Wednesday, May 11, 2016

INtent vs. CONtent

I’ve harped on this one before, but I keep hearing people applying Paul’s instructions to Titus just a little too broadly:

“Remind them … to speak evil of no one …”

Correctly understood, this is sound advice that makes for consistent Christian living (not to mention it’s the word of God). But applied to everything we don’t like willy-nilly, it quickly degenerates into silliness.

Not every negative statement is “speaking evil”.

Evil Speaking and Blasphemy

In Greek, the word translated “speak evil” is both a strong term and a broad one, so its exact meaning in any specific New Testament instance is best determined contextually rather than by trying to translate it consistently with a single English equivalent. It is variously rendered as “vilify”, “defame”, “revile”, “abuse”, “slander” and “blaspheme”.

Thus when Mark tells the story of the Lord Jesus forgiving the sins of the paralytic and the scribes say to themselves, “He is βλάσφημος”, the most logical English equivalent is “blaspheming”. By forgiving sins Jesus was, in effect, claiming to be equal with God. If that claim turned out to be false, under Jewish law it would be blasphemy.

In other instances this is not so. When Paul asks, “And why not do evil that good may come? — as some people βλασφημέω charge us with saying”, the most reasonable English approximation is not “blasphemously” but “slanderously”: the people involved are claiming Paul has said something he has not. They are lying about his teaching to discredit him.

Again, in the account of the cross we read, “One of the criminals who were hanged βλασφημέω him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ ” Most translators elect to go with “railed at” or “hurled abuse at”, and that seems to be a good call. The thief in question is using truth that he didn’t believe personally as a taunt.

Regardless, though the term may be broadly used, it is never used lightly. The sort of speech it describes and the motive behind it are truly malignant. The speaker intends to injure, not to help, and he’s not afraid to use whatever method is at hand to get the job done.

Words and Intentions

Unfortunately, we often get caught up in the content of a statement rather than the intent that gives rise to it. When a Christian says, “There goes President Obama, lying again” or “That’s false teaching” or “She’s having an affair” or “He has a drinking problem”, the rightness or wrongness of such a statement is not absolute. It does not depend on the words themselves. It does not depend on whether they are perceived to be hurtful or complimentary. It does not not depend on whether they are “negative” or “positive”.

I hear far too many Christians insisting that we should never be critical, as if the guy standing there offering the cure (or at least the diagnosis of the disease) is the real problem.

But the rightness or wrongness of any statement is primarily a function of the intent behind what is said (and, of course, whether or not the claim itself is true).

Admittedly, if an accusation is false, nothing makes it right other than repentance. A mistake may be made honestly, but an apology is still in order. And even if an accusation is truthful, its motive remains significant. If the speaker merely intends to gossip, throw mud or disqualify his target, he may indeed be “evil speaking”. If the speaker is intending to exalt himself, the motive is equally base.

But if the motivating desire is the correction and restoration of a sinner, the exposure of false teaching or the instruction of a third party who might otherwise be misled, the fact that I may consider a criticism harsh is irrelevant.

Definitions or Defamations

When we seek to discover what Paul may have meant by an expression like “speak evil”, one useful method is to explore the New Testament use of the Greek words he employed (as I have done above). But a much clearer picture of what the apostle and other writers of scripture considered acceptable speech is found in asking the question, “How did they themselves speak in light of what they taught?” In the latter case, we get real-world examples to work with.

Bear in mind that with the right motive, all of the following are perfectly acceptable statements:
  • “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds.”
  • “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
  • “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
  • “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.”
Ouch. And yet … edifying.

In Short

The content of what we say is surely important, but it is the intent behind our words that always matters most. The world tells us perpetual positivity is a must and blunt speech does not work to change conduct. That is simply untrue, and the New Testament epistles are the evidence.

The Lord was exceptionally clear about the sin he saw all around him. His apostles too were often blunt instruments. By all means, let us be careful about slandering, abusing, mocking, taunting or engaging in otherwise unprofitable speech. But let’s not uncritically accept the polity standards and speech conventions of our own society without exploring what the scriptures actually say.

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