Gossip, Slander, and Reporting Abuse: Pushing Back on Poor Exegesis

One of the most hideous beliefs crushing abuse survivors within our Christian communities is that the reporting of abusive leadership in the home or workplace is gossip or slander.

It is understandable that the church has strong views of gossip and slander upon the first reading of passages such as Proverbs 11:13, 16:28, and 2nd Corinthians 12:20. In those passages, there are very strong words for those who “whisper” and “slander.”

Both gossip and slander are wicked uses of our tongues.

Throwing in Jesus’ process for dealing with relational conflict (Matthew 18), there has been a concerted effort to keep reports of abuse quiet in the church. In Matthew 18 the Christian is called to keep the knowledge of a brother’s sin to himself until he has confronted that brother and given him a chance to repent.

Only then, may the circle of those in the know begin to widen. We are understandably concerned that a brother or sister’s good name not be destroyed for sins with which we all struggle.

Therefore, survivor’s reports of abuse to others have often been viewed as gossip, and worse, slander by many in the church. Those who have suffered under abuse have been isolated and shamed as they have shared their story seeking help from others who may be in a position to bring them aid.

However, the church’s understanding and teaching on gossip has failed to bring the whole of Scripture into the fray and the church has relied on a simplistic and incomplete exegesis of God’s Word.

The Terms

Gossip: The term gossip in Greek means “to whisper” and “slander.” ψιθυρισμός [psithyrismos] is found in two places in the New Testament – the 2nd Corinthians passage noted above and Romans 1:29.

The Old Testament (Hebrew) version is דִּבָּה [ḏiḇâ] and it means “defaming, evil report, infamy, slander.”

One commentator’s definition:

My way of summarizing the Bible’s teaching on this topic is to say that the sin of gossip is bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart

Matt Mitchell, “What Is Gossip? Exposing a Common and Dangerous Sin,” Desiring God (blog), May 26, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-gossip.

Theologians are careful to note that gossip can be true or false. Even a true report to others of someone’s evil act can be gossip, but as Mitchell notes, there needs to be evil intent behind the sharing of it (out of a bad heart). The gossip must be seeking some kind of personal satisfaction and seeking to bring another person down unnecessarily.

Slander: The term slander in Greek means “evil report.” δυσφημία [dysphēmia] means “defamation” and “the action of one who uses disgraceful language.” Another term translated slander, βλασφημία [blasphēmia] means “blasphemy, evil speaking, railing.”

Oxford’s Dictionary defines slander as:

the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.

Note that at the root of these terms (gossip and slander) is the sense of speaking badly with bad motives of another person and/or trashing someone’s good name without reason (defaming). Slander is more specifically saying something evil about someone that is not true and thereby injuring their “good name.”

The Context

As we consider the biblical context of the use of these terms, you will notice some things that are particularly helpful as we consider abuse.

The term that is translated by some as “gossip” [ḏiḇâ] in the Old Testament is found in a few places, but rarely in that translation.

The only place in the OT that ḏiḇâ is translated “gossip” in the English Standard Version is in Ezekiel 36:3. There, it is the enemies of God’s people who are speaking evil of Jerusalem and God assures them He is going to judge them.

In Numbers 13, the spies have returned from searching out the “Promised Land.” Their description, which was negative despite the land being good and a gift from the Lord, was called a “report,” which is the same word translated “gossip” in Ezekiel 36:3. They spoke evil of that which was good.

In Psalm 31, David is crying out to the Lord because of the abuse he is receiving from his enemies. He says,

For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.

Psalms 31:13 (ESV)

The term, “whispering” is the translation of ḏiḇâ in this passage. These are evil, wicked people seeking King David’s demise.

If we broaden the search of terms in the Old Testament, slander is often used similarily to gossip. It is evident that the context of these terms is speaking evil of those who are without guilt in regards to the slanderer’s claims.

It is lying.

It is hatred.

It is wicked speach.

Do You Get the Idea?

Treating with contempt and shame those who are reporting abuse is missing the point completely.

Defaming an abuser? He has chosen to ruin his name already. Slandering means to call someone evil who is good. That is quite the opposite of what reporting abuse is all about.

Reporting abuse is calling evil that which is evil.

Can you imagine keeping silent while a gunman murdered at will because you didn’t want to damage his name?

The abuser is a liar. The abuser is full of hatred and deception. He is a murderer in his heart as Jesus describes in Matthew 5:21-26. Except, unlike most of us, he is not repentant of his sin and will continually justify and defend himself.

King David once again describes the abuser in Psalm 109:

Be not silent, O God of my praise!
2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
3 They encircle me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
4 In return for my love they accuse me,
but I give myself to prayer.
5 So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.

Psalm 109:1-5 (ESV)

Reporting abuse is calling evil, evil. What is the wrong response to reports of abuse?

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20 (ESV)

Woe to those who would ignore or shame the victim of abuse, calling good (the report) evil and the evil (abuse) good.

Calling out abuse is not giving an abuser a bad name. It is simply naming their name! They are oppressive and evil and according to the rest of God’s Word are supposed to be called out and held accountable (Ps. 109:6, Matt. 18:17).

Before you begin to criticize and shame a victim of abuse as they report to others the evil that has been done to them, please consider the whole of Scripture and instead give them the help and encouragement the Lord wants you to give them.

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