"Sadly, I have witnessed this among ministers . . ."
Drowning in a Sea of Nasty Words
by Sacha Walicord
As encouraging as it is to hear about the enormous Gospel success in countries like China, Nepal, or Iran, one can clearly see that at the same time the church in the West is slipping…and it is slipping fast.
Worldliness, theological liberalism, and fear of confrontation with the world have weakened large parts of the Western church, and this development has had unprecedented effects. Yet there seems to be one particular area that requires special attention, and this area is the proper use of the tongue.
Gossip, slander, badmouthing, and backstabbing have become accepted practices in even the most conservative churches. The evil one makes full use of this seemingly “respectable sin.” He uses it to attack, split and destroy many churches by initiating conflicts and divisions. All the while church sessions, consistories, presbyteries, and classes, instead of defending the victims and holding talebearers and slanderers accountable, have themselves adopted such sinful uses of the tongue. Gossips, backstabbers, and slanderers have almost free rein in many churches and denominations. Words are powerful. They can cause joy or they can inflict pain. Words can both build up and tear down. God has gifted us with the ability to speak and to write, and the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 presents us with the devastating effects of losing this ability to communicate one with another.
Scripture describes the tongue as both very powerful and very dangerous. In James 3:4-9 the tongue is described as the small rudder that steers a big ship, as an “unruly evil” and a “world of iniquity.” This is a stern warning about the tongue’s power. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue and those who love it will eat its fruit” (NKJV). The tongue can lead to death or life, and it can lead to all sorts of lesser, but still dire consequences.
The tongue is so dangerous that two out of the Ten Commandments directly deal with it. As it is with most things, we can use our tongue in accordance with God’s Word or in a rebellion to God’s revealed will.
THE REBELLIOUS TONGUE
Proverbs 10:18 says, “Whoever hides hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool.” The first part of the verse describes a person who, while appearing friendly on the outside, hides hatred in his heart. Sadly this is also found in the church of Jesus Christ: dishonest people who are friendly in order to keep up outward appearances while hatred and bitterness against another person eats them up from the inside. While we might be able to convince ourselves that this is courtesy, the Bible calls such behavior not only “hateful” but an example of “lying lips.” The verse continues to say that “whoever spreads slander is a fool.” This is the logical progression.
A person who hates someone but disguises that hatred will eventually seek to harm the target of their bitterness behind their back. One commentator writes, “The construction leaves no doubt that hatred inspires slander, informed by innuendos, half-truths and facts distorted and exaggerated beyond recognition.” Behavior like this has become a normal occurrence in our churches and my fear is that if theological liberalism, sexual sin, or outward persecution do not bring down the church in the West, then poisonous tongues from within will.
As a pastor, this has been the single most grievous issue I have faced over the years. Loose tongues in pews are harming congregations above all else. And sadly, I have witnessed this behavior increasingly from ministers and elders, with ministers badmouthing other ministers. If the shepherds are bad examples, how can we expect the sheep – our congregations – to mature in that area of sanctification? Such habitual sinful behaviour will not remain without consequences. As Proverbs 26:26 warns, “Though his hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.”
We have to learn to tame our tongues and bring them in line with God’s Word for our churches to be strengthened and blessed. “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out: And where there is no talebearer, strife ceases” (Prov. 26:220).
THE RIGHTEOUS TONGUE
In Proverbs 10:20, Solomon writes, “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver.” Then he adds, “The heart of the wicked is worth little.” This is a “parallelism” in which the second clause is an antithetical repetition or expansion of the first. The “heart” is viewed as almost interchangeable with the “tongue.” This comports with Luke 6 which says, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” In other words, a person’s tongue or speech will ultimately reflect the content of his heart and therefore, as with sanctification in general, the taming of the tongue is a heart matter.
A cold heart and a dull conscience will never be able to tame an out-of-control tongue. So the prerequisite for taming the tongue is dealing with the heart. Growing closer to the Lord Jesus Christ through heartfelt repentance, through the use of the means of grace, and through a mindset that seeks to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God – a mindset that understands that the “chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” – is the path to renewal. Our prayer must be David’s prayer in Psalm 141, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!”
There is work to be done to engage in the war against our old nature and subjugate our tongue, that wild beast. We must be merciless disciplinarians with our tongues – keeping up the training of righteousness – day after day. No lying, no slander, no gossip. Also guard your ears and do not listen to such evil talk, but defend the honor of your neighbor.
My rule is that, when people badmouth a fellow believer, I ask them if they’ve talked to the person, and then encourage them to do so. Sometimes it is even sufficient to say something positive about that person. Potential gossips or slanderers tend to pull back since they are looking for a sympathetic ear.
FOR GOD’S GLORY AND YOUR NEIGHBOR’S GOOD
God hates the sowing of discord among brothers (Prov. 6:19). If someone sins against us, God has given us due process to resolve it. Gossip or slander should never be our reaction to real or perceived sin against us. It is never right – period. We have the ability to speak for the glory of His Name and for the good of His people and not to destroy our neighbor’s reputation. Let us repent of this terrible sin and be resolved to use our tongues in line with question 112 of the Heidelberg Catechism, to never give false testimony against anyone, twist anyone’s words, to not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing.
Rather, we should avoid, under penalty of God’s wrath, every kind of lying and deceit as the very works of the devil, in court and everywhere else. We should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And we should do what we can to defend and advance our neighbor’s honor and reputation.
May God help us through His Holy Spirit for the glory of His Name.
VOLUME 38 #03 NOVEMBER 2, 2019