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Gossip, Accountability, and the Myth of Pastoral Infallibility

I recently read a series on gossip written by the pastor of a local church. In it, he defines gossip as “secret slander. Or as one lexicon defines it, gossip is ‘providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.’” In the series, he describes at length all the harm that can be done by engaging in this kind of talk, whether or not it’s the truth about a person, and he calls on people to Jesus Christ’s standard of perfection – only godly speech always.

At face value, this sounds great, albeit unrealistic. We shouldn’t talk bad about people to others. We should take any issues we have with someone directly to them. Absolutely.

But this series has a sinister undertone. It’s a gag order.

I thank God I have such a peaceful church!

Image credit David Hayward.

Let me explain.

We live in the real world. In the real world, people refuse to listen when confronted with something they’ve screwed up on. They deny they’ve made mistakes and they cover them up. Even in churches, where we ought to expect and extend grace to one another when we make mistakes, people still orchestrate circumstances to protect themselves and their reputations, rather than coming clean and making things right. We can see this desire to hide wrongdoing and protect one’s reputation in the Catholic Church abuse scandals, in the fundamentalist church abuse scandals… in pretty much every scandal, actually.

We have to accept that people at all levels are going to screw up, mistreat one another, break laws, and then try to cover it up. What are we to do then? If we are forbidden from ever discussing issues with anyone except the person involved, how can we hold one another accountable? How can we bring abuse, lying, stealing, cheating, manipulation, and any other sort of corruption to light?

The Bible provides one model for confronting wrongdoing in Matthew 18. In that model, you approach a person one on one. If they don’t hear you, you bring 2 or 3 witnesses. If they still don’t hear you, you take it to church leaders. And if they still don’t hear and change, you take it to the church congregation. This is the part where many churches would conduct an excommunication, although I believe this is a gross misunderstanding of what’s being described in Matthew 18. (This is another blog post that has been covered better by others, but basically, if we are to treat a person as if they are an unbeliever, let’s think about how Jesus did that. He reached out. He loved them. He poured out undeserved grace and forgiveness on them. That doesn’t sound like excommunication at all.)

But under this pastor’s definitions of gossip and godly speech, every step between going to the person one-on-one and taking the situation to the church congregation is gossip.

I cannot bring 2 or 3 witnesses without finding out whether they are indeed witnesses and discussing the situation with them first, nor can I go to the church leaders and discuss the situation with them without “providing harmful information about a person… with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.” Nor can church leaders discuss situations within their congregation without being accused of gossip, according to this definition.

Just because some information about a person is harmful doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be discussed. The key is why. Why are you discussing it? Are you trying to trash their reputation? Or are you seeking their best interests, and those of everyone else involved? Are you trying to confirm whether your impressions or observations are true or accurate? Have you gone to that person directly and been rebuffed? Are you trying to remedy a bad situation, protect someone from being abused, prevent laws from being broken, or just help a person do the right thing or break a harmful habit? These are all right, good, healthy, and important reasons to discuss something harmful about a person.

What are you to do if it’s the leaders themselves doing wrong? A series like this, with definitions and applications such as these, is a veiled effort to shut down critical conversation. It causes me to question whether he thinks that he and the other leaders in his church are infallible, or at least exempt from accountability. I don’t see that in Scripture or in real life. No one is infallible, least of all church leaders. Power corrupts, right? And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This pastor has shot himself in the foot. He cannot practice the model of accountability described in Matthew 18 and also hold to this definition of gossip. But it is more than just self-injury. This kind of thinking and teaching is dangerous. He’s telling his congregation, “Don’t talk, or you’re sinning.”

Watch out when leaders refuse to admit they’ve done anything wrong and actively work to shut down the kind of accountability that could bring any wrongdoing to light. Beware the leader who circles the wagons, shuts down discussion and criticism, and makes up rules to protect themselves from being held accountable for their actions.

When have you seen “gossip” use for good? What about leaders shutting it down to cover their actions?

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Comments

  1. True true stuff.
    Jessica recently posted..A Tale Of Two Cities (A Comic)My Profile

  2. Perhaps the key phrase here is “whether or not it’s the truth about a person.” I have been on both sides of this, Joy – and I think there may be a little more room for nuance here. I completely understand your concern about silencing people and using scripture to do so. That’s big no-no.

    But I’ve also been on a pastoral staff and have seen first-hand the damage that gossip can do. Cliques are formed, judgments are made, there are insiders and outsiders and it’s not pretty. Some of what is talked about may be ‘true,’ – but the emphasis and the inflection make that truth into something pretty slippery indeed. So I do understand this guy’s pastoral concern about gossip in the congregation and how it can harm the body.

    That is NOT to say that I don’t think we should hold leadership accountable. Absolutely – to a higher standard than anyone else, in fact. But too much gossip goes on that is very borderline in terms of ‘truth.’ People are shunned even without being officially sanctioned, too. It’s ugly and I’ve seen the walking wounded out here as a result. And I know you have, too.

    Also, I’ve been the member of the staff that has gotten called on the carpet by ‘friends’ who went over my head when concerned about my ‘unpastoral behavior.’ That felt pretty horrible, I must say and I’m still smarting from parts of that experience. I readily admitted my own shortcomings, wept and asked for forgiveness – but they were never again comfortable with me, despite many years of committed support from me in their times of trial. I was in the midst of the most trying time of my life – not that that exonerates my short temper in a committee setting, but it does perhaps add a shade of color, or reality??

    Gratefully, I was fully supported by my boss and my long history of ‘good behavior’ (whatever the heck that is!) counted. All of this is to say, pastors are most definitely not infallible. But I think that we all – pastors and laity alike – need grace from one another from time to time.

    I’m rambling here and maybe not making sense. Please discuss. :>)
    Diana Trautwein recently posted..5 Minute Friday – GracefulMy Profile

  3. Brian Jonson says:

    THANK YOU Joy – this is so well said.

  4. The definition of gossip that I have been taught is this: “Gossip is sharing information with someone who is neither part of the problem or part of the solution.”
    This is not to say that everyone who is a part of something needs to sit around and trash on an individual or group. That would fall outside the 2nd greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
    I think you are right that those definitions you referred to don’t allow for us to come alongside someone who is falling or has fallen. So many folks forget when “doing Matthew 18″ that the purpose is ultimately to restore NOT tear down.
    Good wisdom Joy!
    Hope recently posted..Finding Meaning in My WordsMy Profile

    • Now THAT is a definition of gossip I can get behind. Your points are so good, Hope. Thank you for adding them to this discussion.

      • This is so so good. It is not always gossip to share something, even if it’s negative. I believe the enemy loves it when we keep secrets – that kind of a culture is where he can really thrive. I’ve been a part of an extremely painful church ‘death’ where anything anyone said that wasn’t in the presence of the pastor was ‘gossip’. We were forbidden from speaking to certain people in the congregation. No one knew most of this until later, after the church ended, when we all finally felt free to talk to one another. This is one instance where the adage (is it kind, true, necessary) can’t be taken as written. Sometimes things ugly. Sometimes they’re not of God. And we SHOULD be talking about them.
        Suzanne recently posted..a saturday feel good tuneMy Profile

  5. Howdy, Joy. You bring an important topic to the forefront. As a pastor I take this seriously. So I appreciate your willingness to bring this into the open. It can be a major stumbling if the pastor keeps this as a gag order.

    However, I would disagree with you on one part of Matthew 18. Joy writes: “I cannot bring 2 or 3 witnesses without finding out whether they are indeed witnesses and discussing the situation with them first, nor can I go to the church leaders and discuss the situation with them …”

    Actually, as witnesses, you are not to discuss it with them prior to the meeting with the person concerned. The witnesses are there to verify that you have gone through the process of approaching the individual first (1st step in Matthew). They are not there to corroborate your take on everything. That is, they are not “on your side” to get them to back you up. Rather if it come sot the congregation, they can testify that you have followed the proper procedure and the result of that procedure.

    Sadly, if I talk about someone’s sin against me to other people I can cause unintended consequences. What if the person confesses to me, and our relationship is restored. But what about all the people who heard 2nd or 3rd hand? Not knowing who else is involved, restoration becomes impossible. They miss our on restoration and then carry anger, bitterness toward that person. Now my speaking apart from the context has exacerbated the situation and the fellowship, not helped.

    I would agree with you, that we need to exercise caution when doing this. Also we can not avoid the process, but which most churches do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this in his book, “Life Together.” In it he is preparing pastors for what it means to be community—in the midst of Nazi Germany. He took a strong stand on using Matthew 18 the right way.

    And I would especially agree with you on the last step. If someone is no longer part of the church, then that person is part of the mission field. And the entire process is set up to restore fellowship.

    Keep writing. The Church at large needs to wrestle with this topic. Thanks, Joy. God’s blessings on your study.
    Rich recently posted..What does this mean… to be Lutheran?My Profile

    • Rich, I’ve NEVER heard this passage taught the way you just explained here. This makes so much more sense to me. The witnesses aren’t witness to the sin (which makes it impossible if the sin is secret or just against one person), they are witnesses to the process.

      • This process then frees up both the one who sinned and the one who confronts to be reconciled as Jesus intended. And it frees the witnesses from acting as judge and jury. Since they are the only witnesses of what took place, when reconciliation has happened, then only two others need to know about the reconciliation. It is a closed loop, prevents antagonism spreading throughout the congregation, and allows complete healing in the body of Christ.
        Rich recently posted..What does this mean… to be Lutheran?My Profile

  6. Joy, it’s worth investigating whether this (or any) church & it’s denomination have safe church policies in place. I hear your concern about the fact that this kind of sermon series could be seen as creating a necessary culture for abuse by church leaders to flourish. Ideally, in a presbyterian system of government, the pastor is accountable to elders at least. How well that actually works, well, that’s a matter of individual councils. But I know my denomination also has a safe church team at several levels. A sermon series on gossip isn’t a bad idea, actually. People simply need to know that they also have recourse to advocates if they have been abused by those in authority.

    • “Safe church team” — what a great idea. I’d love to hear more about what this looks like.

      Like I said in the post, I completely agree that we shouldn’t cut people down. However, this series is being used to squelch all but positive statements about anyone anywhere. See Genevieve’s comment above for a great example of what it looks like when taken to an extreme (and I’ve seen the same thing).

  7. I would recommend this homily by St. John Chrysostom.

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii.LVII.html

    It’s interesting to note the emphasis on the opening phrase and its connection to other commands of Jesus. The one who has been wronged is attempting to address that wrong, not for “justice” but or healing of both parties. (Brings to mind the sermon on the mount.)

    I will also note the “excommunication” does not, at least in its ancient sense, mean cast out, shunned, punished, or any of other uses it has come to mean. It meant that you did not share communion. It could acknowledge a state resulting from a schism. Heresy. Or simply a condition in which one had cut themselves off from communion from their actions. And it meant they could not receive communion — which in no way contradicts treating people the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. Just an observation.
    Scott Morizot recently posted..Weekend Update 09-08-2012My Profile

  8. I agree that pastors are not infallible–my dad was one so I know. However, having watched many people spread gossip in the guise of “helping someone” or “praying for someone” over the years, I do think that we need to be cautious when dealing with gossip. I always think about how I would feel if the person I was speaking about stepped up and overheard me. In the end, I try to THINK (is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind) before speaking…because usually true gossip won’t meet that criteria.

  9. Joy, we’ve been on the receiving end of just such a “gag order” definition of gossip and slander where gossip was redefined to include any conversation regarding a third party, especially negative (I.e. “I am so sad Jane decided to move to Seattle” would be gossip if Jane weren’t present). Slander was any communication, including NONVERBAL!, either false OR true, that reflected poorly on someone’s character (you guessed right – especially if they happened to be a pastor or elder). In our case, this meant we were unable to get counsel from our small group – our closest friends in the church – about a major decision at the time – my career as a professor. We were excommunicated over our refusal to confess that one conversation asking their advice as slander and gossip. We still feel that Biblical definitions of gossip and slander are centered on motive – “idle talk” or “malicious” intent – and that slander is, inherently, telling a falsehood to portray someone in a negative light.

    What we hoped to do, by going through the incredibly painful process of excommunication, was stand up for freedom in Christ, and stand against relativistic redefinition of terms to enslave the people, twist Scripture, and unnaturally uphold pastors and elders as “holier” men.
    Genevieve recently posted..The view from the 10th yearMy Profile

    • This is just astounding to me and must be a more profound problem in the broader church than I have ever been aware of. I am wondering if the church you describe (and the one Joy is writing about) are responsible to any outside system, such as a denominational judicatory. I also wonder if such church leadership structures are accountable to the congregations they serve, or if they are so wrapped in their own sense of entitlement that any real communication between leadership and people is pretty much non-existent. Are these churches ‘on-of’s,’ independent from accountabiilty?
      Diana Trautwein recently posted..5 Minute Friday – GracefulMy Profile

      • The church I speak was part of a smaller, evangelical denomination and acted w support from regional staff.

      • Diana, most of the churches I’ve been a part of have been independent, or VERY loosely affiliated with others. They were not accountable to anyone outside themselves, so individuals within the congregation had/have no one to appeal to if the leaders refuse to change.

        • That was my assumption and, for my money, is one of the best arguments around for denominations – even though they sometimes have a bad rep and can seem more complex than is necessary. My own is small, but very effective in these kinds of situations. We are all congregationally run, BUT pastors are ordained by the denomination as a whole and the ministerium is responsible to the whole body. When mediation or discipline is required, they are at the ready and can be quite good at it, too. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction, particularly in cases where leadership is blatantly abusive and closed minded. So I am surprised and saddened to read that Genevieve was part of an affiliation that listened only to the leadership and not to congregants. Lack of accountability is one of the biggest negs about independent churches.
          Diana Trautwein recently posted..5 Minute Friday – GracefulMy Profile

  10. Tanya Marlow says:

    Good questions posed by this post, and really helpful responses too…

    I can understand the need to have the freedom to complain about the pastor, and Genevieve’s experience sounds horrendous- but I also have sympathy for those who see the damage done by gossipping.

    (so, basically- nothing helpful to add, but I’m talking anyway! Is that gossip? ;-) )
    Tanya Marlow recently posted..Bits’nBlogs #4My Profile

  11. Joy, here is the website for our denom’s safe church team. Facebook MSG me if you have any more questions. I serve on the church & classis level & hope to be trained as an advocate soon.

    http://www.crcna.org/pages/safechurch_index.cfm

  12. There is so much good stuff that people have pointed out. I think the key is to have a healthy environment where people can discuss those things that concern them, without being labelled a gossip. Sometimes it is good to talk to someone who has wisdom to get some perspective on a situation and help to sort out issues before going to someone. For instance it maybe an issue with yourself and not really the person who you feel aggrieved at.

    Recently there has been a situation where “gossip” has been the start of something being sorted out. There was an issue with people not being truly honest with others about where the money was going, those in the area knew about it and discussed it with them and then with each other, but nothing could be done until those supplying the money saw it for themselves and were told about it by others. At least it meant something could now be done about it.

    The society I live in also thrives on people keeping quiet and so the authorities do not have to deal with issues like no or inadequate heating being supplied by community heating companies or charging too much if they do. The key here though is when people do talk about it, is it just to complain or is it to do something about it. Often it is the former not the latter.

    Having said all that, I agree that gossip also can be very destructive. It has to be the truth and it has to be in love and sometimes we should just let things ride and not take issue with them. Sometimes though the issues have to be aired and brought out into the open, no matter how painful that is. Otherwise it can be a like a cancer that grows unchecked
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