“let no one deceive you with empty words” (Eph 5:6)
The fall out from Mark Driscoll’s resignation at Mars Hill continues.
There is much that could be said about this saga but most of it has been said already by those far more capable than I am to address it.
However there is one aspect of the drama that has especially struck me, and that I have never seen highlighted elsewhere, and is an issue that actually goes far beyond the problems at Mars Hill.
One of the most depressing things that has struck me in this whole affair (and in so many other church fallouts) is the vocabulary that is being employed in the dispute.
This is something in the modern church that troubles me greatly.
One recently-issued statement from Mars Hill is a fine example of this:
"We love you very much Mars Hill…”
“We ask for forgiveness from those who have been hurt…”
Now to what gratuitously offensive vocabulary am I here referring? Where are the blood-curdling threats, the hateful invective?
There are none, of course. You see we are Christians and so we know we are not allowed to hurl such deprecatory language around. Only pagans do that.
Instead in the Church what we do is attack one another in a much more subtle manner by the use of Christian platitudes.
Now if this were an isolated example of seemingly loving language at Mars Hill, and one that signalled a real change of heart amongst the combatants then I would obviously welcome such words.
The problem is that these same words will have prefaced virtually every communication from MH for months at least. The gushing vocabulary is just business as usual and that is the problem.
And, as I have said, the problem goes way beyond Mars Hill.
Virtually any letter issued by any party in a church dispute these days is prefaced with these flowery affirmations of the writers’ love for the other party and his heartfelt desire to see repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Love, forgiveness, repentence, reconciliation.
These are vitally important biblical words, and I submit that they are not words that are to be bandied about lightly. Unfortunately that is precisely what I believe is taking place too often in our day.
My concern is that in all of the Christianese emitted by church spokesmen (has that become a biblical office?), the same seemingly irenic language is serving only as a formulaic phrase that is being ritually cut-and-pasted into the start of each letter. In short, it is boiler plate.
It has become de rigueur to first use the politically expedient Christian verbiage, then once it is safely in place, to get down to the serious business of tearing your opponent to shreds!
This cutting and pasting of the “right” prefacing words, once considered the domain of cynical politicians and mendacious spin doctors, has now spread far from the political arena and has crept insidiously into the very heart of Christ’s Church.
All of us ought to object strongly to the misuse of biblical language in this way.
What we are dealing with here is simply a ritual, a verbal game. The words used are not sincere and they only serve to empty some of our most wonderful words of real meaning.
It is a practice that has so corrupted the Church lexicon that I believe it constitutes a grave threat to actual communication itself within the Body.
I am always amused if ever I should come cross the old chestnut, “85% of communication is body language.” I do not know who dreamed up that one but I do know that it is utter tosh!
I can assure you that if I were to give you merely the body language of any complex statement without also providing any actual words that there is no one of you who would come anywhere close to establishing 85% of what I said. Now, if you were to reverse the figures and say that 85% of communication is verbal and 15% is body language then I might just buy that.
No, it is words- either spoken or written- that human beings use to communicate. This means that words matter, or at least they ought to.
Christ Himself warned us that our prayers- the lifeblood of our vital union with God - are not to be filled with meaningless repetitions issued for their own sake (Mt 6:7). He knew that such empty rhetoric only devalues the relationship with our Heavenly Father.
And what is true in prayer is true in our human relationships also. So how is that so many of us babble like the heathen do?
When dealing with one another in the Church we must learn to say what we mean, and mean what we say. To let our yes be yes and our no be no.
Now I realize that “a soft answer turneth away wrath” and all that, and that we each of us ought to be very careful that we do not employ vocabulary that is needlessly provocative. “Speak the truth in love” is our oft-quoted biblical maxim and a valuable one it is when used correctly.
But the desire for a “soft answer” and to “speak truth in love” is too often not the motivation of those using this kind of language in our day. Instead churchmen are too-often deploying words in a mealy-mouthed manner that is intended to accomplish nothing more than ensuring that we have adhered to the politically-correct niceties prior to getting to our actual point.
As someone has well-said, when somebody describes a person using a long string of compliments before coming to a “but” then generally you can forget everything that precedes the “but”!
Brethren it ought not to be this way amongst us.
As believers we affirm the power of the spoken and written word. How can we do otherwise when we serve the One who is The Word, God’s final and greatest communication with His creation?
Words matter and when we devalue them by meaningless and vain repetitions we are doing great disservice to our own cause in the Church.
I have seen in my own pastoral experience how feuding parties in church invariably know just the right words to deploy in order (they think) to impress the pastor with their deeply felt remorse over the conflict.
Such people have been in the Church back-biting game long enough to know precisely what biblical buzz-words are needed, and seemingly they think the pastor too green to see it!
The real danger is that once our language has been corrupted in this way we risk having nothing meaningful left to say to each other when we eventually move from the pretence of reconciliation to the actual business of reconciliation.
In the case of the Mars Hill debacle we ought not to dismiss the possibility that one day the Holy Spirit may actually move upon the heart of someone involved in this whole sorry affair and that a person will subsequently seek to manifest some genuine love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in this situation.
But the danger is that their efforts at rapprochement will go wholly unnoticed by the other side simply because the only words available for them to use have already been fired in volleys by both sides so often that they have long since been emptied of any meaning.
So please, church disputants, until such time as you are genuinely remorseful about a matter, can we ask you to refrain from throwing around words like love, forgiveness, and reconciliation like verbal confetti?
We all know that cut-and-paste forgiveness is really no forgiveness at all, and I can assure you that its use does not impress the rest of us with your deep spirituality and Christian maturity. Quite the opposite.
Love, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation are beautiful words. Indeed, in the context of the Gospel they are truly sacred words. They are not words that belong to any one of us alone and so no one of us has the right to devalue them in this way.
We all of us will have need of those words on a regular enough basis as it is, as we seek to live together in covenant community as sinners saved by grace.
More importantly still they are words that we all rely upon hearing said to us when we arrive at the Judgement Seat.
Let us make sure they haven’t become mere cliché prior to that.