How Great the Weight of Public Speech—A Call to Morally Charged Polemics

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Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of our Christian generation is that we have neglected to understand and to be sufficiently moved by the tremendous and holy weight of what it means to speak publicly as a Christian.

Consider just a few of the Biblical warnings on the subject:

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”  (James 3:1)

“It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.”  (Luke 17:1-2) (Keep in mind that the one causing the stumbling very likely does not believe he is causing any such thing)

Such warnings should cause us to tremble. And if you are saying to yourself, “But I am not a teacher,” I encourage you to think twice.

When we speak publicly as Christians, we are teaching, to some degree or another, and that is what makes the warnings above so frightening: teaching, for the Christian is inescapable. 

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis added)

“We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”  (Colossians 1:28, emphasis added)

Contrary to many reductionistic views of the Christian life, evangelism is not the end, but the beginning, of Christ’s call upon our lives. The rest is teaching

Note that the teaching is all-encompassing and exhaustive, including all that Jesus has commanded, with the aim of maturity and completeness. The all-of-life nature of this teaching should not be a surprise. Christianity is an all-of-life religion because Christ has purchased all of our lives for Himself. Therefore, whenever we speak of anything as Christians, we are implicitly, to one degree or another, making claims about what Christ commands concerning that thing. 

 

Setting the World Ablaze

This is especially the case when we speak publicly. One could conceivably argue that certain private conversations, in certain contexts, and with certain audiences, are exempt to some degree from the responsibility and weight of representing the risen Christ. But such an argument cannot be made about public speech. To speak publicly as a Christian is to either move people toward maturity in Christ, or to set up stumbling blocks which will move them closer to hell. There is no middle ground. There is absolutely no room for flippancy or negligence. The tongue is a flame which will set the world ablaze—either with the fires of hell, or with the fire of the glory of God. 

Or did you think that James was simply speaking of potty language or “being mean” when he compared the tongue to a dangerous fire in the third chapter of his epistle? Go back to that chapter and you will see that his warnings about the tongue begin with his warning of a stricter judgment for teachers

The danger of the tongue is primarily the danger of the teachings it can spread—which may result in the cursing of those who should not be cursed (James 3:9-10). Ideas, teaching, doctrine—these are the great dangers the New Testament is constantly calling us to be watchful of. They can “creep in” so subtly (Jd. 1:4), appearing innocent and smooth (Rom. 16:18), but they inevitably spread, working their way through one’s mind, and through the entire body (Gal. 5:9), spreading like “gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17-18). “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (Jm. 3:5)

If the tongue is a flame, then to speak publicly is to light a fire. But we must not think that all such fires are bad—lest we shut our mouths in disobedience to Christ. If public speech is such a dangerous business, and if we must speak publicly nevertheless (and we must), then the only conclusion to be drawn is that we must be damn careful with our tongues when we speak in public. Please note that I use the word, damn, advisedly. A careless word could indeed damn many souls, including our own (Mt. 12:36), and it is important that we feel the weight of that. 

We must tremble, like the priests of the Old Testament, to be sure that we not follow in the ruinous path of Nadab and Abihu, with “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1-3) proceeding forth from our tongues which will consume both ourselves and our hearers, but rather holy fire with which to glorify, defend, and exult in the truth of God. Those are our only options, and as with all matters of holiness, the holy fire of our public speech can only be produced with great care. It is the unholy and profane which come naturally to us as sinners. We do not need to work hard in order to produce strange fire with our lips. It is the default, the automatic. Holy fire, though, takes work. 

 

The Hard Work of Holy Speech

Because the fire of our speech is primarily ideological, or doctrinal, the first part of ensuring that it is holy fire is the careful work of the mind. To mistakenly fan the flames of hell with your speech is still to fan the flames of hell. Having “good intentions” while being negligent or stupid does not prevent the dangerous consequences from playing out, and it does not excuse us from moral culpability. 

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?”  (Matthew 23:16-17)

Here we see Jesus castigating the Pharisees for what many today might be tempted to call an innocent mistake. The Pharisees had simply let their logic slip a bit. But Jesus unleashes on them publicly as “blind guides” and “fools” in response. Why? Why not privately and gently correct them? Because their lapse in logic was not private, and its consequences were not exclusive to them. They were teaching this foolishness. It was public folly, which would lead Christ’s sheep astray. They were unleashing strange fire into the world, however unintentionally, by allowing their minds to be slothful as they formulated what they would teach. That is why Christ responded as He did. The potential consequences are too great for intellectual dullness or slothfulness to be excused when it comes to our public speech. We must “gird up the loins of our minds,” (1Pt. 1:13) as for battle, to watch our public speech like a hawk, in order to disallow anything which would pervert God’s truth or lead His sheep astray. 

It is the consequences which matter, not our intent. Remember the Pharisees. What may begin as an innocent, or even minimally significant mistake in private, becomes a shockingly reckless act of negligence worthy of public scorn by Jesus. And make no mistake: Jesus’ response to them is scornful. Not only does He call them blind (twice) and fools, but he also mocks them with sarcasm by asking a rhetorical question which any five year old of that time ought to be able to answer. This brings us to the second part of the work with our public speech: it must have a commensurate tone. 

We must watch our minds as they formulate the thoughts which will be communicated with our tongues. But we are not merely minds, and right doctrine is not an end in itself. We have affections which move us toward certain doctrines, and away from others; affections which also impel us to action in order to work out that doctrine in every area of life. Moreover, we have seen that public speech is a serious and weighty thing, so we should not treat it casually as though no moral weight ought to be associated with it. Therefore, when we speak publicly, we must do so with appropriate moral conviction regarding the subject of conversation. 

Consider the following quote from Jonathan Edwards which Piper has used to shape his view of preaching:

“I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.” 

Contrary to many modern sensibilities, the public discussion of truth and error should not only move our affections, it should be aimed at moving our affections. Our goal in our public speech should be to inflame love for the good, the true, the just, and the holy; and to inflame hatred for all that is evil, false, unjust, and profane. To speak publicly of evil (for example) in dry, sterile, or merely academic terms is to downplay the significance of that evil and to potentially lead others astray in their affections toward it. God’s saints love the good and hate the evil. They love His holy fire which brings Him glory, and they despise all variants of strange fire which would rob Him of that glory. Indifference toward such a threat should never be found in the public speech of one of His saints. 

But this is very contrary to what we are taught today. We are taught to remove all affection and passion from our public engagement of ideas, to maintain a neutral, and often seemingly indifferent, tone. Why is this? 

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Blunting the Edge to Avoid Fallacies?

One reason might be a misguided attempt to avoid certain fallacies. Take the fallacy of ad hominem, for instance. To commit the ad hominem fallacy is to bring up something irrelevant about an ideological opponent as an argument against his ideas. “You’re old, therefore your ideas are wrong,” might be a good example. It is a fallacy because details about the person are irrelevant when it comes to an argument about the ideas he happens to hold. When the topic of debate is a given idea, focus should be kept on arguments for or against that idea. 

But ideas are not the only things we should speak publicly about. Sometimes it is appropriate for the person (e.g., his character or actions) rather than his ideas, to be the focus of conversation. For example, the focus of Jesus’ public speech in the Matthew 23 passage cited above was the Pharisees, and their evil irrationality. Jesus is not guilty of ad hominem in his comments about the character and actions of the Pharisees, because he is not bringing those things up as substitutes for an argument against their ideas. He is bringing them up as the subject He wishes to discuss. His goal is to demonstrate something about the Pharisees, not merely about their ideas.

Likewise, there is a fallacious way to appeal to emotions as a substitute for an argument. For instance, someone might imply that if you will not adopt their conclusion, it is because you don’t care about their suffering. This uses emotions as a way to manipulate others into agreement, so as to bypass the need for an argument. But that is not the only way emotions can be utilized in public discussion. It is fallacious to appeal to emotions as an argument, but it is not fallacious or improper to convey strong emotion with the conclusion of an argument. 

Once again, Jesus serves as a good example. He does not merely point out the nature of the intellectual mistake being made by the Pharisees. He conveys strong negative emotion in his response to them, with the obvious intent that his hearers would share in the same strong negative emotions regarding the Pharisees. His goal is not merely to point out “an error” as an academic exercise. His goal is to convince His audience that the error is wicked and stupid, deserving of scorn. He is not aiming merely at their minds, but also at their affections. And this is not a fallacious or abusive employment of emotion, because the emotion is not meant as a substitute for argument. It is the conclusion of the argument. 

These misguided concerns about avoiding certain fallacies play an important role in squelching the holy fire of well-intended Christians in their public speech, and thus robbing their speech of the moral weight it ought to have. But there are a few other such misguided concerns which pertain, not to the avoidance of fallacies, but to the obedience of Scripture—and these concerns must be wrestled with as well. 

 

Always Gentle Correction?

In response to my call to morally charged polemics, some might ask, “But what about the multitude of Biblical exhortations to correct with gentleness?” 

They may cite Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”  (emphasis added)

Or, 2 Timothy 2:24-26: “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” (emphasis added)

Do these passages, and others like them, indicate that gentle language—rather than sharp, harsh, or inflammatory language—should characterize our public discussions about truth and error? There are several reasons I think such a conclusion would be misguided. The first of those reasons is found in the passages themselves. 

The Galatians passage is giving instruction on how to handle someone “caught in any trespass.” The 2 Timothy passage is aimed at the personal repentance of those individuals who are “in opposition” to a given teaching. In both instances, the explicit aim of the speech (which is supposed to be gentle) is personal repentance and restoration. This would seem to indicate that the speech is taking place in a context which is more private than public, as the aim of the speech pertains specifically to private individuals, rather than to the public at large. So within the passages themselves, we have reason to think that they are not meant as instruction for public speech, where the aim is to alert the public to something, rather than to change a particular person’s mind. 

Moreover, if these instructions of gentle corrections were taken as universally applicable to all public speech, it would seem to condemn virtually every example of public correction we find in Scripture—whether from the prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostles of the New Testament, or from Jesus, Himself. While I have not conducted a systematic study of Scripture with this issue in mind, I have struggled to find any examples in Scripture where godly men issue public correction in a way that does not seem intended to inflame some emotional response from the audience regarding the subject of discussion or correction. In other words, it is difficult to find an instance of public correction in Scripture—particularly on serious issues—which could be described as “gentle” rather than “sharp, harsh, or inflammatory.” This further seems to indicate that the biblical admonitions for gentleness in correction are intended for private, rather than public, contexts—or, to be more specific, contexts in which the purpose of the speech is private rather than public. Where public warning is intended, the pattern in Scripture seems to be the exact opposite of the sterile and indifferent speech we are often told to utilize today1

 

The “Sin” of Division?

But there is one more misguided concern which one might mistakenly get from reading Scripture, and that is concern over being “divisive.” In the minds of many evangelicals today, “divisiveness” is a cardinal social sin with an extremely broad and vague meaning. For most, the sin of divisiveness is the act of speaking in such a way that divisions would result. But this can’t be what the Scriptures mean, since they demonstrate godly men causing division with their speech all over the place (I won’t even bother cite examples here, as they are voluminous). Moreover the Bible commands division. It commands that Christians divide from those unrepentant of sin. So, speech which results in division, per se, cannot itself be sinful. So what is the sin of “divisiveness,” if there even is one? 

The primary text cited regarding this sin is Titus 3:10-11: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”  This is the ESV rendering. Compare it to other translations:

NASB: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning…”

KJV: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject…”

The KJV is the most literal of the three. The word used in the Greek is αἱρετικὸν (hairetikon), from which we get the english word, heretic. And this sheds a little more light on the nature of the sin being condemned by Paul in this passage. Division, as such, is not the problem, but rather division away from the truth. Consider a similar passage on “division” in Romans. “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”  (Rm. 16:17, emphasis added). The sin of “divisiveness,” if one can be found in the Bible, is the sin of wrongly dividing the body from the truth of God. It is the sin of spreading the strange fire of false teachings2, such that the sheep are wrongfully divided from the holiness to which they have been called. 

And this is the irony: Under the contemporary popular meaning of the “sin of division,” it is Paul, rather than the heretic, who would be guilty—because Paul is the one calling the Church to divide from the heretic. He is the one using sharp language to publicly warn against the heretic. 

We have it exactly backwards3. But this inverted meaning of “divisiveness” is not new. J. Gresham Machen had to contend against it in his day. Consider the following quote from Christianity and Liberalism:

“It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.” p. 50 (emphasis added)

Contrary our warped modern sensibilities, the Bible—and Church history—command that we be “divisive” when it comes to the strange fire of public error. The Word of the Lord is living and active, through every age and in every controversy. And it is always sharply dividing. 

 

War-Time Speech

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that our generation is exempt from the age-old war of ideas. From the Christian perspective, the context of public speech is not a drawing room, but a battlefield. And all who are not prepared to assume the weight and responsibility of war-time thinking and war-like seriousness should immediately remove themselves from that battlefield until they are ready. It is well past time for our generation to relearn the dreadful moral weight of public speech, the repugnant wickedness of public error, and the glory of sharp and decisive public correction. We must learn to see a pastor employing sloppy reasoning about weight matters the way we would see a doctor showing up for surgery intoxicated. The scalpel of public speech about God’s truth is operating on something infinitely more urgent than human flesh—it is operating on human souls. We dare not treat that lightly. 

We must endeavor to cultivate speech about serious topics which adequately communicates the moral weight they deserve. We are already in an ideological war. We cannot do anything about that. Our enemy will continue to war against us, and against the truth of our great God, whether we choose to fight or not. So fight, we must. This—contending for the truth, in all things—is the battle to which we have been called, and it is time for godly men to take up that commission with the godly fire of their tongues. There may be some, who due to confusions about the passages above, or due perhaps to worldly influence, find themselves with an aversion to such fiery speech as we see modeled again and again throughout Scripture. That’s fine. Let them remain on the sidelines of the battle until such time that the Spirit gives them the strength and wisdom they need to enter the fight. But let them not set a single toe upon the battlefield in an attempt to critique those of us who are fighting. This is not a pony show and those on the sidelines are not spectators. It is a war, and those on the sidelines are the sickly and the injured. When they are restored to full health, let them enter the battle in full (at which point they may have valuable constructive criticism for their brothers alongside whom they fight), or let them desert the Lord’s fight altogether. There is no room for anything in the middle.

 

Footnotes:

  1. This might also explain why Paul is described as “weighty and strong” in his letters (i.e. public speech), but “unimpressive” and insignificant in person by his opponents (2 Cor. 10:10).
  2. We should note that this could include the “false teaching” of elevating something of little or no importance to the level of essential importance, as with “genealogies,” circumcision, etc…(Titus 3:9). We ought to strive toward the Edwardsian ideal of raising public affection in proportion to the truth being proclaimed or defended.
  3. I have to give credit to my former pastor, Matt Marino, from whom I got much of my thought regarding this passage and the Biblical teaching on the sin of division.

 

 

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