An important verse in the New Testament is so frequently abused in light of contemporary wisdom on relationships that damage is done without realising it. The context of the verse actually affirms the need for Christians, as Christ’s body, to protect each other from error in order to promote growth and unity. It is shown to be a critical component of Christian discipleship and, by implication, an essential element of leadership. There is clearly much at stake when we get this wrong.
In Ephesians 4:11-12, ministry gifts are given to equip the Church to do its work and we are then told that this work progresses towards ultimate maturity while protecting us from ‘every wind of doctrine’. The qualifying motivator then comes in verse 15 which calls us to the task of “speaking the truth in love” This is actually only half of the verse, with the rest adding to the growth context. This first half, though, is so badly followed by so many people today that it could be the most abused verse in the entire Bible. How?
Perhaps we can first assume that the intention to believe truth and not error is held in the mind of every Christian who, after all, has relationship with Jesus who is the truth. I haven’t met too many people who have a sincere faith and wilfully hold on to or act on overt lies in their relationships. However, the desire to stay positive, be gracious or avoid shame can lead to three common reworkings in the application and abuse of this powerful phrase.
1. Speaking the absence of truth in love. Misunderstanding, misinterpreting or misrepresenting facts can communicate them with the intention of being loving but then actually compromise that love. A version of the truth is believed and there may be every intention of helping the recipient. Damage is done though because of poor research, self-deception, misjudgement, hasty assessments, or the big relationship killer of presumption of motive. It is easy to do when we are in a position of power, when we believe that we always seek to act nobly, or if some of what we believe is known to be true, without being sure of the rest.
A range of responses are possible that can then fracture relationships. For example, dismissal of the error can be accompanied by understandable reactionary emotion that then invades the space and threatens rational discussion. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater may miss a kernel of truth or ruin a chance to address an issue well. Some who deliver a judgment on a situation may just simply be wrong and believe themselves to be right for all sorts of reasons. A lack of substantiation can lead to actual or perceived errors that obscure love, anyway. Where trust is undermined, the foundation of a relationship is eroded. It is important to keep in mind, though, that speaking the truth in love needs to go both ways in a relationship and retaliation is never justified.
2. Speaking nothing in love. Withholding real or perceived truth is often thought to be a loving act. Maybe this is valid for a time if discretion warrants. For some, the time will not be right and greater harm can be caused by our insensitivity. Otherwise, though, there is surely no love demonstrated if we harbour a sense of being superior, aggrieved, or just aware that a person we supposedly care about is in need of growth that we will not address. Some might make the mistake of speaking the truth in love too quickly and causing damage, but then there is also the mistake of speaking no truth and thereby hindering a person or perpetuating the harm that they might be causing by actions they are unaware of.
Naturally, we will not always have sufficient levels or lengths of relationship to warrant speaking the truth, but then there is little love being demonstrated, anyway. That is not to say we are unloving, only that we don’t purport to have a depth of love that necessitates being the source of discipleship or correction. Is it not fair to think that we would speak with candour in teams, marriages, friendships, where a Christian faith obligates mutual relational growth?
3. Speaking the truth without love. Showing little or no love for Christian people is a sign that there is a problem with our love of God (1 John 4:8,20). Some will make their love conditional, or be unaware of just how much they are affected by their own guilt, shame, hurt or abuse. God doesn’t cease to love us, so we are called to likewise be unceasing in our love of others (e.g. John 15:17, 1 John 2:9-11). Therefore, when we bring correction, there is a prioritisation of relationship. The attitude is one of caring enough to confront and wanting to demonstrate value by believing in the person’s growth, but that love for them is not dependent upon compliance. Even in conflict resolution (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus’ priority is reconciliation and winning our brother.
This violation happens frequently when people choose to play God’s referee. There is, ironically, more critical comment on the right to critically comment than there is for just about any other issue in churches. Some love to set the record straight and to correct people, but demonstrate little love with their absence of humility (James 4:6) and grace (Colossians 4:6). Good and godly people too often come under relentless public attack for supposed violations of Scripture that, even if warranted, should surely be private and protective of Christian unity to avoid violation of other Scripture (1 Corinthians 6:1-7). It is the role of leaders to address error and take responsibility for Christians’ welfare (Acts 20:28, Hebrews 13:17) and leaders should expose overt heresy without individuals resorting to attack or the presumption to fill any void and play the role of umpire.
Love is so often made conditional in our highly regulated and me-centred world. Laying down our lives for others is the epitome of the love Jesus’ advocated (John 15:13). Such radical love that would go the gates of hell and back to win people requires a sacrifice that is rare for those who are not personal friends. We can choose our friends, but we’re stuck actually with our family, and the church is the family of God. Speaking the truth in love is often a higher calling than we feel comfortable with when our own feelings and emotions take over in the face of real opportunities to show that we are true disciples by having such love for one another (John 13:35).