Monday, December 22, 2014

A Functional Definition of Sinful Gossip

This is the conclusion of a series of blog posts where I've been "showing my work" of biblical and theological research into how I arrived at my definition of sinful gossip.

A Functional Definition of Sinful Gossip

After studying gossip throughout Old and New Testament contexts and considering both the power of words and story and the overflowing heart as the source of our words, we are now in a position to offer a functional definition of gossip. This proposed definition is synthetic, drawing together all of the insights we’ve gathered so far. It is also practical, meant to help Christians to properly identify gossip in everyday life. Sinful gossip is bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.

This functional definition has four key elements: the action, content, situation, and motivation of gossip.

1. The Action of Gossip – “Bearing (Bad News).”

Gossip involves talking. It is about sharing information. Gossip is a kind of communication. As we have noted, a gossip betrays, chatters, reveals, talks, spreads, whispers, meddles, speaks, repeats, “tongues,” reports, recounts, defames, slanders, moans, complains, and says “things they ought not to” (1 Tim 5:13). Gossip is a communicative act. It involves words (in the form of a story) being shared by one person to at least one other. Of course, the actual physical tongue is not necessary for gossip to occur. People can communicate through printing, electronic information sharing, and other technological means. But gossip is always a powerful communicative act.

I’ve chosen the word “bearing” to define this action for several reasons. One is to make an historic connection with the older language of “tale-bearing.” A second is that it conveys the idea of carrying something from one place to another. This reflects what we learned about the sneaky actions of the rakil in the Old Testament and the idle house-hopping behavior of the gossiping young widows in the New Testament. A third is that when we share information with someone else, the recipient now “bears” that information, as well. So, it also reminds us that receiving this kind of negative information through evil listening is also sinful gossip, as the listener is now burdened with the information, too.

2. The Content of Gossip – “Bad News.” 

The content of sinful gossip is never neutral information. It is always “bad news.” The rakil reveals secrets. Those secrets might be someone else’s plans, but more than likely, they are the “skeletons” in someone’s closet. The rakil is an informer or spy. Spies reveal the weaknesses of their enemies. A nirgan separates close friends by repeating a matter instead of covering over an offense (Prov 16:27-28, 17:9). The content of gossip is often shameful information about the subject of the communication. The reason why the words of the nirgan are attractive is that they appeal to something wrong within the listener (Prov 18:8, 26:22).

The content of gossip is dibbah, an evil report. More often than not, there is a falsehood in that information. In that case, the “bad news” is “bad” information, bearing false witness or devilish slander. At other times, the information is true, but its nature is potentially shameful information about the subject of the gossip and is, therefore, “bad news” about them.

Some gossip is bad news for the subject. In Psalm 41, the content of the gossip was the rumor that King David was about to die (Ps 41:7-8). It was not something that David had done wrong and was trying to keep secret; it was a conjured story imagining bad things to come upon David.

The phrase “bad news” also communicates the opposite of the gospel. The gospel may start as bad news because of our sin but always moves to the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. “Gossip” is antithetical to “gospel.”

3. The Situation of Gossip – “Behind Someone’s Back.”

We have consistently noted the furtive and clandestine nature of gossip. The rakil slinks. The nirgan whispers. The lashon seter is a sly or hidden tongue. Psithurismos even sounds a bit like what it describes, starting with an attention-arresting hissing sibilant. John was far away when Diotrephes maligned him. David’s miserable comforters said one thing to his face and another behind his back (41:9, cf Ps 28:3). Gossip happens when the victim of the gossip is not present. This is intentional. When the subject is away, it is much easier and interesting to talk about them whether the gossip is malicious or merely careless.

4. The Motivation of Gossip – “Out of a Bad Heart.”

Sinful words come from the “overflow” of a sinful heart. Gossip comes from many evil motivations. A rakil hopes to gain something from his tale-bearing. A nirgan has a heart filled with complaint.103 There is a reason why King David’s foes spread their bad news–they wanted it to be true, and they gloried in David’s downfall. We’ve noted that gossip comes from treachery in the heart, from anger, judgmentalism, self-exaltation, and hate.104

We’ve seen that not all gossip is malicious. Some gossip is merely idle or careless. But idleness, carelessness, and aimlessness are not neutral motivations either. We will be judged for every idle word. The only good motivations for opening our mouths are those that are in harmony with love.


In this blog series, we have studied the Bible’s teaching on the subject of sinful gossip and assembled a functional synthetic definition from all of the relevant biblical data. We’ve learned that sinful gossip is bearing (either speaking or listening to) bad news (which can be false information, true but needlessly shameful information, or bad news projected for the subject) behind someone’s back (when the subject is not present) out of a bad heart (from an evil, unloving motivation and false worship). When a follower of Jesus Christ encounters such a temptation to bear bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart, it is time to resist!


[103] For more on the “little” sin of grumbling, see Paul David Tripp, “Grumbling – A Look at a ‘Little’ Sin,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 18, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 47-52.

[104] Another reason why the Bible emphasizes gossip as a person and not just as an action is that all of our actions come out of our personhood. We act because of what we are. See Edward T. Welch, Motives: Why Do I Do the Things I Do? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003).

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