November 19th, 2013

The Christian way of being mean is telling those we’ve offended that we’re “speaking the truth in love”.

Misappropriating this little gem from Ephesians 4 is popular because it allows us to be rude, condescending, and hurtful to non-Christians while simultaneously allowing us to hold on to our own privilege and self-righteousness.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last week about “speaking the truth in love.”

When we say this, what we actually mean is, “I have a belief/ commitment to X as a truth and you don’t. Therefore, I can treat you badly, assign you evil motives, and cast aspersions on your character because I ”love” you so much that I want you to come to my belief. In essence, my belief in X being true allows me to be a unkind to you until you believe X too. Because, obviously, if you don’t share my truth claim regarding X, you must be either stupid or evil.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all blurted out harmful and harsh words that have cut someone or some group apart through rhetoric. In response we defend our failed speech by baptizing those words in the polluted waters of misrepresenting Paul’s intent regarding “speaking the truth in love.”

I do not doubt that for some of us, our version of the truth – which always happens to be God’s version of the truth – is motivated by what we consider love. But evermore frequently, it is merely a grasping attempt to force the world to bow to our preferences and interpretation of thought and behavior, regardless of whether or not the other person’s thoughts and behaviors affect us at all.

It’s not about love, it’s about power!

Whether it has to do with someone who has a different lifestyle than we do, holds political views that counter ours; it may be someone we believe to be living sinful lives, or even differs from us on matters of theology; when we want to be mean, we can. Yet, all we have to do is rub on the self-soothing salve of “truth in love” to ease what should be a guilty conscience.

Whenever we defend our actions by pulling the truth in love card, my question is this: How come the other person doesn’t feel loved? Certainly, when some hear hard truths, they won’t immediately warm to them. I’ll give you that.

But if our motivations are truly loving, shouldn’t it seem like love? Shouldn’t an impartial observer be able to look at our actions, hear our words, and easily discern that what we’ve done is loving?

The difficulty with the way we currently use “speaking the truth in love” is three-fold:

  1. We judge our actions based on our feelings rather than the demonstrated effect. Our actions feel loving to us. Unfortunately, by the standard of 1 Corinthians 11, our motivations, since love is not selfish, don’t matter. Neither, by the way, do the feelings of others. The great point of 1 Corinthians 11 is that love is not about feelings. It is about actions.
  2. Our speaking has little to do with speaking. Speaking the truth in love now looks like voting, blogging, tweeting, protesting, buying, signing petitions, and yelling the truth on talk-radio and cable news. Speaking means having a conversation.
  3. Often our truths are rooted in other commitments beside the gospel. Whether we’re defending laws we like, the traditional this, a progressive view of that, whatever it is, rarely, as the Apostle Paul was pointing us to, are we talking about Christian maturity.

We can do better. Followers of Christ can be better truth-speakers by embracing a few important shifts about the nature of speaking the truth.

What if we spoke the truth in love…

  1. ….as if we were speaking to someone we actually loved. In high school, my mother had a frank conversation with me. I didn’t like it, but any non-partisan by-stander would have recognized she was speaking with love. Why? Because it pained her to say it. If your truth-telling is closer to telling someone off, you’re not doing it in love. When you feel like speaking the truth in love, process it through the language, tone, time, location, and attitude you would use when speaking to your spouse,  son, or daughter.
  2. …in the context of relationship. One of my youth ministry professors taught me, “Rules without relationship equal rebellion.” Relationships are the backbone of truth-telling. If people don’t know you, don’t know your heart and motivations, your proclamations won’t mean anything. If you’re holding picket signs, leaving a harsh comment on a blog, writing rebuttals, or shouting down people who aren’t in the building from the pulpit, you’re not speaking the truth in love. No one I know likes the protests of Westboro Baptist Church. Without relationship, the people you’re “speaking” to think about you the way you think about Westboro. If you have a “pet-issue” that you want to engage in, first engage a person who holds a contrary opinion. When you come to love them, then you’ll be in a position to speak.
  3. …reminding ourselves that the context of Ephesians 4 is what Christian do for one another and not to non-Christians. If you’ve been telling yourself that you’re simply telling non-Christians the truth in love, take a step back. The witness of the New Testament for non-believers is that Jesus is Lord. Non-Christians were never expected to surrender to Christian moral standards. In Ephesians 4, Paul is speaking of Christian’s commitments to one another. If there were ever a place for the truth to be spoken in love it’s an evangelical church Bible class, where people say things that are often heretical and don’t make sense, but it’s also the last place it will ever happen.

What are your best experiences in speaking the truth in love?


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 at 8:30 am and is filed under Bible, leadership, speech acts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “Speaking The Truth In Love”

Tim Says:


I’ll get it started…because this is a really important subject.

You say some good stuff here. My favorite is, “what if we spoke the truth in love…as if we actually loved the person we were speaking to.” That to me is key–though our society (and many Christians) seem to be losing what “love” actually is.

I’m not sure I agree that Ephesians 4 only applies in it’s original context–though it’s certainly best to apply it most strictly there. In addition, Jesus’ constant refrain of, “I tell you the truth,” used to address numerous types of audiences, let’s me know the truth matters deeply to Jesus–regardless of the audience. He also says he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. In a sense, that’s all of us. It certainly applies to those outside of Christ. So, unless one believes Jesus was either not for truth or was unloving in his attitudes and conveyance of truth, calling sinners to repentance is thoroughly Christlike. If it’s Christlike, it’s loving.

How we do this, as you rightly point out–matters a ton.

I might also disagree that God doesn’t expect non-Christians to adhere to “Christian” moral standards (How’s that for a double negative :)) It’s by the standard of God’s morals they will be judged–not their own, and “Jesus is Lord,” has immense implications for every aspect of a person’s being. It isn’t a rational assent to that fact (as Satan believes), but the Lordship of Christ in one’s heart and life that matters.

I may need to reread the post again and let it soak for a while.

I’m assuming some of it is rooted in the recent Chick-fil-A controversy and the aftermath. It’s worth noting Christians didn’t organize that day (peaceful as it was), unprovoked. It was the attempted abuse of power by organization and politicians that drew the response. I think many Christians would receive the “abuse of power” argument if it were consistently implemented. It’s an interesting concept–and one I mentioned on my own blog. However, I took it from the other side.

You always stimulate my thinking. That’s why I love your blog. Keep up the good work, Brother.

Sean Says:


I always appreciate your perspective. Allow me to briefly outline some response to you thoughtful comments.

1. The original context. As best I can read, Ephesians 4 is Paul speaking of what a mature Christian and mature church looks like. The reason I restrict “speaking the truth in love” to this original context, is that I think it’s inappropriate to use methods designed to increase spiritual maturity on those for whom we would expect no spiritual maturity. That is not to say that truth should not be spoken to those of no faith. Interestingly to me, it seems that we are quickest to speak the truth in love to non-believers and extremely slow to speak it to believers. When these situations arise, people always go to the woman caught in adultery, so let’s use that. In this scenario, Jesus first objects to those who condemn her, then he turns to her. Both get equal treatment from Jesus. At the very least, I think, that might be a good place to start. Sadly, too many in the Christian community are quick to throw stones. That’s my caution.

2. God expects standards from everyone. But looking at the famous, “plank in the eye” from the sermon on the mount, I think we learn something that is overlooked. Jesus is not merely saying, “You sin too, you know,” as is often preached. He is saying, the plank in your eye so distorts your visions you cannot appropriately see to aid your friends. I take that to mean that we should be extremely careful in the way we treat “sinful” people. Our ideas about the seriousness of individual sins, changes. Case in point, divorce. It used to be that people getting divorced were isolated in the church. Now, while in the middle of a divorce, church leaders say, “We’re going to walk beside you,” or “We’re so glad you came to church today.” Regardless of our response, I’m pretty sure God’s standard hasn’t changed. All of this highlights what we already know, these our God’s decisions. I, for one, would rather err on the side of grace.

And I agree, WHOLEHEARTEDLY, that the confession of “Jesus is Lord” affects our entire lives. Morals begin, I contend, in the heart. And, the greatest of these is sacrificial, non-coersive love.

3. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about CFA, therefore I have not written or spoken about it and likely won’t. I could have really generated a lot of blog traffic if I had. 🙂

Matt Dabbs Says:

Great stuff Sean!

It is easier to be mean and nasty via hypertext to a total stranger than it is to someone face to face. It is important to ask ourselves, “would I say that to someone face to face?” A followup question is “If I were to run into this person next week in public would it be awkward or embarrassing because of the tone/attitude of what I said online?” Would I feel the need to apologize if they showed up at my door?

When I disagree with someone online I typically try to find any little piece of agreement I can muster first, allow that to resonate as much as possible. Then I try to clarify if I am actually reading them right by asking questions before I say something stupid or make assumptions that aren’t even valid. After they answer those questions then I feel more open to disagree if it is appropriate. Then I read and re-read whatever my comment is before I post it to try and make sure I am communicating clearly and lovingly. All of that is because we typically don’t have much relationship with those we write to online and so it is easy for them to assume the worst of motives from those who are disagreeing with them. So my goal is to try to dispell that on the front end.

The reality is, the amount of times you are going to change someone’s mind via online discussion is infintesimally small. The amount of times you will offend and hurt people is exceedingly high. So you have deal with people in a way that is clearly loving and caring.

Often it is best to just keep quiet and just avoid all of that all together. Somehow we have been trained to think that we need to be a part of every online discussion that we find interesting. We don’t owe the world a comment on everything we read online. The world won’t blow up because we hold in a response!

Tatia Says:

This is the first blog I’ve ever read of yours, Sean. I am appreciative of your approach that is convicting without condemning.

I often wonder the magnitude of which silence speaks louder than words. I know that often silence brings oppression in people-groups and on sinners whose choice of sin is more harshly judged by society, specifically Christian circles, so I hesistate to exalt silence when you’re discussing “speaking the truth in love”. It just baffles me that we would rather speak without peace and bring a gauntlet down on someone instead of waiting for His peace to guide our actions and words.

I’m reminded of when Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler. I love how Jesus told him what “to do” instead of what “not” to do. We validate the cliche that Christianity is just a set of rules when we tell people “in love” to stop doing this or that. If we simply chose to ask others how His living water is keeping them filled, it might actually show that our love for Him encourages us to want others to receive all He has for them. A grave mistake I believe Christians make is feeling the need to accentuate the polarity between God and the world; the “speaking the truth in love” conversation usually creates a chasm between the two that the person is already aware of.

This conversation just reminds me of the common misconception that we are saved, or trying to save others, “from” something or some place instead of “to” Someone.

Kraig Says:

Great blog! I hesitate to make this point, because often (usually, even) when people say that they are speaking the truth in love, they are not. Nonetheless, it might be worthwhile to point out that speaking the truth in love does not ALWAYS sound like love to the person being spoken to, and maybe not even, as in the example you give from your childhood, to just any reasonable third party observer. The early Jewish-Christian legalists could not hear the love in Paul’s assertion that “If you accept circumcision, then Christ will be of no use to you,” and I’m not sure that just any reasonable third-party observer would have known he was speaking in love. The Jewish authorities couldn’t hear the love in Jesus’ words when he called them a bunch of snakes. Like I say, I hesitate to make that point, since that very fact is abused far too often by people who are not honestly being motivated by love from above. However, I’m not sure that every case of speaking a hard truth while being motivated properly from love is recognizable to all reasonable observers.

Sean Palmer Says:

I think that’s a fair point, Kraig. I also think context is key. Paul’s context is believer to believer, in the context of aiding one another in maturity, particularly in matters of doctrine. In essence, you can’t be so concerned over doctrine that you fail to act lovingly toward one another.

Here’s another place where I see King’s Civil Rights Movement as a helpful example. He named injustice and inequality as the evils they were. Because he saw the system as evil, he was able to likewise see those trapped on both sides of the system as suffering from the evil. The ethic was built on love. That’s why when northern whites saw the realities of the Jim Crow south, they recognized they system as evil. Does that make sense?

I agree, a third-party may not always recognize something as loving, that’s why the context of Ephesians 4 and speaking to one another in the context of relationship are also important. The stool – IMHO – is three-legged.

The face of gender justice in my church Says:

[…] a faceless “issue” — a matter of doctrinal dispute or hermeneutical correctness. Sean Palmer’s recent blog post on “speaking the truth in love” as a thinly disguised form of justified meanness gets at this–when we think about things as […]

Guest1 Says:

I can’t tell you how much this article has blessed me and how much it has helped me learn. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

ebanna22 Says:

This is good, absolutely good. Reminders that I needed. Thanks for sharing.

kwishum Says:

if it’s not in love, it’s not truth.

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