There is much to appreciate about a medical doctor with a good “bedside manner”: one who presents difficult truths in a clear, kind, and compassionate manner. Not every doctor has this ability. Nor does every pastor.
Some pastors are quick to sound the alarm regarding a perceived theological crisis, yet are void of clarity and charity in their presentation. While perhaps justified in their engagement (Jude 1:3), the approach often serves to provoke rather than educate.
Is it possible to boldly proclaim convictions and engage difficult truths without hints of hostility or conceit?
Consider the wisdom set forth in James 1:19–20 as a starting point: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
This passage offers God’s undershepherds at least three lines of real help.
1. Let every pastor be quick to hear.
Like a physician in an exam room, pastors must ask questions and listen attentively for a response. What was said? What wasn’t said? Imagine a doctor refusing to listen and offering a diagnosis without considering the patient’s symptoms.
Imagine a doctor refusing to listen and offering a diagnosis without considering the patient’s symptoms.
Lack of attentive listening is deeply problematic in a pastor. Brothers and sisters in Christ are speaking, but the meaning of the message is often lost in communication limbo between the speaker’s mouth and the listener’s ear.
The solution is not to speak louder, but to listen attentively. Are you speaking the same language as your listeners? English may be your shared tongue, but still you may not be communicating.
Both speaker and listener bring context, presupposition, and definition to the conversation. Are you conversing with shared meaning? A wise pastor will take the time to listen well, ask clarifying questions, and demonstrate an earnest desire to hear genuinely.
2. Let every pastor be slow to speak.
Once a doctor is prepared to diagnose and prescribe treatment, he will speak. A doctor possessing a good bedside manner will communicate the information with the best interest of the patient in mind, and in an understandable way. Confusion does nothing to calm or cure a sick patient.
Pastors are called to speak in the same way. We must listen well and speak at the appropriate time because God has spoken. Our words must stem from his Word. If our message is to be heard, it must be spoken from a heart of love and in a language the listener can understand.
If our message is to be heard, it must be spoken from a heart of love and in a language the listener can understand.
As the apostle Paul put it, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals seem to permeate the current pastoral landscape. Some appear to believe the gospel and affirm sound doctrine, yet they choose to bludgeon with a knife instead of using a heartfelt surgical scalpel in their communication.
While either approach may be painful to an unrepentant heart, one serves to harm; the other to heal. Yes, your tweet or sermon soundbite may be true, but is it right? James would have us think before we speak.
3. Let every pastor be slow to anger.
The call of every physician is to do no harm. The aim is to diagnose, treat, and heal. A doctor cannot bring about healing without a proper diagnosis. The same holds true for pastors.
There’s a reason James addresses our ears before our tongues: “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The swifter we are to listen to God’s Word, the slower we will be to speak falsely and become sinfully angry. While anger is not prohibited, it must be slow to rise (Eph. 4:26).
The direct opposite seems pervasive today. Evidence of anger permeates every aspect of our cultural climate, including the church. The political left is angry with the political right, and vice versa. Pastors are angry with church members; members are angry with pastors. How much of what angers us, though, stems from a simple failure to communicate carefully and righteously? If “the righteousness of God” is our aim, and I pray it is, then the anger of man isn’t the answer.
Like good doctors, pastors must strive to present difficult truths in a clear, kind, and compassionate manner (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24–26). To be sure, it won’t always be embraced. But may we never let our tone get in the way of the truth.
This essay is adapted from Southern Equip, a magazine of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.