How should ministers talk about other ministers online or anywhere else?
Launched in mid-spring 2019, the Instagram account @preachersnsneakers features pictures of famous, mostly young evangelical preachers. Next to the photos are screenshots of the clothes, shoes and other accessories the preachers are wearing, along with each item’s sale price. The posts bring attention to the trend of some high-profile church leaders wearing high-priced clothing, like a $1,500 T-shirt or a $3,000 pair of tennis shoes. The anonymous Instagram poster does this with very little commentary.
The fact that at the time of this writing, the account has racked up 192,000 followers with only 76 posts, each with hundreds of mostly negative comments, says that the subject of the posts has struck a nerve with the public.
Among Christians and non-Christians alike, the posts have become a topic of debate over the ethics of some ministers’ extravagant spending. Some are discussing what represents appropriate versus inappropriate spending and whether ministers are subject to a different set of financial expectations than the rest of the public. But the controversy around @preachersnsneakers highlights another important consideration for ministerial ethics: How should ministers talk about other ministers online?
Leaders With Words
If you’re a minister, it’s easy to classify talk about other ministers as merely shop talk or a way of keeping current on what’s happening in our profession. It could include discussions about a fellow minister’s effectiveness, strategies, personality, leadership style, godliness or spending habits.
How we talk about others raises a number of serious questions: When I initiate or participate in a conversation about another minister, what am I communicating? Am I praising, expressing gratitude, showing love and appreciating? Or am I being negative, pointing out faults, accusing, passing judgment and gossiping?
Gossip is negative speech about the personal lives of others, usually with the intent of damaging their reputations. Scripture is clear about the dangers of gossip. Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22 use identical language: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” Gossip also shows up in Paul’s vice lists in Romans 1:29-31 and 2 Corinthians 12:20.
It’s clear that gossip is a danger to the gossiper, a danger to the object of such talk, and a danger to the unity of the whole community of faith.
Ministers of the gospel, especially Pentecostal ministers, emphasize that the Holy Spirit empowers us to use our words to proclaim the good news. So we should take great care to guard against the misuse and abuse of those words, heeding James’ warning, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:10).
Gossip is a danger to the gossiper, a danger to the object of such talk, and a danger to the unity of the whole community of faith.
When we enter into negative discussions, propagate unsubstantiated information, and say things that create doubt about the legitimacy of another’s ministry, we’ve crossed from useful discussion to gossip.
What’s My Motivation?
We should ask these questions before talking about others: What is the intent of my conversation about this individual? What do I hope my words will achieve? Are my words redemptive? Can this discussion bring about positive change? Am I critiquing what someone did or said, or am I critiquing the individual personally and attacking his or her character? Is the conversation necessary?
In some rare cases of a minister’s abuse of power, unethical or illegal behavior, or threat to the church, it may be necessary to bring public attention to a situation to prevent others from suffering harm. But those cases are the exception, not the rule.
If there is wrongdoing, Matthew 18:15-20 provides a template for addressing it. But the Matthew 18 model requires conversation and relationship with the offender. When we lack the relationship to address conflict or other issues personally, we should not resort to handling them publicly. Instead, we should pray for God to intervene where we cannot.
Outlets like social media give us the ability to make public statements to the world we should reserve for private discussions with the offender. Virtual gossip for any reason is still gossip, and Scripture still prohibits it. There is a right time and place for healthy critique, but there’s a difference between public critique and public shaming or gossip.
When it comes to ministry, there are enough attacks coming from the enemy and outside the Church. We don’t need it coming from the inside.
Words That Build Up
Ministers should take great care in how we speak of other ministers in public and in private.
We should guard even against speaking potentially damaging words in jest that someone might overhear and take seriously.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV). Paul wasn’t just addressing vulgarity here, but our speech about others generally, and about those in the body of Christ particularly.
Commenting on this verse, the late theologian Francis Foulkes wrote, “The test of [Christian] conversation is not just, ‘Am I keeping my words true and pure?’ but ‘Are my words being used to impart grace to those who hear?’” A great question for us to consider.
Other ministers will make bad decisions or do things you would choose to do differently. When they do, there may be a temptation to talk negatively about them. Instead, may our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). And may Spirit-filled ministers not only speak in tongues, but also use our tongues to speak well of others.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of Influence magazine.