We face so many challenges when we speak—sometimes it feels almost impossible to use words correctly and it’s easy to give up and either keep quiet or just to blast away.
There are many issues that divide people today: abortion, evolution, social justice matters, and same-sex marriage. When we venture into conversations and, dare I say debates, on such topics, we must do so in a way that honors God. As Christians, our words exist to reflect Christ’s character—his holy concern for God’s good name, his constant love for others, and his absolutely reliable truth. When our words are scornful, selfish, or false, they dishonor Christ. And especially when we speak such words to or about fellow Christians, they cause great damage in Christ’s church. We must all learn to use our words with godly care—myself first of all.
I will not seek here to resolve any of the debates about these issues. I will simply suggest ways to avoid bearing false witness when we engage in legitimate and critically important discussion of issues on which we disagree. These principles may be applied to any area in which Christians disagree with one another.
Point 1: Our Words Matter
First, let’s take a closer look at Matthew 12, where Jesus warns that everyone will have to account for empty words they have spoken. As always, context matters. Jesus’s public ministry caused both jubilation and hatred, and this chapter depicts a major clash of viewpoints. After Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the crowds swarmed him, and he healed many of them (v. 15). Verses 22–23 tells us: “Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’” Yes, of course it could be—and it was!
Not everyone saw things this way. “But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons’” (v. 24). Jesus’s response to the Pharisees concludes with this powerful statement:
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”Matthew 12:34–37 NIV
No, Jesus is not repudiating the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, he is making abundantly clear that our speech matters. Both the words and the condition of the heart in which the speech originates have huge and possibly eternal consequences. The Pharisees had first questioned Jesus about the man healed on the Sabbath, and Jesus responded with a clear and specific answer. It is okay to ask questions. And, when those questions are asked without the use of false, blasphemous labels, they can be answered simply and directly. But labeling Jesus a disciple of Beelzebul crosses a line, just as our labeling a minister in good standing a heretic crosses a line.
When we disagree with someone, honoring God while still raising necessary questions and concerns takes work. But such work does bring honor to our Lord, and nothing is more important than that.
Point 2: Check Your Motive
We must remember to act out of love, even during a disagreement. Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1). And Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”Matthew 5:43–45
If we genuinely love those with whom we disagree, we will desire more than anything else that they come to the truth and, in that truth, find the blessings of God. The lesson of Jonah must always remain uppermost in our mind when we are conversing with or about those we think are wrong. Jonah seemed to detest the fact that the Ninevites to whom he preached repented in response to God’s Word. But to borrow from God’s words to Jonah, should we not have great concern for those whom we believe are wrong (Jonah 4:11)? Should not our speech to and about them express not just disagreement but also loving concern?
Before, during, and after we speak any words of disagreement, we need to make sure our most fundamental motive is love.
We must not bear false witness, especially when communicating about a matter on which we disagree with other Christians. This is where I have placed most of my emphasis thus far. What words can we use that are most likely to communicate truth with gracious concern, or with a clear ultimate purpose of leading my antagonist to the joy and blessing of the truth? If we think other people are actually Ninevites, do we speak to or about them in ways that push them toward the judgment we think they deserve? Or do we find ways of speaking which are most likely, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to attract them to the truth? This is what I believe is meant by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Yes, it is challenging to try to speak hard things in love. But that, of course, is exactly what God did for us in Christ. And that is what he offers us the opportunity to do for others.
Point 3: Stay on Point and Don’t Vilify
We should stay on point when discussing the issues and, as appropriate, discuss them vigorously. But we should never cast aspersions on the intelligence, or the theological orthodoxy, or the moral standing of the professed Christians with whom we are disagreeing.We should stay on point when discussing the issues and, as appropriate, discuss them vigorously. But we should never cast aspersions on the intelligence, or the theological orthodoxy, or the moral standing of the professed Christians with whom we… Click To Tweet
For example, in making a post a post on social media (or commenting on one), do not name call simply because another’s views do not align with your own. Stay on the topic at hand rather than bring up previous points of disagreement that may color the current conversation.
Another way of saying this is to insist that every time we express disagreement with another Christian, we must concentrate on the issue and not on the character of the person who has made what we believe to be an error. Saying that another person’s ideas are “stupid” or “uninformed” or even “liberal” or “fundamentalist” accomplishes nothing to promote understanding and communication.
There may be times our disagreement with others who claim the name of Christ is fierce. Certainly, this is true when it comes to some certain hot button issues. We may believe some views are dangerous to the church. We may believe they undermine the Bible so fully that they require drastic action, including that we separate from those who persist in teaching those errors. But none of this means we are allowed to break the ninth commandment. Even when separating from other Christians, we must be utterly truthful about them, eager to rejoice in any good reports about them, and careful not to present our own views in ways that are needlessly offensive. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness with which we are to treat error, but I do want to encourage us to think seriously and biblically about how to talk about those disagreements in the public square. Remember that the world is watching how Christians treat each other. The way we love one another is one of the chief markers of our relationship with the Lord (John 13:34–35).
Content adapted from The Good Name: The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal © 2019 by Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
The Good Name: The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal
The Good Name by Samuel T. Logan, Jr. encourages readers to see the dangers of “false witness” among Christians, especially when dealing with disagreements, which can cause damage to individuals, the church, and the good name of Jesus.