The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.
So I probably ought to admit up front that I’ve been dreading this lecture for the entire box. (And, yes, that is one of causes underlying the month-long posting hiatus. Hester will now don sackcloth and ashes and hang her head in shame.) No, it’s not because I was expecting Brown to say something earth-shattering that would require me to rethink my position on patriarchy. It’s because gossip is one of the favorite clubs of cultic groups against those who attempt to report problems, and let’s just say there’s been a lot of beatings lately.
But does Scott Brown use gossip this way? You’ll find out in today’s post. But first let’s take a look his actual handling of the Bible.
Apostles behaving badly
Admirably, Brown first sets out to define gossip (something Doug Phillips could never be bothered to do, at least not in my hearing). Using Proverbs 20:19, he first defines gossip, both the person and the act, as follows:
A person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts; a rumor or a report of an intimate nature.
Now that wouldn’t have been a bad definition – certainly we shouldn’t go around spilling other people’s (non-criminal) secrets without their permission! – if Brown had been able to stop there. However, he apparently couldn’t help himself:
Basically, speaking negatively about another person without that person being present is gossip, although speaking negatively about a person while they’re present is not so great either. But particularly we’re talking about secrets revealed in person that are negative upon another person.
Slow down, Scott – where did that come from?! We’ve gone from revealing confidences without permission, to anything negative said about anybody when they’re not present. Those are two very different things, and since Brown gave no evidence for his second definition, I have to conclude that he just made it up. (I’d also like to add that it’s not just negative secrets that can damage relationships – revealing positive ones without permission can cause equal amounts of tension and hurt.)
More importantly, however, Brown’s super-expansive second definition of gossip does not square with the behavior of certain giants of the faith. Paul especially seems to fail this test:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles – that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:1-5)
Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica – Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. (2 Timothy 4:9-10)
Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You must also beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words. (2 Timothy 4:14-15)
How does Brown explain these passages? Isn’t Paul “gossiping” by talking about Demas and Alexander when they aren’t there to defend themselves? Isn’t this “backbiting” and “character assassination”? And what about the passage from 1 Corinthians, where Paul not only denounces the man who is sleeping with his stepmother, but also recommends that he be put out of the church?
Note well that all that was based only on what Paul calls a “report.” In the KJV – the patriocentrists’ favorite translation – this reads “reported commonly.” The word for “report” is akouo, which appears to be a generalized term for “hear” but also has more specific connotations, one of which is listed here as “a thing comes to one’s ears, to find out (by hearsay), learn, (hear [of] mediately).” 1 Cor. 5:1 is listed in Strong’s Concordance as an instance of this connotation. In other words, Paul is here using a secondhand report as grounds for immediate church discipline, without waiting to hear the “other side.” What would Scott Brown think?!
That should be enough to put Brown’s faulty definition of gossip to rest once and for all, but the irony continues when Brown uses Diotrephes as an example of why gossip can destroy churches:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. (3 John 9-10)
For starters, I’m not sure how Brown can see gossip as the worst problem in this passage. True, Diotrephes is speaking ill of the apostles, but the main issue comes later, where we find out that he has basically hijacked the church and is throwing people out by force merely for disagreeing with him. This looks a lot more like a narcissist on a power trip, than a gossip whispering mean things in dark corners.
Brown’s bigger problem here, however, is that it’s not clear that John has ever actually met Diotrephes. In any case, he is certainly not witnessing his behavior firsthand (or obviously he wouldn’t have had to write a letter about it), and he is not saying these unflattering things to Diotrephes’ face. Thus, it appears that we have multiple recorded instances of at least two apostles acting contrary to Brown’s definition of gossip. So until Brown is willing to call Paul and John “gossips,” and parts of the Bible he regards as inerrant “sinful,” I feel quite safe ignoring his expansive redefinition.
Bringing out the big guns
Remember this post, where I compared Doug Phillips’ views on feminism to a hunter killing mosquitoes with a bazooka? Well, Brown’s prescription for disciplining gossips reminds me a lot of that analogy. To be fair, though, it wasn’t entirely his idea:
Here’s what my pastor friend told me in his church. He said, you know, Scott, in our church, if you commit adultery, you get four warnings according to Matthew 18, but if you gossip, you’re outta here by the first or the second warning, and that’s it. You will not survive in this church after the second warning, and maybe the first.
The takeaway is, of course, clear: gossip is, on some level, worse than adultery and should be punished even more swiftly and harshly. Brown and his friend get this idea from several New Testament passages that, Brown claims, make gossip a church discipline-worthy offense. As always, however, let’s examine these to see if they really teach what Brown is selling.
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17-18)
I don’t know about you, but I immediately wonder if this is really referring to gossip due to the mention of doctrine in the very next phrase. Could this really be referring to false teachers? The Strong’s definition also uses the word “dissension,” it is translated elsewhere in the KJV as “seditions,” and the Liddell and Scott definition* seems similar as well. I suppose this could encompass gossip, if it reached a certain level, but overall it seems to have a different emphasis.
Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such
a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
Given the reference to first and second warnings, this verse appears to be the source of Brown’s theories about church discipline for gossip. Seems rather clear-cut, doesn’t it? Well, looking at the verse immediately prior, maybe not so much – or at least not in the direction Brown would like:
But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. (Titus 3:9)
Paul’s train of thought here seems relatively clear to me. Long, bitter and contentious fights about minor points of doctrine don’t help anybody, so don’t have them. If anyone insists on having them (i.e., the “divisive man” in v. 10), warn him once or twice and then get rid of him if he still won’t stop. The Greek bears this out, as the word for “divisive man” is actually hairetikos (“follower of false doctrine”), the source of the English word “heretic.” Thus, this passage isn’t really about gossip at all, but about false teachers and their followers who make trouble.
And now we come to the real “hard hitter”:
But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not even to eat with such a person. (1 Cor. 5:11)
Whoa! So if we gossip, we’re “revilers,” and thus other Christians would be justified in shunning us – right?
Not so fast. The Greek word here is loidoros, which is translated not just as “reviler” in the KJV but also as “railer.” The dictionary definitions use the same terms, but interestingly Liddell and Scott adds the word “abusive” to its definition. Thus, this appears to be referring not to gossip, but to something much more extreme, along the lines of verbal abuse. So if you’re gossiping, yes, you may have a problem, but it does not appear to be an excommunicable or shunning-worthy one – unless you’re also verbally abusing people.
In review, then, Brown’s centerpiece verses about shunning gossips (1 Cor. 5:11) and throwing them out of the church (Titus 3:10-11), are not really about gossip after all, and the third one (Romans 16:17-18) may actually be referring to false teachers. In other words, two of the three pillars for Brown’s scorched-earth anti-gossip policy, rest on nothing but thin air, and the last one might turn out to be irrelevant. Needless to say, this greatly reduces the force of his argument.
Grin and bear it
Now that we’ve finished assessing Brown’s actual definitions, let’s touch on the possible real-world fallout of his ideas. As you can imagine, he doesn’t have many good things to say about those who traffic in what he perceives as gossip:
Sowing discord among brethren. This activity is hellish, it’s from the pit of darkness and Satan himself. You’ll see this as you read what the Bible says about this subject.
This is the condition of a life which is driven by its own belly, its own desires, its own upwelling thoughts, and then just sharing them indiscriminately and wrongfully.
An evildoer gives heed to false lips. Have you ever given heed to false lips? You are an evildoer. You have broken the law of God. Have you ever listened eagerly to a spiteful tongue? You are liar, that’s what Proverbs 17:4 says. You are a liar and an evildoer if you ever listen to gossip.
If you can’t say anything nice, just don’t say it. Don’t share your pain. We live in a culture which teaches us to just share any old thing coming out of our old black old heart. Well, this isn’t the counsel of the Lord. This is the counsel of a wicked culture saturated in ungodly psychological principles.
Don’t make it your mission in life to warn the world about everyone else. Don’t answer every question, you just don’t have to answer every question. Often, the answer to a question ends up being gossip, and we so desire to please one another that we will often answer questions that we should not even answer, lest we be a talebearer, lest we speak something that should be secret.
We can see from the above just how far astray Brown’s faulty definition of gossip has led him. We are never supposed to share our pain? What if our pain comes from having been the victim of a crime? What if we were raped, or abused, or swindled out of our life’s savings? And what about the next excerpt, in which Brown poo-poos the idea of warning others? All warnings are not created equal. No, we probably don’t need to tell our entire church that Susie once told us we looked bad in pink – but we probably do need to tell them that Bob is a registered sex offender. And Brown’s only defense of these overly broad statements is that all objections come from “ungodly psychological principles” (which he leaves completely undefined and never bothers to explain or rebut).
I find the above incredibly disturbing. Strictly speaking, it would make nearly all of journalism (and certainly investigative journalism) into little more than a big gossipmongers’ club. It would make whistleblowers out to be the bad guys, while tending to downplay the illegal or immoral activity they’re attempting to expose. Worse yet, it would make abuse against spouses and children nearly impossible to report, especially child sex abuse (which is rarely witnessed by anyone except the child and the perpetrator). And given this statement…
You know, there’s this idea sometimes that we have that in our conversations with our spouses, that there’s no such thing as gossip, we can say whatever we want. Well, you know, that’s not really true. Often husbands can defile the thoughts and the meditations of the hearts of their wives by speaking things that they should not speak. Wives can often do the same thing. They speak their hearts, they share their hearts, and often they should not share them, because they have actually a defiling effect. Sometimes we think that marriage is kind of a gossip-free zone, that we can just do or say whatever we want, and I just don’t find any evidence anywhere in Scripture that that is true. We should always guard our tongues. We should always as husbands work to protect our wives, and as wives to be a good help and a blessing to our husbands in everything that we say, in every single thing that we say, and that we guard our tongues from gossip, even in the marriage chamber.
…Brown’s ideas might even stifle healthy communication within marriage. I’m sure Brown didn’t intend to do this, though frankly I’m a little confused as to what exactly he did mean in the above quote. But nevertheless it’s not hard for me to imagine a situation in which Brown’s overly broad definition of gossip would stop an important conversation from happening, and maybe even enable abuse. For instance, what if Mr. Jones suspects Uncle Louie is molesting the Jones’ daughter, but has no solid proof? Should he share his suspicions with his wife, or should he follow Brown’s advice and not say anything bad about Uncle Louie behind his back?
Finally, since Brown explicitly supports avoiding gossips, and characterizes anything he defines as gossip as “hellish” and Satanic, what do you think would happen if someone did manage to publicly report something negative? My guess: an instant shunning – even for a reported crime. After all, Brown made no distinction between criminal activity (like domestic violence), and rude but non-criminal behavior (like insulting someone’s cooking). I thus have no reason to expect that this distinction would magically kick in the minute a crime was reported. Because “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”!
And that is why I can neither support Scott Brown nor recommend his lecture to anybody, because his ideas are just too dangerous. They’re especially dangerous to children – and since Jesus had an obvious soft spot for children, I don’t think trafficking in ideas that actively (albeit unwittingly) endanger them is a good idea…especially in light of this verse.
*Due to a search results display peculiarity, I could not link directly to the Liddell and Scott definition for dichostasia, but a search of English meanings for the word “dissension” in the box at the top of the page will bring it up.