When Is It Gossip?

Most people enjoy hearing and telling news and stories about others.  As human beings, we tend to be interested and curious about other human beings, especially those whom we know personally.  Therefore, we tell stories about one another, and we listen to others’ stories.  Sometimes these stories are important, inspiring, or encouraging.  Sometimes we tell the news of someone’s problems in order to find help.  Most of the time, we are just making chit-chat and small talk that have no particular significance other than to be friendly with someone else.

While many times storytelling is harmless or even helpful, there is a point where it can become gossip, which is sinful.  To gossip (whisper – KJV) is to secretly speak evil of another.  It is the same as slander, but it is done privately rather than in the open.  Gossip is often associated with the sin of being a busybody, which is to be a meddler in someone else’s business (see 2Thess. 3:11; 1Tim. 5:13).  Gossip, slander, and backbiting are all similar sins of the tongue that are roundly condemned in the Scriptures (Prov. 26:20; Rom. 1:29-30; 2Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:31; 1Tim. 3:11; 2Tim. 3:3; Tit. 2:3; Jas. 4:11; 1Pet. 2:1).  These sins are the products of loose tongues that are out of control and hearts that are without love (1Cor. 13:4-7; Jas. 3:2-12).

Therefore, we need to know at what point storytelling becomes gossip.  Is all bad news about someone gossip, or does it depend upon the motivation of the person who tells the news?  Should we speak only of things that directly concern us, or may we speak of things that have no connection to us?  Is it always wrong to insert ourselves into situations that are not our business, or is there a time when we should speak up in loving concern for others?  There are too many possible situations to address them all individually, so we need to apply some basic principles to determine what is gossip and what is not.

There is an old rule of thumb to guide us in the matter of gossip.  For whatever message we consider telling others, we need to ask these three questions: (1) Is it true? (2) Is it needful? (3) Is it kind?  If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then we need to keep silent on the matter, for it is gossip.  If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then we may confidently speak without committing sin.  Not only should we apply this test to what we say, but also to what we hear.  Remember, it takes a talebearer and a listener to pass on gossip, so let us be alert to our mouths and our ears.  If a story about someone else is false, unnecessary, or unkind, then we do not need to hear it.

Of course, this “gossip test” is not stated as such in the Scripture, but each part of it is based upon Scriptural principles.  In fact, all three principles can be found in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.  Regarding truth, verse 15 tells us to speak the truth in love.  Regarding need, verse 29 says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”  Regarding kindness, verse 32 says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”  If these three principles govern our speech, then we will not be guilty of gossip.

Therefore, let us be careful that we do not become guilty of gossip either by speaking or by hearing.  Let us speak to one another in truth, love, and kindness rather than in bitterness, wrath, malice, and self-indulgence.  Let us also reject those who come to us with gossip and rebuke them for their wickedness.  Such people are not our friends, for we can be assured that if they will gossip to us, they will also gossip about us.  If we can thus eliminate gossip from among us, then we will be a much happier people – “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down” (Prov. 26:20).

Stacey E. Durham