University United Methodist Church College Park, MD
Sunday, September 24, 2017
We are seeking to be like Christ

Speaking the Truth in Love

Speaking the Truth in Love:

The Biblical Mandate for Community Health and Prophetic Presence

 

Ephesians 4:15-16, 25[1]

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.

 

            The challenges implicit in the above Ephesians passage have transformed my life, informed my theology, and expanded how I understand what it means to love my neighbor and to live out my freedom in Christ. Through colleagues, professors, spiritual directors and directees, through ancient and contemporary pilgrims in the faith, the Holy Spirit has repeatedly spoken a prophetic word to me through this passage. It has repeatedly called me into a place of life and light. The simplicity of this passage belies its robust theology of the body of Christ and its implicit challenge of daily spiritual practices for the individual and community. This simple admonition, if we take it to heart, requires us to ask of ourselves the most basic and probing of faith questions: what does it mean to speak the truth in love; what does it mean to grow up into Christ-likeness; what are my falsehoods, what is the truth for me; what is important about sharing my truth with my neighbor; and what does it mean that I and my neighbor are members of one another?

            What do such spiritual practices look like? What are the processes that are taking place to transform me into Christ-likeness? I find the following pottery metaphor to be a wonderful image of the transformational process Ephesians 4:25 calls us to.

“Both my hands shaped this pot. And, the place where it actually forms is a place of tension between the pressure applied from the outside and the pressure of the hand on the inside. That’s the way my life has been. Sadness and death and misfortune and the love of friends and all the things that happened to me that I didn’t even choose. All that influenced my life. But, there are things that I believe in about myself, my faith in God and the love of some friends that worked on the insides of me. My life, like this pot, is the result of what happened on the outside and what was going on inside of me. Life, like this pot, comes to be in the places of tension. Life comes to be when we learn how to avoid looking for answers and finally learn how to ask the questions that will bring us to life.[2]

 

The potter understands the gifts of tension in the creation of a lump of shapeless clay into a beautiful and useful object. She recognizes that it is in the tension that we are formed. Speaking the truth in love is one of those practices where the tension of the truth spoken in love works in the speaker and the one spoken to, offering a prophetic word to both, “renewing [both] our minds” (Eph. 4:17-24; Rom. 12:1-2) and drawing us more deeply into the mature Christian life, growing into Christ likeness.[3]

            Where, though, is this powerful and life giving practice in our church? Today’s church is consumed with figuring out ways to get people in the door, mainly it seems, for the church’s survival rather than any evangelical sense that the church holds good news and can offer practices that lead one to a life of abundance. If one is seeking guidance for personal transformation into his or her best-self, the church is not normally high on the list of go-to institutions. If asked, “what does the church offer that would encourage an un-churched person to become a member” a common answer is that “we are a friendly church.” Rarely is the answer, “In the church I have found life giving practices of mutual accountability that have taught me what loving neighbor really means.”

            I hesitate to say that we have lost this ethic because I have not been able to find evidence that the Church has ever had it as a central practice of discipleship for any length of time. Yet, throughout the New Testament we see the various communities encouraged, admonished, and reminded to embrace this and similar practices as signs of their identity in Jesus Christ (Rom.12:1-21;  Col. 3:7-10, 12-17; Eph. 4:15-5:2; Phil. 2:1-11, 4:8-9). Over the scope of church history small faith communities and reform movements have seen the blessings of such practices and sought to employ them for their community. In the Rule of St. Benedict he echoes the Ephesians passage:

Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may truly be called so. Live by God’s commandments everyday; treasure chastity, harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do no love quarreling; shun arrogance. Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with that person before the sun goes down.[4]

 

Similarly, early in the Methodist movement in18th century England John Wesley established small groups for mutual accountability and community care.[5] Secular society, too, has embraced the benefits of groups formed by practices of mutual accountability and support and has, in many ways, become the teacher of the contemporary church of their transformative potential.

            Our church history also reminds us of the many ways these practices of mutual accountability have been abused and abusive.[6] In fact, we are reminded so emphatically of the damage these practices have caused that we appear to have become blind to the bounty they offer. In the loss of these practices we have also lost their gift to the church. We have created a culture in which conflict is viewed as destructive and un-Christian, rather than a natural result of the diverse members of the Body of Christ expressing their individual needs and opinions.  Because we have attached a negative value to conflict, to then have conflict in the church is to have failed to be good Christians. This negative valuing of conflict extends to our personal relationships as well. This ultimately means that the conflict and anxiety present in any relationship, be it between friends, family, or within the institution, is considered failure.  We do not like to admit failure and therefore rather than speaking the truth in love, which we assume will escalate the conflict, we tend to ignore the conflict and hope it goes away; which of course it does not but rather becomes an ever present anxiety running through all relationships. 

            In my experience, whether it is laity or clergy, we do not practice or even think in terms of speaking the truth in love with our neighbor. Unless a person has participated in therapy, spiritual direction, a twelve-step group, or some such relationship of mutual accountability then speaking the truth in love is a foreign concept, and something of which to be suspicious. Because we do not know how to deal with anxiety and conflict, personal or corporate, the anxiety and conflict will always rise to the surface and create more wounds. Our unwillingness to employ our biblical practices so as to mature into the Body of Christ simply reinforces and justifies our conflict avoidance.

            This issue is larger than our local congregations and our declining denominations. Our living out the practices of speaking the truth in love becomes a beacon of God’s light and life to the world that is hungering for integrity, authenticity, and unconditional love. Whether we have forgotten these practices or are afraid to employ them, the result is the same; we have given over the good news and the prophetic voice of the church to the social sciences and self-help section of the local bookstore. When the church and its institutional dynamics and behaviors mirror that of the world, or even more distressing, when the church’s behaviors are less ethical and healing than those of the world, and we must turn to the practices of the world to teach us how to be healthy, we have no prophetic voice.

            To be clear, I am not advocating a rejection of the therapeutic community, just the opposite. I am advocating that the church remember the rich therapeutic—salvific—gifts in its possession. Frankly I am, at times, amazed at the willingness of the churched to be in and propagate such a dysfunctional and hurtful system. Pastor Bryan Lowe once said, “The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army.” He summed up his basis for this claim in the following points:

1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them. 

2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family. 

3. If both of the first two steps fail, we still don’t seek professional help.[7] 

 

One of my colleagues once said, “The Church survives in spite of itself and not because of its self.” Retired Bishop Rueben Job echoes similar concerns in his treatment of John Wesley’s general rules he renamed as, The Three Simple Rules. In his introduction Bishop Job speaks of the many letters he receives and lamented that the writer’s intention is not to “nurture and heal [but] to divide and conquer…it seems more like gossip than truth-telling in love.”[8] All of the above comments hurt my heart for God’s church. But I am also encouraged, for in spite of our failure to grow into the maturity of Christ-likeness God’s love does not fail and people are still drawn to the church. The Holy Spirit’s work of drawing every human toward God is so strong that even the church cannot stand in its way. Hence, for centuries we churched have continued to be willing to participate in an organization that more resembles a dysfunctional family rather than a people who are oriented by the hope and intent to be “imitators of God” (Eph 5:2; cf. Lev 19:2b).

            Of course, as long as the church is comprised of humans it will be a flawed and broken institution. But perfection is not what people are asking for. No one goes to an AA meeting expecting everyone there to be a saint. They do expect that the group will be formed by and practice its espoused twelve steps; and when those in the meeting start behaving in ways outside the ethic of AA behavior they will be admonished to remember the practices that guide the group. Similarly, one expects that the church—which proclaims practices of loving neighbor and loving unconditionally—to live by those espoused ethics. But instead of the mutual accountability that admonishes us when we act in ways that are contradictory to our espoused beliefs, we have chosen to ignore the practices that will empower us to deal with our own brokenness. Hence, the Church’s voice has little credibility.

            The admonition to speak the truth in love is not unique to Ephesians or the New Testament. The roots of this ethic is found in Leviticus 19:17-18,

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

 

Neither Leviticus 19:17-18 or Ephesians 4:25 are concerned with simple moralistic instruction. Both are concerned with community practices that form one’s inner attitude—the attitude of one’s heart. Through such practices the community fulfills the command to be a holy and prophetic presence of God, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:1-2).[9] The Ephesians 4:25 passage resolves into a similar command, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).  Both of these passages are concerned with practices that take the common and make them holy through a spiritual sacrifice of one’s emotions for the community and its prophetic presence for the world.[10] For the sake of clarity, I will argue that the phrase “reprove your neighbor” and “speak the truth in love” are so similar conceptually and in their practice for the individual and community as to be synonymous and I will use them interchangeably.

Speaking the Truth in Love: Old Testament Roots

            I now turn to briefly examine Ephesians’ roots in the Old Testament. In the Israelite testimony only God, who is totally other and separate, is holy and able to dispense holiness to that which is common. Holiness is understood to be a dynamic physical reality that must be protected from contact with impurity; therefore, that which God deems holy can lose its holiness through an encounter with impurity. It was the role and responsibility of the priestly class to insure that the festivals and physical elements deemed holy by God, including themselves, remained holy.[11] These festivals and rituals were the doorways to approach God and seek God’s blessings.

            Important to note is that the common elements of their lives—animals, people (priests), clothing, times of year (festivals)—become holy in their sacrificial use for God. The Holiness Code takes this one step further in saying to the Israelites that they too can attain holiness. They do so by loving neighbor. We see in Leviticus 19:9-18 a list of actions concerning community relationships that are to insure the health and good will of the community: (v.9-10) leave enough of your crop for the poor and alien; (v.11-12) “You shall not steal…[or] deal falsely…, you shall not lie…, you shall not swear falsely [and profane God’s name];” (v.13-16) “you shall not defraud [nor] steal [or mistreat a laborer], you shall not [be contemptuous of the deaf or blind],” you shall not judge unjustly, you shall treat poor and rich alike, “with justice you shall judge your neighbor,” you shall not slander or “profit by the blood of your neighbor;” (v.17-18) “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as Aaron comes to the “holy place” with a young bull and a ram for sacrifice and wears the “holy vestments” to maintain Israel’s holy relationship to God (Lev 16:3-4), so too the people of Israel bring their common emotions that emerge from any set of human relationships—the propensity to lie, cheat, steal, murmur, seek revenge, hate, to be biased, to feel self importance—all of these common elements are brought to the spiritual altar for God to sanctify.[12]

            The admonitions of Ephesians traces its roots to this same set of ethical practices and desire to be holy as God is holy. The Leviticus passage commanding to “reprove one’s neighbor” and Ephesians “speak the truth in love” are literally and figuratively at the heart of being holy as God is holy. The attitude of loving one’s neighbor in one’s heart and its embodied practice by doing the hard work of reproving one’s neighbor is repeated many times in Israelite literature. [13]

            (Proverbs 29:24-25)

                        24To be a partner of a thief is to hate one’s own life;

one hears the victim’s curse, but discloses nothing.

25The fear of others lays a snare,

but one who trusts in the Lord is secure.

 

(Proverbs 10:18)

            18Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool.

(Proverbs 26:24-25)

                        24An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within;

25when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it,

for there are seven abominations concealed within;

 

We see in the wisdom of Proverbs that to be silent before wrong doing is an attack on one’s own life. To speak falsely comes from an inner attitude of anger and hatred and no amount of false graciousness can prevent the truth from being known.

Speaking the Truth in Love: Intertestamental Connections

            Later writings continue to address and interpret Leviticus 19:17-18 for their communities. In Sirach the issue of truth telling is paramount. Reproving your neighbor is the practice of loving neighbor that helps to prevent a misunderstanding from becoming a break in relationship. It is the practice that schools us in the power of our words and our behaviors and the good or harm they can create. Sirach echoes (Lev 19:18a) the admonition that is it not your place to threaten your neighbor.[14] “Let [God’s] law take its course.”

(Sirach 19:13-17)

13 Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;

or if he did, so that he may not do it again.

14 Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;

or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.

15 Question a friend, for often it is slander;

so do not believe everything you hear.

16 A person may make a slip without intending it.

Who has not sinned with his tongue?

17 Question your neighbor before you threaten him;

and let the law of the Most High take its course.

 

            In the writing attributed to Gad in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, his words speak to the destructiveness of hate. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is a collection of confessions by Joseph’s brothers. They all identify Joseph as the righteous one and have sinned against him. Gad’s testament addresses the perennial issue of hating from one’s heart and its cancerous destruction of one’s spirit. His words speak to how critical is the attitude of the heart; and if one is to love neighbor, reproving one’s neighbor, even if you fear that it will shame him, is one’s duty. To not do so is as though you knew of a deadly serpent among you that eventually could bring destruction to your household and community, yet you chose to withhold that information. [15]

(Gad 3:2-3)

Whatsoever a man doeth the hater abominateth him: and though a man worketh the law of the Lord, he praiseth him not; though a man feareth the Lord, and taketh pleasure in that which is righteous, he loveth him not. He dispraiseth the truth.

 

(Gad 5:1-2)

Hatred, therefore, is evil, for it constantly mateth with lying, speaking against the truth; and it maketh small things to be great, and causeth the light to be darkness, and calleth the sweet bitter, and teacheth slander, and kindleth wrath, and stirreth up war, and violence and all covetousness; it filleth the heart with evils and devilish poison.

 

(Gad 6:3-6a)

“Love ye, therefore, one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, cast forth the poison of hate and speak peaceably to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he confess and repent, forgive him. But if he deny it, do not get into a passion with him, lest catching the poison from thee he take to swearing and so thou sin doubly. [Let not another man hear thy secrets when engaged in legal strife, lest he come to hate thee and become thy enemy, and commit a great sin against thee; for ofttimes he addresseth thee guilefully or busieth himself about thee with wicked intent.] And though he deny it and yet have a sense of shame when reproved, give over reproving him.”

 

The Qumran literature echoes these same concerns and takes them one step further. If one brought charges against his neighbor but had not first reproved his neighbor, it was considered an act of vengeance—the bearing of hatred and a grudge, which Lev 19:17 strictly prohibits.[16] We see this same emphasis on loving one another from the heart in the New Testament. 

           The great commandment to love God and neighbor, in attitude, word, and deed set the stage for the New Testament writers who sought to continue to guide the church into Christ-likeness, a life of holiness of heart and life. Matthew (18:15-17) is one of the few teachings attributed directly to Jesus on how to deal with conflict in the faith community. It echoes the admonition of Leviticus 19:17 and the Damascus Document (CD 9:2-4) which, as indicated above, required that the one bringing the charge against his neighbor must first have reproved his neighbor or he will be identified as a “vengeance-taker and grudge-bearer.”[17] The core teaching of Matthew (18) is found in the parable of the unforgiving servant.

           One slave owes an astronomical amount of money that could never be paid in his lifetime. When taken before his king he asked for mercy and promised that he would pay every penny. We, who hear this story, know that he could never repay such an amount. The forgiveness of the debt is, therefore, not a temporary reprieve for him to get the money. It is an example of the generosity of the king. Then the forgiven slave leaves and encounters a fellow slave who owes him money, but the money owed him is a pittance compared to that just forgiven him. How will the slave, who has been forgiven a debt he could never repay, now treat someone who owes him money? The king’s generosity appears to have had no effect. The slave manhandles his fellow slave and demands the money owed him, threatening him. The slave falls at his feet crying out for mercy and patience so he can pay his debt. But the slave who has received the king’s mercy does not pass that mercy along. Rather he casts his fellow slave into prison. The king hears of this and rebukes the unforgiving slave; the text tells us the slave is handed over to be tortured until he can pay his debt, which we, as the audience, know that he cannot pay, for it is too great a sum. The parable ends with Jesus’ words, So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

            It is the attitude of one’s heart that is critical here. Matthew (18) is concerned with regaining and healing relationships broken between neighbors and not with instructing the community in a legalism. Like the testimony of Gad says, hate will consume you and though you do the outward commands of God; if in your heart you do not love your neighbor, you cannot, therefore, love God.[18] This ethic, in various forms, dominates the New Testament (Mt 5:43; Mt 19:19; Mt. 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27; Ro 13:9; Ga 5:14; Jas 2:8). The general intent of the New Testament letters is pastoral: to give thanks, to reprove, to encourage, and to teach those who have come into the new Christian community what a holy community looks and behaves like. This is the pastoral intent of Ephesians; it is concerned with the ethical standards of the Church. For the Church to be holy and a prophetic witness its practices, individually and collectively, must be different from the world so as to form new attitudes of the heart.[19]

            Repeatedly we see that (Leviticus 19:17-18) is looked to in post-exilic Jewish writings for instruction on the attitudes and behaviors of what constituted a holy and prophetic community of God. Although Ephesians is not so singularly identified as a formative passage for the Christian community, its links to and echoes of (Leviticus 19:17-18) are clear.

“The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor”[20]: Early Church and John Wesley

            The practice of reproving one’s neighbor continues in the early Christian church and beyond.[21] Just as the Apostle Paul reproved the faith community for its embrace of false doctrine, infighting, inability and unwillingness to forgive, one-upmanship, disregard for the vulnerable, and lack of self-control, so, too, do the Church fathers who follow in his footsteps. Eusebius and Augustine argue doctrine,[22] the Seven Ecumenical Councils address the means by which the repentant may remain in the community,[23] and Cyprian and St. Benedict reprove behavior that will undermine and destroy community.[24] Wesley believed that admonishment was the duty of all and to withhold admonishment was to withhold the possibility of salvation. For Wesley, to love one’s neighbor required our willingness to reprove our neighbor, primarily for sin but also for “any error which, if it were persisted in, would naturally lead to sin.” [25]

            Wesley’s emphasis on reproof as a means of spiritual growth can be seen in his organization of early Methodists. To deal with the numerical growth of the Methodist movement and the people’s hunger for instruction and guidance, Wesley began the “United Society” in London, which then spread as societies in other areas. Twelve members and one leader comprised each class. The leader’s duties were to meet with the class members once a week, “in order to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require.”[26] To be a member of one of the societies you had to follow the “General Rules”: “First, by doing no harm, …”; “Secondly, by doing good, …To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or by exhorting all we have any intercourse with (emphasis mine)”; and “thirdly, by attending to all the ordinances of God.” However, if members did not observe the rules and habitually broke them, Wesley would “admonish him of the error of his ways” and if the member were unrepentant he would no longer have membership in the society. An additional sub-group called the Band was dedicated to growing in sanctification, and the core of its practice was to speak the truth in love. Members of a Band confessed their faults, invited comments from others about the faults and sins to which they themselves were blind, and gained strength and support from the group’s prayers.[27]

            The theological foundation for speaking the truth in love is based on the Holy Spirit’s intent to lead us toward spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness (Ep 4:15-16) and that we need our neighbor for this sanctifying work. The concept and intent of the Class and Band takes the act of reproving your neighbor and speaking the truth in love to a level of theological praxis. Rather than admonition being reactive, when someone finds him or herself acting in ways that need reproof, the class and band creates a proactive environment and expectation whereby one is shepherded through the prayers and words of the other class or band members.[28] Before admitted into a Band a potential member would be asked several questions to ascertain the seriousness of their intent.[29] These questions could also be posed during any future meeting. The crux of these questions and the “design” of the Band meeting are to pierce the veil of human denial and illusion by speaking the truth in love: to “Confess your faults one to another, pray for one another, that ye may be healed.”[30] Wesley’s groups of mutual accountability and support foreshadow our present expressions of similar groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

            Of course, the misuse of the injunction to reprove one’s neighbor is well known. In addition, what constitutes an appropriate use or misuse of reproving one’s neighbor is subjective. Mutual accountability is only feasible if each person accepts some set of communal standards. For the young Methodist movement and its societies there were strict expectations.

            However, Wesley too abused his power and responsibility to speak the truth in love. Before his Aldersgate moment in 1738 and the beginnings of the Methodist movement, Wesley, as the failing, troubled, and jilted pastor in colonial Georgia, refused communion to Sophy Hopkins. He did so because of several reasons, but none of the reasons justify the manner in which Wesley shamed Miss Hopkey in worship. I argue that Wesley’s public act of reproving his congregant by refusing her communion was abusive and in contradiction to Leviticus 19:17-18 and Ephesians 4:25, and was intended to shame and slander rather than build up with words of grace.[31] As with this example of Wesley, the church’s history is replete with such abuses of power by pastors, the church leadership, and individual members.

            However, it is lamentable that the church’s abuse of speaking the truth in love is what is remembered and pointed to rather than its potential for, as Wesley puts it, doing good to their souls. At the beginning of this project I began asking my colleagues about whether they were aware of this practice of speaking the truth in love as a part of discipleship. Their responses were a resounding no.  One could argue that speaking the truth in love and reproving one’s neighbor is integral to living out the Great Commandment and so no other practices or instruction are needed. But as with so many theological concepts, the Great Commandment is an all encompassing ethic that must be unpacked, discerned, and then incarnated as a set of practices in one’s personal life and the community’s context, hence the needed specificity of Leviticus 19:9-18 (cf. Sirach 19:13-17; Ephesians 4:25-5:1; Matthew 18:15-17). This need of moving from an esoteric concept of loving neighbor to a practical application is why Wesley responded with his General Rule when his followers asked for instruction on living the faithful life.[32]

            Once more I return to the image of clay being shaped into a beautiful vessel. In this metaphor I see several lessons relating to speaking the truth in love. First, the potter does not judge the clay. Second, the intent of the potter is not to abuse and misuse but to create a beautiful and useful work of art. Thirdly, this means the potter imagines and works in concert with the elements of the clay toward what the clay can become. Fourth, each mass of clay is different in texture and moisture and will require different amounts of pressure and guidance. And fifth, we must accept that we are both the potter and the clay. We are the imperfect hands of God called to do the work of God. That work, to help bring about the kingdom, presents us with the opportunity and responsibility to be the presence of God through which each of us are being shaped into beautiful and useful vessels. In accepting the mystery that we are co-creators with God, we must also accept the mystery that our healing and salvation is through our neighbor and their healing and salvation is through us.  As we love one another enough to speak the truth in love and reprove our neighbor, we are being shaped into a holy and beautiful vessel as our loving actions are shaping our neighbors, (Lev. 19:2b) “You shall be holy for, I the Lord your God am holy.” 

Speaking the Truth in Love: Contemporary Wisdom

            I believe that today the act of speaking the truth in love is, at the very least, as difficult as it has ever been and even more desperately needed. Our families and societies are fragmented in ways incomprehensible to the mothers and fathers of the church. But we also have an advantage in that many wise contemporary voices continue to echo the wisdom of speaking the truth in love.

            Howard Thurman’s work in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited, is very helpful. He speaks the truth in love to the Church by asking, “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?”[33] To answer his question, Thurman examined Jesus, his life, his teachings, and what made him different as a first century Jewish man rather than as the unapproachable divine object of worship.[34] To be clear, my project is not addressing the “issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin.” However, the issues of discrimination and injustice, we are told by Jesus and Thurman, are ultimately issues of the heart: “To revile because one has been reviled—this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself” (cf. Lev 19:17-18).[35] Thurman’s insightful exegesis as to why Christianity seems impotent to deal radically and effectively in these areas also speaks to the concepts and practices around speaking the truth in love.

            Thurman identifies the same four elements of the human condition as Leviticus 19:17-18 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2: fear, deception, hate, and love. Both of these passages point beyond an ethic and practice that can be socially legislated. Instead, they point to the necessity of a transformation of one’s attitude of the heart. Similarly, Thurman argues that at the core of Jesus’ message is that no enemy can ultimately conquer unless that enemy has first won the victory over a person’s spirit, the attitude of his or her heart.[36]

            The enemy, for the first century Jew, was Rome. The question then becomes, how do you or do you resist an enemy? Thurman identifies two paths of resistance in relationship to the enemy, resistance or non-resistance. Within each of these paths are subcategories. Under non-resistance the powerless take on the attitude of imitation. However, to do so means that one must yield his or her beliefs in what God truly desires for the world, the community, and the individual, which therefore results in a profound loss of self-respect. Thurman identifies the Sadducees as an example of this capitulation. Their privilege—personal and religious, and their economic security depended on the status quo remaining undisturbed. The practices of speaking the truth in love and reproving one’s neighbor were subjugated to the necessity of maintaining the status quo; they could not afford to rock the boat. The obvious alternative to non-resistance is to resist. Such resistance, as Thurman describes it, is an inner attitude that seeks its expression through force of arms, i.e., the Zealots. Both those who imitated their oppressors to maintain the status quo (Sadducees) and those who sought to reverse the status quo so they would be in power (Zealots) had capitulated the most important battle, the battle for their spirit.[37] Their actions were based in fear, hatred, deception, and the desire for revenge. Jesus offered another alternative: the kingdom of God is not something Rome could give him or Israel nor could Rome take it away. The kingdom of God is within us, and  “humility cannot be humiliated;” but the kingdom is only realized in the act of loving neighbor, even when that neighbor is your enemy.[38] When this radical vision of the kingdom is embraced, one becomes truly free.

            Bonhoeffer, too, offers a critical insight. He argues that, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”[39] Bonhoeffer is not addressing specifically the dreams of the Sadducees and the Zealots as did Thurman, but he is identifying the same general core issue of the human condition and our relationship to God: our inclination is to create a community that looks like us, claiming it is God’s will for us to do so. In doing so, I have created a circumstance in which the kingdom of God is not in me but external of me, and is something that I have created. Holding onto that deception is all-important for it protects me from dealing with the truth. Therefore, the enemy is anyone whose vision of the kingdom is different than mine and challenges my truth. We see this same scenario played out in today’s churches: the enemy is whatever challenges our status quo. The only corrective to such deception is to speak the truth in love.

            Jesus spoke the truth in love and the New Testament authors sought to capture that ancient practice and theology of good news for their respective communities. To reiterate what was identified earlier in the paper, to speak the truth in love not a simple ethical mandate to legislate a set of external behaviors. Its genius is that it is a practice that specifically addresses the issues of the heart, whereby the common brokenness and the relationships that ensue from such brokenness can and do harden our hearts are placed before God as a holy act of spiritual sacrifice.

            The difficulty of this practice is without question. It is so much easier to work with practices that address external issues, the practice of attending church, participating in various ministries, being a leader in the church, giving my resources through stewardship. But the practice that insists that I deal with my attitude, my anger, my fear, my deceptions, and myself places upon me a whole host of different expectations. Yet, this practice is not tangential to the Christian faith. It is core to being Christian for it is core to loving neighbor and loving God, and ultimately for loving ourselves. Unfortunately, it is a practice not taught as central to Christianity. Furthermore, the practice of speaking the truth in love appears to be so misunderstood and alien to our contemporary church practices, it is not that the benefits are simply not taught, it is that the practice is held suspect. I find this ironic and terribly unfortunate as a Christian and as an Elder of the United Methodist Church. I do so because we have in our Book of Discipline, the clear and definitive instruction of, “A Christian is called to speak the truth in love, always ready to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.”[40] Similarly, we are instructed to hold one another accountable to our baptismal vows and covenant:[41]

  1. To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sin;
  2. To accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression;
  3. To confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord;
  4. To remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world;
  5. To be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church and do all in their power to strengthen its ministries;
  6. To faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness;
  7. To receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

 

Once these vows are taken and agreed to upon becoming a member of a United Methodist Church, are they ever revisited? Is there some institutional mechanism and practice by which we are held accountable to these vows?  Obviously there can be but I know of no churches that do so. Again, accountability is not to be punitive. As in Ephesians 4:25 and Leviticus 19:17-18 (cf. Matt.18:15-17 and the many writings cited in this paper) the intent of our mutual responsibility and accountability is not punitive but reconciliation and repentance. However, if a member’s heart is hardened against reproof there are steps offered for holding that person accountable to the body. [42] I know of very few people, clergy included, who feel equipped or confident enough to confront someone for not upholding their commitments. Yet, as I have identified earlier in this paper, St Benedict, Cyprian, Augustine, Wesley, Paul, and yes, Jesus, tell us that not to do so is to allow violence to be perpetrated against the body.

            In closing, central to Methodist teaching are these claims: “We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners.”[43] I admit that prior to my work on this project I understood the social gospel to mean the mission of the church to the needy, the least, the last, and the lost. I participated in mission trips, on VIM trips, in local outreach for social justice. I believed I was being a good Christian and Methodist, integrating my personal and social gospel. But I have come to believe that the social gospel begins first between me and my most immediate neighbor, my Christian brother or sister, and then extends to my neighbors in the world. The social gospel must be occurring between me and my Christian neighbor, for we are called to be holy as God is holy, to be imitators of God; and central to that calling is learning of and giving ourselves to the practices of speaking the truth to each other in love. By doing so, we are fulfilling the most fundamental aspect of both the personal and social gospel and in humility being transformed into Christ-likeness. To be clear, this in no way relieves us of the mandate to serve the world. To the contrary, to submit ourselves to the practices that will transform us into a holy and united people to the building up the body of Christ is our most important service to the world. For is so doing we have incarnated God’s prophetic presence in our midst. And, as Thurman says, the deeper we go inward in our spiritual life the more we will find ourselves extending ourselves outward in service to the world.[44]

            To be clear, I do not mean to say that somehow if we just get it right by focusing on these practices that all the brokenness and problems of the human condition will be resolved. Too, I do not mean to imply that our spiritual journey is linear and that we are not to be in mission to the world until we’ve mastered the practice of speaking the truth in love. We will always be struggling to be faithful, to find our way, to know what is or is not faithful. But that is the very reason these practices are so critical, they are practices and not the end of the journey. They are the practices that guide us to take the common broken pieces of our hearts and offer them to God to be sanctified. They are the practices that continue to teach us that we cannot isolate ourselves: our neighbor—our enemy!—is critical to our salvation and vice versa. These are the practices that Wesley says are the food for our souls.  Just as business models have “best practices” to help guide their work, so, too, do we in the church. Speaking the truth in love and reproving our neighbor as practices of loving our neighbor are at the core of our best practices. It is time the church reclaim its own inheritance and good news in these best practices of our faith.

            Lastly, there is so much more that can be said about this important topic. I have, at best, scratched the surface of this practice of Speaking the Truth in love. I hope I have shown that it is and has been a central practice of discipleship whose roots extend to the very beginnings of our faith history—that of the Israelites, to the beginnings of the Christian faith, and now to our present context. May the God of all continue to challenge me, and I pray others, through this gift and practice of speaking the truth in love so that we can truly become a prophetic presence for the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] All Old Testament and New Testament passages are from the NRSV translation unless otherwise noted. 

[2] Paula Ripple, Growing Strong at Broken Places, (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1986) : quoted in Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1990), 255-56.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 23.

[4] Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B., The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992), 55.

[5] Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 177-81.

[6] Thomas C. Oden, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Comfort, Admonition, and Discipline,” Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 212.

[7] Carson, Dwight, “Exposing the Myth that Christians Should not have Emotional Problems,” http://brokenbelievers.com/2011/09/19/the-only-army-that-shoots-its-wounded/, (August 11, 2012).

[8] Rueben P. Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 12.

[9] James L. Kugel, “On Hidden Hatred and Open Reproach: Early Exegesis of Leviticus 19:17,” 47; Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 289-90.

[10] Jacob Milgrom, “Holy, Holiness, OT,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, D-H vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 851-52.

[11] Ibid., pp. 850-851; Brueggemann, Theology…, 288 ff.

[12] Kugel, “On Hidden Hatred…,” 47; Milgrom, “Holy…,” p. 851.

[13] Kugel, “On Hidden Hatred…,” 45.

[14] Ibid., 47-49.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Ibid., 52-53; Kenneth L. Hanson, “The Law of Reproof: A Qumranic Exemplar of Pre-Rabbinic Halakah,” 212.

[17] Hanson, “The Law of Reproof…,” 212.

[18] Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Gad: 3:2 (translation, R. H. Charles).

[19] R. Alan Culpepper, “Ethical Dualism and Church Discipline: Ephesians 4:25-5:20,” 529, 523.

[20] John Wesley, “The Duty of Reproving our Neighbor,” Sermon 65, 1872 edition, Thomas Jackson Editor.

[21] Oden, “The Work of the Holy Spirit…,” 206.

[22] Esuebius, NPNF, 2nd, vol. 1, Chapter XVI.—“The Circumstances related of Montanus and his False Prophets”; Augustine, NPNF1-01, 343-44. Letter LXXVI. “Letter to the Donatists.”

[23] Seven Ecumenical Councils, NPNF 2nd, vol. 14. 63 ff.

[24] Cyprian, ANF, Epistle IX, 290; Ibid., Epistle X, 291; Chittister, The Rule of Benedict…, 94-95.

[25] John Wesley, “The Duty of Reproving our Neighbor,” Sermon 65, 1872 edition, Thomas Jackson Editor, I.

[26] Outler, John Wesley, 178.

[27] Ibid., 178-81.

[28] Ibid., 179-81; Bonhoeffer, Life Together…, 23.

[29] Outler, John Wesley, 180.

[30] Ibid., 180.

[31] Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 82, ff.

[32] Outler, John Wesley, 178.

[33] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 7.

[34] Ibid., 15.

[35] Ibid., 21.

[36] Ibid., 21.

[37] Ibid., 23-24.

[38] Ibid., 27-28.

[39] Bonhoeffer, Life Together…, 27.

[40] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House 2008), ¶219, 143.

[41] Ibid., ¶ 217, 143.

[42] Ibid., ¶221.5, 144.

[43] Ibid., “General Rules and Social Principles,” ¶ 101, 49.

[44] Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit, (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1977), 29-30.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alexander, M. Neil. Publisher and Book Editor. 2008. The Book of Discipline of the           United             Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House.             2008.

 

Augustine. NPNF1-01. Letter LXXVI. “Letter to the Donatists.”

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in        Community. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. 1997. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute,   Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

 

Charles, R. H. translator. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Gad.

 

Chittister, Joan D. O.S.B. 1992. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. New York:     Crossroad Publishing.

 

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Ethical Dualism and Church Discipline: Ephesians 4:25-5:20.”         Review and Expositor.

 

Cyprian. ANF. Epistle IX.

______. ANF. Epistle X.

 

Dwight, Carson.  “Exposing the Myth that Christians Should not have Emotional Problems,”http://brokenbelievers.com/2011/09/19/the-only-army-that-shoots-its-       wounded/, (August 11, 2012).

 

Esuebius. NPNF. 2nd. vol. 1. Chapter XVI.—“The Circumstances related of Montanus      and his False Prophets.”

 

Hanson, Kenneth L. 2006. “The Law of Reproof: A Qumranic Exemplar of Pre-Rabbinic Halakah.” Hebrew Studies 47.

 

Heitzenrater, Richard P. 2003. The Elusive Mr. Wesley. Nashville: Abingdon.

 

Job, Rueben P. 2007. Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. Nashville:    Abingdon.

 

Kugel, James L. 1987. “On Hidden Hatred and Open Reproach: Early Exegesis of Leviticus19:17.” Harvard Theological Review. 80:1.

 

Milgrom, Jacob. 2007. “Holy, Holiness, OT,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the      Bible. D-H. vol. 2.

Oden, Thomas C.1983. Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. New York: Harper &    Row.

 

Outler, Albert C. 1964. John Wesley. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Ripple, Paula. 1986. Growing Strong at Broken Places. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, :   quoted in Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck. A Guide to Prayer for All God’s   People. Nashville: Upper Room Books.

 

Seven Ecumenical Councils. NPNF. 2nd. vol. 14.

 

Thurman, Howard. 1976. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press.

 

________Howard. 1977. Disciplines of the Spirit. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press.

 

Wesley, John. “The Duty of Reproving our Neighbor.” Sermon 65, 1872 edition. Thomas             Jackson Editor.

 

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Bondi, Roberta C. 1991. To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early     Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

 

Farber-Robertson, Anita. 2000. Learning While Leading: Increasing Your Effectiveness    in Ministry. Herdon. VA: The Alban Institute.

 

Keating, Thomas. 1999. The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation.         New jersey: Paulist Press.

 

Koch, Ruth N. and Kenneth C. Haugk. 1992. Speaking the Truth in Love: How to Be an    Assertive Christian. St. Louis, MO: Stephen Ministries.

 

Palmer, Parker J. 2000. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San          Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

Rendle, Gil and Alice Mann. 2003. Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations. Herdon, VA: The Alban Institute.

 

Rendle, Gil. 1999. Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring     Differences. Herdon, VA: The Alban Institute.

 

Wolff, Pierre. 2003.  Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well, Based on Ignatian    Spirituality. Liguori, MO: Ligouri/Triumph.