Yesterday, I shared a bit about how we can be more thoughtful literary evangelists. Toward the end, I made the comment that fiery rhetoric and angry polemics don’t win people, but genuine love and compassion just might. This is something I’ve increasingly been convicted about in recent years, particularly as I think back on ways I’ve spoken in the past that have been utterly foolish.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t times to use harsh language. In fact, there are times when the only proper response is to be extremely harsh. (Granted these are rare, but they still exist.) So… how do we know when we should and when we shouldn’t? Here are three principles that I believe help us determine whether or not it is appropriate to use harsh language:
1. Is it about my sins and failings? This is something we see Paul in particular model well, as he directs many of his harshest comments toward his own attempts to attain righteousness apart from Christ, which he describes with a Greek word that could be translated as harshly as a word that will make some readers unsubscribe1 (Philippians 3:8). He describes himself as the least of the apostles, the least of all the saints, and even the chief of sinners. He doesn’t hesitate to look at himself very seriously, and doesn’t feel the need to make a compliment sandwich.
Likewise, it is important for us, even as we remind ourselves of God’s grace, that we not sugarcoat our own personal sin. Call it what it is. Don’t mess around with it. Don’t treat it as a pet. Name it and commit to destroying it.
2. Am I addressing sin within the body of believers? This, again, is a time when harsh language is appropriate, but we are wise to temper with grace. Paul’s epistles model this brilliantly, as do the writings of the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. In 1-2 Corinthians, for example, we see Paul chastise the Corinthian church for allowing heinous sin of all sorts, including participating in false worship and perverse sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 10:14-22). But he also continually points them back to the source of their only hope, which is Christ.
This again, is a helpful reminder for us, whether we are involved in one-to-one discipleship, small groups, or pastoral ministry in some capacity. Though, again, we should be reluctant to do so, we should be very willing to call attention to habitual sin (whether personal or corporate) that is damaging to the entire group.
3. Am I confronting a false teacher who is leading Christians astray? Again, Paul is helpful here. Consider the way he writes to the Galatians about the errors they’ve let seep into the church. He makes it absolutely clear that any teaching that would distort the gospel is the most vile and damnable evil, for example, and that if they’re so intent on practicing the Mosaic Law as a means of attaining righteousness then they should emasculate themselves (Galatians 1:8-9; 5:12). Jesus likewise warns that anyone who would seek to lead his disciples astray would be better off tying a millstone to his neck and jump to his death than face what Jesus has waiting for him (Matthew 18:6). That’s some pretty serious business, isn’t it? (And don’t even get me going on his letters to the churches in Revelation…)
Here is where I think it’s fair to be the least apologetic about using our harshest language. There should be no quarter for heretical teaching whatsoever. If something is wrong, call it out as wrong, whether someone is saying every day is a Friday, your salvation depends on you, or God’s going to make it rain sweet moolah all over your house if you just
send in a fat cheque “sow a seed”:
But one should be careful in considering how to handle the teacher him- or herself. Without giving room for their teaching, we should remember that ad hominems have no place in the Christian life. Instead, we might be wiser to take the same stance Jude advocates when he reminds us that the archangel Michael didn’t directly rebuke Satan, but instead said, “The Lord rebuke you.”
4. Practice restraint. Jesus, Paul, the rest of the Apostles, the prophets… They all constantly confront the errors found among God’s people and those who think they’re God’s people. And in these instances, there are no caveats, no hesitations, no nothing. But rarely do they direct harsh language toward the lost. To these, they come with kindness, gentleness, and compassion, even as they challenge their way of thinking and their way of believing. So here’s my point: Harsh language, in general, is something that should be used rarely and with great reluctance. As a general rule, if you find yourself eager to do it, you probably shouldn’t, and it’s better to err on the side of turning aside wrath with a gentle word (Proverbs 15:1).