(October 28, 2020) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares a scriptural warning…
Have you heard any gossip lately? More to the point, have you passed on any gossip lately?
I am using the word ‘gossip’ in the commonly understood sense of making derogatory and slanderous comments about other people. While gossiping is endemic and ‘highly contagious’, it should find no place among Christians – but sadly it does!
Speaking against others
In his letter James made some pointed comments to the Christians in his day. He wrote, ‘Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it’ (James 4:11).
The Greek verb which has here been translated here as ‘slander’ literally means ‘speak against’ and James used it three times in this verse. The word can refer to slander, gossip, insult, or to talking in ways that are belittling or damaging to others, or even to hinting at something concerning another person.
The J B Phillips translation of these words incisively states, ‘Never pull each other to pieces, my brothers.’ Paul and Peter gave a similar warning to the Christians to whom they wrote (2 Corinthians 12:20 and 1 Peter 2:1).
Gossiping among Christians
Sadly, today’s Christians still need to hear and respond to this counsel. Recently I was speaking to an Indian friend who had become a Christian. He told me that the church he once attended held a weekly Bible study which he regularly attended as he had a hunger to discover what the Bible taught. However, he was disillusioned with the meetings which spent little time on Bible study and much time in gossiping about other people who were not present.
Malicious comment or insinuation that seeks to highlight someone’s real or perceived inadequacies or failures is destructive. Once those seeds are sown, they are difficult to remove. And how easily we can slip into the practice of engaging in gossip and slander! It is something against which we as Christians must ever maintain our guard. When we engage in such talk about someone, we are not revealing a truth about that person – we are revealing a truth about ourselves!
When James wrote, ‘Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him …’ he was making the point that there is a relationship between speaking against and judging a person because those who ‘speak against’ others are, in fact, assuming that they are acquainted with all the facts, are in a position correctly to determine the ‘guilt’ of the person being judged and have the right to expose their verdict!
One of the most unappealing aspects of our sinful nature is that we foolishly think that we are building ourselves up when we are pulling others down! Jesus said quite categorically, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. … Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:1,3).
Judging the ‘Royal Law’ as irrelevant
James went on to write that the person who speaks against others, ‘speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.’ The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17) are the divine law that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai and they outline the core of spiritual and moral behaviour that God requires from his people. The first four commandments concern our relationship with God and the following six indicate how we should relate to one another.
One day the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired to trap Jesus by asking him, ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ He replied by summarising the Ten Commandments with the words, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (In Matthew 22:38-40).
To understand what James meant in 4:11 in his reference to ‘the law’ we must go to James 2:8 where he quoted the words of Jesus, ‘If you really keep the royal law found in scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right.’ If we disregard this ‘royal law’, we are judging it to be irrelevant and are declaring it to be so by our gossip and slander.
James 4:11 is to be understood as specifically referring to the practice of saying unkind and unhelpful things about others and spreading rumours about them to undermine and damage their character. The purpose of this ‘speaking against’ is to cause personal hurt and harm and it, perversely, gives pleasure to those who engage in it.
There are, however, occasions when it is right to alert others about dangerous people. In the New Testament we see examples of advice being given concerning the exposure of those who whose influence is damaging or who misuse their authority or who misrepresent the truth. For example,
- Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees when he said, ’Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’ (Matthew 23:27).
- He also warned, ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’ (Matthew 7:15).
- Paul warned about the need to identify false teachers in the church. For example, he actually named two such people when he wrote to Timothy, ‘As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work’ (1 Timothy 1:3-4). And ‘Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme’ (1 Timothy 1 19-29).
- Paul also advised the church to identify trouble makers, ‘I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them’ (Romans 16:17).
- Peter wrote scathingly about popular false teachers who succeed in gathering a crowd of followers, ‘Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up’ (2 Peter 2:2-3).
An onerous responsibility
What a powerful instrument the tongue is and how much we need to be in control of it!
What we say about others can build or destroy, encourage or dishearten, lift up or knock down, give good direction or lead astray, give a warning gloss over dangers.
What a responsibility we have, therefore, to be careful in what we say, about whom we say it, to whom we say it, how we say it and when we say it. And how much we need the wisdom of God to help us!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Grace Revisited is highly recommended – as are Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments and Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org