Christian discourse sometimes evinces an undiagnosed but real illness. This malady, when untreated, makes our conversations and thought-life unwell. It makes Christian unity difficult and often leads to clashes over opinions.
Here is what I mean. We do not distinguish between the words people use (idioms) and what they mean by those words (judgments). Applied to Christian discourse, the problem becomes clear. We sometimes commend or condemn others on the basis of theological idioms, not judgments.
That is not good. Scripture commends Christian unity as evidence that the church follows Christ. Disunity, then, damages our public witness of the Gospel.
Quick judgments based on idioms are not good because we can associate someone’s idiom (words) with some prior judgment that we have (a negative one) when the other person intends no such thing! Here is a simple example. Someone might say, “I appreciated how the government has handled the crisis.”
When we hear this phrase, we can immediately judge: this person doesn’t care about the businesses that have shut down or this person is a liberal now or this person does not care how governmental measures will harm people’s mental health.
These judgments may miss the mark. The speaker might have had a close family sick with COVID-19 and lost a job. So she intended to talk about these specific matters. It has nothing to do with her political positions, nor flows from a lack of sympathy, nor even denies the downstream effect of the pandemic (suicide, depression, etc.).
The same problem lies along more explicitly theological lines. Scripture uses such diverse imagery and idioms to explain truth. Theologians do too. As an example, Fourth century Christians spoke of “theosis,” John Calvin referred to “union,” and we often say “participation” today. Each idiom basically means the same thing: being in Christ.
The Greek Fathers never meant that we become ontologically divine. They meant we become like God through Christ. We become godly. John Calvin uses “union” to describe the closeness we have by being in Christ. Participation means we live in the body of Christ. The theological judgments here, albeit with some different nuances, basically amount to the same conclusion.
These above illustrations show us why we need to ask: Well, what do you mean? What does your “idiom” signify? Which judgment? It’s much easier in person to figure out. We just need to ask. On the internet, it is almost impossible because of the deep web of idioms and their associated judgments.
We hear idioms (justice, injustice, racism, etc.), and we immediately associate the speaker or article with some judgment (critical theory, marxism, biblical, unbiblical, etc.).
Yet given how language works, we need to first ask: what do you mean by the idiom (or words) that you use? To make sound judgments on the basis of idioms requires patient listening and oftentimes asking questions, although sometimes it’s more obvious than other times.
So how can we overcome this problem? How can we heal our tongues and hearts of this malady? The Bible provides a number of wise, useful ways to do so:
First, be quick to hear in order to save your soul:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19–21)
Note that being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger leads to our reception of the word which saves us. Hearing someone well relates to our salvation.
Second, stop making immediate judgments because it is sinful:
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11–12)
While this passage has a broad application, consider this: being quick to hear is part of the law of love. So therefore making an immediate judgment against a brother without listening to hear what their words mean means that “you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
Third, deny anger and love wisdom: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Prov 14:29). Proverbs 15:18 speaks of slowing one’s anger as a means to overcome contention: “he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” In fact, overlooking an offence flows from good sense and is a person’s glory according to Proverbs 19:11.
Love covers a multitude of sins, after all (1 Pet 4:8). We know this because incarnate Wisdom wisely lives and died for our sake because he loved us. Being wise is being Christ-like. And covering sin for the sake of unity is a glory.
Distinguish theological idioms from theological judgments. The first means the wording we use in theology; and the second points to the meaning of those words. When we get this wrong, we become unwise. We become sick. Scripture heals of this malady. Let’s take our medicine by listening well before we make any judgment about someone’s words.