We've all probably seen it, and most of us have been tempted to participate. One of our brethren holds a differing view and automatically becomes a target for criticism. Often there is a good-natured exchange of harmless bantering, but what about when it moves beyond being "good natured" and "harmless?" What about when the differences center on theology, or methodology, or interpretation of Scripture? What about when the focus shifts to the person's record or behavior, present or past? And what about when such comments question the character and impugn the reputation of a brother?
When we look at the pattern displayed by many of our own, it appears that we view harsh, personal criticism — expressed both publicly and privately — as perfectly acceptable. In fact, it seems to be the norm in many circles — when you listen to conversation at our denominational gatherings and when you read the blogs, it appears to have become a default reaction for many of us.
I've personally read and heard harsh comments directed towards those holding opposing views on the Baptist Faith and Message, Calvinism, worship styles, "private prayer languages," alcohol, and various policy decisions in the SBC. Again, these aren't comments about the views per se; they bleed over to indict those who hold such views. Taking it one step further, I've even heard damaging comments and read damaging commentary about a person's past track record in ministry.
But does God view these actions as acceptable? Is such behavior consistent with God's Word?
New Testament translators have used the word "slander" to translate several Greek words in several passages — verses that address this very issue and reveal the Lord's heart on the matter. Let's consider some of them; I've highlighted the key word in each passage.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote: All bitterness, anger and wrath, insult and slander must be removed from you, along with all wickedness (4:31; see also Colossians 3:8). The Greek word for "slander" in the passage is blasphemia. We know the word well — it is where we get the English word "blasphemy," and it was most commonly used in the New Testament to identify false and offensive statements about God.
In Classical Greek, it meant "to bring to ill repute," and "defamation, by which another person is damaged."1 It represented the strongest form of "personal mockery."2 In the New Testament, when it was directed toward another person rather than God, it referred to abusive speech that would injure the reputation of another.3
In this specific passage it is identified as "malicious talk" and "hurtful, injurious speech."4 The verbal form, blasphemeo, is used in Titus 3:2 in Paul's command to "slander no one."
In the Ephesians passage, immediately prior to this command Paul says: No rotten talk should come from your mouth, but only what is good for the building up of someone in need, in order to give grace to those who hear. And don't grieve God's Holy Spirit, who sealed you for the day of redemption (4:29-30). It is obvious that in the context, speaking of a brother in a disparaging way fell under the category of "rotten talk" that grieved the Holy Spirit.
When we apply the Lord's command in today's setting, it requires that we not verbally malign another's character or say things that would harm his reputation — whether in private conversation or in a public forum. To do otherwise is to engage in rotten talk that grieves God.
Following his indictment of the brother who was living in sexual sin, Paul instructed the Corinthians: But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a reviler, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person (1 Corinthians 5:11).
The word "reviler" is translated in some versions as "slanderer," and is from the Greek word loidoros. It referred to a person who hurled verbal abuse intended to "injure someone's reputation."5 In Classical Greek, the verbal form was used to indicate insulting and disparaging an opponent in political and social life. According to Mundle, one of the arts of life for Greeks was "to know how to insult others."6
According to Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians 5, we are not to associate with Christians who speak harshly of or demean other Christians — in fact, we are not even to eat with them.
It struck me as I read this passage: if we were to take the passage seriously, how many of us would be dining alone? In fact, I realized that I personally could be facing some serious "alone time."
But look at what Paul compares this to in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God's kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God's kingdom. It is the same word.
Southern Baptists are known around the world for our stance against some of these. But Paul places slanderous talk on the same level as sexual immorality, male prostitution, homosexuality, and more. I doubt that many of our churches would allow known, practicing adulterers, male prostitutes, or homosexuals in their pulpits on any given Sunday morning, but how many allow slanderers in their pulpits regularly?
We condemn and forbid all of these behaviors — except slander. Slander has become acceptable to us. And the world takes notice.
Is it any wonder that God has not granted revival?
In his single epistle, James addressed the matter of slander when he commanded: Don't criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law (4:11). The word for "criticize" is katalaleite, and is translated in other versions as "slander" or "speaking against." In this passage, it means "to slander; to speak evil of; to speak against; to say bad things about a person. It means to criticize, judge, backbite, gossip, censor, condemn, and grumble against another person."7
The noun form of the word is found in 1 Peter 2:1-2 where we are commanded to rid ourselves: of all wickedness, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, desire the unadulterated spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it in your salvation.
Again, speech that is harshly critical of another is equated with wickedness, deceit, hypocrisy, and envy.
Think back to the last denominational gathering you attended. Did you hear negative or critical comments directed toward someone — or even about them in their absence? Did you hear grumbling about anyone?
Such behavior may be commonplace at such gatherings, but it offends our God Who has forbidden such behavior.
In Paul's instructions to Titus, he commanded: In the same way, older women are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to much wine. They are to teach what is good (2:3). The word is diabolous, and it refers to a person "who goes about talking about others, stirring up mischief and disturbance."8 The word may sound familiar to you. One of Satan's names is "Diabolos," and his name identifies him as a slanderer.
It is alarming that a practice which is so common within the Christian community — and even among ministers — is reflective of the very person and nature of Satan, which, no doubt, pleases him immensely. The alarming truth is that whenever we voice derogatory, defaming, hurtful, and insulting comments about a brother, we more closely resemble Satan than Jesus.
Stop and consider the strategy that is most common among our government leaders today — to disparage, discredit, and destroy political opponents — I fear we have unwittingly embraced the world's methodology of addressing opposing ideas and affecting change. They tear each other apart, so it must be okay for us to do the same!
Please understand: none of this is to suggest that we should allow heresy or theological liberalism to return to our Convention, or to view such threats lightly. But most of the criticisms I've heard in recent years have not been directed toward those who would challenge our stance on inerrancy or otherwise erode the core doctrines we hold dear, but rather towards those who hold historically orthodox and theologically conservative views!
Certainly, there are times when Christians disagree — but the greater issue is how we are to address those differences.
The Bible does not forbid disagreements among brothers — even Paul and Barnabas had a "sharp disagreement" over Mark (Acts 15:39), and there is no indication that their disagreement was inappropriate. Nor does it prohibit confrontation — Paul publicly confronted Peter concerning hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-21). The question is: What parameters has the Lord placed around such disagreements and confrontations? Here are some principles that pertain.
Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies. This does not mean we must entertain warm, mushy emotions for those with whom we disagree, but according to the definition of "agape," we are to exercise a selfless, sacrificial concern for the wellbeing and benefit of our brothers and sisters. That is totally inconsistent with espousing disdain for our brothers and sisters. Jesus indicated that the world would know we are His disciples by our love for — not our contempt for — each other. Remember, when Jesus knelt down to wash Judas' feet, He utterly humbled Himself before and gently served the one who would hand Him over to be crucified. Then He said we are to follow His example.
It is impossible for me to humble myself before and gently serve a brother while verbally trashing him, publicly or privately.
Furthermore, the Lord said that we cannot rightly claim to love God and at the same time show hatred toward a brother (1 John 4: 20). Destroying a brother's reputation through slanderous gossip and accusation is more consistent with hate than love, and it reveals a tragic failure to understand God's love — even more it demonstrates genuine lack of love for God.
When Paul addressed the issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, he gave this strong admonition: One person believes he may eat anything, but one who is weak eats only vegetables. One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat; and one who does not eat must not criticize one who does, because God has accepted him. Who are you to criticize another's servant? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And stand he will! For the Lord is able to make him stand. One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it to the Lord. Whoever eats, eats to the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is to the Lord that he does not eat, yet he thanks God (Romans 14:2-6).
As long as there are Southern Baptists, there will be differing opinions and convictions on various issues. But following the Lord's admonition through Paul, it is imperative for us to remember that many Southern Baptists — perhaps even most — with whom we disagree love the Lord deeply and hold their convictions with deep reverence to the Lord. Furthermore, they humbly and faithfully serve Him according to those convictions.
Therefore, it is wrong to regard such a brother with contempt (14:10). If the Lord graciously receives and embraces a servant who holds a view that differs from mine, and if that servant sincerely believes that his stance is most consistent with God's Word, and if that servant believes his stance best reflects and expresses his love for the Lord, how dare I look down on that brother, much less criticize and demean him before others, for that stance!
Dr. Morris H. Chapman has repeatedly pointed to Southern Baptists' consensus on and unity around the Baptist Faith and Message. The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists believe that it sufficiently reflects our understanding of what God's Word says regarding essential issues. Can't we embrace those who hold such convictions without second guessing their love for the Lord or commitment to His Word? Dare we demean and criticize family members whose staunch commitment to their views reflects their love for their Lord, even if their views vary from ours?
Perhaps their views are flawed — but can any one of us rightly claim to have reached a level where our own individual view is 100 percent consistent with the Lord's? If not, it makes no sense to look down on — much less castigate - others with flawed views.
What we've seen so far relates to differences in interpretation or conviction. But what if a brother is truly wrong about something? What if the situation moves beyond mere differences of opinion regarding theological and biblical interpretation to matters of propriety? What if one of the brethren has done or said something that is inappropriate, perhaps even sinful? The Scriptures give clear guidelines for such a situation, guidelines that include confrontation, but with strong parameters for such an occasion.
First, it is clear that such a confrontation should start as a face-to-face encounter, not a behind-the-back assault. Most of us know Matthew 18:15-17 quite well. When someone is "in the wrong," the matter is to be addressed privately first. If there is no suitable resolution, then a return visit with one or two others is in order. If there still is no satisfactory resolution, then it is to be brought before the larger body. This passage does not allow for starting with the larger body first and then working backward.
How many of us who have complained about a brother's behavior or view have first gone to that brother in private? How many of us have then taken it to the next level? The Lord's command does not allow for "airing our dirty laundry" in public before addressing the situation in private. And even if it reaches the point where it must become public, it is not to be in a spirit of mockery or derision, but rather with sober reflection and caution, watching out for yourselves so you won't be tempted also (Galatians 6:1).
Next, it is important to remember the goal in such a situation. It is not to humiliate a brother or "win" in a struggle against that person. It is restoration of the brother to a right standing and relationship with the Lord (Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20). It seems some of us have become so accustomed to pursuing absolute victory in spiritual and theological struggles that we have poured our energies and resources into defeating each other, and in so doing, we have lost sight of the real enemy. The goal in such situations must not be personal victory over a brother, but rather restoration of a brother to the right path.
Finally, we must remember that such actions are to be carried out with a humble and gentle spirit (Galatians 6:1). It is so easy for us to be harsh in how we treat and speak of our brothers, but Paul said that we are to treat those who oppose us gently (2 Timothy 2:25). We dare not forget the Lord's command through Paul: I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Southern Baptists have always been a diverse lot, which is consistent with the nature of the Body of Christ. It is not essential that Southern Baptists agree on every theological, ecclesiastical, or methodological detail or nuance. The Bible does not command us to be uniform in these areas; but as the passages above clearly demonstrate, we are forbidden from speaking in a derogatory manner about each other.
The Bible does, however, command us to love each other the way Christ loved us (John 15:12). We are commanded to humbly serve each other as Christ humbled Himself and served His disciples (John 13:14). And we are further commanded to: Outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10).
Fulfilling these commands would eliminate all instances of slander within the SBC.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to step back, carefully and prayerfully re-examine the Scriptures on this matter, review our pattern of confrontation, repent where necessary (and perhaps even ask forgiveness from some), and make the necessary changes — so that we would become what the Lord desires us to become, and so the world would be able to see what the Body of Christ is suppose to look like.
1. H. Wahrisch and C. Brown, "Revile," The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 341 (hereafter cited as DNTT).
2. Beyer, "Blasfhmew," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 621.
3. "Blasfhmia," William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 142 (hereafter cited as BAG); and "Blasfhmia," Timothy Frieberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 91 (hereafter cited as ALGNT).
4. "Slander," Practical Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume 2, (Chattanooga: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1998), 1913 (hereafter cited as PWSNT).
5. BAG, 480; and ALGNT, 248.
6. DNTT, 346.
7. PWSNT, 1915.
8. Ibid, 1917.
John Revell is editor of SBC LIFE.