chris Bruce

What to Do About "He Said, She Said" in the Church

By Chris Bruce

 

Be deaf, be blind, be dead to gossip, and it will grow disgusted with you and select a more sensitive victim.
Charles H. Spurgeon

When I first attended Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I found strife and division. But now, years later, I’m still here.

I visited the church on a Sunday morning, liked what I saw, and came back to the Sunday evening service to learn more.

That’s when it got interesting. Normally, Sunday evenings at CHBC end with a short sermon. Not this time. That night, Mark Dever, the pastor, and Matt Schmucker, the administrator, addressed the church together. "We’re not getting along," they told us.

We knew it wasn’t theological differences. We knew it wasn’t their work. We were told that neither man was in sin. But they didn’t say anything more.

It’s hard to exaggerate what a problem this could have become. Many at CHBC looked to Mark and Matt for spiritual direction and example. But how could they do that when Mr. Spiritual No. 1 and Mr. Spiritual No. 2 were severely at odds?

And let’s face it, what does it say about a church when the pastor and his closest partner in ministry can’t work together? By this all men will know that you are my disciples; if you love one another (John 13:35)?

So why was I attracted to this church? Because that night, Mark and Matt identified the real threat, which was gossip; and they acted to guard the church against it.

We won’t go into the details, but we’re not getting along. And we want you to know about it. We don’t want this to be a source of gossip and division here, because Satan uses that to hurt the church. Pray for us, but don’t ask us about it. Don’t talk or speculate about it among yourselves, because, again, Satan uses that to hurt the church.

Mark and Matt had recognized their disagreement for what it was—an opportunity for Satan to attack God’s people. So they put the problem out in the open, rightly treated it as a serious spiritual matter, and warned us not to talk about it in private.

And it worked. I know, because when I tried to find out more, I got some raised eyebrows from the members.

That sealed it for me. I called the next morning to find out how I could join the church.

GOSSIP IS DANGEROUS

Gossip can kill a church. When the Apostle John wrote his third letter, he did so in part to counter the work of Diotrephes, who was "gossiping maliciously" (3 John 10) about John and his coworkers.

It’s a problem we still find in our churches today, in part because the words people say can seem so spiritual, as in, "I’m telling you this so you can be in prayer about it."

The Bible has lots to say about the subject, and more than you might think at first glance. Look in a NIV concordance for "gossip," "gossips," or "gossiping," and you will find only a handful of references. But warnings about gossip, and its close cousins, are woven into the Bible in a multitude of forms, even if the word "gossip" is not used.

Here are a few examples you can study for yourself: Psalm 15:3 ("slur on his fellowman"), 1 Timothy 5:13 ("busybodies, saying things they ought not to"), 2 Timothy 3:3 ("slanderous"), Ephesians 4:29 ("unwholesome talk").

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

But we know what gossip is. The real question is what to do about it. The general rule is this: actively cultivate godly speech, which discourages gossip and protects the church from it.

Good speech drives out bad. Although specific instances of gossip have to be addressed directly, the deeper issue is how Christians speak to each other across the board.

Focus on that larger issue. Build a church culture of healthy speech and conversation that, as Spurgeon says, will make the church deaf, blind, and dead to gossip. Far from merely solving a gossip problem, you’ll reap the extra benefits (and they are substantial) that come when Christians speak to each other as God intends.

How do we get there? Four steps will help:

  • First, understand why we speak. God gives us speech to care for others and glorify him.
  • Second, teach about godly speech.Tell God’s people what godly speech is and why it matters.
  • Third, model godly speech. Show God’s people what godly speech is and why it matters.
  • Fourth, act against gossip.God gives us clear commands on this. We will be helped if we obey.

Let’s consider each of these steps in turn.

Why Does God Give Us Speech?

In the pursuit of godly speech, it’s worth pausing to ask, why does God give human beings the ability to speak in the first place? He does this so that by our words we might imitate and reproduce his own practice of giving and sustaining spiritual life. All of our work to combat gossip in the church must begin here.

As always, the Lord is our example, and Scripture wastes no time in making the point. In the Bible, the first explicit contrast we see between God and Satan is between God as creator and Satan as creature (Gen. 3:1: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made).

But right away we see a second contrast, and it is a vital one. It occurs in how they speak. When God speaks, his words bring life where none existed before (Gen. 1:3: And God said, "Let there be light, and there was light"). The Evil One begins his earthly work, however, with covert malicious talk that slanders God (Gen. 3:1: He said to the woman, "Did God really say, `You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’").

In contrast to the life-giving words of God, Satan’s speech brings sin and death. No wonder Jesus calls him the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44)

Why does all this matter? Just look at the sad history of our sinful world. Where did it start? It started with a secretive and false accusation. All of the untold misery wrought on the human race by sin, and the countless indignities against the majesty of the Holy God, began that day in the Garden with a form of gossip. You and I, even today, are still paying the price of that ancient and malicious conversation.

The lesson for us is clear: as creatures made in God’s image, our speech should model God’s own speech by being a source of good to those around us. We do that first and foremost by sharing the good news of God’s work in Christ. Tell others of how God sent his Son to die as a substitute for sinners who turn from their sin and set all of their hope and trust on Christ.

Even when we are not explicitly sharing that Gospel message, all of our words should commend and highlight it.

Speaking kindly with others inside and outside the church, and measuring our words even when hard truths are necessary, will honor God, distinguish his people, and build trust and goodwill.

Why does God give us speech? God gives us speech to reflect and display his character to the world around us. Anything else is satanic.

Teach Godly Speech

The Bible says much about what we should say and how we should say it. Too often we don’t teach Christians to think about their words in a biblical way.

That’s not to say we need a special series of sermons or Sunday school classes on the subject, though these can be useful. But maybe a better course is to notice how often the Bible gives us instruction and examples, and to regularly alert members of the church to what God has said.

There are at least three ways we can alert them. First, we should remind believers that words have power. When James writes about taming the tongue, he emphasizes how much damage can come from a few careless words. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark (James 3:5).

Proverbs is full of exhortations about how easily speech can bring about good or evil. The tongue has the power of life and death … (Prov. 18:21). In fact, simply talking too much invites danger. When words are many, sin is not absent … (Prov. 10:19). Don’t assume that believers understand how powerful their words can be. Tell them.

Second, teach believers to harness that power for the good of others. When Paul writes the church in Ephesus, he tells believers to use their words to encourage each other. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph. 4:29). God is glorified and the church is strengthened when Christians speak to each other, not with empty flattery that the Bible condemns, but with genuine and Christ-like encouragement.

Third, teach and remind the church that godly speech comes only by God’s grace. Maybe the best way to do this is by making speech a subject of prayer, and prayer a subject of speech.

Make speech a subject of prayer by praying publicly about how members of the church speak to each other. In our prayer meetings and in our public prayer during worship services, we should openly ask God to bring about healthy discourse in the church, and confess our foolish and malicious talk as sin.

And make prayer a subject of speech by encouraging believers to tell others about their prayers for them. Paul is a great example of this. Paul doesn’t just pray for believers; he tells them how he prays for them. Consider his first letter to the church in Corinth. He tell the Christians about his thanksgiving for them. I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you (1 Cor. 1:4-6).

Sinners, even those saved by grace, don’t naturally speak in a way that honors God. We have to be taught. If church members are careless and harmful in how they speak to each other, it might be because no one has taught them why it matters.

Model Godly Speech

Teaching bears fruit when believers see it in practice. That means modeling for others how to speak in a godly way.

Once again, this requires a conscious, deliberate, and ongoing effort. Paul urges Titus to be a good example. Encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned … (Titus 2:6-8).

We should hold up as examples those in our local churches who speak to others for their good. This is especially important for people in positions of responsibility. Take particular note of men and women in the church who speak with restraint and care. This is a mark of maturity, and a sign that other valuable qualities are present. He who holds his tongue is wise (Prov. 10:19). A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue (Prov. 11:12).

Careful speech is essential for those being considered for leadership. When Paul lists the qualifications for elders, he tells Timothy they must be men who are not quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3). The same is true for deacons, who must use equal care when they speak (likewise: 1 Tim. 3:8) and deaconesses (or the wives of deacons) who cannot be malicious talkers (1 Tim. 3:11).

Call attention to those in the church who use their words for the good of others. This will help other believers do the same.

Act Against Gossip

Even healthy churches will have to act against gossip from time to time. How should they do this?

How a church should responds depends on who is being affected, and how. If the gossip involves just one person, or a small group, individual believers should take the initiative. For example, if someone gossips in our presence, we should speak to them directly, counsel them to stop, and do so in a way that sets a good example. Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently (Gal. 6:1).

What if, instead of being a witness to gossip, someone gossips about us? This may be the kind of private sin that Jesus addresses in Matthew chapter 18. There, the Lord calls believers to first try to resolve matters with a one-on-one meeting. If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt. 18:15). If the problem persists, the Lord’s command is to seek help from others, and, if necessary, to bring the matter before the church (Matt. 18:16-17).

What if more than a small group is affected and the situation takes on a more public character? At some point, gossip and malicious talk may spread throughout the church. If so, a different kind of action may be needed. Make the fact of gossip public, but not its substance.

John is a good example. He writes to the church at large, publicly condemning Diotrephes’ gossip, and saying he may even pay a visit to address the matter openly. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing … (3 John 10). Gossips thrive in secrecy, and hate the light.

But notice what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t tell us what the gossip is about. That’s important, because even as he brings the problem out into the open, we hear nothing about the actual accusation Diotrephes leveled against John. It’s a good example of how to take action against someone who’s gossiping without furthering the gossip itself.

Accusations Against Elders

There is one more situation that may require a special response. What if someone is gossiping about an elder?

If the gossip is limited in scope, and not the kind that alleges behavior or sin that would, if true, disqualify the elder from ministry, then the case may well be handled like other cases.

But some cases are different. First Timothy 5:19 sets a high standard for charges of wrongdoing by elders. Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. This seems to address allegations of sin that, if true, would render an elder unfit for service. Such cases require at least two witnesses who know of that behavior on a first-hand basis.

For example, if someone accuses an elder of adultery, that claim, according to Paul, should not be given a hearing unless it is backed up by knowledgeable testimony from at least one other person. This special procedural protection probably stems from the realization that elders will inevitably be criticized by church members. Requiring at least two or three witnesses to substantiate serious claims protects the church and allows elders to do their work without unnecessary distraction. Yet it also provides a means by which to address real wrongdoing when it occurs.

In such cases, it’s important once again to address the problem of gossip or malicious talk without feeding and furthering it. Suppose, for example, a church member accuses an elder of adultery in conversations with many others, without a second witness. At some point, many in the church may have heard the allegation. If the accusing member refuses to repent and public discipline of the gossip is required, it should be done by addressing the fact of the gossip or malicious talk but not its substance. In other words, the church should be told that the offending member has made uncorroborated claims of serious sin against an elder in violation of 1 Timothy 5:19, and has refused to repent.

But leave it at that. Do not tell the church that the elder has been accused of adultery. To do so would in itself violate 1 Timothy 5:19, because this would, in effect, allow a hearing for that accusation.

Conclusion

Gossip is a serious problem for churches, but it doesn’t have to be. If, as James says, the tongue can light a great fire, then we might think of the church as a tree. On the one hand, we can neglect to water the tree, and stand by with a hose to put out fires that threaten its dry and brittle branches.

But the much better course is to continually keep the tree watered and moist with the truth of the Gospel and the Bible’s teaching on godly speech. A tree like that, even when it encounters the flame, will not easily catch fire. A tree like that will grow and bear much fruit.

Matt and Mark modeled godly speech for Capitol Hill Baptist on my first day, and that example has borne fruit both in their relationship and in the congregation’s life ever since.

Chris Bruce is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and a full time journalist in the banking and finance industry.

August 2006
Chris Bruce

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