It was 1752, and John Wesley led a group of Methodist men in signing a covenant which each man agreed to hang on his study wall. This covenant contained six articles, which were as follows:

  1. That we will not listen or willingly inquire after ill concerning one another;
  2. That, if we do hear any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it;
  3. That as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear by speaking or writing to the person concerned;
  4. That until we have done this, we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person;
  5. That neither will we mention it, after we have done this, to any other person;
  6. That we will not make any exception to any of these rules unless we think ourselves absolutely obliged in conference.

The transparency inherent in this covenant astounds me. I am trying to imagine the reaction if this were to be proposed to a group of men in my Nazarene church. Puzzlement comes to mind as a possible response, as well as scoffing. This is not meant to demean any of the men at my church; on the contrary I think highly of the majority of them. I imagine this type of reaction because we live surrounded by a culture that thrives on gossip. Trust me, there are professional bloggers who wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t so.

My late zayde (grandfather) might well have muttered in Yiddish, “Nit alts vos du veyst megst du zugn,” or “not all that you know may you say.”

Mister Wesley and his companions would seem to have had a firm grasp on Scripture’s warnings of the harm which words can do:

“Excellent speech becometh not a fool: much less do lying lips a prince.”   Proverbs 17:7

“He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool.”  Proverbs 10:18

When I was a child, my grandfather also chastised me for gossiping about another child in the neigborhood. “When you gossip,” he told me, “you’re killing people! You’re killing yourself, you’re killing whoever listens to you, and you’re killing the person you gossip about.” Although he may or may not have known it, this bit of wisdom that I’ve remembered for over 25 years came straight from the rabbis’ mouths, being found in the Talmud .

The New Covenant speaks strongly on the power of words and the harm that can be caused by them. The apostle Paul wrote numerous times to a community of Christians located in the city of Corinth. We don’t have all of these letters, but the two which remain let us know that the Corinthians had gone astray from proper teaching and behavior, and Paul was through his letters trying to correct them. He pointedly lists slanders and gossip among the failings he is concerned he will find when he comes again to visit Corinth:

“For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances.” 2 Corinthians 12:20

Perhaps the most powerful indictment in the New Testament of the power of words to harm comes from James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote scathingly regarding the destructive power of the tongue.

“So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. ” James 3:5-10

Thankfully, although we often don’t have strength on our own to resist our basest instincts — what the Judaism of my youth calls the yetzer ra, or evil impulse — those who follow Jesus Christ often find that he grants us the strength to overcome the temptation to use harmful words. Further, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian community who followed Jesus, we are called to a high standard in our speech:

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:29-32

Always remember: the person who tells you “Don’t tell this to a soul” has probably told all the souls you know!