Concern about civility in public discourse has been a major topic during the recent presidential contest. I chose to watch one of the Republican debates and was shocked to hear the petty name-calling and crude insults coming from men who were aspiring to occupy the oval office. Many in the media expressed concern that those who wish to be president should be held to a higher standard than what the public has witnessed in recent months.

We as Christian leaders should be held to an even higher standard. We represent Christ, whose speech is perfect in content and tone (John 7:46).  Sadly, some of us have been guilty of saying things in public, online, and in print that has been hurtful and ungodly. Relationships have been damaged and our testimony has been harmed. Here are a few guidelines to remind us of pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Remember that almost all speech is public speech (Ecclesiastes 10:20). What you say at a small conference in a local church in Delaware is probably being recorded and could be heard by someone in Los Angeles within an hour. Even if there isn’t an official recording made, someone in the audience may have captured your words on their phone. In the same way, what you write in a private email may be shared with others, regardless of your expectation of confidentiality. Once you push “send,” you have lost control of your words. Also, we all have received emails meant for others and accidentally sent emails to the wrong recipients (beware of autofill!).
  2. Be especially careful of letting your guard down when you are surrounded by those who are in your particular camp (Proverbs 12:18; 10:19). Some speakers have gotten into trouble by throwing out some “red meat” which they know will please the home crowd (their posse). The issue could be baptism, Reformed theology, eschatology, views of sanctification, or a particular approach to counseling. Don’t engage in sarcasm or ad hominem attacks which do nothing to advance truth and which can damage relationships. I have encouraged speakers to speak as if the person with whom they disagree is sitting on the front row. Be especially cautious about unscripted thoughts which come to you in the heat of the moment. And don’t be quarrelsome (Proverbs 17:4; 20:3; 2 Timothy 2:23-24).
  3. Speak in a way that those whose views you oppose would say that you represented their position fairly (Philippians 2:3-4). Don’t try to advance your cause by building straw men to represent the other side. Make the effort to understand the views of others – be quick to listen so that you don’t misrepresent others (James 1:19). One of my favorite professors in seminary taught us that we should present opposing views in a way such that if the person with whom we differ was present, he or she would say, “you’ve understood my position and explained it well.” We shouldn’t be afraid to fairly acknowledge the strongest arguments against our position.
  4. Speak lovingly about those with whom you disagree (Mark 12:31; Matthew 5:44). When debating issues about which we are passionate, it is easy for the flesh to take over and for us to treat our opponents as enemies. Even if we think that people are in error, we are called to love them. If correction is needed, it should be exercised for the purpose of restoration (Galatians 6:1). In many cases it is appropriate to go to our brother or sister privately before taking public issue with them (Matthew 18:15ff). Many years ago a well-known Christian apologist debated a famous Muslim. It wasn’t clear whether any in the audience changed their positions as a result of listening to their exchange, but one listener’s verdict was that one thing was very clear: the Christian apologist loved that Muslim man.
  5. If it quacks, waddles and has webbed feet, it is a duck. Some are tempted to think that by not mentioning the name of the person whose views they are criticizing, they can speak with more liberty (which is, to say, carelessly). When you describe another teacher’s views or quote them, someone either in your local audience or among those who hear the audio will know about whom you are speaking. You also can assume that whatever you say will get back to the person whose views you opposed. Therefore, always speak carefully and kindly.
  6. Be slow to speak or write (James 1:19; Proverbs 29:20; 13:3). Take time to pray over what you will say and how you will say it. If you are in doubt as to whether what you are about to say is accurate and kind, leave it out. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Get counsel – and not just from people who are in your camp who are likely to affirm you. Go to those who are more sensitive to those whom you might offend and who will have the courage to correct you (Proverbs 9:8; 12:1).
  7. Build relationships outside of your immediate circle. It is much easier to speak kindly and accurately about people whom you know personally. Over the past several years I have been blessed and privileged to be a Council Board Member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC). While the BCC council board members share a commitment to helping troubled people using God’s Word, there are differences of opinion among them on some important counseling issues. The face-to-face interactions among us have been a life-transforming experience, as I have built rich friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I disagree on certain topics. These relationships help me to speak the truth in love.

In Summary

It is all too easy to speak carelessly and thus to cause harm to others (Proverbs 11:9). James warns that the tongue is like an untamable beast. No human power can restrain it (James 3:7-12). Yet just as Jesus was able to restrain the demoniac who was unrestrainable by merely human means (Mark 5:1-15), so He enables us to tame our tongues as we are united to Him.

“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in the right circumstances.” (Proverbs 25:11)

“Sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.”  (Proverbs 16:21)

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Join the Conversation

What guidelines for properly guarded speech would you suggest? How often do you find yourself talking about this issue with your counselees?