Speaking the Truth in Love
In recent years much has been said about who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the SBC controversy, but little attention has been given to how Christians should deal with conflict and dissent in the church. How should believers relate to one another in the face of tension, stress, and even schism within the Body of Christ?
Because Baptists are committed to the process of democracy within the church, we will never be completely free of controversy this side of heaven! However, we can learn how to “speak the truth in love.” Indeed, we have a spiritual mandate to do so.
The following guidelines may serve as a helpful check on our own attitudes and responses. They are relevant, I believe, to every level of Baptist polity where conflicts arise–from the local congregation to the national Convention.
1. It is sometimes necessary to be polemical for the sake of the gospel, but it is seldom wise to be partisan in the fight for faith. There is nothing worse for the health of the church than theological indifferentism and doctrinal apathy. The New Testament admonishes us to “contend for the faith,” and Paul places a curse on even angels who pervert the gospel (Gal. 1:8; Jude 3). When we take such a stand, however, let us be sure that what is at stake is really the gospel and not our own petty idiosyncrasies or party loyalties. When the disciples rejected the ministry of another follower of Jesus because he was “not one of us,” the Master rebuked their cliquish attitude (Luke 9:49-50).
2. It is appropriate to challenge spurious ideas in the light of Scripture, but it is presumptuous to question the motives of our adversaries. There is such a thing as error held in sincerity as well as a blindness which is willful. Only God can read the mind and judge the heart. Our job is to examine ourselves so as to keep a clear conscience before God, even as we set before others the reason for the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:15-16).
3. We can stand unflinchingly for the fundamentals of the faith without succumbing to personal arrogance and pride. For example, we can affirm the infallibility and inerrancy of Holy Scripture without assuming that we ourselves are infallible or inerrant! Indeed, we must never confuse the perfection of God’s revelation with our own feeble efforts to understand and explain it. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura means that we must ever subject ourselves, reverently, humbly, and obediently, to the unchanging truth of God’s inspired Word.
4. In the family of faith, how we say something is sometimes as important as what we say. Words are weighty. They can hurt and harm as well as edify and uplift. Who among us has not been misquoted or misunderstood because someone else misheard what we intended to say? Every Christian should begin each day, and every church should start every business meeting, by praying the words of Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
5. It is our responsibility to love and pray for those with whom we disagree. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.” Only as we take this word to heart can we uncover the true spiritual roots of conflict, and so open ourselves to the power of God’s transforming work.
6. We can be thankful for the triumph of the gospel without delighting in the defeat of our opponents. Proverbs 24:17 admonishes us not even to rejoice when our enemy falls. Certainly, then, the “fall of a brother” is no occasion for gloating.
7. When others, because they have ignored these guidelines, hurt us, it is our duty not to respond in kind. We are called to defend the gospel, not ourselves. Peter urges us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus “who, although reviled, did not revile in return and although made to suffer, did not respond with threats” (1 Pet. 2:21-23).