If you were called upon to testify as a fact witness in a court of law, would you be careless about what you say? Would you be willing to exaggerate or, worse, fabricate your testimony? I hope not! Not only are you required to give an oath that you will tell the truth, but you are also warned that lying under oath is a crime. The crime of aggravated perjury is defined as, “making false statements while under oath with the intent to deceive.” As the trier of fact, the jury must weigh all of the evidence, which includes witness testimony, before rendering a verdict. If witnesses are lying, then it makes it less likely that justice will prevail.
What if jurors received testimony from witnesses the way Christians (sometimes) receive information about others in a church? That is, what if the jury was permitted to receive and give serious weight to testimony provided outside of the presence of both the accused (i.e., the defendant) and an objective third-party (i.e., the judge)? Worse, what if the jury was permitted to base their final verdict on gossip (e.g., inadmissible hearsay) without hearing from the accused? You could not (and would not) seriously expect that justice would ever be served in such a system.
Early English Juries
In his article, “When it comes to jury trials, should you tell a story or stick to the facts?,” Drury Sherrod provides a brief synopsis on the origins and practices of the jury system under English Common Law. He writes,
“Nearly a thousand years ago in small Anglo-Saxon villages, trial by jury arose as part of the Magna Carta. When a villager was accused of a crime, a group of local men of similar status to the accused was assembled to hear the charges and reach a verdict. There were no attorneys, no witnesses, no testimony, no examination, no cross-examination, and no evidence—as we think of it. Instead, jurors were expected to ask around the village, discuss what they knew and what they learned about the accused person’s reputation, history, and character and decide whether the accusations were true. The entire trial took no more than a few hours, and if facts were missing, jurors relied on local gossip to fill in the gaps. Historians of the Anglo-Saxon jury system refer to these early jurors as ‘self-informing.'” (ABA Journal, 4/11/2019).
Although the jury system has evolved and courts of law have adopted much higher standards, the modern church appears (in many respects) to be stuck in the practices of the past. We make excuses for gossip and those who promote it. Worse, we are drawn to controversy and have a strange love affair with drama in the church.
Change is hard, but it is worth it.
The credibility of our message is at stake; thus, we must rethink how we handle gossip and hearsay in the church. The way we handle conflict, gossip, and controversy is guided by a higher standard than that of the civil courts. Therefore, it follows that we should quickly reject and correct any behavior that is contrary to the gospel (cf. Phil. 1:27a, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ“), especially that which ruins lives and the testimony of the church.
Where Do We Go From Here?
How is it that the standards and expectations for one’s conduct are higher in the courthouse than in the church house? The horrifying reality is that the place where people should hear the truth preached and see it displayed has changed the rules. That is, in some respects, the church has abandoned living out the faith as a family. We’ve all experienced, witnessed, or heard of the vile and reprehensible things that, whether true or not, have been said about people who should be given the benefit of the doubt and addressed privately with such accusations. Therefore, instead of filling this article with those stories, I will address some foundational problems and propose some biblical solutions.
The primary reasons for the absence of ethical guideposts in the church concerning gossip and backbiting are interrelated and (thankfully) correctable.
(1) A seeker-sensitive approach to preaching and teaching has led to a diminished diet of healthy biblical doctrine. Although some would suggest that preaching difficult doctrines will be a hindrance to church growth, I am prepared to argue that a spiritually anemic church will potentially devour its own (and destroy any hope of healthy church growth). Doctrinally-rich teaching and preaching is neither a turn-off nor hindrance to unbelievers hearing the gospel. On the contrary, it is more likely that the boring preacher’s mundane lecture, filled with quotes from dead theologians and archaic expressions, is the reason people aren’t interested in robust theological discussion. Moreover, it may be the (narcissistic) preacher’s desire to be famous and adored that hinders him from teaching hard truths. Either way, truth is not the problem, preachers are!
A return to preaching that places significant emphasis on doctrine will inevitably confront issues such as gossip and backbiting. Thus, a pastor must feed the church a healthy diet of sound theology. For example, preaching should call believers to cling to Christ, which is essentially a call to holiness (i.e., Christlikeness). The doctrine of sanctification, which is scarcely discussed in (modern) hyper-antinomian preaching, calls Christians to simultaneously rely entirely upon the supernatural work of Christ and to strive (by that same supernatural grace) to live a Christlike life. Although it goes without saying that Christians aren’t modeling Christlikeness when they gossip, it must be said (preached) over and over because we tend to stray from both orthodoxy (i.e., right doctrine) and orthopraxy (i.e., right practice).
Thus, the first step in creating a culture of higher (Christlike) standards in the church is preaching the whole counsel of God (cf. Acts 20:27, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God“). God is still in the business of both saving and sanctifying people. Preachers must stop trusting in their own intelligence or inflated coolness, and instead rely upon and unapologetically preach the Word of God (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2-5).
When Christians consistently hear the expectations, standards, and principles that God has provided for the church, the climate will be transformed from ruining lives to saving lives.
(2) The absence of spiritually healthy Christians who are willing to be discipled and disciple others. Beyond merely obtaining knowledge about the people and events of the Bible, why do you attend a life group or Sunday school class? Hopefully, it is to grow in your knowledge of and love for Christ. However, some of the worst gossips that I’ve met in churches are people who appear to have the most biblical knowledge. Although this may surprise you, the worst gossips that I have personally encountered are preachers. I’ve yet to attend a conference or convention when I didn’t hear preachers running down other preachers. After years of reflection on this problem, I realized that it wasn’t a lack of knowledge but an unwillingness to be discipled that facilitated such behavior.
The second answer to the problem of gossip is simple to understand but difficult to apply. That is, you need a mentor who will confront you when you are entertaining or engaging in sin. The Bible makes it clear that this process is both painful and productive. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, ESV). No one likes to be confronted. However, if a trusted friend, especially someone who is mentoring you, confronts you about your sin, you are blessed to have such a friend. Why? Because this confrontation is part of your sanctification. The sharper the blade, the more useful the knife.
A Dire Warning
After instructing Christians to sacrificially love one another, the Apostle Paul warns the church of the dire consequences of the opposite: biting and devouring one another. He writes, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15, ESV). Confronting a gossip may cost you! That is, a person who is talking about others to you is likely to talk about you to others. It may not surprise you then when you become the object of their wrath. However, you are compelled by Christ to do what is right. Making disciples isn’t easy, but it is worth it. So, start pouring your life into others, showing them what it looks like to love and build others up as opposed to tearing down and destroying lives.