Speaking the Truth in Love

By Paul Miles

Rob is a pastor. He leads a church of about 300 people in a small American town and has a missions board that supports ministries in several countries around the world. Paula is an active member of the church. She is in her early 20s and has decided that she wants to dedicate her life to becoming a missionary in Spain. Rob supports missionaries in Spain and speaks highly of the doctrine that the Spanish missionaries teach. Paula goes to college and gets a bachelor degree in Spanish and befriends several of Rob's missionaries through social networking. As she improves her language skills, she notices some problems with the Spaniards' theology. At first, she assumes that it is a language barrier, but soon she realizes that the missionaries she wants to join are "Rice Christians," that is, they only agree with Rob when he is around because they want his financial support, not because they sincerely agree with his doctrines. Outraged, she writes a mean letter to Rob for deceiving her and his congregation. Rob realizes that he exaggerated how well his missionaries understand theology, but cannot allow such subordination from Paula, so he calls her into his office to tell her that she needs to be more loving and continues supporting his missionaries despite their theology. Disappointed, Paula becomes involved in ministry in Venezuela where she is considered a persona non grata by Rob's followers.

What went wrong in this scenario? It is good that Rob wanted to support missions in Spain, and it is good that Paula spotted a problem and wanted to fix it. The problem is that neither of them spoke the truth in love. Rob wanted to show love without the element of truth and Paula wanted to bring people to truth without love. Both failed.

Trying to Love without Truth

In the previous scenario, Rob wanted to show love to missionaries on another continent. This is commendable. It is also a popular strategy in missions. The basic idea is that by meeting someone's physical needs (food, clothing, financial support, etc.), a church can show love and eventually the people the church is supporting will believe what the church teaches. This strategy is actually quite effective when applied with truth. For example, if a church sets up soup kitchen to feed the local homeless and explains the gospel once they have fed everyone, then this could be an effective ministry. However, if the idea is simply to send financial support overseas with the hope that someday the missionaries will magically adhere to the supporters' beliefs, then the element of truth is severely lacking. The plan will most likely fail but even if there is any success it will be at best an inefficient use of assets that could be better employed on the home front.

The root cause of the failure in this approach is a lack of truth that renders love ineffective. In fact, showing love without truth is negligent to the extent that it is safe to say that love without truth is not love at all. Many people fail to realize the importance of theology in the Christian life. Consider the doctrinal error called Lordship Salvation. Lordship Salvation teaches that "Genuine assurance [in one's eternal life] comes from seeing the Holy Spirit's transforming work in one's life."1 The basis of a Christian's assurance in his eternal life is no longer confidence in Christ, but rather confidence in his own works. Feeling accepted on a conditional basis can cause serious psychological damage. Many who fall into the error of Lordship Salvation have serious issues with their Christian walk because of this. In fact, a Lordship Salvationists who does not have serious issues in his Christian walk because of the doctrine of assurance either does not understand Lordship Salvation or he does not understand his own body of sin. A consistent Lordship Salvationist will live his life in fear as he cannot be certain of his salvation. Any sin he commits will be put on a scale to see if it was bad enough to outweigh the good things that he has done. His life will be a mess, and then a brother in Christ will say, "Hang in there, buddy. I love you." This is false love. Love without truth cannot exist. If a brother has gone astray from the truth and is suffering because of doctrinal error, then to ignore the problem is to neglect any hope of finding a solution.

Speaking the Truth without Love

While Rob failed to love by neglecting truth, Paula rendered her truth useless (and potentially counterproductive) with her lack of love. There's a popular anecdote of an atheist who once said, "God doesn't exist and I hate Him!" One of the most influential writings of the 20th century was Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm Not A Christian." In it, he gives insight to the behavior of Christians of his day:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.

How unfortunate that he should associate religion with cruelty. All of the other problems with Christianity which Russell calls to attention in his essay have been handled by apologists over the centuries,2 but it is difficult for any of these apologies to be effective when the atheist has an underlying struggle with Christian cruelty.3 This has become such a sensitive issue, that many Christians can hardly voice their opinions without being accused of hate-speech. Remember that yes, you do have the responsibility to speak the truth in love, but no, Jesus does not want you to judge.

Speaking the Truth in Love

In the scenario with Rob and Paula, both failed to speak the truth in love. Love cannot exist without truth and any attempt to withhold truth will only result in abuse. Since both Rob's and Paula's approaches have been deemed failures, the remaining task is to find the Biblical way to handling the truth in love.

There are some misconceptions about what it means to speak the truth in love, so it is important to turn to Scriptures first. Paul writes to the saints in Ephesus:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

It is important to note that "speaking the truth in love" is the manner in which Paul expects Christians to carry out the following command in this passage. One misconception is that speaking the truth in love means avoiding taking dogmatic stances, lest there be a risk of undermining love. The problem is that "speaking the truth in love" is the manner in which Christians "are to grow up in every way into him." This means growing in knowledge and doctrine. A verse earlier, in Ephesians 4:14, Paul writes, "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." He writes elsewhere of his disappointment in the Corinthians who had not grown doctrinally (1 Corinthians 3). Standing for dogma sometimes means speaking harshly as Paul exemplifies when he calls the Galatians foolish and bewitched (Galatians 3:1-3). However, this is not a license to disregard all discretion and speak harshly to all. Jude reminds believers to "have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh" (Jude 1:22-23). This command is to be carried out in a way that is sensitive to the brother's needs and situation. The believer needs to utilize wisdom in his expression of dogma, but he must accept the responsibility to speak the truth in love.

Another misconception is that speaking the truth in love will never cause division and so any division that comes about is the result of not speaking the truth in love. After all, the whole body should be "joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped." There is most definitely a theme of Church unity throughout the New Testament. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, "I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10). However, Paul also handed over Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan so they would learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:18-20). In an ideal church, when everything and everyone is functioning, the church members speak the truth in love to each other and everyone grows. Paul said that Hymenaeus and Alexander had "made shipwreck of their faith" (1:19), meaning that they were no longer functioning positively but were leading people into ungodliness as their word spread like gangrene (2 Timothy 2:16-17). Functional and mutual speaking in love will result in growth, but if speaking in love is unable to correct others like Hymenaeus and Alexander, then love demands that the church sever the gangrenous limbs to save the body.


Paula lives a blessed life in Venezuela amidst the protests and violence. She periodically checks in on her friends from her home town and sees that some attitudes in Rob's church are not much different. Several of her friends from years past have gone astray due to the lack of speaking in love. She knows that this is not God's desire and while she may have lost her opportunity to counsel Rob in his error, she knows that she can still speak the truth in love to those around her on another continent. And so, she repents.

1 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 23. Quoted by J. Kevin Butcher, "A Critique Of The Gospel According To Jesus," JOTGES 02:1 (Spring 1989), 37. Available online here.
2 Check out some of Bold Grace's apologetics articles. "Five Proofs of God's Existence" by Thomas Aquinas and "The Epic, the Fail, and the Facepalm from the Nye vs. Ham Debate" by Grant Hawley are both good.
3 Read the story of one man's struggle after leaving Christianity in frustration with the hypocrisy and how he eventually returned to Christ after someone spoke the truth in love to him here.