by Marijke Hoek
We owe it to each other, in making public comment on the alleged statements of our fellow Christians, first to confer directly with them and to establish what was actually intended.
This resolution continues:
“Then to commend what we can, to weigh the proportional significance of what we perceive to be in error, and to put a charitable construction on what is doubtful, expressing all with courtesy, humility, and graciousness.”
As a child, I enjoyed a game in which we would whisper a phrase from ear to ear and would all be curious as to the effect the retellings would have on the original statement. Lots of fun.
In the adult world, this game is a metaphor for the cumulative error that occurs when a story or statement travels without accurate reference to the original saying. In its journey, inaccuracies are picked up and the content gets distorted. The process and outcome are hardly ever fun. Recently I read a Christian book review, and the first thing that struck me wasn’t the content but the tone. The review bore all the qualities of an irritated rant, quoting ad hoc phrases of the authors and distorting their intent. The reviewer had neither demonstrated a professional nor a Christian approach to what should be an informative, evaluative exercise. Moreover, this was not a whisper shared by a few, but an article read by many.
Words Travel Quickly
These days our means of communication are varied, sophisticated and often speedy. We whisper to one another in emails, blogs, media interviews, articles, conversations, tweets, videos, and sermons. The speed by which our whispers travel is potentially fast and the number of recipients frequently beyond count.
This is all the more reason to monitor the principles and values we adopt when we publicly comment on the alleged sayings or writings of our fellow believers. When we study the Scriptures we seek to discover the author’s intended meaning. We take great care to look at the text and the context. We examine the flow of the argument, take historical considerations into account and look at the literary genre. All these facets are vital in seeking to establish what the author is intending to communicate in our aim to interpret the word of God. It takes time, dedication, love and great care.
Similar principles apply when we engage with the words of God’s people. When we publicly comment on the alleged statements of our fellow Christians, we equally need to consider the text and its context. In order to contribute constructively, we need to be clear about what was actually said and where and when the statement was made. We may also need to confer with the source to clarify what was actually intended before we are able to draft a wise and meaningful response.
Yes, this takes time, love and consideration. The author of Ecclesiastes persuades us to take great care in searching to find the right words. Calmness, after all, can lay great error to rest, and wise words that are gracious carry substantial public weight (see 7:19, 10:4 and 12:9). This also means that the cumulative effect of our whispers does not need to develop into a roar.
Wisdom from Heaven
When James describes the qualities of the “wisdom that comes from heaven,” he lists a sequence of virtues. Such wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3.17). This reminds us that our public dialogue does not merely concern the actual content. Rather, the manner in which we respond is vital as we seek to be the community that reflects godly character and pursues God’s peace.
I have seen some masterly crafted statements, the choice of words, the courtesy and the timing of which demonstrate a thoroughly considerate exercise that interlocks grace and truth and reveals the shalom of God. Such reflections carry weight and convey something of the authority alluded to in Ecclesiastes 7:19: “Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city.”
There are also examples of where the Christian witness has been the very opposite of what Christianity is supposed to offer. As James Davison Hunter writes in his book, To Change the World, “Clearly, if Christians cannot extend grace and love through faithful presence within the body of believers, they certainly will not be able to extend grace to those outside it.”1
While we may address issues within the Christian community, the wider society is also listening in. And the wisdom inspired by God’s Spirit will help us to commend one another where we can and be considerate, measured, and courteous as we reflect on arguments we perceive to be incorrect or doubtful.
We owe it not merely to one another; we also owe it to Him as we seek to fill society with the testimony of Christ and honor Him. In all “smaller matters,” we have the opportunity to show that we never lose sight of the wider narrative, which is the redemptive-historical context.
So in tricky situations in which we need to comment on sayings of our fellow Christians, we have an opportunity to communicate in ways that are wisely crafted and stay close to a timeless truth. I am curious what the cumulative effect of such whispers could be. Shalom.
Marijke Hoek is the Forum for Change co-ordinator of the Evangelical Alliance.
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 281.