A while ago I posted a string of posts about a certain speaker coming to a certain church and saying certain things. It exploded on my blog and Facebook, garnering comments from the left and the right. It was, in many ways, a hand grenade tossed under the pews. People’s feelings were hurt and the emotional toll it took on all sides was profound and pronounced. In retrospect, after a bit of counsel, I see now that while my content and theological objections were immaculate and near perfect in their argumentation, my execution was less than helpful. What I said was true, and the objections I brought to bear were important and weighty. The fact that few seemed to believe otherwise was disappointing, but ultimately that doesn’t change the fact that there were several ways I could have gone about it, and it seems I chose the one with the most carnage and the highest body count.
One of the comments that was sent my way in the combox was that I was not speaking truth in love. Its an objection that has been thrown my way on a few occasions, and at the time I spoke of my intent to disseminate that charge. In fact this post was to be a deftly handled rebuttal of that charge, incorporating a proper biblical exegesis to demonstrate the shallowness and irrationality of such an assertion. To be clear, I am tempted to assert that at the present time there is no single statement in the whole of the Bible which is so much abused and misquoted as this particular statement, and I believe I could bring this to bear.
While I may still do that if pressed on the matter, I thought a change a pace might be more appropriate, in tone and intent, and instead just share some thoughts that I have about this. What I think “speaking the truth in love” has become, divorced from its context and historical underpinnings, is a concept that has become entangled and conformed to our society’s ideal of loveless love and painless affection. Here’s what I mean. Growing up I would hear a lot about “speaking into my life.” What it meant for me was that I would pick a few people, mostly my peers [ who were as foolish and immature as I was] but also some older men who I liked and viewed as wise and spiritually mature. These were the people that I allowed to “speak into my life”. That is, I acted autonomously and made the executive decision that these people were the ones who I would give the right to be able to rebuke me. These were people who I would allow to tell me when I need correction- when I was being stupid, making bad choices, having a poor attitude, and so forth. They were also the ones whose words carried a lot of weight with me when I sought advice, needed comfort, and who I counted on to help me grow and develop spiritually and emotionally.
There were other people who sought to correct me, to chastise me or reprove me. These people I either ignored or dismissed. After all, I didn’t give them permission to speak into my life. I didn’t allow them to do that. What was integral to the process as well was that I deemed that only those who had a relationship with me were allowed to speak into my life. I was not alone in this- everyone knew that only those who had a friendship and relationship with you were allowed to speak into your life. But these people didn’t have that, and it didn’t matter that they had legitimate scriptural objections to my behavior or attitude, or that they approached me with varying degrees of kindness or bluntness. My church environment and culture, which I would describe as an evangelical, protestant, mainline non-denominational denomination, did little to dissuade me from having this attitude and mindset, but rather encouraged me at every turn. I was the gatekeeper through which any criticism or praise had to go through. My heart was a vault and mind was a fortress, impenetrable and unrepentant unless I gave you a key, and even then I usually fought kicking and screaming all the way.
This was coupled with a very subjective view of what “speaking truth in love” meant. Truth could only be spoken into my life if I felt it was done lovingly by those who I allowed to speak into my life. That is to say, it was a vague, highly personalized and highly stylized love. It was culturally conditioned- having had taken on the character of what passes for love in our society today. It could not be harsh. It could not be emphatic. It could not be overly critical and it could not in any way tear someone down. It had to have the right tone and inflection, and it could not criticize someone else beliefs or presuppositions- mainly because we had abandoned the perspicuity of the scripture and so who were we to stand so firm and nonyielding when, after all, there was a certain amount of right and truth in everything?
Most important of all, any truth that was spoken could not hurt or hinder the unity of the body and our fellowship. This was the overriding precept that governed all we said and did. Disagreeing too vehemently or vigorously was seen as divisive and not spirit-led. Telling anyone that what they believed was false, idolatrous, unhelpful or sub-biblical, was viewed as an attack against the body of Christ- an act of aggression against the Church on par with the vilest of sins. Truth in love was important, and If we had to pick sides, all of us would have fallen on the love side instead of the truth one. More often than not it didn’t matter how you said it- the fact is that you said it. And that was near unforgivable. “Unity! Unity! Unity!” was our rallying cry, even as we were being discouraged to wrestle with hard concepts amongst ourselves. We did not see that unity without truth was idolatry. We did not see that our ecclesiastical body of Christ had become a rotting and fetid corpse, being held together by sinews of timidity and tendons of superficiality .
Truth could only be spoken in love-, that was true. But more often than not we discovered that the truth was viewed as unloving, and so instead of speaking the truth in love- we just spoke love; vapid, empty, shallow, culturally-crafted damnable love. Love that was dependent on our feelings. Love that was subjective and self-esteem based. Love that was devoid of scrutiny and sacredness, bereft of sharp edges and piercing honesty, and which did not poke, prod or prick. A so-called love that was common, vulgar, and meaningless. A love which refused to wound and would not expose our self-canonization. The kind of love that was tepid and safe, spoken by people within the designated parameters and imposed restrictions I had placed on them- but in the end cannot satisfy or sanctify. We thought it was love! We really did- but now I see it instead for what it is, a brilliantly disguised form of hatred.
That’s the environment that I grew up in and cut my theological teeth on. That’s what I grew up in, and what I have since rebelled against. I don’t feel that way anymore, obviously. There are a lot of reasons for that. But ultimately its because I don’t want a pretend love or a pretend unity which does not have as its foundation the word of the living God. I think there is something better than all that. – a true “truth in love” antithesis which bears itself out with weight and glory. An ideal that has as its center the person of Christ and truth of the gospel, foundational and firm, with implications for every arena of life it touches. It’s not an excuse for cruelty and callousness, but rather redeems both even as it brings light to the darkest of situations. I spoke in love in those posts, literally the phrase is “truthing in love”- albeit imperfectly and not without a certain regret. Even so I know that it is not the same as what has been spoken of in the aforementioned paragraphs, but it is something that I would consider deeper, more painful, more loving and more rewarding.
April 15th, 2012 at 2:18 pm
This was a great read and a timely challenge. Very well put.
I have run into this situation many times as I tend to be petty blunt and, well, confrontational… Always being reminded to “speak the truth in love”. But the word also says that God disciplines us because he loves us… And his discipline is not always soft & tender and its definitely not wishy-washy.
Our definition of love, even in the church, tends to be of a “feelings” nature… Which is where “speak the truth with love” can be misused!
“Speaking truth in love” does not mean beating around the bush or sweeping the “hard, painful” rebukes/topics under the rug in an effort not to offend. Rather, It is honest and straight forward in a kind and patient way, with the motivation being to challenge, correct, edify, & strengthen, so that the understanding of, and relationship with, God can be true, pure, and improved.
Thanks for this post! I am interested to read more on your thoughts about the misuse and “out-of-context” use of that scripture.
April 15th, 2012 at 4:57 pm
Very good comments, jones!
I remember attending a Bible study when I first arrived here in the city. Midway through group discussion which was growing impassioned, the small group leader took the floor and told us that ” from now on, no one is allowed to discuss controversial things or which might upset other people. We need to be infellowship”. A few months after that, at the same study, we had a woman who was attending and telling us what the Bible meant to her. In this case, she said that God spoke to her spirit and told that her that her Muslim friends were going to heaven. I told her in front of everyone [in a loving tone] that I disagreed, and that the Bible was clear that it was not the case, even using scriptures to prove the point. [I believe I pulled out John 14:6].
The woman became very upset and afterwards the woman leading the study pulled me aside and told me that from now on I wasn’t to disagree with her publicly, and that I wasn’t speaking the truth in love. She stated that while she disagreed with what the woman said, that those who had taken the time to enter into a relationship with her would talk to her afterwards, and that for the sake of unity she asked that I not challenge her so directly anymore.
April 16th, 2012 at 1:16 am
Just because we disagree with (or rather, challenge) someone else (or their view of biblical scriptures) in our church community does not mean we are no longer “in fellowship” or in unity with them. Often times challenging a person’s incorrect interpretation of scripture helps us become even more unified because it can help clarify and purify their understanding of the Word, which can only benefit them, their relationship with God, and their fellowship with others! (that is why i love your “sermon reviews”)
I personally have had incorrect interpretations of scripture or views of God, and have had people in my life correct me in ways which didn’t always seem the “nicest”, and yes I often times took offence at first, but it really was the best thing for me as it really made me reflect (even if it was “angrily” at first) and dig in to find the truth (often to TRY to prove them wrong. haha.)… that I realized my fault and was able to discover the truth and repent.
It’s not easy to be challenged, rebuked, corrected or disciplined by anyone… and even when it is not done in the kindest possible way it is still up to each individual to choose to take that “truth” and reflect upon how it should affect their perspective, mindset, motivations and actions – INSTEAD OF shifting/deflecting the blame of their incorrectness and faults onto the person who has challenged them (which happens to you FAR too often.) It would be nice to see more acceptance of fault instead of deflection (oftentimes using scripture incorrectly).
don’t let it discourage you! keep doing reviews and continue helping to bring proper understanding and correct interpretation of the word to your readers! And hopefully the pastors and speakers that you do end up having to correct or challenge will be spiritually mature and humble enough to recognize that you are doing this to assist and edify them and their listeners!