SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE
You don’t need me to tell you that the phrase “speak the truth in love” has achieved rock star status in the American church. A quick search on Etsy shows you can buy wall prints, a t-shirt, and even a car decal with this phrase from Ephesians 4:15. The giant Christian book website, CBD, has eleven titles with either the phrase “speaking” or “speak the truth in love.”
But for all its notoriety, this biblical phrase is often misunderstood. It often goes along with someone dumping all over someone, either pointing out their flaws or unloading grievances on the person. It’s used like a shield that allows us to say whatever we want without fear of reprisal.
“You look like a hooligan with hair shaved and dyed. I’m just speaking the truth in love.”
“Let me speak the truth in love. You are always critical of me, and you never listen to what I say.”
Another common use is shorthand for “difficult conversations where you’re not going to like what I have to say.” For example, in the publisher’s description on CBD’s website for a book entitled “Speaking the Truth in Love: A Christian Approach to Assertiveness” includes these questions: “Are you able to express your thoughts, feelings and needs, even when they differ from those around you? Are you able to talk about things that bother you in ways that show love and respect to those with whom you are frustrated?”
So, if this phrase isn’t a get out of jail free card that allows us to say whatever we want or a catchphrase for the art of difficult conversations, what does it mean?
Let’s go to the biblical text!
The first thing to notice is that the phrase stems from a conversation that begins this way:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 5:1-3)
Look at these words: humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, love, unity, and peace. Wow, that’s impressive list! I mean, are there any Christian virtues left? There’s no way this phrase is going allow us gripe about how terrible the meatloaf was that Sally brought to the church potluck or how disappointed we are with the decision the church leadership made. Those conversations aren’t patient or tolerant. And they don’t promote unity or peace. But we have a lot of chapter left to get verse 15, maybe things will turn to give us the cover we crave.
Well Paul spends most of those verses on spiritual gifts, and that ends with the explanation that we are given these gifts:
“for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12-13)
There’s that word again: “unity,” and we have this emphasis on group maturity in the faith. Now this word from “mature” means that something has reach its goal, purpose, desired end state. In other words we are supposed to help others become all that God desires for the church.
And here’s what’s really going to kill our hopes for total Bible-sanctified-share-our-opinion immunity. It’s the lead up, the offramp, to our famous phrase.
“As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness [h]in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love…
Wait! Wait! Wait! Are we saying this phrase has to do with doctrine?! Christian teachings?! Theology?! We don’t even like doctrine, and we’ve been going around using a phrase that means we should speak good doctrine? Yes. That’s where this phrase comes from. We don’t want people to be deceived when they hear false teaching.
We are a group. We have look out for each other. We have to make sure we all get to the maturity God wants us to reach. Here’s what immediately follows our phrase:
…we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
This phrase isn’t an ugly pass to tear one another down. And there’s a time and place for being assertive, but this phrase is not about that either. It’s a beautiful phrase about building one another up. Coming along side one another in gentleness and humility and rehearsing what is true. You want to love someone? Be patient, be tolerant, seek peace, and hold tightly to unity. Then teach what is true, not to get your opinion across, but to help the whole group be strong against false teaching. That’s speaking the truth in love.