“They learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.”
--I Timothy 5:13
There are many Yiddish stories that illustrate the dangerous power of gossip, and the stories usually involve feathers. Here’s one,
A man kept spreading terrible gossip in the village about the local rabbi. One day, he realized the harm he had caused to the rabbi and he sought his forgiveness. He asked the rabbi if there was anything he could do to make amends. The rabbi instructed him to go to the town square with a feather pillow, cut it open and scatter the feathers. The man did as he was instructed and the feathers blew into every corner, gutter, window and door. He went back to the rabbi to report that he had accomplished his request. And the rabbi said, “Now go and collect the feathers because your gossip has spread as far as those feathers.”
Gossip in the church is like scattering feathers in the wind. As Paul’s words to Timothy reveals, some things never change.
Gossip is easy to see when you are the recipient but near impossible to identify when you are the messenger. Everyone else spreads gossip, we think of ourselves as simply sharing important information. When we are confronted about spreading gossip we snap back, “Well, it’s true!”
What makes gossip so tantalizing and powerful is that there is usually some truth in it. But the truth is encased in stereotypes about the other person. We’ve got their number, we know their M.O., and gossip is our early warning device about this other person.
What also makes gossip so deceptive to the messenger is that our motives for spreading the gossip need not be completely malicious. Others frustrate us because they impede the ministry we so dearly cherish. Indeed, what we have to say about someone else is for the protection and well-being of the church, we assume, because that this person’s ideas or behavior is a threat.
Mixed motives turn information and concern into idle gossip. Yes, we are genuinely concerned about the mission of the church, but gossip makes us feel good because it expresses our irritation and disgust. The one motive you will never hear in gossip is genuine concern for the other person. The intention of gossip is never to help the other person and this is the core difference between sharing information and gossip.
Another distinguishing mark of gossip is the person with whom it is shared. There is a fine line between gossip and genuine concern. Genuine concern is expressed only to those who absolutely need to hear it. Most importantly, this often means addressing the person directly. One way to discern whether you are spreading gossip is to ask, Is the person I am sharing this with directly involved in this situation? If not, then they don’t need to hear it.
We gossip not only because it feels good but also because it is quicker. It is a faster form of information because we do not have to get to know that other person. Gossip allows us to work out of our preconceived notions or past experiences of that person. Gossip is efficient because you don’t have to second guess your stereotypes.
In the end, this efficiency ruins the church. No one supports one another or develops lasting bonds of trust. Vast amounts of energy are spent sorting out the shreds of truth from the hype. Worst of all, people are not put to work fulfilling their divine calling to serve Christ and the Church because we spend too much time guarding our turf. Gossip is the opposite of covenant relationships.