September 30, 2009

Gossip and the Gospel in Ukraine

I received a note from a Ukrainian friend on Facebook saying “I know a secret about you.” After some consideration, I felt I should write an article on the subject of gossip with regard to what I've experienced here in Ukraine. I've added more since I first wrote the article regarding some more autobiographical issues that seemed somewhat useful. I believe God can use all things for good, even the subject of gossip.
There's a Russian anecdote about gossip: "Keeping a secret is hard work for one woman alone and so women like to work together as a team." Gossip can be humorous but it can also be vicious. It usually involves women, but men are some of the worst slanderers. It's a worldwide problem but there are a number of reasons why I believe Ukraine has some unique characteristics which make it more prevalent. Most of the world has heard of President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. The Orange Revolution of 2004 gave Ukraine a golden opportunity for change and reform. But 5 years later, the corruption is the same and there seems to be mainly a legacy of slander and backstabbing. It's so bad no one wants to turn on the TV and watch the news. The Jamestown Foundation has also noted a sharp increase in disinformation campaigns between Russia and Ukraine designed to spread unsubstantiated rumors against each other. It's not just about Ukrainians; there are Westerners who also have serious difficulties in controlling their tongues. But when you look at the cultural, historical, personal and religious reasons for the gossip problem in Ukraine, it seems like only God can change this type of situation and problems like corruption, etc.

Cultural Reasons

Culturally, the East tends to be more indirect in its communication. This is true socially, politically and in business. Thus, negotiations can take a very long time. Goals are often not expressed outright but rather hinted at. My Ukrainian wife is an example. For our honeymoon we went to Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. While shopping at the Old Market we saw many beautiful crafts and whatnot. Along the way, my wife commented on a scarf, saying “that's pretty.” When we returned to the hotel my wife was a little sad. When I asked why she said “You didn't buy me the scarf!” In her understanding “that’s pretty” is translated as “That’s a pretty scarf, I would love to have it, you should buy it for me!” This is partly a man/woman thing, but the longer I have lived in Ukraine, the more I have noticed that people in general don’t like to communicate directly. This tendency is neither good nor bad in my mind. In some ways I find it more civilized and I'm trying to adapt to this style here. But when you look at it in the context of the history of the Soviet Union it seems this style of communication lends itself more easily to gossip.

Historical Reasons

During the Soviet Union, there was a totalitarian kind of control. If a person said the wrong thing publicly, he or she may be snatched away and sent to a Gulag in Siberia. Some estimate that as many as 14 million people were sent to the Gulags and often for just saying a political joke in public. 50% went to the Gulags without a trial. The conditions were so bad that many people died before having finished their sentences. After 70 years of Soviet society and conditioning, it’s easy to see why people often don't want to confront people face to face when there is a question or problem. It's easy to see why people often don't want to open up and share their personal feelings. It's hard to blame people for this, but at the same time, maybe it would be a good idea to reconsider these historical trends.

Personal Reasons

When you take the cultural and historical background and add personal motives, the problem is compounded. Personal reasons for gossip may include envy, a sense of hopelessness or helplessness, the need to feel important, the desire for attention, the thrill of sharing a secret, self-righteousness, legalism, the desire for blame shifting, an uncontrollable tongue, etc. Some of these personal reasons, such as legalism, have a root in the religious background of the country.

Religious Reasons

The territory of Ukraine became officially “Christianized” back in 988 when Prince Vladimir was baptized and began to reform the mostly pagan culture. However, many of the people he baptized did not become Christians because they heard and believed the gospel, but rather because they felt forced into the decision. And so many of the pagan traditions and superstitions have continued right alongside the Christian ideas to this day. Just try shaking hands through a doorway or exchanging money after sundown. Put the money on the table, my friend, and then I'll pick it up. One man I rode with stopped his car when a black cat crossed the road. We waited until another car passed and scooped up all the bad luck before we proceeded.

Because there is an emphasis on the oral tradition, Christians here are more susceptible to various influences. The Orthodox Church gives equal weight to church commentary, church tradition and the Holy Scriptures. But like the game “broken telephone," when people whisper a phrase from ear to ear, the main message can get very distorted over time. Orthodox writers have recognized this problem and the need to get back to the original sources of scripture. Deгnut Meгneгstireanu, for example, stated: “Protestant insights on the importance of Scripture could provide useful suggestions and stimulate a rethinking of the whole area.”[1] Jesus had to deal with the same problem in his day. The religious Jews were caught up in their own traditions and Jesus said: "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men."[2]

Versus Legalism

During the time of the Apostle Paul, people were starting to lose track of the main idea of the gospel. The gospel is defined in one place in the New Testament: “…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”[3] The good news is that Jesus paid the price for all our sins in full, according to the prophecies. According to scripture, salvation is received by faith, by believing Jesus died for your sins: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”[4] Some of the early Jewish believers, however, were teaching that salvation also comes through the law, by doing good deeds, etc. Paul was “slanderously reported” to have told people to sin on purpose, which is not what he meant.[5] To live by grace in God’s freedom means that our motive is not mainly to follow a list of rules, but rather to grow in our relationship with God.[6] The paradox is that sin loses its strength when you live by grace: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”[7] In Paul’s last letter, he described how some of his friends and even whole regions rejected him because of his strong stance on grace: “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.”[8] Because of people’s attacks, Paul had felt the need to defend his apostleship and calling from God on occasion. [9]

For the Record

I've noticed that, once and a while, some have disliked me and slandered me here because I'm an American, others because I'm a Protestant. I know I've also offended people at times by my words and actions. If I'm aware I've hurt someone's feelings I've tried to make restoration but people can carry bitterness for a long time. I've made mistakes before becoming a missionary that I deeply regret but I'm thankful that God forgives completely, even though others may hold onto past mistakes.

I've been trying to live by Paul’s example of standing for grace and freedom in Christ. I realize more and more the need for both grace and knowledge so as to live more wisely, as noted in 2 Peter 3.17-18. Though gossip and culture are the main themes of this article, I also want to explain my perspective and reasoning on some issues that I believe people may not have understood or agreed with in my life, especially since I became a missionary here. Paul wrote that we "see through a glass darkly" in this life and this is perhaps why people tend to see things so differently.


One area that is a source of gossip and debate in the Church is the area of drinking alcohol. In the US, someone tried to convince me that the word "wine" in the New Testament always meant "grape juice" and that it was basically forbidden for Christians to drink wine. But how can one get "drunk" on grape juice, as described in Ephesians 5.18? Jesus was called a "winebibber" because he drank wine in contrast to John the Baptist who abstained. It seems Jesus was trying to make a point about grace and freedom from the law. Scriptures don’t forbid the drinking of alcohol but do warn of drunkenness[10] and show that it is not wise for Christian leaders to drink much.[11] The advice for leaders with great responsibilities is not to drink at all.[12] Because we are not under the law, Paul advises people to abstain simply out of love. If one drinks, his advice is not to drink publicly where other believers may be offended.[13]

When I first arrived in Ukraine, I had a sense of freedom to drink wine publicly on occasion. However, I believe I offended some believers in the Church in this. I believe some people judged me when they heard I drank alcohol and wrote me off. I don't want to judge another person who feels they are free to drink, I don't want to be legalistic, but, at the same time, I would advise a new missionary in the field to seriously consider all of the sides of the issue and to seriously pray about it. When I saw the extent to which alcoholism is a great problem in Ukraine, this made me want to stop altogether.

Friendship, Dating and Courtship

The area of relationships can result in a lot of gossip. As a single guy moving to Ukraine as a missionary, I had desired to hook up with another single guy who had a similar vision of doing missionary work and helping to plant a church. But I found there wasn’t much interest, either in the New York church I came from or in the church in Kiev where I first went to serve in ministry. Fortunately, I was able to have some male roommates and that helped keep me from feeling lonely. Ukraine is not an easy place to be a single missionary. The Beatles sang “The Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind.”[14] And it's true that women in Ukraine tend to be beautiful. It's also true, however, that they tend to dress more provocatively than in the West. I wrote a song “Heal my Soul”[16] before I met my wife, which can be taken the wrong way. The lyrics may be interpreted as physically stumbling, but, thankfully, God preserved me for my wife while I was in Ukraine and we have been faithful to each other since.

I had wanted to marry a young and attractive woman, these not being the main priorities but things I hoped for. I felt it would be good insurance against my committing adultery in the future. Plus I wanted children and to be a father. This may have not been the higher, spiritual road in seeking a wife, but I had peace about it. The scriptures don’t specify anything regarding an age gap but simply state that a young woman who has reached womanhood is acceptable for marriage.[15] With age you have to take into account maturity. Some young women are more mature and spiritual than much older women. I prayed for a godly, spiritual, wise, mature and beautiful wife and God allowed me to meet Olya. One of the things I required was a willingness to go and live anywhere God would call. As I got to know Olya, I felt she was God's choice for me. Some discount the need for feelings of love in selecting a wife but for me it was always an important consideration.

People have different opinions about relationships. Some Christians believe it's better to be "friends only" before marriage. Others believe it's OK "to date." While others still believe the idea of courtship is best. In a freindship only situation no romance whatsoever is involved until there's a proposal. In a "dating" type Christian relationship there may be some romance, flowers, huggs perhaps even kissing though marriage may not be aggreed on or even touched on for a while. The idea of "courting" is very direct and straightforward. If you believe God is showing you that someone may be the one, you share your feelings. If there is agreement, then you skip the dating part and begin courting towards marriage. If the answer is no, then you remain friends. When I met my wife, you could say there were feelings of love at first sight but we didn't have a long period of dating. When I shared my interest in marriage she was a bit shocked. Eventually, my wife and I fasted from food and prayed for God’s will before we decided to get married.

It would seem that it is foolish to have a brief courtship and it would be more wise to wait for a long time before marriage. On the other hand, scriptures show we walk by faith and not by sight, that we are to be more focused on discerning God's will than simply analyzing circumstances. The classic example of how God brings two people together is the wedding of Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac prayed earnestly for a wife and sent his servant to find her by faith. When the servant returned with Rebecca it seems to have been love at first sight when they met.

Married Life

My wife and I had a wonderful honeymoon. Everything was perfect and it was like heaven. However, after some time of living together, we noticed that we both tend to have very strong wills. While this didn't seem like a problem when we were single, it did become an issue in our marriage. People may talk about other people's marriages but, in reality, there are no marriages I know of that have been free of difficulties. Olya is an excellent wife and mother and this does not change because our personalities clash at times. If life could just be one long honeymoon, without some of the pressures of ministry work, our marriage would probably be much stronger. But for now we believe it is God's will for us to be involved in ministry work together.

Scriptures show that God uses marriage as a way to sanctify our lives and prepare us for the ultimate marriage and union between Christ and the Church. This is not always an easy process. When you see that this is a higher purpose in marriage, it helps you take life in stride. Many divorce because of "irreconcilable differences" but this isn't really God's way of resolving conflicts which can actually be used by God for good. I like Greg Laurie's answer to this: "I've had irreconcilable differences with my wife for thirty-one years!" Marriage is like a mirror that shows your weaknesses and faults quite clearly. The question is, "Are we willing to move on? Are we willing to allow God to use things in our lives in order to grow?" Spending time together as a family is important as well as making time for just the two of us without the kids. This is one of the best ways to keep the flame of our love strong. Recently, I've felt I gave been too busy and we need to spend more time together. Balancing ministry and family time is a challenge but we try to make room for quality time together and some vacation time, though it's been a while.

Ministry Work

As a missionary, I have tried to use the Bible as both my inspiration and guide. I felt a call towards missionary work while I was an elder at the Community Bible Church in Sag Harbor, NY. At first there was doubt as to my calling, when I decided to go to Ukraine in 2001, but eventually the pastor, Gene McGee and the leaders of the church laid hands on me and sent me off with the church's blessing. I am grateful for the churches prayers and support over the years. In Kiev I helped the Calvary Chapel Church in simple ways, such as by helping to set up sound equipment, teaching a home Bible study, doing some evangelism and playing on the worship team once in a while.

After a men's prayer meeting one morning, I had a sense of God's presence unlike anything I had ever felt before. As I was walking to the metro, the Lord inspired me with the song "Live Through Me" and when I returned to my apartment the presence of God continued to overwhelm me on and off for a period of almost three days. A couple of times it was so strong I had to ask God to stop. The feelings, though good, were just too intense. I also had a heightened sense of understanding from God's word at this time. I just wanted to sit and read it non-stop. Some songs like "Hallelujah to the Lamb" came during this time. In my understanding, it was an experience of God's Holy Spirit, also known as the filling- or baptism of the Holy Spirit. I wasn't seeking it at the time but I felt it was a confirmation for me regarding ministry work.

After serving in Kiev for about two years, I felt it was time to move on. I had asked Pastor George Markey Sr. earlier about places that needed new church plants and he recommended the South and the East. After some prayer and research I felt God calling me to Simferopol. There I worked as a volunteer for a non-profit organization for a while and eventually started to teach some English classes. I also began a home Bible study and an English club.

After Olya and I married we prayed about a building suitable for church meetings and where we could also live. God opened up an opportunity to purchase a building with a large open room on the second floor that was perfect for this. Before we had children, we offered some free English clubs and some of the people who first came became dedicated Christians and are still with our fellowship. Now that we have a two year old and a two month old, we don't feel it's a good idea to just invite strangers because increased cases of things like tuberculosis have been noticed in the city. Until we find a more suitable place for our family we will focus on more low key friendship evangelism. We have been studying through the Bible in a survey form this year and I've enjoyed blogging a lesson from each book so far up to Job.

I think some people are critical of the fact we don't have a large number of people in our fellowship. But we have seen fruit in our fellowship and feel God isn't finished with our work here. Many pastors begin with a full team and a large existing congregation ready to help but my wife and I began fairly simply, just the two of us. We have been blessed, however, to have different people from our fellowship help in various ways. A brother recently offered a free website address to us, which is also a blessing. We chose the name "River of Life" for our church fellowship for a number of reasons, while at the same time we agree with the distinctives of the Calvary Chapel movement.

Challenges and Answers

Men and women each have unique challenges and weaknesses with regard to the "flesh nature." The temptations of life don't get easier as time goes by but God's grace is sufficient for us. The scriptures say we stand by grace[18] and 2 Timothy 2.1 shows we can be strong in God's grace. I try to meet once a week with some guys to worship God, pray and support each other. We have an attitude of grace towards each other whereby we can openly share whatever things in our lives we are going through, whether family life issues or temptations, whatever. I also use a computer program called X3 Watch for internet accountability. It sends a regular email report to a friend warning if there has been any adult content, which is simply a good precaution. I would recommend these kinds of things for every Christian guy.

No matter what Christian denomination we are from all sincere believers are really a part of one family. But sometimes there is competition. Absalom is a good example of the destructive nature of competition and slander within a family. He thought he looked better in the people's eyes by slandering his own father David. He wanted to advance the kingdom in his own way but he used the wrong methods and fought the wrong enemy. Maybe he didn't even recognize his own motives for power and prestige. Eventually he was tangled up in his own confusion as he was fleeing the very situation he created. He died being hung from his own long hair, a symbol of his pride (2 Sam18.9). In a similar way, it seems like people in the Church often don't realize who the real enemy is and end up wounding the Body of Christ, essentially all believers, including Christ the head.

Before the Church can see revival and God’s full blessing, I believe there needs to be more of a sense of unity.[19] The gossip within churches and between churches should be dealt with in love. It takes courage to confront but Jesus showed we are to be proactive in trying to bring about reconciliation. We are to go to an offended person and try to make peace before we offer our gifts and worship. The person may not receive it, but we should try (Mat 5.24). Gossip is antithetical to the openness, humility and unity so needed in the Church today. A pastor in New York prayed each morning "Lord, set a watch before my mouth." This seems like a good prayer.

God, the Sweet Source

It's important to realize that we don't have to rely on second hand information. When it comes to learning about God, we can go to the source. The word of God stands forever.[21] Its timeless truths, principles and life are available for everyone everyday. In our church we study through the Bible book by book so that we can understand the full counsel of God. The book of John says that Jesus is "the word made flesh"[22] and that He created the universe at the beginning of time by His word.[23]

The word of God existed before the Church was ever born. In addition to God's word, His Holy Spirit is available to anyone who asks for Him.[24] Jesus told the woman at the well that the living water of spiritual life is a gift available just for the asking.[25] You don’t need a priest or mediator for this you can pray directly to the source, Jesus Christ: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."[26] Jesus said the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways.[27] We cannot control the Holy Spirit like a genie in a bottle, but scriptures do recommend for us to drink in the Holy Spirit regularly and deeply. Ephesians 5.18-19 states: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (KJV) This shows that worship and God’s word help us to be filled with His Spirit. How much better to have a thankful heart and to be sharing God’s word than to be gossiping! With wine you can have to much, you can black out. You can get addicted and become an alcoholic. But with God's Spirit there's no excess. You don't have to worry about seeking God too much, or being too filled with His Spirit! The gospel is a good and sweet message that brings life but gossip is of the flesh and can bring death. James 3.11 asks "Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?" (ASV)


If someone wants to gossip about me, my first reaction is try to take the opportunity to use the situation for good, to write an article, to talk to some people who may be bitter against me. Romans 12.21 says "Don't be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good." People who tend to live based on second hand information may want to reconsider this habit, not only because gossip quenches God's Spirit, but because the information is often wrong or exaggerated. Proverbs 18.17 shows "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him." (NIV) There may be truth in gossip, there may be exaggerations and there may be outright lies. Pastor Jon Courson had a good answer for gossip in his church. He's had a special book he offers to people who want to talk about others behind their backs. He asks them to write their information down and sign it. He said no one has ever signed it, people get the point. Recently, God has used the gossip for good in my life to bring about more self examination, confession and repentance of sins.
[1] Deгnut Meгneгstireanu, The Place of Scripture in the Orthodox Tradition, II The Bible in Orthodox Thinking, 2 The Sufficiency of Scripture
[2] Mark 7.8, NIV
[3] I Corinthians 15.3b NIV
[4] Ephesians 2.8
[5] Romana 3.8, 6.1
[6] Galatians 2.21, Colossians 2.6, 1 Corinthians 10.23)
[7] Romans 6.14 NIV
[8] 2 Timothy 1.15
[9] Galatians 1.11-24, 2 Corinthians 11
[10] Proverbs 20.1
[11] 1 Timothy 3.3, 3.8
[12] Proverbs 31.4
[13] Romans 14.13
[14] Lennon/McCartney, Back in the U.S.S.R., 1968
[15] 1 Corinthians 7.36
[16] Rick Warden, Soul Revolution, Heal my Soul, 2008
[17]1 Corinthians 7.1
[18] Romans 5.2
[19] Psalms 133
[20] Matthew 19.26
[21] Isaiah 40.8
[22] John 1.14
[23] John 1.1-3
[24] Luke 11.13
[25] John 4.10
[26] John 7.38
[27] John 3.8 Related article: Handling Slander

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