Speaking the Truth in Love

Mark Galli, in his piece at CT, suggests that following Jesus — and here he is not into a literalistic sense but a new “living it out” in our world mode — will sometimes mean offending people.

The point is this: There were moments in Jesus’ ministry when he denigrated—that is, according to the dictionary definition, “attacked the reputation of another”—and inflamed—”excited to excessive or uncontrollable actions or feelings.” What we find in the Gospels is an uncomfortable reality: There is something about Jesus that makes some people want to kill him.

This is a long way of saying something that needs to be said whenever we think about how to have peaceful relations with people of other faiths: Those of us who follow Jesus, if we’re faithful to him, are occasionally going to find ourselves in the same troubled waters. This will come about not because we want to denigrate and inflame, as if we get a kick out of making people angry. It will come about simply because we are trying to be like Jesus, doing what Jesus is calling us to do, and saying what he’s calling us to say. When we do that, sometimes, it’s just going to make people as mad as hell.

We get no pleasure from this. We are saddened and grieved when it happens. But as followers of Jesus, we recognize that the ultimate goal is not to cover over deep-seated feelings and beliefs, to pretend that there is always a peaceful solution to every problem, to end our meetings with hugs and cheers. No, the goal of all conversation is for people to meet Jesus Christ. And when people meet Jesus Christ, there’s no telling what will happen. Sometimes that encounter ends in peace and reconciliation—thank God! But let’s face it, sometimes it ends with people stomping out of the room or plotting our demise….

There is a lot to be said about “how to talk about our faith without being inflammatory”—and I’ll write more about that in the next edition of this column. But before we arrive there, we are wise to note this other reality. Sometimes we have no choice but to begin our peacemaking with some troublemaking—speaking the truth to the point of risking offense. The first relational issue in interreligious dialogue is not, “How do I talk so that I don’t offend others?” If we are going to talk with each other from our deepest convictions, and speak frankly about how we see things, we’re going to do that from time to time. No, the really important question is, “How do I respond when I have heard something offensive?”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • AHH

    While I don’t disagree with Galli’s point that being Christlike in our interactions may sometimes offend people, there is a disconnect in his reasoning.

    He uses examples of Jesus denigrating and inflaming and then jumps to dealing with people of other faiths. But those interactions of Jesus were NOT with those of other faiths; they were with the religious establishment of his own faith.
    Is Galli suggesting we denigrate and inflame our own religious establishment, which for Evangelicals would include his own magazine?

    We don’t have much WWJD data for dealing with people of other faiths; the Samaritan woman is the only example coming to my mind. Most of the Biblical examples would seem to come from Paul, who it seems tried to relate to other faiths with grace and respect but still stood up for Jesus and sometimes caused offense.

  • Tim

    OK, I have to post this in parts because of Patheos’s heavy-handed spam filter:

    Part 1:

    I think this all depends on whether one is speaking “truth” or not.

    For many people, “faith” by definition implies the possibility of being wrong, hence the “leap” beyond the available evidence (whether physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.) to the beliefs/commitments/relationships in part dependent on “faith.” For others, “faith” might entail an initial “leap” with a subsequent “validation” removing even the slightest hint of doubt or recognition that they might be wrong on the “essentials.” In this latter scenario, I just think these people are fooling themselves, and might not have those views if they understood a little bit more about human psychology and how exceedingly good people can be into fooling themselves and maintaining indoctrinated beliefs.

  • Tim

    Part 2:

    But in any event, if one were to grant that faith-based views involve the individual departing from what they can have near certain confidence in what is true to something of a less certain nature, then the possibility that one might be wrong should be present in one’s thoughts.

    If one ends up “offending” others by “speaking truth” and what they speak is actually “truth.” Then who is to say that’s not right? That would be perfectly fine, providing you try to do so as gently as is reasonable and without trespassing over rights or personal boundaries inappropriately. But if one “offends” others by speaking falsehoods despite their believing them to be truths, then I don’t see God having your back in such situations. Then that would just be you, and all your biases, prejudices, ignorance, etc.

    So, take the issue of same-sex attraction. Some Christians tell gays that if they only prayerfully submit themselves to Christ, that they will be “healed” of their aberrant sexual orientation. Whether or not this might happen in isolated “miraculous” instances you can always debate of course, though many “ex-gay” persons who have been “cured of the gay” have a mysterious tendency to often “relapse,” and even come out and say that the “cure” they experienced was really more of a suppression – that the tendencies didn’t really go away. But, people can always debate this if they are intent on it, so I don’t want to pursue that much farther. But what I think I can confidently assert is that in the vast majority of instances, telling a homosexual person that God will “cure” them of the gay if they only pray and submit is a falsehood.

    Now, I know most people on Jesus Creed would say no such thing. But they might very well say other, more “modest” things of a similar nature. God will “help you resist the gay temptation and enable you to live a deeply fulfilling, rewarding life.” Well, not if they value deeply romantic companionship and raising their own family it won’t. Of course, then one can always say “well, God chose you for singleness, and you need no such things to be truly content and joyful, only a deep relationship with God (and perhaps fellowship with fellow Christians).”

  • Tim

    Part 3:

    But are these things really true? No. I don’t think so. I think for most homosexuals (not all, but most), having romantic companionship, even raising family (as in adopted children or in-vitro/surrogacy), are integral components to expressing humanity and experiencing full joy and fulfillment.

    But we can disagree of course. So maybe I’m wrong, and others telling homosexuals they need to avoid living a romantic life and having a full family are right. But what if these people aren’t right? Faith, as I noted above, to many does imply lack of certainty. What if they’re not right?

    In that case, they could be needlessly ruining people’s lives. And when one gets “offended” at what they say, the “offense” would be justified, and any “outrage” expressed or charges of “ignorance”, “intolerance”, or “close mindedness” might be so as well.

    Something to think about.

  • smcknight

    Geez, Tim, you’re being a gasbag. Get to the point.

  • smcknight

    Tim, I thought you were “watching.” What I told you was the truth and it may well have offended you… so what should I have done?

    I think you’re missing the gist of Galli’s essay. Here’s what I see Galli doing:

    1. He’s writing into a situation: never offend, always be sensitive.
    2. Jesus himself said things that were offensive, not because he wasn’t loving, but
    3. Because the truth sometimes offends.

    The assumption he has made is that Christians have truth to tell. You certainly know his assumptions and his theological and Scriptural authority context. With those assumptions, his article stands firm (and firmly).

  • Tim

    Scot,

    Sorry, I just started writing and that’s what came out. After looking it over, I wasn’t too happy with it either :(

    Anyway, my point is that if what one says is truth, and they say it appropriately, then I would agree it would be sad and unfortunate for them to continually endure criticism. But if what they say is not truth, then the criticism they receive could well be deserved and they might have no justifiable cause to complain.

    So, some of what I see conservative Christians saying that “offends” others in my view is not truth. We can disagree on whether it is “truth” or not for each particular claim, but when I sometimes see Christians saying things I find to be untrue and offensive, I don’t consider it at all sad or persecutory that they are the subject of (what in my mind is well deserved) criticism.

  • Tim

    #7 was in response to #5.

    In response to #6 I would say that while what you say about my being a “gasbag” perhaps was true (though it was by no means my intent), that you could have said other things that were “true” that would have been less insulting. You could have simply said that I meandered and you think my point suffered due to that, and perhaps request that I restate my point in a clear and concise manner.

    That would have addressed the “problem” and avoided making it unnecessarily “personal.” That is just common courtesy and good etiquette. Offenses over breaches of these societal guidelines are sometimes justified. So #5 perhaps could appropriately be called “offensive.”

    Concerning your last paragraph in #6, the assumptions involved in Christians “telling the truth” could include the following:

    1) That Jesus was Christ, and that being Christ what he said was true (at least on spiritual matters)
    2) That what you inherited as scripture and hermeneutic through which to interpret scripture accurately conveys Jesus message to man and does not convey anything Jesus would have considered false (at least on spiritual matters).
    3) That own application (or your tradition’s) of applying your (or your tradition’s) hermeneutic to scripture has accurately yielded “truth” you can confidently “take to the bank.”

    So, if Christianity isn’t “true” as Christians understand it, that would mean that much criticism of Christians would be justified. Or if Christianity as other Christians (perhaps mainline or Catholic) understand it, and your particular branch less so, then much criticism of views originating from your quarter may be deserved.

    I think just asserting what you say is “true” to begin with is something that perhaps ought be challenged for validity.

  • Aaron

    How do you know if someone is speaking truth in love that may happen to offend someone – or is simply trying to protect their own view because their identity is so wrapped up in a given belief that to challenge it makes the person respond in harsh and offensive ways?

  • Richard

    “Sometimes that encounter ends in peace and reconciliation—thank God! But let’s face it, sometimes it ends with people stomping out of the room or plotting our demise…”

    Having just endured a somewhat contentious congregational meeting I would suggest that “ends” is a very relative word. Our meeting ended but our encounters with Christ and each other have not and we will continue pursuing peace and reconciliation together.

    Also, I absolutely agree with the major disconnect that AHH points out – Jesus’s strongest interactions were within his own groups (always toward rival teachers, not just “other” Jews), not toward outsiders. He didn’t offend Samaritans, Romans, etc and that’s one of the things that offended the pharisees and temple leaders the most.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    I’m torn. I agree with Galli (with the caveat mentioned in post #1, that Jesus’s “offensive” remarks were to fellow-believers, rather than to those outside to begin with). My problem is that I hear people use this all the time as an excuse to be rude using “speaking the truth in love” as nothing more than a codeword to absolve them of guilt.

    I’m reminded of something a singer-songwriter I enjoy once said. Speaking specifically about Southern American culture, he observed that people can say any horrible thing they want, but so long as they follow it with “bless his/her heart,” it becomes totally acceptable.

    For example, “He doesn’t have a thought in his head, bless his heart” or “she really is the ugliest baby, bless her heart.”

    But, again, truly there must be times when one has to speak offensive truths. I just think some people don’t do so “in love” as much as they may claim to.

  • Tim

    …in post #8:

    (3) should have been: “that your own (or your tradition’s) particular exegesis of scripture has accurately yielded “truth” you can confidently “take to the bank” with respect to the subject you feel you are “speaking truth” to others.

    And the last sentence should have read “Or if Christianity as other Christians (perhaps mainline or Catholic) understand it is closer to “truth”, and your particular branch significantly less so, then much criticism of views originating from your quarter may be deserved.”

  • rjs

    I agree with AHH. The passages that Mark Galli cites have little if anything to tell us about how Jesus would have dealt with those of other religions, and absolutely nothing about how we should deal with many classes of ‘sinners’ of our day.

    Jesus’s fiery language as reported in the gospels is pretty much reserved for religious hypocrites, people with power, “of his own people” who are abusing others in the name of God and hoarding wealth for personal use in the name of God. Even Herod was of his own people.

    Now Paul … there is a better example for this discussion.

  • Tim

    Good points RJS. And no kidding on Paul.

  • http://www.evangelicalmonk.com/apps/blog/show/5386059-speaking-the-truth-in Bill H

    As usual Galli is able to stir the pot, which is always great reading. I’m not sure if he is really suggesting being offensive so much as refraining from compromising the faith. Frank dialogue happens and we can walk away agreeing to disagree, which is vastly different than walking away with smoldering resentment. I don’t recall any one on one dialogues that were lacking in grace.

  • Ed Gentry

    I agree, Jesus was addressing the religious establishment not outsiders (though, I’ve been wondering how the ‘oracle to the nations’ genre, that is so common in the OT prophets, would apply today)

    How do you think Jesus would treat those in power in our ecclesiastical circles. I’m thinking here of everything from a small local church to a huge mega-church.

  • smcknight

    Bill H, I suspect the issue is compromising the faith.

  • Tim

    Scot, as you initiated the conversation in #5 & #6, were you intending on responding to any of my replies to those posts?

  • rjs

    The problem with the article is not the point about uncompromising faith. Clearly we take a strong and uncompromising stand for the faith and sometimes that will make people angry (it got Peter, Paul, James … killed). We can’t just go along to get along and avoid offending people at all cost.

    The problem comes when Galli connects the harsh language of Jesus toward Jewish hypocrites with his point here. The first page of the article is nothing but a rehash of these passages. The harsh language used by Jesus is not in any way relevant to such a situation. The article is incoherent and the point lost in irrelevant detail. By making this connection Galli undermines the point he actually wants to make (and with which I agree).

  • Tim

    RJS,

    When someone takes a “strong and uncompromising stand for the faith,” could you elaborate on what that involves? Firstly, what is “the faith”? I mean, say if you have Christian groups debating a contentious issue, whether it be women in leadership positions in the church, the immorality or lack of immorality of same-sex unions, the nature of inspiration and “accommodation” in scripture, soteriological issues (e.g., the role of works & beliefs, as well as exclusivism, inclusivism, accessiblism, universalism), how do identify what “the faith” is that you want to take an “uncompromising” stand on? Also, what does “uncompromising” mean in the context you are using it? Of course it would mean that you shouldn’t ignore your convictions and principles to “not cause waves.” But would it also mean that you are certain you are right? Or does it admit to a degree of uncertainty and a recognition that your view might be wrong?

  • http://wwwi-wonder-as-i-wander.blogspot.com/ linda

    in addition to what rjs is saying i think these sorts of messages need to be contextualized for the intended audience. meaning, for example, telling a very conservative/fundie christian to not compromise is probably not what they need to hear. chances are they may need to tone it way down and emphasize the love more. some will just take this sort of writing as further encouragement to offend in the name of jesus, not that they are offending others intentionally. this message is more for someone with a liberal bent who needs to be exhorted to stand firm on truth and not water it down. obviously, i’m using broad brush strokes here but one-size-fits-all answers just don’t work. the last thing some folks (e.g. those who have abusive backgrounds or hurt by the church) need is a strong approach. we need to always be led by the Spirit with each individual we are interacting with and also realize that not everyone has the gift of evangelism. those who do do it fairly effortlessly. my guess is those who do a lot of the offending that has nothing to do with being led by the Spirit do not even have the gift of evangelism. this is a complex, multifaceted issue that needs to be approached with much nuance–not simplistic answers.

    my 2 shekels.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have not fully read the Tim show, but I would like to point that the reaction does not justify the basis. I know people who judge others (like a Mohler) and then feel justified that they are making them mad because Jesus provoked that reaction. We have to do away with people not considering the reaction because they feel justified.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    linda#21 – you need to change your name. (its a longer story)

    This is a very difficult issue. Jesus says only God is good and therein is the crux of the matter to me. People try to imitate Jesus, but they are not good. They believe they are good and try to do what a good God would do, but they are not and cannot be good. (Geez, I sound like a Calviner). Yes we need to speak the truth, but in love and grace, not condemnation.

    Now, this is clearly different from condemning those who condemn. We can say that those who condemn should not.

  • rjs

    Tim,

    My response here is based on Mark Galli’s article. He was asked to address a question “How can Christians communicate what we believe without being denigrating or inflammatory?” This wasn’t in the context of the kinds of questions you raise, but as a part of a Global Faith Forum – interfaith conversation.

    I certainly think that, in the context of an interfaith discussion, we must be uncompromisingly Christian. I am not a universalist – if Christianity is right then Islam is wrong, Buddhism is wrong, … If it makes people mad – well that comes with the territory.

    This doesn’t mean we must be denigrating, but it does mean taking a stand.

    If Galli took his article and got rid of all the off-topic and gratuitously introduced stuff between the first break (* * *) on p. 1 and the next break on p. 2 (* * *) and axed the first paragraph Scot quotes above as well, skipping right to “This is a long way of saying” (except it wouldn’t be long anymore) it’d be a great article.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I think my questions are applicable to intrafaith, interfaith, and faith-to-secular conversations. To give an example, the Catholic interfaith conversations recognize that good can come of other religious traditions and that, in following the best precepts of those traditions, others can participate in God’s kingdom and graciously receive salvation even if their “truth” isn’t accurate. This is a inclusivistic/accessibilistic position, as the Catholic church rejects universalism (all go to heaven) as well as pluralism (many religious beliefs being true in their own way).

    But, again taking Catholocism as an example, the church could in an faith-to-secular conversation denounce same-sex unions as sinful. But then a mainline protestant branch could endorse same-sex unions as not in any way inherently sinful.

    So, if the conversation is simply about “we believe in the triune God – Jesus the Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father – and believe that we have been accepted as part of God’s family/kingdom,” then by all means unabashedly proclaim that. But if the conversation is, “our faith informs us that same-sex unions are wrong,” or “our faith informs us that all who do not convert to Christianity that have been exposed to the Gospel go to hell,” or “our faith informs us all other religions are only harmful and destructive to their adherents,” then that would be something else entirely in the context of either intrafaith, interfaith, or faith-to-secular conversations. It is this issue I object to. And as far as “offending” anyone, it is far more typical that it is this more specific type of doctrine that is the source of offense, not the “we are God’s children and Jesus is Lord” type statements.

  • Tim

    …”It is this issue I object to” should have been “it is these type of issues some object to” and actually should have been deleted as redundant given the sentence that immediately follows.

  • http://www.thekingandhiskingdom.blogspot.com Nick

    RJS #19,

    I don’t get why Gali is not allowed to use the passages he cites to make a broad application. He’s just making the observation that sometimes the truth offends. I think that we can acknowledge the fact that Jesus’ statements were not directed towards other religions and yet apply the scripture to our own situations dealing with other faiths. Don’t we do that all the time? Much of what Paul says about justification by faith is addressing relations between Jew and Gentile and yet I think that we can apply those passages to situations in our own day (i.e. relationships between different races, cultures, and age groups in our own churches) all the while recognizing that Paul was not addressing situations specifically. If our hermeneutic (is that the right word?) is too strict then how can we ever apply the Bible in a day that is so far removed from the first century?

  • nathan

    Learning to step up and “be offensive” and “unashamed of the the truth” is not our growing edge. It is strange to me that anyone thinks this is a problem or a growth area for evangelicalism.

    Not so much the article, but this kind of theme/conversation is a perennial one in evangelicalism and I always have to wonder “where the fire of compromise and timidity” really is…

    anyone?

    or is this regular theme in the evangelical world another example of our asserting “trends” exist based on “personal concerns” or anecdotal evidence?

    I’m talking about the bigger picture here…not the article per se.

    thanks…

    happy turkey day!
    hope you all had a day filled with peace and tons of food!


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