Mind Your Own Business — The Christian Response to Gossips and Busybodies

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A few weeks ago a story swept across my Facebook feed about a young Mennonite man from Indiana who went missing after a visit with his girlfriend in Arkansas.  I quickly determined, after a brief look on Google maps at the points mentioned, that there was very little that I could do to help.  There are plenty of situations where my own inputs and interventions are truly needed and this was not one of them.

The need for my personal involvement didn’t change after he was found.  Yes, as a normal human being, I was curious about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and hoped to eventually hear more about what happened.  However, there was no reason for me to pry or persist in an effort to find information, I was content to wait until his family was ready to share and truthfully didn’t need to know anymore than I already did.

However, some were not satisfied to simply rejoice with those who rejoice.  Some felt entitled to information, they felt that they deserved an explanation and more or less demanded immediate answers.  Making matters worse, the online discussion (including a page created to help locate the young man) quickly became and a cesspool of gossip and den of busybodies who seemed to take great pleasure in sharing their scandalous revelations.

Anyhow, because this does effect my newsfeed, and having had malicious nonsense spread about me in the past, and knowing what Scripture says on the topic of gossip, I want to make three points:

1) The young man didn’t ask to be turned into a public figure.

Family and friends decided to take their search public and the network of Mennonites on social media responded in force.  But that doesn’t mean that we should not respect the privacy of the young man.  The public handling of this was not his choice.  If their best interests (both his own and those of the people more intimately involved) are better served by not sharing more than has already been shared, then so be it.

2) You are not entitled to anything more than has already been revealed.

I’ve seen the spreading of rumors explained as need for closure and blame being put on those closest to the young man for their not revealing more information at this time.  That, of course, is complete nonsense.  Being asked to pray and assist in a search does not give anyone a right to know the juicy details and nor does morbid fascination.  There is no need to know anything more than what needs to be known.  He has been found, he is with those who love him, and that should be everything a reasonable person needs for closure.

3) Gossip is a sin and busybodies are severely condemned.

Curiosity is excusable.  I understand the want to know more about a story than is already known.  I can even see good reason to share, in the right time and place, about unflattering things discovered.  However, what I cannot excuse is sharing dirt on another person and publicly trashing them for no good reason.  True or not does not matter, what does matter is that we show the grace we wish to be shown and handle such matters in the way appropriate for a Christian.

There seems to be some confusion about what is appropriate and inappropriate sharing of information…

Fortunately there are Biblical passages that offer us strong clues.  In fact, being a “meddler” (1 Peter 4:15) or “gossip” (Romans 1:29) is mentioned in the same context as theft and murder and slander.  We are even told to disassociate ourselves from those who are “busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11, 1 Timothy 5) as a result of their idleness.  And, if that condemnation is not enough, there is also this clear instruction:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12 NIV)

The word “slander” in the passage above is also translated as “speak evil” or “speak against” and doesn’t simply refer to false tales.  It comes from the Greek word “katalaleó” (καταλαλέω) and is defined by International Standard Bible Encyclopedia as follows:

Slander (etymologically a doublet of “scandal,” from OFr. esclandre, Latin scandalum, “stumblingblock”) is an accusation maliciously uttered, with the purpose or effect of damaging the reputation of another. As a rule it is a false charge (compare Matthew 5:11); but it may be a truth circulated insidiously and with a hostile purpose

It is important to note that this goes beyond the modern definition of slander.  It is saying something, true or untrue, in a way that is unnecessarily harmful to another person.  In other words, this means *not* revealing things in public about an individual that detract from their reputation.  That in contrast with sharing only what is helpful to another individual and of benefit:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

There is a time and place for confronting sinful behavior.  However, unless the sin is already public knowledge and obvious (as in 1 Corinthians 5) or something that must be reported immediately to civil authorities like sexual abuse, the process of confrontation should always start one-on-one with the offending individual in private:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

In light of this, spreading scandalous information about another person just because you can is never appropriate for a Christian.  It goes completely against Biblical instruction to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” and to “mind your own business” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and amounts to a sin as bad as any other.

As for closure…

There are certainly those who should be working with this young man to help and restore him.  But there are many more (in the online crowd) who have no role in that and should be mindful of what Jesus told those who brought an adulterous woman out to be condemned: “Let anyone of you who is without sin cast the first stone…”

Christians should have no time for gossip and no place for busybodies in their ranks.  There is no duty to tell the world about things than can (and should) remain private and absolutely no need for salacious appetites to be fed.  So, if you desperately need closure, use the opportunity to reflect on your own attitudes and actions.

When exception rules…

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My boss and I generally get along well.  He has his preferences, I have my own preferences and usually we are able to find an agreement.  But occasionally there are times of conflict as well.

Most of the conflicts are caused by abuse of exceptions.  Exceptions are those times when my usual ‘rules’ are stretched to allow something I otherwise do not tolerate.  Surprises, working weekends or working too late on a Friday are some of my understood (but unwritten) terms.

It is reasonable in the industry I am in that some flexibility is required.  Delays often arise that are no fault of my employer and are the surprises I must tolerate to be reasonable.  Then there are favors or the times I am flexible just because my boss is my friend and I want a good relationship.  I will sometimes break my rules voluntarily as a matter of good will.

However, there seems to be a limit to how many exceptions can be made before the exceptions begin to become the rule.  If I do too many favors soon they become expected entitlements rather than appreciated exceptions. 

When I feel the balance of our mutual self-interests has been violated too far I will respond with protests.  I suppose if my boss would not respond appropriately there would be further reaching consequences.

Broader Application and Implications

Individuals make arrangements between themselves my boss and I do.  Groups of people also make arrangements with their individual parts that allow exceptions to the general rules for representatives of the group or to benefit exceptions within the group.

For example, there is an expectation that if one wants to eat they should work, but we do make exceptions for children and the disabled.  But that list of beneficiaries can eventually grow to include irresponsible adults and those less truly disabled.  It can also morph from being a special exception into an entitlement that is eventually is unfair to those paying the cost and abuse.

If the group never considers the needs of exceptions that is also a failure and negligence.  It may not be at a noticeable cost to the group right away when the weak and minorities are unprotected or considered only an afterthought, but there is a cost even if it isn’t measured in financial losses.  Lack of compassion is a moral loss.

Keeping a Balance of All Factors

This complex mobile of competing interests must constantly be fine tuned to maintain an appropriate balance.  Part of balance is order of priority.  It is recommended in an airliner cabin depressurization emergency that adults put their own masks on first so they aren’t incapacitated and unable to help others. 

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Rules must always define the exceptions in the same way the gravity that defines the order of a mobile must be respected or chaos will be the result.  The picture of the Liebherr crane mobile above (watch this video) is a prime example.  It is an exceptional display of engineering and some flexibility in weight bearing capacity, yet there are underlying rules that must be followed or the whole system will collapse.

The results of miscalculation, ignoring factors that influence stability and over stressing various structures (social, physical or otherwise) can result in catastrophic failures.  Failure like that of “Big Blue” which fell into a tangled heap on a gusty day:

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Prevent disasters by finding a balance that puts rules and exceptions in proper order and plans for the winds of life.