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Avoiding Theological Gossip

(Lisa Robinson)

whispering in ear2Frank Viola posted this article on his blog, written by Jon Zens. The article talks about the insidious nature and impact of gossip. Here’s his definition

Gossip is second or third hand information that someone dumps on you without your prior consent and without the consent of the person being gossiped about. Gossip can be true, partially true, or completely false. It can be motivated by good intentions, but it’s always negative personal information about another that puts them in a bad light.

Zens then goes on to say how gossip usually involves slander, “The Bible defines slander as accusatory speech that is injurious to a person’s name and reputation. It’s essentially character assassination . . . the act of smearing someone. And of course there is a plethora of verses that admonish us about engaging in gossip.

To be honest, I don’t know of too many people who have not on some level been sucked in to the wiles of gossip, either directly as the gossiper or indirectly as the recipient of it. I confess to being a party to it more times than I care to admit. I found the article particularly convicting in that regard. As the article rightly points out, gossip can have devastating consequences for the individual (s) being smeared and to the health of the body of Christ, especially when it occurs within our church circles.

Since I read the article this morning, I’ve contemplated why gossip is such an easy lure that entices us into its harmful web. I suspect that it feeds our humanity that seeks the moral upper hand and self-righteousness justification. There’s something about tainting the character of the other person that validates us and puts us in the superior position when we engage in gossip.

I also could not help but take this concept of gossip further to reflect on theological discourse. If we apply the same definition of gossip and slander as stated above then the definition would go something like this

Theological gossip involves the airing of someone’s statements on a theological position through second or third hand information that may be partially true or even untrue, puts them in a negative light that involves assassinating their character.

It is the equivalent of going to others and saying about that author, pastor or theologian, “Hey, have you heard what so and so said or what so and so believes? I can’t believe they call themselves a Christian and take such an ungodly position!” AND without having all the facts; hearsay from others who have whispered in our ears, so to speak. I hate to say this but social media and the blogosphere can become an easy conduit for theological gossip, especially around new books. (No, I will not mention any names!)

Now, here’s where I think it gets tricky. Sometimes there are positions developed and held that are inconsistent with the historic Christian witness of faith and may lead to unChristian deviations.  Michael recently wrote here about theological novelty. And while novel concepts might sound compelling, ideas have consequences and must be systematically thought through to their logical conclusion. This is why I love the discipline of systematic theology – because it forces you to put ideas through a logical, biblical and historical grid. There are instances when detrimental ideas couched in persuasive arguments and popular appeal need to be openly challenged.

But often we might be too rash, too hasty to air the “dirty laundry,” so to speak, without the benefit of sufficient analysis. I think the impetus to do this is found in the same source as personal gossip – gaining the superior, moral upper hand. It’s an easy trap to fall into, I’m afraid but one that can have consequences especially if one’s theology is defamed without merit. So what to do?

Going back to the article, I found that this solution to circumvent gossip might be appropriate.

For this reason, I have raised a standard in my life. To the best of my ability, I always evaluate people based on my first-hand experience with them, not on what someone else tells me about them – for the obvious reason that second-hand information can be very misleading and inaccurate (sad to say, I haven’t always lived up to this standard in the past)…If we are in conversation with a person and they begin to express words that put another brother or sister in a bad light, we have a responsibility to interrupt such speech and exhort them to speak directly with the person they are criticizing. If an email containing gossip is sent to us, we should disregard the content and ask the sender to go to the one being spoken against. In all circumstances, as much as lies with us, we should not be a party to gossip and we should confront those spreading evil speech.

If you’re dealing with a theological thesis someone has proposed  and you don’t know them personally, of course you’re not going to go banging on their door. But here’s the transferable idea: read their stuff directly. Interact with them if at all possible and ask pointed questions. Stop relying on 2nd and 3rd hand information regarding facts. Go directly to the source. Stop relying on the book reviews and actually read the book. Find out why they promote this or that idea. Try not to be influenced by the “gossipers” or join in the gossip parties about, especially without sufficient information. Be quick to hear and slow to speak (or write Facebook posts or blogs)

I think this is challenging for those of us who are active in the blogosphere and social media world. But the admonishment of the article and relevant scriptural support warrants it, especially in demonstrating love for another member of the body of Christ. And I think it would be a big step to avoiding theological gossip.

Check out my blog at www.theothoughts.com. Follow me on Twitter @theochick

12 Responses to “Avoiding Theological Gossip”

  1. Wow. You’re so right, Lisa. I was just looking at some stuff about a certain ministry today–unbelievable charges, and yet a percentage of readers will take it as true. No way to defend oneself from this sort of thing. Get big enough and someone’ll demonize you on the internet.

    But never mind that. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same kind of “gossip” you’re talking about. I’d do some things differently now. Good time to make a resolution as you describe.

  2. Marv, you are not alone. I’ve definitely been guilty of this.

  3. I saw gossip destroy a church and the stress it brought seriously damaged the pastor’s health. As Marv said, people will believe absurd charges without ever seeking truth.

    Another common tactic in the theological world is to focus on one isolated aspect of a ministry and act as if that aspect defines the whole. Thus some decent schools get labeled “Cemetery” instead of “Seminary,” as if gossip delivered in a cute manner is somehow less objectionable. And you’re right Lisa, theological gossip is often delivered with a sense of moral and theological superiority. That in itself should be a red flag to the hearer, saying more about the speaker than about the subject.

    And as both of you said, I see myself in my own critique.

  4. Whoa! What’s up with the formatting errors?

  5. Yeah, I’ve been mulling this sort of thing recently too. I was trying to think of what you call this sort of internet demonization of ministries. You nail it with “gossip.”

    It’s power comes from that carnal deliciousness that juicy bits of gossip deliver. What is instructive is not merely the original post of some of this, but the rabid, voracious comment stream that follows. People picking up offences and running with the ball like a hat out of bell.

    What it relies on for credibility is not any kind of validity in facts, but the inherent prejudice of a good chunk of readers–“I KNEW something was wrong with X…”

    Ready to believe the worst about someone? That displays a heart lacking love.

  6. Often tantalizing are those little comments that to be “polite” we would never say directly to the person. “Mattie is a dear sister, but she has that problem, you know?” and so forth. And in so doing we begin to plant the odious seeds of emnity.
    As God’s family, we are to love each other. That doesn’t mean we always like each other – but not liking someone gives you no license to burn bridges.
    Lastly, the Bible tells us to be ready to defend the Gospel, which rarely entails hacking down the opposition! As is evidenced in so many intense debates, the last man standing is not always the “right” one.

  7. Lisa, this email is incredibly timely. I had a similar dicussion on another blog regarding this issue because I felt the comments were so vitriolic in nature. I find this is especially the case when we as believers differ on secondary issues like spiritual gifts, complentarianism etc. I think it is very unattractive when believers use their blogs to disparage others without adequately understanding what their positions are. I strongly believe that we should defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints but we should work hard to ensure that we imitate our savior who was full of grace and truth.
    We have too much at stake in a society that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to spend our time disparaging each other.
    I feel encouraged by this post because I thought about not following certain blogs – though i enjoyed the way they engaged with the scripture and cultural trends etc. – because of how mean people were towards other Christians from different traditions. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Paige-Patric Samuels January 4, 2013 at 6:26 am

    Gossip rather than critical engagement has often led many to isolate individuals. Doctrine often divides, when it should be a means or pathway to hear another polemic argument, and to engage the source intelligently. Often cheap low short of name calling as has caused more damage than good. resulting in slander, I agree we should never take a second hand view of an individual, rather we should acquaint ourselves with them. There has been a lot of damage done to individuals who have left a particular faith-community because of a lack of or understanding of their own epistemology. Michael is right Theology should provide the template to which believers can engage and be rightly challenge on their own assumptions rather get out of the box and become an heretic. Sound Hermeneutics, can help safeguard against been heterodox, rather than orthodox-mainstream. I think we should be objective in own thinking. I teach student to think original thinking, as it assist the learners to be able to create original thought , within the the context of what they have read. It is imperative to hear your own voice within the traditions of historical text. this will I think peregrinate, believers from going off on a tangent. Clear thinking, clear engagement, and don’t diss people because you may feel that you have the monopoly of truth. In fact one one has, we should be irnanic in our tone and speech. Soil Deo Gloria
    Paige

  9. Well, bless ya’ll’s hearts! :)

  10. Lisa,
    I noticed a small difference between your definition and the original “gossip” definition and then I have a question.
    Was it intentional that your “theological gossip” definition was lacking the fact that the information could be true? (Your definition only says “partially true, or untrue” unlike the first definition that has all three.)

    I wanted to better understand what and wasn’t gossip in his model. Would it be gossip if I said “So-and-so denies the virgin birth”? Or would it only be gossip if I was trying to destroy their reputation, even if they really believed this? …. If I didn’t think someone should read an author, when would it be gossip and when would it be warning them? ….
    How does this match up to statements like Paul’s “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2Ti 4:14-5).

    Finally, thank you Lisa for helping us think on this.

  11. So when someone in a leadership position has gossiped about us on their blog….misrepresenting what we have said to many people, do we still follow the 3 steps outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18?
    Or do we walk away in silence?

  12. Funny- brings back memory of church I was visiting. They got a new preacher and he was manipulating his wife from the pulpit, threatening to go home with another woman after church if she didn’t sing the song he had in mind.

    Folowing Sunday, I visited with an elder (in his 90s)…cuz I was disturbed by the preacher’s behavior.
    I asked him: when you see the preacher talking with a visitor, have you ever thought of putting your arm around the visitor and saying-“Be careful! Anything you say can and will be used against you in the next sermon!”
    He laughed…said he thought about it, then he did it!
    So I laughed with him too!

    Good memory….:-)

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