We live in a culture of outrage that permeates almost every aspect of our social interactions, including within the church. In the age of social media where algorithms reward the most outrageous content by pushing it to the tops of our feeds, sharp disagreements have more often than not been marked by harshness of tone.
In fact, some online influencers have built their entire empire on outrage, leveraging the coarsest and most inflammatory language possible to generate the highest rates of engagement. When clicks and shares are the endgame, insults and innuendo become more important than nuanced arguments and fact-checking, even for those who label themselves as journalists or news sources—even Christian journalists and news sources.
Vulgarity of tone is so prevalent in public discourse about certain hot button issues—whether pandemic safety measures, how to address race in America, or the theology of women in church leadership—that the tone of an argument has often become just as much a subject of controversy as the content of that argument.
For the person spewing the insults and innuendo, these kinds of rebukes about their lack of charity often fall on deaf ears. In fact, they see their coarseness of tone as inherently virtuous, godly even. Therefore criticism against them is a form of persecution perpetrated against them by the “tone police.”
“Evangelical tone police are constantly writing tickets to those who violate their subjective standard of affability and geniality, as if tone is what makes the gospel effectual. Christians should be gracious (Col. 4:6), but never so gracious as to let someone remain in their sin,” recently said Darrell B. Harrison, who serves as Dean of Social Media for John MacArthur’s “Grace To You” ministry.
This is a relatively common sentiment.
Similarly, former conservative political lobbyist and current seminary student William Wolfe recently said, “A brief list of faithful Christian men that the ‘tone police’ would try to silence if they were alive today: Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.”
On the face of it, such statements seem pious enough. After all, failing to tell the truth, particularly when it comes to matters of life and faith, is not a loving act. No one can argue that. Also, no one can argue that the men listed above, at times, used hard words in order to further noble causes.
On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that, for a number of them, they also had glaring character gaps, including sins such as unrepentant racism.
But not to detract from the main point. What the “facts don’t care about your feelings” and “the truth matters more than how it makes you feel” crowd often fail to appreciate is that while they’re often at pains to tell us that they’re speaking this way from a place of love, they could’ve fooled us. From where many of us sit, it kind of seems like the other thing.
And I can agree that in certain circles, cancel culture and policing of language are fairly oppressive and often vindictive even toward those whose hearts were in the right place but didn’t use the “right” word.
But that isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is basic decency. Let us not forsake something as fundamental as that just because we don’t like “snowflakes.”
Here are at least three reasons why tone is still so vitally important in public discourse for Christians.
The Way You Feel About Someone Comes Across in the Way You Speak to Them (or About Them)
No matter how much you say you love somebody or that you’re speaking the truth in love, if all you ever are is a jerk to somebody, then they will assume that you hate them.
And in many cases, we actually do hate the people that we speak harshly or unkindly to (or about). It’s just that if we have the cover of “truth,” we can lie to ourselves and others and say that our words are really a loving act and not a transparent display of vitriol or bigotry.
Much has been said about the so-called sin of empathy. Yes, some Christian theologians really do think that empathy is sinful, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. When we become so hardened in a belief that hatred is itself godly, then we will contort our theology in all kinds of bizarre ways.
Yes, Christians will be labeled as harsh for preaching certain truths, like the exclusivity of the gospel, the rights of the unborn, or a biblical sexual ethic. Regardless of how kindly you say those things, some people will think you’re a bigot.
But that doesn’t mean that we should actually be bigots. We must care about being kind, winsome, and empathetic, even as we stand firmly on what we believe to be undeniable truths.
Further, when it comes to debatable matters, such as mask policies, vaccine efficacy, which political candidates we should vote for, or how to understand what the bible says about female leadership in local church settings, spewing hatred at others makes even less sense than when we do it regarding matters that the vast majority of Christians believe to be settled.
Stop masking hate in mere truth telling. If you find yourself constantly griping about how the tone police are coming after you again just for telling the truth, maybe take a step back and think about not only what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it.
Speaking Unkindly Isn’t a ‘Manly’ Thing to Do
For some Christians, they see their hate-filled speech not only as godly and loving, but also manly. As cultural norms around masculinity have continued to shift in our culture, whether it be in fashion, household roles, or career choices, some Christian men have felt as though the biblical definition of masculinity is under attack.
And to be sure, in some ways, it is. The widespread acceptance of fluidity with regard to gender and sexuality presents a very real challenge to Christians who are seeking to remain true to how we believe God designed us.
But along with that, what has also been put on public trial is a toxic version of masculinity that has more to do with 20th century cowboy sensibilities than it does the biblical model of sacrificial servant leadership.
Nevertheless, since all of those things have often been bundled together and labeled as “biblical manhood,” some Christian leaders actually think that being a jerk is the manly thing to do, and being manly is the godly thing to do.
Case in point is this quote from a talk Voddie Baucham gave at the 2022 Shepherd’s Conference last week: “Here is what I’ve found out about those who complain about tone: The tone they don’t like is ‘masculine.’ They don’t like strong, direct, and clear communication.”
But if the problem were merely that Christian leaders and public commentators were just being abundantly clear, direct, and strong, then this conversation wouldn’t be happening. But that isn’t the case.
Pettiness isn’t being direct. Insults aren’t strong. And if one thing is clear, it’s the fact that many of us Christians need to deprogram ourselves from thinking of John Wayne as the ultimate image of manhood and instead look to Jesus as the true model for masculinity.
Hard Truths Don’t Always Require Harsh Tones
The truth of the matter is that the church in America does need strong men who bravely tell the truth. The problem is that we’re defining how we think that should look in really unhealthy ways.
In defense of that unhealthy definition of bravery, we often point to Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. After all, Jesus didn’t seem to mince words with them, and he often had some pretty harsh things to say to them and about them.
But here are a couple of things to consider when casting ourselves as Jesus against the Pharisees.
The first is that Jesus was in very close relational proximity to the Pharisees. In many ways, they were his tribe. There probably wasn’t any other group in his culture that Jesus had more theological agreement with. And since he was so well acquainted with that tribe, he had the relational credibility and authority to speak freely into it both winsomely and prophetically.
Let me ask you this: do the Christians who say unkind and uncouth things against the LGBTQ community, progressive politicians, or those who have deconstructed out of their faith communities have the same kind of relational credibility with them?
The other thing is this. When we use Jesus’ words against the Pharisees as justification for our own unkind words, we are making one ginormous assumption: that we are Jesus in this situation and literally anyone who disagrees with us is an enemy to the mission of Jesus. That’s a pretty grandiose vision of our own views and opinions.
What we further fail to see is that a harsh tone was not the norm for Jesus. In fact, if you pay close attention, you will notice a marked change in Jesus’ tone depending on who he was speaking to. While he never stopped telling the truth, he did shift his tone according to what kindness dictated in that situation. Because while Jesus wasn’t always nice, he was always kind.
Further, the people with whom Jesus was most direct did not lack in acts of piety or righteousness but rather were calloused in their attitude and tone toward everyone else.
What’s more is that Jesus’ words were never vindictive. They were the just words of God’s judgment. This goes without saying, but we are not Jesus. So we should speak words of judgment ever so sparingly. What we must rather do is follow Jesus’ example in the way he treated others as a normative practice. He wasn’t always “nice,” in the sense that he didn’t shy away from difficult truths. But he was always kind.
So yes, Christian, watch your tone.