“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”—Galatians 5:13–15
“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.”—James 3:13–16
As much as we wish it wasn’t so, the truth is, all of us have a mean streak. The “works of the flesh” (our flesh) include “hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife” (Galatians 5:19–20). We all have flesh, our flesh is selfish, and the selfishness of our flesh often comes out in meanness.
Sometimes our carnal meanness even comes out in the debates we preachers have with one another on important issues. Even a legitimate debate over a serious issue of right-and-wrong can be muddied by the rancor and carnality of some who speak on the right side! May God preserve us from this tendency, which has damaged legitimate causes. Being mean is not a necessary part of taking a stand!
A Christian can be spiritual and Christ-like when he must reprove a brother or oppose an error (read Leviticus 19:17–18, Proverbs 25:12, Luke 17:3, Ephesians 5:8–11, 1 Timothy 5:17–20, 2 Timothy 4:2, and Titus 1:10–13). But he can also be mean. We must heed the words of the apostle in 2 Timothy 2:24–26:
And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
When we must reprove the wrong actions of a Christian brother, we must remember to “count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). Wisdom gives discernment, but it also gives meekness (James 3:13), when it is “the wisdom that is from above.” On the other hand, there is an “earthly” kind of “wisdom” that claims discernment but is characterized by “envying and strife” (James 3:14–16). This wisdom should be rejected by God’s servants. This un-Christian kind of argument is marred by certain all-too-common flaws:
1. Being Hyper-critical
When we must oppose something wrong, we are still obligated to keep “the royal law,” which is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (James 2:8). It is never right to treat another man in a way that we would not want to be treated. Yet, when a serious issue arises that calls for the faithful servant of God to make statements against the error of another man, the rebuking brother can be tempted to find fault with far more of the erring brother’s words and actions than is necessary, reasonable, and loving.
Nit-picking is all right when we are examining our own standards and teachings (see Matthew 5:17–20), but it is unfair when we evaluate the words and works of another. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is always a good idea. Being overly critical always has negative consequences, including undermining our own arguments.
Years ago I heard Dr. Fred Schwartz, leader of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, counsel us to always understate our case. He said that understating our charges and assertions will protect us from overstating them, and that overstating our case, even once, can ruin our attempts at getting our point across. His advice is good for preachers. When we must warn or rebuke, let us be conservative in our accusations, giving the brethren the benefit of the doubt. Christian love “is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil” (1 Corinthians 13:4–6). Even in controversy, we still must love.
2. Connecting the Dots
Sometimes we wrong our brother by accusing him of having opinions he does not have. This is often done by critics who unreasonably associate their target with the views of people that can be connected with him by some elongated chain of linked associations.
Years ago, it was sadly not uncommon to hear or read the condemnation of a pastor because he had a speaker in his church who had previously worked with someone who, at one time, had endorsed another man who advocated an unscriptural position. Normal, mature people could see that this complicated game of connect-the-dots did not prove that the one being criticized held to the same unscriptural views of the one at the other end of the string of dots!
We need to watch what we are reading to see if the impression we are getting by means of connecting dots is an accurate representation of somebody’s viewpoint. We also need to get a more scriptural understanding of the principle of “ecclesiastical separation.”
The first and main application of this principle is that men who preach sound doctrine must not be yoked together with unbelievers or teachers who deny cardinal truths of the gospel. This kind of separation is taught in many passages of Scripture, including 2 Corinthians 6:11–18, 2 Timothy 2:14–21, and Titus 3:9–11. We are also taught not to fellowship (partner or endorse) with any sinful work, whether committed by believers or unbelievers (Ephesians 5:8–11). And we are also taught to use caution in our cooperation with orthodox people who err in some matter of doctrine or practice (see Romans 14 and 2 Thessalonians 3), not counting them as enemies, but admonishing them as brothers, while being careful not not to endorse what is wrong about them.
The practice of treating the erring brother as an apostate, and cutting off somebody who made a mistake is not really scriptural; neither is condemning a preacher by unreasonably connecting the dots.
3. Being Sarcastic and Mean
Jesus said that, “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council” (Matthew 5:22). Sarcastic, demeaning references to people should never come out of the mouth of a Christian. Yet religious periodicals sometimes publish such unsavory, insulting words. There is no reason that religious debate cannot be carried on with dignity, respect, restraint, and intelligence.
Sincere followers of the Lord should reject the influence of those who resort to snide remarks and mocking slams in their supposed defense of the truth. John R. Rice many years ago backed away from a leading fundamentalist with whom he had been affiliated because of the caustic, harmful, and untruthful things that were being published in his paper. He said that he didn’t want his daughters (then young and still at home) to be corrupted by this kind of reading material. Godly people should be offended by this kind of stuff, which does not come from spiritual men.
4. Judging Motives
Of course, the Lord Jesus taught us not to judge people (Matthew 7:1–5). First Corinthians 2:15 says that spiritual people must judge things, but this is not the same as judging people. We judge things based on objective standards (in the Bible) of what is right and what is wrong. We can say, “That’s wrong!” because of what the Bible says; but we are not qualified and we are not allowed to judge another person’s heart by claiming to know their motives (see 1 Corinthians 4:3–5).
“His real reason for saying this is…” is a sentiment we find in the writings of some who would influence the Christian world, but such writing undermines the spiritual lives of readers that afflict themselves with it. You don’t know another man’s heart. You have no right to state the motivation of a brother with whom you differ. Discussion can always be civil, taking the high road, and without resorting to judging motives.
5. Displaying Unwarranted Prejudice
The Lord Jesus would not go along with John’s suggestion that a certain man be rebuked for casting out devils in Jesus’ name because he “followeth not with us” (read Luke 9:49–50). John was not objecting to this man’s doctrine, or to his work, but only to his doing the Lord’s work while not associated with John’s group. In response to this objection the Lord said, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.”
We have a tendency to harbor prejudices against preachers and ministries that do not run in our circles. Sometimes the judgment of a writer about an issue is distorted by his prejudice against the advocates of a certain position. It would surprise us how often the harshness of somebody involved in a debate is really created by personal wrongs he thinks his opponent has inflicted on him. This is why when Jesus warned His followers about “offenses” (things that cause people to stumble spiritually) He said, “Take heed to yourselves” (Luke 17:1–4). The way Christians treat each other often has the effect of causing people to stumble. He then instructed them about going ahead and dealing directly with wrongs committed by one brother against another, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.”
This instruction is not hard to understand or to follow: rebuke, repent, forgive. And yet it is because even good people fail to follow these words of Jesus that the Christian cause gets a bad name. Contending for the truth has been harmed and hindered because men with personal grudges or sectarian prejudices set themselves up to represent God’s side in an issue. We must take heed to ourselves before we open our mouths or publish our articles.
The days in which we live are confusing to sincere servants of the Lord Jesus, largely because “the serpent” (who is “subtil” according to Genesis 3:1 and 2 Corinthians 11:3) works to remove the black-and-white quality from issues that makes decision-making easy. Good people with clear minds must examine many issues publicly so that we all can be helped. But, when advocates of a viewpoint use earthly wisdom that generates envy and strife, their contribution to the discussion fails to be helpful. It is actually harmful. Therefore sincere seekers of the truth must reject their influence, and pray for all of us to act and talk like Christians as we teach what is right.