Speak Out Or Not - a Biblical perspective
The problem defined
In my previous article, "Speak Out Or Keep Your Mouth Shut" I looked at the problem of what to do when you see a disaster coming, and to warn others would mean criticizing popular or powerful people. Now I'm going to focus more on the Biblical aspects on this, and how various misinterpretations of the Bible can get in the way.
I have seen churches slowly die because of subtle heresies and idolatries. And I have been in a church where the pastor's son was sexually molested by a trusted youth leader, having ignored warning signs. When a church is caught up in groupthink, it simply won't see these disasters coming. All the warning signs will be ignored. Someone who is not yet infected with the groupthink must try to warn the others. But it won't be easy. They won't want to hear it. They will tell you, in as many words, to shut up. Even worse, they will tell you you're not a good Christian if you don't keep your mouth shut.
In this article, I'll look at the rationalizations they use to make it seem unchristian to do the the very Christian thing of telling the awful truth. I will use scripture itself to dismantle each false argument.
"This must be said, so let it be said." - Kierkegaard
Submit means shut up?
If you speak out in church against any practice, or question any person of influence, you will probably get a lecture about submission. There are many and sundry scriptures about submission to church authority, and you'll hear them all. What you won't hear is what any of this has to do with keeping your mouth shut.
It's all a non sequitur. In certain people's minds, "submit" means "shut up and don't question." But logically, there's no connection. Submission is about what you do, not what you say. Sensible people have a concept of compliance under protest. There's nothing in the Bible that says you can't comply under protest.
In fact, there's a great deal in the Bible saying you should protest when something is wrong. For our purposes, let's focus only on those contexts where Christians tell you - wrongly - to keep your opinions to yourself.
"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." - Martin Luther
Church authority and dissent
Should we submit to the authority of the church? Yes, up to a point. But there are limits.
Suppose the church says something that clearly goes against the Bible? You can't have it both ways, and you shouldn't let them try to have it both ways.
In I Corinthians, Paul discusses at length the problems of factions within the church. These passages have been interpreted to mean there should be no dissensions in the church, but that's not quite Paul's point:
1 Corinthians 11:19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
Why does he add this qualifier? Consider that in many other places he condemns heresy quite harshly. Suppose the leadership of the church is preaching heresy? What then? Well, how do you know it's heresy? First, someone has to speak out. Then, events must transpire to show the error of one way of thinking or the other.
Dissent is like a fever. A fever is a sign that something is wrong with the body. It is also the body's way of dealing with the infection. never mistake the symptom for the illness. The symptom may well be the immune system dealing with the illness.
Of course, a fever is a very unpleasant thing. And if it goes on too long, or if it happens repeatedly, it can do more harm than good. There are many crippling autoimmune diseases caused by a malfunctioning immune system. Does this mean we should have no immune system at all? I think not.
Read I Corinthians closely. Is Paul calling for unity above all? Absolutely not. He is very specifically calling for believers to agree with one another in Christ. When the only faction left is Christ's faction, then the illness has run its course. Any other form of unity is spiritual death.
Too much division and dissent is a very bad thing. But no dissent at all is the sign of a cult. If you're upset that there is division in the church, you may be right to be alarmed... but only if there's a lot of it and it's been going on a long time without getting resolved, or of it seems to be over trivial matters.
If dissent is not voiced at all, then perhaps it has been resolved in the wrong way. Perhaps truth has been suppressed so that falsehood can reign unchallenged. Unity is important, but truth is more important. Better to be in Christ's faction than to have no factions and no Christ.
Ultimately, perhaps you should leave and go to another church. But that just bumps the problem up another level. What is the difference between factions in a church body versus different denominations in Christendom? Merely a difference in scale. Should we do away with denominations in the name of unity? Or should we let God choose on which faction to bestow His favor?
The double bind of pride
There are plenty of verses against pride, and they will be used against anyone who questions the pronouncements of leaders. It's helpful to keep in mind that pride cuts both ways, but not equally...
Those most in danger of pride are those who enjoy spiritual prestige and authority. In other words, the church leaders. Jesus publicly criticized the Pharisees. the Pharisees were not merely righteous in their own eyes. They were righteous in other people's eyes, too. Jesus did not buy into this consensus.
Those who are powerful become insulated from criticism. Nobody dares question them, so they forget that they are capable of error. They live in an echo chamber, surrounded by yes men. They never get the reality check until too late. That is, unless someone dares speak the truth to them.
Just because you disagree doesn't mean you're prideful. What makes you prideful is if you think it's prideful to disagree with you. That's the irony of pride: it's guilty of psychological projection. The first to make the accusation of pride is the most likely to be guilty of the sin.
The cult of nice
Churches are full of people with weak sensibilities. They blanch if you put something too strongly. We should bear with their failings, of course. But what if the ones in authority suffer this defect?
The Bible is full of strong language. Look at Ezekiel 23. Look at the Song of Solomon. Consider Paul's invective against the circumcisers in Galatians, where he suggests they cut their own you-know-whats completely off.
But isn't it wrong to cuss? Aren't there Bible verses saying not to use cuss words? Sort of. But there is no list of seven dirty words in the Bible. Instead, there is a definition:
Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
What is good for edifying? The truth. What truth is most necessary? The truth that hasn't already been told. What truth hasn't already been told? The truth people don't want to hear. That is the sort of truth you must proclaim.
What is corrupt communication? That which tears down instead of edifying. What tears down the most? Lies and evasions. Which lies and evasions are most effective? Those which are pleasing to the ear. That is what you must above all refrain from uttering. The real blasphemy doesn't sound awful at all. That's what's wrong with it.
Should we try to phrase the truth delicately? If possible, yes. But not to the point of failing to get the point across. Take your example from scripture itself. If the Holy Spirit sometimes uses language that would give old ladies the vapors, who are we to refrain when absolutely necessary?
There are certain people we shouldn't tell certain truths to, because they can't handle it and it would do no good. It's not edifying to give people more than they can handle. We shouldn't lie to them, either. Just don't say anything. As long as these are not the decision makers, that's not a problem. But when they're in charge, it's another matter.
I've observed that people who can't handle strongly worded talk generally can't handle unpleasant truths, no matter how delicately worded. Taking the big picture view, people who can't handle the truth should not be in positions of leadership in the church - or anywhere else, for that matter. That's not to say there isn't a place for those of delicate sensibilities. Just don't put them in charge. A leader should be made of sterner stuff.
A Christian once told me he had protested at work when his co-workers used swear words. He maintained that by doing so he had taken a principled stand and had shone as a witness to a sinful world. I have a feeling he only came across as an overly sensitive prude. I very much doubt he brought anyone closer to Christ that way. An obsession with the words people use or their perceived tone of voice is shallowness. It puts appearance ahead of substance. When you put the words ahead of the truth, then whatever you say is a blasphemy against the God of truth.
On the other hand, if someone throws out the F-bomb constantly, there's something wrong with him. Not because of some arbitrary sequence of sounds he keeps making, but because of his reasons for doing so. It's a symptom of something ugly deep inside his soul. If he stops yelling out the F-word, the nastiness inside him will still be there. Only a shallow person would think that's much of an improvement. Don't tell him he shouldn't swear so much. Tell him he shouldn't want to in the first place. Address the disease, not the symptom!
Truth or harmony?
When forced to choose, do you err on the side of truth or the side of harmony?
Submit to the (worldly) powers that be
Submit to the powers that be, for they are ordained of God. What then, if the powers that be oppose God? Scripture has an answer for that, too. In fact, the Bible illustrates the point repeatedly. Moses did not submit to Pharaoh. Elijah did not submit to Ahab. Jesus did not submit to the Sanhedrin.
Between total submission and rebellion there is a middle ground. David explored this middle ground. He was persecuted by king Saul, and could easily have overthrown Saul, but refused or principle to slay the Lord's anointed. His resistance took two forms: he refused to stay in one place when Saul wanted to kill him - a kind of civil disobedience - and he protested loudly at how he was being treated. This last is an important point. David did not shut up.
David obeyed Saul under protest. And he obeyed only up to a point. Saul, in his pride, would call this rebellion. But David was faithful to a higher authority.
No man can serve two masters. The powers that be are ordained of God, and God can overrule them. God commands us boldly to tell the truth. Whoever commands us not to has overstepped the authority delegated to him by God.
It's worth mentioning that in a democratic regime, the voters are theoretically the ultimate secular authority. If you submit to a democratic government, you are submitting to the majority of the voters. But truth is not a matter to be voted on. Only submit to the majority up to a point.
The prophetic stance: commanded to speak out
We tend to think of prophets as people who told the future. That was a relatively minor part of their function. The main job of the prophets was - and still is - boldly speaking truth to authority, both secular and spiritual.
The gift of prophecy is listed among the spiritual gifts that are portioned out unequally. Some of us are called by God to be prophets. Not to predict the future necessarily, although we do tend to see things coming before others do. Our job is to speak out when something is wrong. To say that is is somehow unchristian to do so is to contradict every passage in scripture that deals with prophecy.
Most of the Old Testament tells of prophets. So does much of the New Testament. From Moses onward, prophets rebuked secular power. Many also rebuked the priestly class. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees. So did Stephen. Paul set Peter straight. Nothing has changed since Biblical times. Where would we be if Martin Luther had not opposed the excesses of the Catholic church?
It takes a certain type of personality to perform the prophetic mission. You have to see more clearly than others what is going on right now and what it will lead to. You also have to have the bold faith to say so, directly to the powerful. In the case of spiritual authorities, you must reject and deflect the distortions of scripture that they throw up to silence you. You must face persecution of sorts within the church itself.
This is not arrogance. It is not pride. It's not even rebellion. It is no more arrogant than evangelizing. You have to have some self assurance to be a believer in the first place, and even more to be a witness to the truth. The same mentality which with you preach to the world is the one in which you must preach to a worldly church. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecy with contempt.
And what of those who don't feel they have the gift of prophecy? Are they off the hook? Not entirely. We are all called to be a witness for the God of truth. We don't all have to do it the same way, but we're all expected to do it somehow. If you're keeping your mouth shut then you're not evangelizing.
And don't think that the mission field starts outside the church doors. Many churches are corrupted by worldly influences. The mission field is wherever spiritual darkness is found. Remember, the Pharisees were believers in God, and were thought righteous by the entire congregation, but that didn't make them righteous. Nothing in human nature has changed since then. There are always Pharisees in some form.
Conclusion: the watchman
Finally, some Biblical passages that deal with the responsibility to say something:
Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: if when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul. But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand. So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.
Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.
And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.