Argue your case with your neighbor himself,
    and do not reveal another's secret,
lest he who hears you bring shame upon you,
    and your ill repute have no end.

-- Proverbs 25:9-10


Last week, the Atlantic published a story which claimed Trump made disparaging comments about American soldiers according to four anonymous sources. Not surprisingly, the story quickly fell apart as many sources were willing to go on record by name disputing the account and the story's author gave a pretty pathetic excuse for why his sources wanted to remain unnamed. What is disappointing is that some Christians who should know better (such as David French) decided to traffic in this anonymous story. My point in this post is not political and has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with personal relationships, unsubstantiated rumor/gossip, due process, and our obligation to rely on multiple named trustworthy sources when passing along potentially damaging reports. Anonymous reports can be used to damage presidential candidates, but they can also be used to damage relationships and communities. They are a form of gossip, and thus forbidden by biblical law.

What is the problem with anonymous reports? Anonymous reports are a form of gossip. Anonymous reports break the bonds of trust. Anonymous reports are fake news. Anonymous reports are satanic in that they are a form of unjustified accusation. Anonymous reports are a sign of cowardice and dishonesty. We really don’t know the truth so long as the witnesses remain anonymous and cannot be held to account. Anonymous reports put everyone involved in a bad position.
Consider what anonymous gossip does in a community, both to the one the gossip is about and the one who spreads it. Suppose I am told “Certain people are saying x, y, and z about you.” What am I to do? How can I defend myself against anonymous gossip?
When anonymous gossip is brought forward, the one who is accused by the gossip has no recourse. He doesn’t know where it’s coming from so he cannot do anything to fix the problem — indeed, he may not know if there even is a real problem to address. He’s wounded but doesn’t know where to turn for healing or who to seek reconciliation with. If he knows that what has been reported is untrue, he does not know who all might be guilty of spreading a false report which means it will be difficult if not impossible for him to stop the spread of the error. He is inevitably forced to become suspicious — either suspicious of the one who has relayed the gossip (wondering if these things were really said by others, as has been reported, or just made up) or he must be suspicious of the whole wider community (wondering who would say such things, and why). So long as the sources remain anonymous, he does not get to face his accuser/critic. He does not get to cross examine the witnesses, he does not get to ask about the wider context in which the gossiped remarks may or may not have been said, he does not get to give his side of the story, etc. Bottom line, he does not know if the gossip has actually been spread around, or if the alleged comments have been accurately reported or not, and he does not get a chance to properly defend himself. The anonymous gossip creates a very unlevel playing field. The use of anonymous gossip creates an unfixable problem, at least until sources are revealed and everything is out in the open.
The one who is spreading the anonymous report/charges also has a problem, especially when his credibility is challenged — as it surely will be. He either has to reveal sources (knowing they might not want what they said — their “secrets” as Proverbs 25:9-10 puts it — shared) or he has to retract his comments…but that’s very hard to do because words cannot be unspoken. The one who brought forward the anonymous report is certainly in an awkward position — but it is one of his own making. The spreader of anonymous reports certainly cannot object when he faces hard questions about his anonymous sources under cross examination. He cannot object if the one who has been gossiped about about chooses to disbelieve his claims so long as there are no known witnesses; indeed, a biblical judge would be required to dismiss anonymous charges out of hand. But once anonymous gossip has been shared, I do not see any way forward towards healing apart from the one who spread the anonymous gossip coming clean.
Commentaries on Proverbs 25:9-10 usually bring out these problems. For example, the Concordia commentary says,”This saying [in Proverbs 25:9-10] continues the thought of settling a dispute out of court, but warns against revealing a secret in the course of doing so. This will bring the shame of being known as someone who is untrustworthy in keeping the confidences of others and leave a lasting mark on one’s reputation.” Charles Bridges, Bruce Waltke, and many others take the same view of the passage.  Argue your case, if you have one, but do not uses unnamed sources or “secret gossip" to do so. Keep everything above board.
Biblically, anonymous charges are never allowed in a court. Again, they are a sign of cowardice and dishonesty. As a pastor, whenever I am faced with anonymous gossip, my posture will be to disbelieve the gossip until and unless evidence is produced that can substantiate what has been reported. It is perfectly appropriate to dismiss charges, reports, accusations, etc., unless witnesses are willing to come forward. We do not need to believe claims without proof. It is perfectly appropriate to tell one delivering the report, "I do not believe you -- at least not until and unless you reveal your sources so they can be examined."
As a pastor, if I am given an anonymous report, such as, “Someone told me Fred did X…, I can’t tell you who told me," I will tell them to produce further evidence/witnesses or retract the accusation. I will refuse to believe such reports without the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6, 19:15; Matt. 18:16). The Bible does not allow us to to play the “Some people are saying…” game. You have to have witnesses. The accused has to be able to face witnesses and cross examine them.
Consider the alternative: If anonymous testimony is allowed without challenge and without proof, there will be no end to charges that can be brought against people. The door will be wide open to false accusation. We have to have accountability, and the Bible’s system of justice certainly provides it. God's system of justice balances the rights of the accused with the rights of the accuser. God has given us a system of justice that includes the “two or three witnesses” principle. This should be standard operating procedure if we want to conduct our affairs according to biblical law. It is the way of wisdom and peace.
This article explains further some of the problems with entertaining anonymous reports and criticisms.
Go back to the Atlantic article on Trump. David French stupidly tweeted "Not one source. Four sources 'with firsthand knowledge.'" But French does not really know that there are four sources. The reality is that he does not have even one source. All he has is someone who claims that other people said something...and that amounts to nothing. An unnamed sources has zero creditibility. Four times zero is still zero. It does not matter how many sources there are if they remain unnamed -- one or one hundred unnamed sources is zero sources as far as biblical law is concerned. All French really has are the empty claims of Goldberg -- who undoubtedly has an ax to grind with Trump (as does French). For all French knows, Goldberg could have made the whole thing up -- or may be relying on unnamed people who made it up. No one knows -- and that's the point. And we will never know so long as the sources remain anonymous. But one thing we do know is that we are not supposed to pass along unsubstantiated reports. French should repent.
The fact that French is a Christian by faith and a lawyer by training, and yet so utterly ignorant of how biblical law works is astounding -- but also a sign of the church's dire state today. Of course, French has been known to fall for hoaxes from the liberal media before (the Covington students' story comes to mind) so perhaps he is too gullible to be trusted anyway.
Anonymous sources are a recipe for disaster as they pave the way for anarchy and social breakdown at every level. They open the door to tyranny and arbitrary accusation. They are a form of injustice. I would urge you anytime you hear a story relying on anonymous sources, whether on your favorite cable news network or at the next prayer meeting, to dismiss it out of hand.
One final point. What exactly is gossip? I have said that anonymous reports are a form of gossip, but can we give a more complete definition?
There is no perfect definition of gossip that will cover all cases, but I have found this to be a helpful working definition for most pastoral situations: Gossip is when a bad report is passed on that [a] the speaker did not have a right to share and [b] the listener did not have a right to hear. Obviously, there are some bad reports that need to be shared in certain contexts, e.g., a baby sitter telling the parents how bad the kids were while they were at dinner. But most of the time, we do not need to share all we know. Let’s face it: we all have information that we could share about other people that would be hurtful, but we generally have no right or reason to share it. And we all might like to know what others are saying behind our backs (or behind the backs of others), but that does not give us a right to that information. The problem is that gossip all too easily appelas to our flesh -- especially our pride -- and so it is very tempting to indulge in it.
The best way to stop gossip is to refuse to spread it yourself and refuse to entertain in from others. Gossip will not be sold if there is no market for it. Next time you hear someone gossiping, tell the gossiper, "Let's go talk to this about this issue with the person in question." They will likely shut it up pretty quickly.
Proverbs certainly has a great deal to say about gossip. A couple examples:
Prov. 17:9: He who covers a transgression seeks love,
But he who repeats a matter separates friends.
We are probably all familiar with how gossip can come between friends. It is a wedge that drives people apart.
Prov. 20:19: He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets;
Therefore do not associate with one who flatters with his lips.
Prov. 25:9-10: Debate your case with your neighbor,
And do not disclose the secret to another;
10 Lest he who hears it expose your shame,
And your reputation be ruined.
We all have “secrets” — things people have told us but that ought not be passed on. But we should not be part of keeping such "secrets" in circulation.

Jesus makes it clear that when we have a problem with someone, we should go straight to them and talk to them about it (Matt. 5:23-26; 18:15-20). We are not told to talk to all our other friends about it first. In other words: When there is a problem, we should never talk about the person, we should talk to the person -- "never about, always to" is the rule. If we live by that wisdom, we can avoid many disputes in our community.

For audio of a Bible study on gossip, click here.