The Fine Line Between Stopping Gossip and Spiritual Abuse
When does cracking down on gossip make your church an abusive place?

Greg Thornberg       March 31, 2015

When Exercising Authority Becomes Abuse
    When is cracking down on “gossip” a bad thing? More specifically, when do efforts to stop “gossip” cross the line into spiritual abuse? We can all agree that gossip is wrong and destructive. What we may not all agree on is what our response as churches should be. Many churches in their zeal to stop gossip are so overbearing that even adulterers are treated more lightly than one who brings a tale to tell. We must stop gossip, but we must do it in the right way. The line is finer than we think.

    What does cracking down on gossip have to do with abuse? First, let me give two definitions floating around in churches today as to what a cult is. A common Church definition of a cult is “any religion that denies the deity and nature of Christ.” This definition was made popular by Dr. Walter Martin in his book Kingdom of the Cults back in the 1980s. I find this definition to be unhelpful because there are many cults that correctly articulate the nature of Christ but still do great harm to their followers. Although I am not an adherent of modern psychological practices, I prefer some of the definitions a few psychologist use. In summarizing these definitions: A cult would be any group in which a leader (or leaders) hold absolute authority over their followers in a way that their teachings, decision and guidance must never be questioned. This leadership leads to the detriment of personal health, family relationships and the ability to function as a productive member of society. I would prefer to refine that last part as a group that hinders the ability of a member to be a biblically productive member of the family, church and state. By this definition, the one thing in common all cults have is absolute authority that leads to abuse.

    What’s so bad about absolute authority? Everything. Unless you’re God, if authority is absolute, there would be no way to correct leaders when they are in error. Because leaders are not perfect, they must be accountable. And the greater the leader’s error, the worse absolute authority becomes. Leaders with absolute authority will often say that their leadership should never be challenged. Others may not say this in words as much as by their actions. When a concern is brought up, they respond in anger to silence the matter. Contrary to this is the fact that rebuking an elder is permitted in Scripture, but only on the grounds that it is true and brought by two or more witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). Take the example of how the Apostle Peter was rebuked by the Apostle Paul. Paul saw that Peter was living contrary to the Gospel Message and in detriment to believers in the church (Galatians 2:11-21). Peter’s public sin against the congregation demanded a rebuke. But if church leaders cannot be rebuked, they are free to remain on the path of destruction. In Peter’s case, a path that was contrary to the Gospel Message.

    What does this have to do with gossip? Everything. If our definition of gossip is wrong, we risk silencing the very people who have the responsibility to bring concerns to the church. Take, for example, the church I used to go to as a teenager. The leadership of the church was comprised of a single person. When two members overheard our pastor teaching something clearly heretical, they brought the matter up to him privately. The pastor responded by telling them they were “divisive gossips” and demanded they “remain silent” about the matter. Because the pastor had granted himself absolute authority, there were no elders in the church to which this couple could appeal. What did they do? They brought the matter up to leaders in another church. Together they crafted a careful response and confronted our pastor. What did the pastor of my church do? He cracked down on “gossip.” We were all warned that “it was a sin to challenge the authority God placed over our lives.” With many threats of fire and brimstone, half of the members coward and stayed, the rest, myself included, left the church. He had clearly crossed the line.

    When gossip is defined loosely as “challenging,” “searching into matters,” “confronting,” or “seeking advice,” we have a problem. And when a church does not allow for its members and leaders to seek out a matter to see if it is true, you have a cult.

    This doesn’t mean that gossips should be allowed free reign. It does mean, however, that we must first prove gossip before cracking down on it. The Bible is very clear about gossip. Without gossip, troubles cease (Proverbs 26:20). We are to avoid divisive people (Titus 3:10). God hates gossip (Proverbs 6:16-19). People with bad teachings ought to be silenced (Titus 1:11). But we must not be quick to accuse a person of gossip without cause. Just because something could be divisive, doesn’t mean it is gossip. Sometimes essential truth is divisive, but in a good way. Just because something is hurtful, doesn’t mean it is gossip. It hurts to learn that someone you love is a criminal, but the potential to hurt with the truth doesn’t negate the obligation to report such a person.

How Pastors Must Walk the Fine Line
    How can a pastor keep himself from crossing the fine line? If an alleged victim of gossip comes with a complaint, the pastor needs to understand when it’s his responsibility. He must also not first jump to the conclusion that a complaint itself is gossip without first following biblical guidance. Matthew 18 gives us important guidelines as to when a pastor has authority to act and how he is to counsel people through these matters. Jesus said,

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

    Before a pastor has the authority to act on a matter, he must be able to answer the following questions sufficiently:

  1. Is the matter concerning a major crime? If so, the state is to have jurisdiction, not the church (Romans 13:1-5). He must report the crime immediately.
  2. Has the offender been confronted by the victim? Matthew 18 says this must happen before the church leaders have jurisdiction over the matter.
  3. Is the matter true? The Bible requires two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15; 1 Timothy 5:19). If the offender is not admitting his crime, if there are not two or more witnesses, or if the pastor himself has not witnessed the offense (making him a second witness), he does not have authority to act on the matter.

    If the alleged offense is gossip, the first step is to ask the accuser, Did this person sin against you? Why does this matter? Because if a person hasn’t sinned against an accuser, it’s none of the accuser’s business. In such cases, the accuser is guilty of gossip and must be warned to stop. If the accuser answers yes, a pastor’s next question should be, Did you talk to them before coming to me? In other words, sins against an individual person (with the exception of major crimes) are not the pastor’s concern until after the sinner has been confronted the by the victim of the offense. If pastors consistently followed this one rule, it would prevent them from being overbearing in more than half of all cases of suspected gossip and would save them from unnecessary controversy.

    Why does Jesus have a victim bring one or two people along with after an initial confrontation? The reason is simple: by bringing another person or two with you to a second confrontation, you allow them to become witnesses to the offense. This is why Jesus said, ...that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. Before leaders in the church have the authority to act on a matter, they will need two or more witnesses to the offense. Therefore, if an alleged victim of gossip comes to a pastor after the first confrontation, the pastor’s primary obligation is to advise them to bring one or two believers with them to a second confrontation in accordance with the biblical patterns of confrontation. These witnesses must be known to be believers and preferably have some authority in the matter such as a father, mother, or older brother. In such cases where a victim does not have believing witnesses to bring with, reliable men such as deacons or those who are known to be spiritually mature in the church can be brought into the matter (Galatians 6:1). Witnesses cannot be known to have any conflict of interest or reasons why their testimony may be tainted by conflicting personal sins.   

    If the accused has been properly confronted by his or her victim, the next question needs to be, Is the matter true? Church discipline is not to be exercised except in cases where an offense can be proven true. If a pastor cannot find a second witness, is not able to witness the offense himself or does not have a confession to the offense, he has no authority to act on the matter except to advize the alleged victim to follow the Bible’s guidelines for the matter. Again, this pertains only to matters not involving accusations of major crime. If a person is claiming to be the victim of a major crime (abuse, violence, theft, etc.), a pastor must report the matter to the state authorities immediately and not manage the matter himself. Major crimes are the jurisdiction of the state and not the church (Romans 13:1-5). If the alleged victim cannot substantiate his or her claim against an alleged gossip, they must be advised to not share the matter with members of the church congregation because this would make them a gossip. It is rare, but possible, that the accuser is in need of church discipline and not the accused. If an alleged victim refuses to remain silent until they can prove the matter, they are bearing false witness and the church elders can warn them (2 Timothy 2:14) and, after that, have them removed from the congregation until they can comply. Again, pastors have no authority to act on the charge of bearing false witness without the evidence of two or three witnesses.” The same standards are always in play. 

The Conclusion to the Matter
    What does this mean for the church? It means pastors will often have to remain silent in the face of seeming gossip until they can prove the guilt of the teller. The standard pastors hold accusers to must be the standard they hold themselves to. If the Bible requires pastors to go on the word of two or more witnesses before hearing an accusation against a church leader, they should also require two or more witnesses to prove that someone is a gossip. Pastors must not hold a double standard. The problem is that some churches crack down too much on so-called “gossip” before they have the witnesses to prove it and
that is a fine line we should not cross.



Greg Thornberg

Greg is the father of 13, grandfather, husband, author, and itinerant speaker.
- - - - -
bio page