There’s a sentence that sounds to my ears like the removal of a pin from a grenade, sending me scrambling for cover and bracing for a doctrinal explosion: “I just have to speak the truth in love.”
This weaponised paraphrase of Ephesians 4:15 is regularly used as a licence to insult. I get a front row seat to this as a Christian musician: I’ve been told that I’m going to hell – in love of course – for writing theologically dubious music. Honestly, my most hell-deserving trespass was reintroducing the banjo to modern worship. (Sorry!)
The logic seems to be as follows:
1. I recognise that as a follower of Jesus I am called to love my enemy (but I don’t want to do that right now).
2. Oh look! I’ve found a loophole! A Christian influencer on Instagram told me: “The most loving thing I can do for someone is to tell them the truth.”
3. Okay, I’m just speaking the truth in love - and the truth is *cue the unleashing of an unfiltered opinion with zero tact*!
When we prioritise truth over love, we fail to see that the truth isn’t at one end of the continuum with love miles away on the other side. No, rather they are partners who work with each other well. We don’t get to pick which one we’re going to do at a given time. We have to love truly and truly love.
Like most of the verses we recycle as baseball bats, once you reinsert it back into its context, it becomes more nuanced. We see the verse set against the backdrop of Ephesians 4, which begins: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v2-3).
We see then that this is a verse about striving to maintain relationships. It’s not about dropping our truth bomb and walking away, but rather being faithful for the long haul, “bearing with one another”. (Compare this to the anonymous, long-distance version of ‘truth telling’ we often see online.) The exhortation is not so much to speak more truth because you’re over-emphasing love, as some would interpret this, but rather to speak the truth more lovingly to save the relationship.
And while we’re on the subject of truth, if we’re being “completely humble” we’ll recognise that a lot of what we’re passing off as “the truth” is really just our opinion dressed up for church. We have to recognise that discerning the truth of a matter is not necessarily a simple task – we may need to learn to tolerate a few different viewpoints for the sake of unity.
Speaking the truth in love is a wonderful gift when the speaker is invested in the listener; full of humility and tact, committed to their full journey of discipleship and passionate about the pursuit of unity.
Using it as a spiritual shield to hide behind when all we really want to do is vent our frustrations, is to cheapen and twist a valuable lesson from scripture.
Let’s use the truth as an olive branch rather than a baton.