In commenting on Colossians 4:6, Matthew Poole (1624-1679) said “discourse is the tenderest part of our converse with men…and ought to be managed with greatest circumspection…in imitation of Christ”.
Quite frankly, some of the words that Christians use in their interactions with other Christians with whom they disagree are disturbing to me. It has both been a cause of concern as I watch others communicate and also, I must admit, a cause of regret in instances where I haven’t communicated with sufficient grace.
So allow me to share a few thoughts:
1. Often, people will appeal quickly to passages such as Matthew 23, where Jesus uses very strong language, calling the Pharisees as a group: vipers, children of hell, etc. Or where Paul calls judaizing legalists “dogs” in Philippians. Now, we must acknowledge that this proves that strong language can used in some cases without being sinful. However, Christian discretion will always incline the wise to not immediately or quickly jump to the conclusion that their case of harshness is justified. These Biblical instances of harshness or name-calling can’t be seen as a carte blanche license for YOU to use strong language in THIS context. Here are some good questions to ask ourselves when we attempt to appeal to Jesus’ language in regard to the Pharisees as justification for our use of strong language: Can I lay claim to a cause which is as certainly righteous as that which Jesus laid claim to? Can I lay claim to the Jesus’ ability to know the right balance between harshness and tenderness? Can I lay claim to the level of restraint that Jesus had in going no further than was necessary in the harshness? Can I lay claim to Jesus’ sinless ability to not let sinful anger and malice creep into my discourse?
2. There is one Christian man who passed away not all that many years ago, whose public discourse was of a particularly shrill tone. Probably many who read this will know who I am speaking of. He wrote a defense of name-calling. Now, I would concede some (or perhaps many) of the individual points he makes in the article. And I will concede that he was a sincere brother in the Lord who had good intentions. However, when you tie it all together and compare it with the sum total of his writings, it would appear to most perceptive observers that he was merely justifying what appears to be an out of control tongue (I use “tongue” here in the expansive sense which includes writing). Watching him go has given me, fairly early on in my Christian life, an example of how addictive and all-encompassing a foul style of discourse can become. Aggressive and out-of-control speech has a way of perpetuating itself. And how blinding it becomes!
3. In the paper which defends name calling (by the man mentioned in point #2), it is said that “Accurate name-calling is a virtue, not a sin.” I believe that statement is incorrect. While all justifiable name-calling is certainly accurate, not all accurate name-calling is justifiable. Why? Because the Christian ethic of communication involves a lot more than merely truth-telling. Not everything that is technically correct is expedient to say. Not everything that is technically could be said conforms to the graciousness required by Col. 4:6. Etc.
4. It is my observation that most (or all) of the people who appeal to Jesus or Paul for a justification for harshness, do not follow Jesus or Paul in their amazing tenderness. And there are many examples of their tenderness, probably even more than their harshness. They most often selectively appeal to certain passages that justify their behavior. Nor do they usually show the wisdom that Jesus and Paul used in interacting with each different sort of person.
5. This is a day and age where crass and bombastic talk abounds. Political pundits have very often set the tone with their harsh and loud rhetoric. Sadly, however, Christians have often followed suit and, in their theological discussion, have resorted to all manner of name-calling and aggressive speech patterns. I would suggest that most of this impulse comes from the pundit-style aura of our culture, rather than from following Biblical examples of harshness.
So, let me conclude with a few verses:
- “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 4:6)
- “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” (Proverbs 16:23)
- “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8)
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