(For obvious reasons, I will try to be as generic as possible in the following paragraph before getting specific about the topic at hand.)
In recent months, I have had several people speak with me about situations going on around them. Each of these parties were godly Christians seeking counsel about difficult matters involving others. Each time, they would pause and say something like “I don’t mean to gossip” or “I hope this isn’t gossip.” Clearly, they were struggling with matters of conscience regarding whether speaking of others constituted gossip.
As cultivating interpersonal relationships, dealing with sin and conflict, raising children, avoiding folly, shepherding God’s people, discerning false teaching, etc., are all vital parts of life in the church, Christians must talk with and about others. I find many sensitive believers struggle to open up because they wrongly believe to do so would be to gossip. Sadly then, the above needs are not met properly.
So when is gossip not? I studied over the answer to question 144 in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) : “What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?” regarding not bearing false witness. Here are five guidelines distilled from that meditative exercise.
It is not gossip when…
The matter is public record. I have seen people hesitate to convey information that is recorded in civil or ecclesiastical documents as a matter of public information. Here I speak of such matters as public news items in the local paper, a published article available in print or on the internet, divorce records in a civil court, or public disciplinary sanctions taken by the church. I know of situations where someone has been accused of not following the principles of Matthew 18 in speaking to a person privately when the issue at hand is already known over social media or in print. This situation is not gossip.
You are seeking counsel about a matter. If true Christian concern for a brother or sister causes you to discreetly seek counsel about how to handle a matter with them, this is not gossip. Sharing information about a person with another becomes gossip when it’s done for the pleasure of revealing juicy news with no true concern for the individual or having ill intent to harm the reputation of someone else. Legitimately asking someone more mature and wiser in the Lord than you about how to handle a dicey matter is not gossip - it is actually love.
Justice is at stake. If you are called by a civil or ecclesiastical court to give testimony about a situation, then it is not gossip to reveal the truth under oath as it pertains to the case regardless of how "private" some may claim the information is. The traditional oath in court is "I swear that the evidence that I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." To do less is to swear a false oath, which is an affront to the Lord.
You are protecting your neighbor's good name. Simply speaking about the affairs of others does not constitute gossip. We may actually be countering gossip by "preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor" (as it says in WLC 144) by speaking about someone else. If someone is speaking about a brother or sister in Christ and "does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor" (Ps. 15:3), then that person is not gossiping.
You are a whistleblower against evil. Over the past few months, I have listened to "The Roys Report" podcast, where investigative journalist Julie Roys shines a light on abuse in the church. She regularly mentions or reads letters from detractors who accuse of her being "unchristian" because she highlights those who are abusing their position in the church for their own ends. However, as the WLC 144 tells us, part of our responsibility as believers is in "discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers." So calling out those who are wolves in sheep's clothing is not gossip, but actually an honorable calling in Christ.
As believers, in this current climate we need to pray and resolve to follow the words of the Spirit in our discussion of others. May the Lord bless us and keep us in Him.