…and ABOUT one another.
When Christians get together, we talk! This can be (and usually is) a great thing: we learn about one another, we gain insight into the challenges and victories of each other's recent lives, and we grow closer in fellowship and in our union with the Body of Christ. It's great to talk!
Sometimes, though, talking can lead to problems. Deep problems — though we cannot always recognize them as problems, because they seem benign and, at times, even good for us or others. When we start talking about others, and especially when our talk focuses on problems, complaints, or unresolved conflict, it is almost always a sign that things have taken a harmful turn.
Dividing the Church
When the apostles wrote about what would do damage to Christ's church, naturally they focused on sin. Which sins did they highlight? Not marital infidelity or sexual sins. Not wrong view about social concerns, such as political perspectives or cultural matters. Not issues with leadership, pastoral neglect, or preachers who can't connect with their congregation.
What were the sins that the apostles were concerned would divide the church? What, in Peter and Paul's minds, stood (and stands) in the way of the unity of the Body?
So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
~ 1 Peter 2:1-5
Peter, contrasting with what builds us up into the spiritual house of Christ, highlights the sins that sometimes come among us when we "talk" — malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. Likewise, having spoken at length about challenging the troublesome and divisive sinners among the Corinthian church, Paul says, "For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (2 Corinthians 12:20).
Why were the apostles so concerned about things like gossip, slander, and deceit? Because they knew that these things only served one end goal: to destroy trust among everyone involved.
In a culture where gossip is common, nobody feels safe. When slander is frequent, everyone has the wrong idea about everyone else. When deceit — in the form of half-truths, assumptions, and second (or third) hand knowledge — is passed around, the truth is obscured.
Dealing with Troublesome Talk
Sometimes this can be hard to spot; as I mentioned before, often these problems can creep in under the best of intentions. They can be presented as seemingly-innocuous questions. Or as off-hand comments. Or as prayer requests.
How do we deal with this kind of troublesome talk? We start by checking our own hearts. Jesus said that, when dealing with sin, we should first take the plank out of our own eyes. Thus, we can ask ourselves:
- Have I considered the problem or concern that I have in the most charitable way? So many conflicts in the church are due to misunderstandings. This is natural; we don't always say things as clearly as we would like or think we have, and we don't always hear others clearly either (because they don't say things as clearly either!). Our first step, then, should be to extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we believe we disagree; This takes trust, and when trust has been threatened it takes humility and grace.
- Am I talking to the right person about this? This may not be clear, but often it is. And if the person we are talking to isn't the one we are talking about, we should ask the next question; otherwise, it is usually best to refrain from speaking to anyone but the person our concerns or complaints are with.
- Is what I'm about to say vital to the health of the relationships or circumstances I am speaking of? Sometimes we need to insert ourselves into situations that don't involve us — but those times are rare. A good rule of thumb is: if I'm not part of the problem or part of the solution, I probably shouldn't be part of the conversation. If it does involve me, and if I'm talking to the right person, I should then ask…
- Is what I am about to say something that will build others up, or tear them down? The Bible says we are to encourage one another and build each other up. If we have a concern or a complaint, we should take care to say it in a way that builds others up. One study showed that, if we want others to hear critique in a constructive way, it should be accompanied by at least five words of affirmation!
We must check ourselves — and it is also helpful if we keep each other accountable by gently and lovingly checking them as well, when they are talking to us in ways that suggest that one or more of the questions above haven't been considered carefully.
How do we do that? When others speak with us about concerns, complaints, or problems that do not directly involve us — which is to say, when others begin to gossip to us — we should ask them*:
- Have you spoken with ___ about this? If someone tells you something about someone else, you have a responsibility to determine whether they are handling their dispute with their brother or sister in a manner that is consistent with Scripture — and if they are not, then you have a responsibility to challenge them with the next question…
- When are you going to talk to them about this? If they haven't spoken with the offending party, you must insist that they do so. If they do not feel that they can, you might consider offering to go with them for support. And whether they agree or resist, you have a moral obligation to the next question…
- Now that you have morally-obligated me to be involved, how long should I wait before speaking with ___ about this? Loose talk cannot persist in a healthy body, and therefore you now have an obligation to follow up with the offending party to make sure that they were indeed spoken with. If things have reached this point, please don't leave it completely in the hands of the one gossiping; if they lacked the conviction to speak directly with the other in the first place, they may not have it in them to handle it properly in a prompt manner. But to let things linger only makes the situation worse. Thus, you must finally ask them…
- You're okay with me telling ___ that I heard this from you — right? This is the only way for you to be sure that, eventually, the problem, concern, or complaint will eventually be handled between those it needs to be, and that true reconciliation can be pursued. Of course this is not the most healthy way for all of this to end up, but things are already unhealthy because of the presence of gossip among you.
Finally, having checked ourselves and each other, we can also check the facts. A blogger named Ron Edmondson has posted several times about how we should consider the content of gossip and rumor when they come our way (see his posts here and here). Here are a few things that he mentions:
Not all rumors are true. Most aren't.
People like to expand on what they know. Or think they know.
Some people enjoy telling others “the good stuff”. With practice, some have even learned to make things bigger and “better” than they really are.
There is usually more to the story than what you know. But it may or may not be what your mind stretches it to be.
Many people never consider the ramifications of what they are saying.
The only reliable source is the direct source.
These are good words from Pastor Edmondson. And if we put these three checks in place, we will go far in avoiding the division and devastation that can plague Christ's church.
* These questions are adapted from my recollection of Dan Phillips's post about gossip at the Team Pyro blog. (Thanks to Tim Burden for reminding me where they came from!)