The table was spread with the remains of a Sunday dinner feast. The group of friends moved to more comfortable seating for the next course. But it wasn't dessert.
"I just have to say it," one of them remarked. "The pastor's messages (insert the church leader or issue of your choice here) are just not feeding me spiritually."
"I'm not meaning to be critical," he added, "I'm just speaking the truth in love."
Whenever a person announces that they are going to follow Paul's call for "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) I cringe. What usually follows is "the truth" as that person sees it (normally to correct someone else), delivered with little love in evidence.
Paul's call to live in holiness becomes a license to critique or correct others we don't agree with, draped in a mantle of "truth."
The way of living that Paul envisions as contributing to the unity and health of the Body becomes a weapon, used in holy love, of course.
But let's consider what it means to be a community that "speaks the truth in love." First, the language of this phrase isn't really about verbal conversation. It might be better understood as "living truly in love." It is a call to a way of living and relating to others that is authentic and reflects the quality of love.
It is expected to be mutually encouraging, unifying, and Christ-honoring. To "speak the truth in love" means to act towards fellow believers in ways that help them to grow in Christ and be strengthened in community.
Does this mean that Christians must simply tolerate wrong ideas or behavior? Is criticism always wrong? Absolutely not! However, it does mean that criticism and critique in a Christian community that "speaks the truth in love" must be handled in constructive and redemptive ways. Patterns of healthy conflict resolution and critique should be embedded into the way that community "lives."
When someone has a complaint or criticism, how should we "speak the truth in love?" Matthew 18:15-17 provides us with clear, practical guidance. The first step should be a person to person conversation that attempts to resolve the difference. While Matthew specifically addresses the problem of being "sinned against," this process is helpful for dealing with all kinds of divisive issues. The goal, however, should be more than simply "setting someone straight."
The spirit of "speaking the truth in love" should flavor the dialogue. It should be encouraging, unifying, and Christ-honoring.
This implies trying to understand and to love the other person, despite the issue or complaint that is creating dissonance in the relationship.
After failing to come to a constructive resolution in a one-to-one conversation, the next level is to invite the assistance of the community. Matthew simply refers to one or two witnesses. This should, however, be more than bringing sympathetic friends into the disagreement. Church leaders of maturity and good judgment are a good choice for help at this level. They may be less likely to simply support your position but they are more likely to help bring the disagreement to a constructive resolution.
In my ministry experiences, we frequently used stewards in this role. Our boards were organized to identify the most mature spiritual leaders as stewards. This provided people in the congregation a ready resource for dealing with all manner of issues.
Stewards were commissioned to help the community speak the truth in love. Everyone could be heard and their issue or complaint would receive serious consideration by these mature leaders. Their judgment was trusted, which lent weight to their decisions and counsel. They offered an effective and redemptive channel for points of disagreement or offense.
It bears noting that the commission of these stewards included being frank and "speaking the truth in love" with me as their pastor. I remember a number of conversations with stewards that were uncomfortable, even painful, but always redemptive. They helped me become a better pastor.
The confidence of the people of the congregation in this process enabled them to have an assurance that their ideas, concerns, and complaints were genuinely heard, even when they were not affirmed.
Your church may not have a formal circle of mature leaders. But identifying these people for the community in some way is a valuable resource for helping your community to learn to "speak the truth in love." They help to reinforce constructive patterns of problem resolution.
As valuable as senior leaders can be to the process, forming patterns of "speaking the truth in love" is the task of the entire community. Only the members of a community can embed those patterns into the life of the community.
When the conversation over Sunday lunch turns negative, when someone wants to share their criticism of the pastor, when critical remarks come up in conversation, these are moments when the holiness community that "speaks the truth in love" redirects concerns or complaints into patterns of healthy, holy resolution.
Holiness should be a life of "speaking the truth in love."
If we see holiness as a rigorous lifestyle of rules and regulations we have missed the rich texture and content of holiness. Legalism is only a shadow of the robust life and vitality of holiness. We accept it as a replacement when we have lost the robust vitality of the holiness that formed our tradition. "Speaking the truth in love" then becomes a negative means to enforcement or correction. We get people "straightened out" which is a different thing from helping them to be transformed by the grace of God, which is the work of biblical holiness.
A holiness community should "speak the truth in love." That means the people of a community relate routinely to each other in ways that build up, unify, and honor Christ. It doesn't mean that there aren't disagreements, even conflicts. But it does mean that those disagreements and conflicts are processed in redemptive, constructive, and Christ-honoring ways.
Being a holy people doesn't mean there are never complaints or issues between us. It means working through those issues in holy ways, ways that practice the values and patterns of the Kingdom, until we are all built up together into Christ.
Carl Leth is dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
Holiness Today, May/June 2010