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James 3:2 - If we can control our speech, we can control all areas of our lives.
Titus 3:1,2 - Christians are told to "speak evil of no one."
1 Peter 2:1 - "Lay aside ... all evil speaking."
Most people are aware that the Bible gives guidelines about speech, and specifically about how we should speak about others. The Bible deals with "slander," "backbiting," etc.
People love to talk about other people, especially if they can say something bad: at work, over the backyard fence, and especially over the telephone, etc. Many newspaper columns, magazines, and TV and radio talk shows are devoted to the latest gossip about movie stars, politicians, and other public figures. People delight in digging up dirt.
If we were honest, most of us would admit we ourselves at times have a problem with speech. How many can honestly say they have never said something about someone else and then later realized they should not have said it? If we understood the Bible better, we might regret even more of our speech.
The purpose of this study is to consider the Bible teaching about slander and speaking evil about others.
Exactly what constitutes improper speech about others? Understanding this is the most difficult part of the subject for many.
The following definitions are from The American Heritage Dictionary.
"Gossip" - "Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature." This word is nowhere used in the KJV (it is used in the NKJV in 1 Timothy 5:13).
"Rumor" - "Unverified information of uncertain origin usually spread by word of mouth; hearsay."
"Slander" - "The utterance of defamatory statements injurious to the reputation or well-being of a person. ... A malicious statement or report."
"Backbite" - "To speak spitefully or slanderously about (a person)."
"Talebearer" - "A person who spreads malicious stories or gossip."
"Rail" - "To condemn or attack in bitter, harsh, or abusive language..."
"Revile" - "To denounce with abusive language."
Some people believe that all talking about people who are not present is "gossip," and therefore wrong. Others think saying bad things about people not present is "gossip." Or some think talking about things you don't know to be true about others is "gossip" and wrong.
While there are many ways to be guilty of speaking improperly about other people, not everything that some would call "gossip" is wrong. We must let the Bible define what is wrong.
Many inspired men did this. Who will claim they were wrong?
Matthew 28:7,8 - An angel told the women to tell the apostles about Jesus' resurrection. They were to speak to the apostles about someone who was not present.
Matthew 11:7-19 - Jesus told people how great John the Baptist was. [17:10ff]
Acts 11:1-18 - Peter told Christians in Jerusalem about the conversion of Cornelius.
In all these cases, someone spoke about people who were not present, but did they sin?
We often do similar things and we know it is not wrong.
* We may tell good news about someone: they had a baby, got a job promotion, bought a new car.
* We may tell an interesting or humorous story about people not present, but the person involved may not object at all if he knew we told it.
* We sometimes make announcements in our assemblies and even pray to God about people who are not present: someone who is out of town, sick, etc. These are people who are not present. Is it wrong to make announcements about them and pray about them?
Such speech is not wrong, because the person about whom we are speaking is not in any way harmed or injured.
[Cf. Acts 9:39; Galatians 1:18-2:10; Luke 1:13-17; cf. 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5-9.]
Again, inspired men often did this. Were they wrong?
Matthew 15:12-14 - After Jesus had finished rebuking the Pharisees, His disciples told Him that He had offended them. Though the Pharisees obviously were no longer present, Jesus proceeded to warn His disciples about the errors of the Pharisees. [16:5-12]
Matthew 20:17-19 - Jesus took His disciples aside and told them that the chief priests and scribes would kill Him (obviously these men were not present).
Galatians 2:11-14 - Paul told Christians in Galatia about a sin Peter had committed in Antioch.
In fact, Bible writers often record events in which various people committed sins, even naming names and groups involved. We read about these sins even today, even though the people who committed the sins are obviously not present. Did these inspired men sin? Obviously not.
[1 Timothy 1:19,20; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:16-18; 3:8; 4:10,14; Acts 4:27; Matthew 6:7; etc.]
There are situations in which the Bible commands us to tell people about bad things other people have done.
Matthew 18:17 - If a Christian sins and will not repent, we are commanded to tell the church. So under certain circumstances we must tell other people about a person's sin.
Just as Jesus and His apostles and prophets often spoke about the sins of people, so we are required to oppose error and false teaching. In doing so, we may mention sins or false teaching people have committed, in order to warn other people to avoid those errors. This may not be wrong, and in some cases may be required.
Sometimes when people hear that this has happened, they claim wrong was done. They say we "gossiped" about those people. It is possible, of course, to speak wrongfully in such cases; but the Bible examples show it is not necessarily sinful, and in many cases God requires us to do it.
So just because we have spoken about someone who is not present - even saying bad things about them - does not necessarily mean we have sinned. So what is sinful slander?
It is possible to slander someone when they are not present or even when they are present! Slander involves saying unfavorable things about a person in the following ways:
It is not necessarily wrong to sincerely ask someone about what they did, but it is slander to accuse someone without substantial evidence they are guilty.
Exodus 20:16 - You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
2 Timothy 3:3 - Paul lists a number of sins that characterize perilous times. The list of sins includes "slanderers" (NKJV), translated "false accusers" in the KJV.
Titus 2:3 - Aged women should be taught not to be "slanderers," again translated "false accusers" in the KJV.
The Greek definitions of the words "slander," "backbiting," "evil speaking," etc., show these include spreading false reports.
[Cf. Psalm 31:18; 15:3; 109:2,3; Romans 1:30; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Examples: Matthew 12:22-25; 11:18,19; 5:11; Acts 25:1,2; 24:2-9,13; 2 Samuel 10:1-3; Luke 23:2-5.]
What if we circulate a false report that someone else started? Can we blame them and remain free from guilt if it is false?
People often circulate rumors saying, "I don't know this is true, but I heard..."
Exodus 23:1 - You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. No matter who originates the accusation, we should not repeat and spread it unless we have substantial evidence it is true.
The fact that someone simply made an accusation is not enough. Anybody can make accusations. Lots of innocent people, in the Bible and since, have been falsely accused. We need to know what the evidence is.
What if I suspect a thing, but cannot really prove it?
1 Timothy 5:19 - Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. We must have evidence before we make accusations. If we do not have proof, maybe we need to ask questions and seek witnesses. But don't affirm guilt till the proof is in.
1 Timothy 6:4 - Sins listed include "reviling" (speaking evil) and "evil suspicions" (NKJV; "evil surmising" - KJV). This is jumping to conclusions without adequate proof about what a person did or why he did it. Often in a time of conflict, people circulate all kinds of rumors and motives for which they have no evidence. "I think he did it because..."
Proverbs 24:28 - Do not be a witness against your neighbor without cause. It is not always wrong to speak against someone, but there must be adequate cause first.
Matthew 18:16 -By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. The testimony of personal witnesses constitutes evidence to be evaluated.
Obviously, there are limits on our knowledge or what others have done. When it comes to Scripture, we have an infallible revelation. But when it comes to knowing what other people have said or done, sometimes even reliable sources may be sincerely mistaken. But a sincere mistake is significantly different from negligence, indifference, jumping to conclusions, or circulating unsubstantiated rumors. Before we definitely accuse others, we must put forth a reasonable effort to get the facts, not just suspicions.
If we don't have the facts, investigate first. Ask questions, gather testimony. But don't make charges till we have reasonable evidence.
We must sincerely seek to be sure our accusations are true. But even when we have the truth, that does not mean we are right in spreading the information. Some people think they can say anything about anyone as long as they feel sure it is true. But there is also the question of motive: there must be good reasons for telling bad things about others. Sometimes people spread stories because they want to hurt people's reputation.
1 Peter 2:1 - Evil speaking is associated with malice.
Psalm 41:5-7 - David's enemies spoke against him seeking to hurt him.
Malice or improper motives can take various forms, such as:
[Cf. Ephesians 4:31; Romans 1:29,30; Colossians 3:8; 2 Cor. 12:20; Psalm 31:13; 15:3.]
1 Peter 2:1 associates evil speaking with envy. We may do wrong by speaking evil of others because we envy their abilities or blessings or the honor or favor they have received. We may seek to exalt ourselves above them by making them look bad.
* Vengeance, anger, hatred, or grudges.
Jeremiah 20:10 - Jeremiah's enemies denounced and defamed him to take revenge.
1 Peter 3:9; 2:23 - We should not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling. Jesus set the example in this. When He was reviled, He did not in turn revile others.
Vengeance is not just physical actions we take against others. One of the most common ways to take vengeance is by saying things to hurt others. Others harm us (or we imagine so), so we say defamatory things to "get even." Someone accuses us of something, so we respond, "Well, what about the time when you..."
Sin must be rebuked. But when we do so, we must be sure that we are motivated by concern for the sinner and others who may be involved, not by a desire for vengeance.
[1 Corinthians 4:12,13; Ephesians 4:31]
* Self will
When others oppose our views, whether in personal matters or doctrinal issues, we may seek to get some "dirt" on them to discredit them and keep others from listening to them.
1 Timothy 6:4 - False teachers are often involved in "reviling." They hope to find fault in those who speak truth.
Jeremiah 6:28 - Rebels (against God) go about as slanderers.
3 John 9,10 - Diotrophes loved pre-eminence. One of his methods was to speak evil against the apostle John (note: "malicious words").
We see this technique again and again in politics. It is sometimes called the "scorched earth policy." When politicians oppose one another in an election or in some policy decision, often someone leaks some personal information about his opponents or their party to make them look bad. Often it happens shortly before an election.
Speaking evil against others so we can win a confrontation and get our way is a form of sinful slander. Yet it frequently happens in time of conflict.
Matthew 5:11 - We are blessed when people persecute us and say evil against us falsely.
Before we spread derogatory statements about someone, we need to make sure our motives are pure. Are we speaking for our own personal benefit, or are we sincerely speaking for the good of the one we criticize or for the good of others who really have a genuine need for the information? This requires serious self-examination, because it is easy to attribute bad motives to others and good motives to ourselves.
[Psalm 31:18; 1 Peter 2:12; 3:16; 4:4]
Some people just get a thrill from spreading derogatory stories about others. They feel important because they know some intimate personal affairs that other people do not know about someone, and especially if they know some "dirt" about somebody.
Some tabloid magazines, newspapers columns, and TV shows sell their product and make a living this way. They delight in digging up dirt, and become rich by spreading the dirt to people who delight in reading it.
1 Timothy 5:13 - Young widows should not be idle, tattlers, busybodies.
2 Thessalonians 3:11 - Some refuse to work but become busybodies.
Leviticus 19:16 - You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people.
Some people are idle, having nothing constructive to do. So they spread rumors about others. When others do wrong, instead of sorrowing and trying to help them, they enjoy talking about it to others.
Again, there are times when some information needs to be made known in order to help the one who did wrong or to help other people who have a real reason to know the information. But we must be sure we speak for the good of others, not just because we enjoy being busybodies.
Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3 - If our brother sins against us, we are to go tell him his fault between the two of us. If he repents (hears us) we have gained our brother. The matter is resolved. Note that "hearing" us in Matthew 18 is defined in Luke 17 to mean "repenting." Until the person repents and starts doing right, he has not "heard" us.
The sin is made known to others only if the brother refuses to correct his error when he has been personally confronted. To spread a personal matter before confronting the sinner may cause unnecessary harm to a brother's reputation, and it drags other people into a controversy unnecessarily. When the brother has been confronted and has refused to correct the wrong, however, then we must get others involved.
Sometimes such matters are handled improperly because of ignorance of God's plan. But often people report private sins to other people, before the sinner has been adequately confronted, because of improper motivations. The issue to be remembered is: Are we acting according to the Bible for the sincere purpose of helping others, or are we acting to hurt others?
What problems are caused by sinful slander? Why should we avoid it?
Proverbs 16:28 - A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends. How many times have people become alienated because of slander other people spread about them?
Proverbs 26:20 - Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases.
Slander is often associated with strife, contention, and division like fuel to a fire. In such times, people may say harsh things about one another. They may drag out all the dirt they can to discredit one another. They may bring up old wrongs that were corrected wrong ago, or old matters that had been overlooked till a "blow-up" occurs.
People say, "Do you know what so-and-so said about you?" Others respond, "Well, remember years ago when he did such-and-such?" Then others become upset and they respond by saying nasty things or by dragging up things the other party said. Soon a major conflict has resulted, all started by someone spreading slander.
Have you and I been guilty, or do we control our attitudes and our speech?
[2 Corinthians 12:20; 1 Timothy 6:4; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8]
Proverbs 11:9 - The hypocrite with his mouth destroys his neighbor. Men have lost jobs, wealth, and families because of character assassination.
Proverbs 18:21 - Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. People have been killed because of slanderous lies told against them.
Common accusations that are used currently to discredit people are "sexual harassment," "racism," and "child abuse." When they really occur, such things are tragic. But when such accusations are made, society and government often have such a knee-jerk emotional reaction that they forget the concept that a person is innocent until proved guilty. Anyone who wants to hurt others, especially public figures, can destroy their reputations, their jobs, even their homes simply by making accusations, despite the fact they cannot prove them. Many have had their children taken away because some disgruntled acquaintance made an anonymous tip to a child welfare agency with no proof.
2 Samuel 10:1-3 - David sent his servants to comfort the king of Ammon when his father died. However, the king's advisers slandered David saying the servants were spies. War resulted because of totally untrue slander.
How many congregations have been torn apart by unfounded slander in which people made untrue accusations, spread malicious rumors, or refused to confront people personally?
Any fool (in the sense of Proverbs) can make an accusation. What we must consider is the proof. If it is lacking, then we must not spread the accusation, and must not treat the accused person as guilty until the facts are known. If people continue to accuse someone when they lack proof, then the accusers are the ones who are wrong.
1 Timothy 3:11 - The wives of elders and deacons must not be slanderers. The word for "slanderer" here is the same word as the word "devil." "Devil" means slanderer or false accuser.
For example, the devil accused Job before God saying Job would turn against God if he suffered enough (Job 1,2). This demonstrates the nature of Satan and illustrates the character of a slanderer or false accuser.
When we are guilty of slander, we are acting like devils: we demonstrate that our character is like that of Satan.
Psalms 101:5 - Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, Him I will destroy.
Romans 1:30,32 - Backbiters are worthy of death and so are people who approve of others who practice it.
1 Corinthians 5:11 - Revilers in a local church should be withdrawn from (if they don't repent).
Surely there are many reasons to avoid slander. What about us? Have we been guilty of slander or have we kept our speech pure? If we have slandered others, have we repented and asked for forgiveness from those whom we have harmed?
[Psalm 15:1-3; 1 Corinthians 6:10]
Here are some guidelines to help us avoid being guilty.
Not only are there people who just enjoy spreading dirt about others, there are also people who enjoy listening to the dirt.
Romans 1:29,30,32 - Those who consent with (take pleasure in) people who backbite and whisper, are themselves guilty of sin. Talebearers must have someone to tell their slander to. By giving them a listening ear, we encourage their evil.
Instead of listening, we should challenge their evidence and their motives for their accusations. Ask them, "How do you know this is true? And why are you telling me this?" What proof do they have, and what good are they doing by spreading such information to you? If they cannot properly defend their speech, we should rebuke them (Ephesians 5:11).
Proverbs 20:19 - He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with one who flatters with his lips (or one who "opens wide his lips" - ASV). Some talebearers are also flatterers. They say sweet things to people's face, but slander them behind the back. Remember, if you see them treat other people this way, they will also treat you this way. So, don't associate with them.
1 Corinthians 5:11 - If a member of the church persists in reviling others, he should be withdrawn from.
1 Corinthians 15:33 - Whether or not the slanderer is a member of the church, remember that evil company corrupt good habits. If people continue such conduct and will not quit, we should limit our association with them. By avoiding them we are not influenced to act like they do. Also, we can't repeat all the gossip to others, because we don't know what it is.
Matthew 12:33-37 - What the mouth speaks depends on the condition of the heart. So to correct our speech, we must correct our hearts. We have learned that slander is often caused by sinful motives, so before we speak we must carefully examine our hearts to be sure we speak from proper motives.
What should be the correct motive for speaking about others?
Matthew 22:39 - Love your neighbor as yourself. If we cease being primarily concerned for pleasing ourselves, we can learn to be concerned about what is best for all concerned. It may help us improve our attitude if we put ourselves in the other person's place: if I had this problem, what would be the proper, Biblical, loving way for others to deal with it?
Ephesians 4:29 - Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. The goal is to edify others and impart grace - that is to build others up and help them be right according to God's word.
There are definitely times when the sins and problems of others should be discussed. Sinners must be rebuked, and other people who may be involved must be warned to avoid being harmfully influenced by sin. But all should be done like Jesus and His apostles did it. We must speak from a sincere concern for the welfare of others, not out of jealousy, pride, vengeance, etc. How carefully do you and I guard our motives when we speak about others?
Rather than maliciously spreading slander about people we hear about who have sinned, we should hope for their repentance and forgiveness.
If a brother sins against you personally, you must go to him personally. Remember we must not accuse people till we have proof they sinned. Often a personal discussion reveals that the person did not commit the sin we thought they did. Or he may have a good attitude so that discussion will lead him to correct the problem.
If a brother has been confronted and will not repent, it should be taken to the church. But many problems could be "nipped in the bud" by personal confrontation. Spreading the matter to other people, rather than speaking to the one who did the wrong, just enlarges the problem. In any case, we should hope that the one who is accused of sin should be right before God.
What if someone comes to me and tells me about some sin that he personally knows some other member has committed? If he believes the other brother sinned against him, then I should show him what the Bible says and teach him that he must now go speak to the brother who sinned against him. Even if the sin is not a personal matter between them, but he knows about the sin and I don't know, then he should see to it that the sinner is confronted by people who do know about the sin. There is nothing to be gained by spreading the matter to people who know nothing about it before the sinner has been confronted.
If a brother is overcome in a fault, seek to restore him. This should be our desire, even if the sin was not a personal offense against us. We should sincerely want what is best for the sinner. But the best thing for every sinner is to repent and be forgiven, so he can be saved. This requires that the sinner be shown what the problem is, with sincere concern for his soul. The goal is not to take pleasure in spreading the news about the sin to other people, but to help the sinner to change.
Obviously, our responsibility in rebuking others may be limited by opportunity and circumstances. Our greatest responsibility is to people we know, especially in the local church. If the sin was committed by someone we don't know and never meet, we have little opportunity to help them.
For example, suppose we hear of some sin or false doctrine in the life of a prominent religious leader, political leader, entertainer, sports figure, etc. If they were a family member, neighbor, friend, or especially a member of the local church, surely we should make sure they are taught the truth. But if we have no relationship or contact with them, we are not responsible to personally confront every sinner in the world. Even so, we may properly use them as an example in teaching to warn others to avoid such errors.
But in any case, we should hope for their restoration and not take pleasure in their downfall. And if we personally know the people involved, and especially if the sin is committed against us personally, we should be sure the sinner is confronted in love.
Instead of rejoicing when we hear of people who have problems, and instead of maliciously spreading evil reports about them, we should pray for their welfare.
Luke 6:27,28 - Even those who persecute us and misuse us should be treated with love. We should pray for them and seek God's blessing (something good) on them. Pray they will receive what is truly good for them.
Luke 23:34 - Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the very people who killed Him. He was our example in suffering (1 Peter 2:23). He did not revile or say that He wanted things to happen contrary to their well being (but they did have to repent for their sin - see Acts 2). So we should pray for those who wrong us to receive what is truly good for them, and it is always good for sinners to be taught to repent and be forgiven.
It is not easy to sincerely pray for people and then turn around and maliciously slander them. When we hear reports of people who have sinned or have other problems, an attitude of love and prayer will help us avoid many of the sinful attitudes that lead to slander.
Christians need to work diligently to maintain proper attitudes and proper speech.
James 3:1-8 - The tongue is "full of deadly poison." Like a small flame it can kindle a great fire. Thousands of acres of forest can be destroyed by a small spark. So our speech can destroy the well-being of many.
Colossians 4:6 - Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. Proper answers are answers that help people do right and be saved. This may include telling people they have sinned and need to repent. It may include warning other people so they avoid the sins of others. But it must always be spoken with a sincere concern for the welfare of all involved.
Psalms 141:3 - We need to pray with David, "Set a guard, O lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips."
What about your speech and mine? Would our Lord be pleased with our speech?
What is your relationship with the Son of God who died to save you from sin?
Copyright 1989, 2003, 2011, David E. Pratte
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