Every now and again it’s good to be reminded of the obvious. We need such reminders more often than we’d like to admit.
I know I do.
At various times in my Christian life I’ve been startled by the ease with which I can jump to conclusions, assume the worst, and demonize those with whom I disagree. In these moments the Lord has often reminded me, sometimes painfully, of a simple truth: Matt, don’t let your zeal for principle eclipse your love for people.
Principles matter greatly, to be sure. I have zero interest in waving a flag that minimizes the importance of holding tightly to biblical principles. But I do wish to wave one that says: Whatever our disagreements on secondary matters, let’s make sure we’re viewing and treating our fellow Christians as what they are—family.
My job as an editor entails interacting with a lot of Christian books. If you’ve spent much time browsing Christian bookstores, you may have noticed the selection can be, well, a mixed bag. Believers in the late-modern West have more resources than ever at our disposal—which is a blessing and a curse. A friend who works in Christian publishing borrowed the words of Charles Dickens to describe the state of the industry: “It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times.”
I’m prone to rolling my eyes at—if not outright disdaining—Christian authors who produce unhelpful material. Perhaps bookstores and bestseller lists aren’t your struggle. But just because the occasion is different doesn’t mean the underlying issues—pride, judgmentalism, malice—are not there in your heart, simmering, finding expression somewhere.
Criticism is sometimes appropriate, of course. So is straight-up confrontation. But slander never is. And it’s not as if slander only becomes wrong the moment it’s verbalized. Unspewed venom isn’t morally neutral, and it isn’t harmless—it’s lethal. It shrivels the soul. Such venom can easily and subtly fester in our hearts, leading us to silently slander those for whom our King died.
Let’s take care, then, not to let our hearts engage in silent slander. Genuine questioning? Sure. Trenchant criticism? Certainly. But heart-level defamation? May it never be.
Forty years ago John Stott wrote an article for the theological journal Themelios titled “Paul Prays For the Church.” In it, Stott steps through Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14–21, considering the substance of the apostle’s petitions. At one point he writes:
If we were to ask Paul what he wanted his readers to be strengthened for, I think he would reply that they needed strength to love. . . . For in the new and reconciled humanity which God has created, love is the preeminent virtue.
Where on earth, though, can we find resources for such counterintuitive, impossible-to-muster love? Stott continues:
[Paul] prays that we may be rooted and grounded in love, and may know Christ’s love although it passes knowledge. Then he turns from the love of God past knowing to the power of God past imagining, from limitless love to limitless power. He is convinced, as we must be, that only divine power can generate divine love in the divine society.
The power to love, then, flows only from him who bled for our sad ability to revile virtually anyone but ourselves. It flows from him who rose in the very resurrection power that’s still at work today—in every person bound to Jesus by faith. To the degree the Holy Spirit empowers us to see the horror of our pride and the beauty of his grace, we’ll find ourselves freed from the twin traps of “loveless truth” and “truthless love”—liberated instead to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We’ll be enabled to critique, correct, and confront without succumbing to slander, even in the silent confines of our own hearts.
Unity without Uniformity
Again, this is not to imply truth is unimportant. It is. Sacrificing truth on the altar of unity is just as bad—worse, even—than sacrificing unity on the altar of truth. Nevertheless, prizing truth is not incompatible with pursuing peace (Matt. 5:8; Rom. 12:18; Gal. 5:22). As the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wisely noted, “Difference of belief and unity of believers is not inconsistent.”
May God grant us wisdom and grace to mingle clarity of conviction with untiring affection for sinning saints. Despite our many differences, all Christians are fellow travelers, fellow siblings, fellow soldiers, fellow sufferers, and fellow heirs. We have so much in common, beginning with eternity. May our witness to the world reflect the deep unity we share.
As we strive to be marked by gospel truth, let’s labor just as diligently to be marked by gospel love.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article appeared at Christianity.com.