By: Jonathan Harris
I remember when I was taking a seminary class in conflict resolution my professor asked the class, “Is it ever right to talk behind someone’s back?” The answer of course was, “Yes, there are some circumstances you have to!” For instance, if someone tells you they are going to commit suicide, but they ask you not to tell anyone, what should you do? The obvious response is, you should tell someone! The reason is very simple—because it is the loving thing to do. (As a side note: This is why I do not EVER agree to “not tell anyone” if someone has information they want to give me)You see, sometimes what’s in the best interest of someone isn’t necessarily what they think is in their best interest. We find in scripture that this principle is used on many occasions. One of them has to do with bringing an elder up on charges. In 1Tim 5:19 Paul tells the young pastor to “not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” This means there must by necessity be some “talking behind someone’s back” for Timothy to be aware of more than one accusation made against a particular elder. When it comes to sin, we are actually instructed to SAY SOMETHING! If we don’t, it is we who are in the wrong. With this being understood, my professor followed up with another question, “How then do we know when it is right to reveal personal information about someone else?” The answer we came up with was a simple one: “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Though this may be simple to comprehend, it can be hard to live out. There’s a fine line between sharing a prayer request for the sake of gossiping (an all too common occurrence in our churches), and sharing a prayer request because you genuinely care about the person. I have endeavored to create a flow chart of questions to ask yourself before sharing personal information about someone else. This chart is not meant to be a fool-proof rigid set of rules and therefore must be approached with a humble heart and a wise spirit. What I do hope is that it will help to guide you in making important decisions on what to share, and whom to share it with. Chances are, if you’re thinking seriously about what information you should or shouldn’t share, you’re not going to gossip. 1 Tim. 5:13 associates gossips with idleness and being a busybody. “At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house ; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.” The word for “gossips” (Phluaros) refers to a person “uttering or doing silly things.” So if you take what you share seriously, chances are you’re not going to gossip.
Questions to Ask Before Sharing Information About Someone Else
I. Is it any of your business? (Prov. 26:17)
A. No – Then don’t say anything and pray to God on your own. Perhaps you can share it with your wife or husband (I base this on the two becoming one flesh), but that’s it, and even then you should be careful to protect him or her from information that she or he cannot handle. (Note: Be VERY careful you do not simply shirk the responsibility to avoid inconveniencing yourself. This is just as bad as gossip because it flows from the same selfish root motivation).
B. Yes – This is my business because it directly affects something I’m responsible for. This rule takes some wisdom, but most of the time it’s obvious as to whether it affects you. For instance, if you are trying to protect someone else you are connected to, you have a responsibility (i.e. your family, your friends, your coworker, your country, your church, etc.).
1. To what degree are you responsible? In every institution there are levels of hierarchy that God has established. We must be very careful to leave the things we are not responsible for in His hands. As a general rule we have the responsibility to confront a brother in sin (Matt. 18:15-17). There are other times where we must notify a spiritual authority (Gal 6:1, 1 Tim. 5:19). When it comes to those who are dangerous (especially heretics), we must warn those who they have the potential to harm (Matt 12:38, 1 John 1:10, Rom. 16:17, 2 Thess. 3:14, Titus 1:11). This could be something as small as “They’re looking to sell you something and that’s why they’re friendly,” to, “They’re spreading heresy” or “planning on killing someone.” Sometimes you may also need to warn people about slander against yourself. Jesus had to do this in Matt 5:17. It is right to protect your own reputation, or the reputation of those you love. (Jer. 37:13-14, 2 Pet. 3:16) When in doubt talk to someone who’s godly and can offer counsel (Prov. 15:22).
2. What’s your motivation in sharing this information? If you have a pure heart and you want to warn someone about someone else, or warn someone themselves about their own personal sin, then go for it! But if you know you’re heart is wickedly trying to elevate yourself and put them down then consider whether you should share the information. A general rule is this: If you are concerned that what you say might get back to them, don’t repeat it (Gal. 2:11). (We are of course excluding situations in which the person will physically harm you if he or she knew you told the truth about them, or wartime situations having to do with espionage)
One final piece of advice is this: Always keep yourself in prayer when considering these matters. Leonard Ravenhill said “Notice, we never pray for folks we gossip about, and we never gossip about the folk for whom we pray! For prayer is a great deterrent.”
• Is it my business? – No – Pray, don’t share
• Is it my business? -Yes – Responsibility? – Confront – Pure Motive – share if need spiritual guidance
• Is it my business? -Yes – Responsibility? – Warn – Pure Motive – Share for those who need warning
• Is it my business? -Yes – Responsibility? – Protect Reputation – Pure Motive – Share
Full Series on Gossip
1. Gossip: An Introduction
2. What Gossip Is Not
3. What Gossip Is
4. What to Say and When to Say It
5. Gossip, the Tongue, and Humor