Donald T. Williams, PhD
P.O. Box #800807
Toccoa Falls, GA. 30598

Speaking the Truth in Love

A shorter version of this essay appeared in Tedsbridge: For the Alumni and Friends of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Fall, 2002: 22-23.

"Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the Head, even Christ" (Eph. 4:15, NASB).


"Speaking the truth in love" is a phrase we have come to parrot all too comfortably. If we truly understood it, we would realize that the Apostle's exhortation in Eph. 4:15 impales the contemporary church on the horns of a dilemma designed to make its dependence on its own strength and wisdom self-destruct. When we are thus impaled, we have the opportunity to discover how little we understand of either truth or love.

The truth in a fallen world is often harsh and always hostile to human pride. When human beings--even redeemed ones--try in their own wisdom to combine that truth with love, their natural tendency is to blunt the edges and soften the blows of this terrible two-edged Sword. Thus is born theological liberalism and political correctness. But eschewing those betrayals of truth, some of us run the opposite way only to find ourselves not with Christ's flock but with the cruel Pharisees. Thus is born legalism and self righteousness. In neither case does either truth or love really come through.

History is replete with illustrative examples. They begin at least as early as Job's friends, with their ham-fisted application to Job's situation of a very sound theology of the holiness and transcendence of God. Jehovah was not impressed with the theological correctness of their defense of His character because they had not spoken what was right about his servant, Job. I think Martin Luther was right to condemn Muentzer and the Peasant's Revolt. In fact, early in the controversy he had balanced and sensible things to say to both sides which, if they had been heeded, might have done much good. But the harshness of his attack "Against the Murderous and Plundering Bands of Peasants," urging the magistrates to "stab, kill, and strangle" as they would a mad dog those who participated, did seem to exceed the bounds of Christian charity. Even allowing for the pejorative debating style of the times, it has left an unfortunate spot on the reputation of that shining hero of the Faith ever since.

We, the American Fundamentalist Movement and its heirs, have provided more than our fair share of such examples. Carl MacIntyre and Bob Jones may have had a point when they argued in the '50's that Billy Graham was taking insufficient care to see that his converts ended up in churches that stood without compromise for the Gospel he preached. But instead of a loving critique of a brother, they launched a savage attack on an enemy. The cause of a balanced and biblical approach to ecclesiastical separation and theological integrity has still not recovered from the bad taste that episode left in our collective mouths. Or think of the glib pronouncements that were flying around a decade or so ago that AIDS was God's judgment on homosexuals. Of course, in a sense, it is; the claim was not simply false. His universe is so structured that violations of its moral programming tend to have negative consequences. But what did such pronouncements say to the family of the young lady who got HIV from her dentist? It would seem that Job's friends are still alive and well.

Perhaps the most instructive recent example is Jerry Falwell's infamous attribution of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to God's judgment on America's tolerance of homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. As a factual statement, it may not have been so far wrong as many would like to assume. Frustration with America's decadence and its use of its media to disseminate what is perceived as moral filth is one of the explicit motivations that lie behind Islamic terrorism. Islamic fundamentalists believe that our iniquity, like that of the Amorites, is full, and that therefore our destruction by Islam, like that of the Amorites by Israel in the Old Testament, is justified. Had Falwell asked us to consider whether we might have given Islamic extremists more than a little excuse for holding this arrogant error, he might have performed a useful service. Instead, all that most people heard was anger, indignation, arrogance, and self righteousness. The apparent absence of compassion in his finger-pointing tone not only hindered and obscured, it buried and even twisted the grains of truth that really were there in his pronouncement.

The problem is not simply an insufficient grasp of either contemporary fact or biblical content (though no doubt there are many who do inadequate homework in both areas). The problem is much deeper. It is our failure to understand that truth is more than factual correctness; it is a Person, the eternal Logos, whose perspectives on those facts are essential to any truth that is whole and wholesome. And love is more than just being nice; it is a willingness to die for one's enemies that flows, like truth itself, from only one place: that same Person.

As the descendants of the Fundamentalist Movement, Evangelicals continue to wrestle with the legacy of its failures, sometimes distancing ourselves from it to the point that we forget what we owe to it. If only we could avoid its vices without losing its virtues! I've tried to summarize the history of our own struggles in the following sonnet:

Sonnet XCVI

"Christ's Virgin Birth, his Deity, his Cross,
     His Word, his Resurrection, his Return:
     Could these be given up without the loss
     Of Christian faith itself?" was the concern
Of those first known as "Fundamentalist."
     If their descendants' words have proved uncouth
     As if the mind had closed up like a fist,
     At least they started caring for the Truth.
It's one of mankind's greatest tragedies
     Beyond the power of the tongue to tell,
     This hardening of mental arteries
     Within a movement that began so well.
What they forgot should be like hand in glove:
     Truth is not Truth unless we speak in love.

Truth without love is truth distorted; it is ultimately deceptive. And love without truth is love perverted; it is ultimately destructive. This is so even when the truth is factually correct and the love emotionally sincere. Thus are vitiated all merely human attempts either to speak or to serve. Nevertheless, healing speech and true action become possible even for sinful human beings like us when--and only when--we are actively indwelt by the One who is both Logos and Love. Then, speaking the truth in love, we may indeed grow up in all aspects unto Him who is the head, even Christ.


So how practically does this apply to Christian education?

God is the God of truth. Therefore His Person is the ultimate source of truth, His Word the ultimate criterion of truth, His character the ultimate definition of the spirit of truth, and His will the ultimate guide to the use of truth. That is why truth, to be Truth, must be spoken in Love, and why any separation of either from the other destroys both: for both Truth and Love are equally expressions of His one and whole character. All this is revealed to human beings in His Son, whose portrait is definitively and authoritatively painted for them in the Bible, which prepares for, narrates, explains, and applies His coming into the world, His sacrifice, and His resurrection.

The Bible is not--though Christ is--the whole of truth. It does not contain the laws He wrote for the combustion of the stars, which had to be discovered by Physics. It does not contain many other things that are true because they are in the mind of God, things which lie dormant in the Book of His Works, Nature, to be discovered by Christian and pagan alike. They are none the less His truth for all of that. But if the Bible is not the whole of truth, it is the reliably perfect summary of and key to all of truth, for it was inspired by the Spirit to be, as Martin Luther said, "all about Christ only everywhere." And Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.

Truth then came once into the world whole in the person of her divine Master, Milton realized in Areopagetica, and was a perfect shape most glorious to see. "But when He ascended, and his apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers." They hewed the lovely form of truth into a thousand pieces and scattered them to the four winds. But the friends of truth, "such as durst appear," have been gathering them up and fitting them back together ever since, wherever they could find them. "We have not yet found them all," Milton reminds us, "nor shall do, 'till her Master's second coming." With Scripture as their guide and key, then, Christian scholars should be those friends of truth best equipped to continue the search in the meantime. How tragic that so many believers prefer the comfort of the easy path and the closed mind. Nevertheless, right here in our Christian Schools and Colleges, many stalwart friends of truth still dare to appear.

Paul's agenda from Ephesians and Milton's lines from "Areopagetica" should be the epigraphs to every lesson plan our teachers compose and to every research paper our students write for class or their teachers publish in learned journals. For they mean nothing less than that teaching and the research that supports it are ways of loving Jesus and, thereby, loving each other. For every piece of the puzzle we can find--every piece--helps us more clearly to see Him in all his glory and his fullness.

Updated 3/28/2004