Christian Churches must devise a workable strategy to eradicate the scourge of judgemental church gossips who have plagued the faith for generations. That’s the gauntlet which controversial religious commentator, Dr John Coulter, throws down to Christendom in his latest Fearless Flying Column today.
In Biblical times, the Pharisees were regarded as the hypocrites of the day and there are many accounts in the New Testament of them taunting Jesus Himself.
But have the Pharisees really gone away, you know, or have they re-emerged to pollute the evangelical work of the Christian Church in the form of judgemental gossips?
In my own Christian spiritual journey thus far in life, I have learned the bitter consequences of the observation that we Christians are notorious for gossiping and back-stabbing.
At first reading, too, it may seem I am the hypocrite in this instance - criticising church gossips when such gossip provide us journalists with so many tip-offs!
Imagine as a journalist if I walked into a place of worship before the service began and started asking questions about allegations of a sex scandal in that church? It would not be long before I was abruptly shown the door and asked to leave.
One of the sad observations I’ve made as a result of my 41 years in journalism is that many people see Christians on the Sunday when it is a case of ‘Praise Jesus, Hallelujah, God bless you brother and sister’, but on Monday mornings these same Christians may well be in journalists’ offices dishing the dirt on their fellow believers!
If I was to breach the codes and conventions relating to media law and journalism ethics in any way, I could find the police at my door, rapidly appearing in court, with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) down on me like a ton of bricks.
In short, we journalists would pay a heavy price for getting our stories legally and ethically wrong.
But do the same sanctions apply to church gossips if the rumours they are spreading throughout the congregation, community, parish or fellowship are completely without legal, ethical or factual foundation?
Many church gossips do not seem to believe in the concept of ‘malicious falsehoods’. Indeed, for some church gossips, it is not merely a case of wanting to be first with the latest tittle-tattle in the gathering, but they may have their own agenda at work - namely, to deliberately discredit the person they are gossiping about, even if that person happens to be their fellow believer.
It seems for many church gossips, they have either ignored or completely forgotten the wording of the Ninth Commandment, one of the key foundations of the Christian faith - ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’
My experience in life, both as a preacher’s kid and as a journalist, has led me to conclude there appears to be one set of rules for us as journalists which we ignore at our peril, and another set of rules for church gossips - namely, there are no rules!
Even when church gossips are confronted with the fact that their rumours are without any foundation, their reaction is to immediately quote St Matthew Chapter 18 at you.
As part of the parable of the unmerciful servant, Peter asks Jesus a very poignant question in verse 21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?"
The real theological bombshell is dropped by Jesus in the following verse 22: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’
When church gossips are caught out spreading inaccurate information, their reaction is simple using these two verses - ‘now you have to forgive as Jesus forgave!’ And in many cases, gossips will never apologise for the hurt and harm they have caused to families with their unsubstantiated rumours.
How many Christians or unsaved people have been ‘put off’ believing in the Christian faith because of the uncontrolled actions of church gossips?
If church gossips are resorting to spreading unfounded information about their fellow believers, maybe we journalists should adopt the attitude of investigating the private lives of the church gossips? Is that where we journalists would find the real stories?
Mind you, church gossips also try to justify pointing the accusing finger at someone also using an earlier section of St Matthew Chapter 18 under a section of that chapter known as ‘dealing with sin in the church’.
Verse 15 to 17 states:
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. (New NIV translation)
Many church gossips seem to ignore the advice in verses 15 and 16, and proceed automatically to verse 17 about telling things to the church!
In trying to defend ‘tip offs’ which church gossips have given me during my journalistic career, they will use expressions to me, such as ‘But I’m a born again believer and I always tell the truth’, ‘What I am telling you is gospel’, and ‘even the dogs in the street know this!’
In journalist training, one of the core textbooks is McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, now in its 24th edition. It is often referred to as the journalist’s bible. Many other useful handbooks have been published for journalist training over the decades, but I’ve never come across a ‘church gossip’s handbook’! Maybe that’s a project for a budding writer.
Perhaps the way to combat the destructive influence of church gossips in our Christian fellowships and places of worship is to use the law of the land against them?
Would that create an even playing field ethically and legally between journalists and church gossips? If a few church gossips appeared in the dock as a result of their rumours, would this act as a deterrent to others.
It may seem that we, as journalists, are cutting off a supply of information and tip-offs if church gossips were less likely to repeat their rumours.
But at the same time, legal sanctions against church gossips could act as a filtering system to differentiate between genuine tip-offs which can become real legally sound stories, and rumours which are just plainly a waste of time investigating.
Could Direct Rule from Westminster be the solution to this situation? Already, Westminster has legislated that same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws will come into effect in Northern Ireland if the collapsed power-sharing Stormont Executive is not restored by 21st October 2019 - only 10 days before the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union on Halloween Night, with or without a deal.
The power-sharing Executive has not operated since it collapsed in January 2017 and if it cannot be restored amid the confusion of Brexit, then Direct Rule from Westminster seems the only likely way forward for government in Northern Ireland.
If Westminster can legislate for same-sex marriage, more liberal abortion laws, and even potentially, a stand alone Irish Language Act, could Westminster pass defamation legislation which could fire a severe legal warning shot across the bows of church gossips?
Defamation law in Northern Ireland and England diverged when Westminster passed the 2013 Defamation Act to reform the law. The then Stormont Executive decided against adopting the legislation automatically. A consultation process happened and although it was completed in 2015, it is still expected to be some time before the law is changed.
This means the 2013 Act has no effect in Northern Ireland, which continues to operate under the Defamation Act (Northern Ireland) 1955 and the relevant parts of the Defamation Act 1996.
If we had these 2013 reforms implemented in Northern Ireland, either by a restored devolved Executive or by Direct Rule Westminster, would we see more people branded as church gossips appearing before the courts?
Could it be if the courts made an example out of a few church gossips, there would be less trouble in places of worships? Would potential church gossips think twice and carefully about spreading rumours about people if they knew they could face court action?
Clerics can preach sermons until they are blue in the face warning of the need to strictly observe the Ninth Commandment, but what is urgently needed is a workable solution to the church gossip toxic issue.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com