Biblical Word Studies Class 5
Saying What You Ought Not

C. Michael Holloway
11 October 1998

  1. Opening and prayer.
  2. As always, let's begin with a review of what we've done so far.
    1. The basic goal of the class is to increase our understanding of the meaning of certain words used in the Bible. We're doing this by concentrating on determining the meaning of certain English words as they appear in the New American Standard translation.
    2. In the second week, we saw that the word heart has several different meanings in the Bible, but that it most often expresses the totality of a person's nature and character and includes all 3 of the traditional personality functions of man: the affections, the intellect, and the volition. We also looked at 3 applications of this, the most important one being to cultivate a Biblical psychology, one that recognizes that the intellect, the affections, and the will form an integrated whole, not separate parts.
    3. In the third week, we studied the words knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, and saw that the three words are intimately related, but not quite synonymous, because
      1. Knowledge generally refers to basic information or facts;
      2. Understanding generally refers to assembling this information into its proper relationships; and
      3. Wisdom generally refers to the ability to arrange, articulate, and apply knowledge and understanding to the circumstances that arise in one's life.
    4. We also discussed 5 applications based on these words.
    5. Last week, we answered the question: Does the Bible speak of a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge? We looked at the distinctions that the Bible makes between types of knowledge, and I suggested that head knowledge and heart knowledge are not the best terms to use for that distinction, and suggested as alternatives propositional acquaintance, unbelief, knowledge, and belief, among others.

  3. Let us now turn to the topic of today: namely, gossip and slander. I'll begin by giving you some basic facts about these words and their appearance in the NASB
    1. The word gossip or a variant of it appears 7 times; once in the Old Testament, and 6 times in the New Testament.
      1. 3 of the New Testament occurrences are in the form 'malicious gossips', which translates the Greek word diabolos. This word occurs 34 other times; in all of those it is translated as devil. This perhaps provides some clue as to what God thinks of this activity.
      2. The other 3 NT occurrences translate Greek words that mean either whispering or babbling.
      3. The OT word means something like 'to be spacious, wide, or open.'
    2. The word slander or its variants (including talebearer) occurs 29 times, 17 in the Old Testament, and 12 in the New Testament.
      1. The 17 OT occurrences are translations of 8 different Hebrew words, with basic meanings including 'going about on foot', 'whispering','tearing apart', and 'evil report'.
      2. The 12 NT occurrences include translations of a word that is also translated 'blasphemies', and other words with the basic meanings of 'speaking evil', and 'abusive speech'.

  4. Let's now talk about the meaning of these words in English.
    1. In normal English usage, what is slander?
      1. Slander is saying something known to be false about a person. Probably in normal use it covers writing something known to be false also, although in legal language, that is called libel.
      2. What is the prevailing attitude within the world about slander? Is it considered to be bad?
      3. How about within the Christian community, is it considered to be bad?
      4. Now, although today the meaning of slander is restricted in the law, and usually in common speech, to saying something known to be false, the sense of the word in the Bible seems to be slightly different.
        1. It seems to be more along the lines of saying something not known to be true.
        2. Whereas in a court, a legitimate defense against a charge of slander is 'but I thought it was true,' it seems that this is not a defense against a charge of the sin of slander. The only defense against that seems to be 'but it is true.'
        3. This brings to mind G. K. Chesterton's statement: 'There is something to be said for every error; but, whatever may be said for it, the most important thing to be said about it is that it is erroneous.'
        4. Here's an example. Suppose Theobald has interviewed Mordecai for a position in his company. Theobald tells the hiring committee that Mordecai came to the interview drunk, because he slurred his words, walked rather oddly, and seemed to 'space out' at times. Suppose further that Mordecai wasn't really drunk, but that he had mistakenly taken a strong antihistamine instead of an aspirin before the interview. Theobald might well have a successful legal defense against slander, because he could make the case that Mordecai's actions certainly were consistent with him being drunk. But, did Theobald slander Mordecai in the Biblical sense?
          1. Yes, he did ...
          2. ... because he did not sufficiently investigate the facts to know if his assumption that Mordecai was drunk was correct.
      5. What are some examples of when slander is tolerated within the church?
        1. When describing the theological views of someone who disagrees with you, how accurate do you have to be?
        2. When talking about the views and actions of unbelievers.
    2. In normal English usage, what is gossip?
      1. Gossip is idle or unnecessary talk about a person.
      2. What is the prevailing attitude within the world about gossip? Is it considered to be bad?
      3. How about within the Christian community, is gossip considered to be bad?

  5. Let's now look at the Bible to see what our thinking towards slander and gossip ought to be.
    1. Consider slander first; three verses should be enough to show what God thinks of it
      1. Leviticus 19:16 'You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD.
      2. Psalm 101:5 Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy; No one who has a haughty look and an arrogant heart will I endure.
      3. Mark 7:20-23 And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. {21} For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, {22} deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. {23} All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."
      4. What do these verses show about what God thinks about slander? ... He hates it.
    2. What does God think about gossip? We'll look at three verses that address this, too.
      1. Proverbs 11:13 He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.
      2. Romans 1:28-32 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, {29} being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, {30} slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, {31} without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; {32} and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
      3. 2 Corinthians 12:20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there may be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances;
      4. What do these verses show about what God thinks about gossip? ... He hates it, too.
    3. Let's now look at another passage that will allow us to tie slander and gossip together. Everyone turn to Psalm 15.
      1. Psalm 15, which was written by David, says this: O LORD, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? {2} He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. {3} He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; {4} In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change; {5} He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.
      2. Look at verse 3 again, the NASB says 'does not slander with his tongue'. The NKJV says 'does not backbite with his tongue'. The Tanakh, a modern Jewish translation of the Old Testament, says 'whose tongue is not given to evil.' These 3 translations each have a slightly different sense, although they're in no way contradictory.
      3. The differences in the translations comes, as you might expect, from the difficulty in translating into English the original Hebrew. The Hebrew that is being translated here is quite interesting. Anglicized, the Hebrew phrase is ra-gal lash-on, that's r-a-g-a-l l-a-s-h-o-n. This phrase means literally, 'going about on foot with tongue'.
      4. The imagery here is wonderful, I think. Think of someone out for a stroll, just wandering about, without much thought about where they are, or where they end up. Now, think of someone doing the same thing with their speech. They say pretty much whatever comes to their mind, without much thought about whether it is true, or what effect it might have on others.
      5. That is very much the sense in this passage, and it is the underlying error of both gossip and slander.
      6. The root of both gossip and slander is the simply this: saying something about someone that ought not be said. In this, I'm using 'saying' and 'said' very loosely. You can 'say' something with your mouth, your pen, your computer, your typewriter, or your body language.
      7. There are lots of reasons why something ought not be said about someone. What are some of them?
        1. you don't know it is true
        2. you are talking to someone who doesn't need to know it
        3. it will hurt someone, and there are less painful ways to say it
        4. others are around who don't need to hear it
        5. there are other things that need to be done at the time
      8. Are there any questions or comments?

  6. So far, we've seen that God hates gossip and slander, and that both are really aspects of the same sin, namely, saying something about someone that ought not be said. Because God hates this, we ought not do it. Let's now talk about practical things we can do to avoid saying something that ought not be said.
    1. The basic idea is, I think, to figure out how to decide whether something ought to be said. This is where your homework comes in. For your homework, I asked you come up with a biblically-supported procedure for determining whether something is gossip or not. Someone tell me briefly what you came up with.
    2. One approach might be to try an application of the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31) '... just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way.'
      1. The basic idea would go something like this. Suppose Theobald is deciding whether it would be OK to tell Gertrude something about Mordecai. Theobald would consider what he'd want Mordecai to do were the situation reversed. If he wouldn't want Mordecai to tell Gertrude the same thing about him, then he won't tell her it about Mordecai; however, if he wouldn't mind Mordecai talking to Gertrude, then he'll go ahead and do it.
      2. There is at least one potential difficulty in this approach to applying the golden rule principle. What is that?
        1. Suppose Theobald is a very public person, one of those people who is content to share intimate details about their lives to just about anyone. Suppose, however, that Mordecai is a private person, someone who shares details about his life to only a handful or less of close friends.
        2. In this case, what Theobald would be content with Mordecai telling Gertrude is very unlikely to be the same as what Mordecai would want Theobald to tell Gertrude.
      3. Does this mean that there's something wrong with the Golden Rule? Of course not, what it means is that we need to be careful how we apply it. In the naive application that Theobald made, he left out an important step. What was that step?
      4. The step he left out was considering what Mordecai would want him to do. Someone may say, 'Wait a minute, that's not what the verse says, the verse says to treat others the way you want to be treated, not to treat them the way you think they want to be treated.' What's wrong with that answer?
      5. What's wrong with it is that it creates a false dichotomy, because if fails to consider the implications of what it means to treat others the way you want to be treated. I suspect that every one of you wants other people to consider how you want to be treated when they're considering how to treat you. So treating others how you want to be treated necessarily includes treating them the way you think they want to be treated.
      6. In case this is confusing, let me give a simple example. A couple of years ago I was in charge of getting end-of-school gifts for our school's teachers. Had I naively applied the golden rule, and gotten them a gift that I would've wanted to have, I might have gotten them a volleyball autographed by Karch Kiraly. Had I done that, at most one of the teachers would have been happy with the gift. A proper application of the golden rule required that I try to come up with gifts that the people to whom the gifts were given would like, not with something I would want as I gift were I in their position.
      7. What all this means is this. We certainly should apply the golden rule to help us decide whether something is OK to say, but we should do so intelligently, not naively.
    3. Another possible approach would be to apply the well-known Christian cliche, if you're not part of the problem or part of the solution, then don't say it. In the abstract, that's not a bad principle, but what is necessary for applying it properly?
      1. You need to have a good idea of what it means to be 'part of the problem or part of the solution.' It is very easy to define the 'part of the solution' part very loosely. What's one way that this can be done?
      2. Probably the most common way to define oneself as being 'part of the solution', and thus grant oneself the authority to talk, is to adopt a very pious attitude about the power of prayer. Sometimes, prayer meetings at a church can become little more than glorified gossip sessions.
    4. Given the seriousness that God's Word assigns to the sins of gossip and slander, I believe we need a conservative approach. Here's an approach that I believe can prevent both gossip and slander.
      1. You are considering whether to say something, let's call that something S, about someone, let's call that person Mordecai, to someone else, let's call that person Gertrude.
      2. Don't say S about Mordecai to Gertrude unless all three of the following conditions apply:
        1. You know that S is true.
        2. You have Mordecai's permission to talk about S to Gertrude.
        3. You can say S to Gertrude with the same words, tone, and body language as you would use if Mordecai were present.
      3. Of course, there are some situations to which this procedure doesn't apply.
        1. Like, for example, if S is 'he tried to kill me', and Gertrude is the police officer responding to a 911 call, you don't need Mordecai's permission, nor do you need to worry a whole lot about words, tone, and body language. You should still be concerned about truth, 'though.
        2. However, for the vast majority of cases that we encounter every day, I believe this procedure will work quite well.
        3. I intend to, by God's grace, to start trying to use it myself.
    5. What do you do if someone starts talking to you about someone else, and you believe this person is engaging in either gossip or slander? Suppose you're Gertrude and Theobald starts talking to you about Mordecai, what do you do?
      1. You can say, "Theobald, does Mordecai know you're talking to me about this? If not, I don't want to hear it."
      2. If that doesn't stop him, you can walk away.

  7. To summarize what we've talked about this morning ...
    1. Gossip and slander are at the root different manifestations of the same sin, namely, saying something about someone that you ought not say.
    2. God hates this.
    3. We need to know how to determine whether something ought to be said.

  8. Here's my plan for the next few weeks.
    1. Next week, we're going to consider the words humble and humility. Your homework for the week is this: Compare and contrast the characteristics of Biblical humility and false humility.
    2. The week after next (October 25) is the Reformation Conference, so we won't have a class that week.
    3. Three weeks from now, on November 1, we'll look at the word judge. My judgement is that this may take 2 weeks.
    4. When we finish with judge, we will look at all, world, and predestined. That, too, will likely take 2 weeks. At that point, we'll probably take a vote about what to cover the final 2 weeks.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright by The Lockman Foundation.