Speaking the truth in love

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[Note: Although an exposition of the Epistle for the day, this is also a topical sermon related to others. For further material on homosexuality in the church which is referred to the last section of this sermon see also the relevant section of Issues in the Uniting Church on this site.]

If the truth hurts, do you tell the truth? In the passage we read from Ephesians today we are encouraged to speak the truth to one another:

That is clearly about being honest, and not deceiving each other. The reason that we should speak the truth to each other, says Paul is that we belong to each other; indeed more than that: we are members of one another. I take this to include the idea that Christian believers are all members of the one body of Christ and should be building each other up in truth and love. As the various parts of the body depend upon one another, so we should be open and honest with each other for the effective functioning of the whole body for the good of all. The body cannot function well if the various parts send false messages to each other. As with a physical human body, it is as if when the hand is moving to pick up something the eye were to send a message to the hand that it is over to the left when it is fact to the right. Co-ordination or working together requires all the parts, in any kind of body, to receive reliable information from each other and about each other. Families don't work well if people deceive each other and there is lack of trust, and neither does human society in general, so putting away falsehood will generally make things go better. There is a general human value in speaking the truth, as well as the value to Christians of the way our fellowship works to encourage spiritual growth.

It was in the context of growing to maturity in the faith that Paul used the well known and often quoted phrase speaking the truth in love. It occurs earlier in the same chapter than the passage we read today after he had written of building up the body of Christ ... to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ:

Members of one another

I will come back to this shortly, because there is more in the context that is very important: the "But" introduces a contrast between speaking the truth in love and a particular kind of falsehood. Before we come to that, let us take note of one other aspect of the reason Paul gives for speaking the truth to our neighbours in the text with which we began: for we are members of one another. Being members of one another carries a little more meaning than being members of the same body. It goes beyond the idea that we need to be truthful so that the parts of the body can work together. It says we are each not only parts of a larger body but parts of each other -- members of one another. We are so involved in the lives of others, and they in our lives, that any falsehood or deception of them is a deception of ourselves. The integrity of our speech is a function of our integrity as persons. It works both ways, people who are not whole integrated persons, who do not know who they are or where they are going, behave inconsistently and deceive others in both speech and action; and wherever people do deceive others their relationships tend to disintegrate while they lose a sense of wholeness in themselves. People who become alienated from others tend to become alienated from themselves.

Well, you might say, that is common human wisdom, the sort of thing that people anywhere might learn by observation of human experience. You might wonder whether there is anything particularly Christian about it. I believe that what Jesus taught, and what he achieved in his work on earth, is not only for the good of those who are his followers, but for the benefit of the whole of humanity. As to speaking the truth to our neighbours, I think we can see an obvious way in which the way of Christ is different from common human wisdom, and in fact challenges that wisdom to be more true to itself.

When are people in our society often encouraged not the tell the truth? One fairly common experience in daily work is the little, or not so little, office lie. The boss wants you to tell a client that he is out when he not, or the cheque is in the mail when it is not, so you might deceive someone, perhaps in a small way. This sort of thing, and deception on a larger scale, tends to be justified in terms of the interests of the company or the government or perhaps the family. Within a work group or family, speaking the truth is usually expected because you have to be able to trust the information provided by other members for people to work effectively. This is what we were saying before about the functioning of the body, both in Christian fellowship and in human groups generally. But does the same obligation extend to people outside the group? If you do not regard the client as part of the group in whose interest you are working then you might feel justified in deceiving that person. This is where what Jesus said about loving your neighbour applies in a way which challenges that tribal kind of group loyalty. The question he dealt with when he told the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) was, "And who is my neighbour?"

The point is that the kind of loyalty, consideration and compassion that is due a fellow member of your own family, group or nation is due to all people. The idea that we are members of one another is extended widely to include people beyond our own circle in the right to be told the truth. In fact many large commercial organisations recognise this general principle, at least to a limited extent. It is in their interests to consider the interests of those with whom they deal and to require that clients be dealt with honestly. This might not be simply because they run risks under the law if they are deceptive, but because it is good business too. The challenge of Christian teaching is to extend that sense of obligation without limit. So we are not talking here only of the ethics of behaviour within the Christian fellowship, or the sort of thing that Christians should do. Speaking the truth to our neighbours is important in the whole of human relationships for we are all members of one another. But there is a most important reason for speaking the truth within the fellowship of Christians because of the special nature of the body of Christ.

Speaking the truth about God

Let us go back to the context in which Paul encouraged speaking the truth in love. It had to do with what we believe and teach. Paul had been writing about building each other up in knowledge of the Son of God, into that maturity that is measured by comparison with Christ himself. In this the truth about Christ was absolutely important. It was not good enough to believe about him whatever suited your fancy, as in the latest book to win the Miles Franklin Award, or the spate of many other peculiar constructions on his life which it seems popular to read in preference to what his followers believe. There is nothing new in that. There have always been people who have served their own interests with false teaching. So after Paul had spoken of the knowledge that had the power to build people up, he went on to warn of false teaching:

Here we come to the hard part. If we are to speak the truth about God and about Christ, who is to say what is true? Should we not respect differences of opinion? Is not tolerance of different opinions essential to our living harmoniously in a diverse society, especially in regard to religious beliefs? Is not this idea of insisting upon the truth as we see it just another expression of the old religious bigotry which has done so much harm in the past, and still does in many places around the world? Can we not live and let live, giving every person's version of the truth equal respect? And after all, you might ask, is it not all a matter of personal opinion and preference anyway? If your beliefs are helpful to you, what does it matter if someone else thinks what you believe is not true; and what right do they have to say you are wrong?

Here we have the modern dilemma that leads into post-modern cynicism. If one belief is as good as another and it does not matter what you believe, then why believe anything at all? If you can believe anything your like, what is the point if what you believe is not true? I ask you, is it better to believe something that is false, or something that is true, no matter what your personal preference might be? It is not a popular view today, but I believe that sooner or later people will discover that it matters what is true regardless of what we prefer, regardless of who we are or where come from. Ultimately it matters because God is not to be fooled or manipulated. He does not change his nature to suit us. Disbelief in any objective universal truth comes from disbelief in God. In other words, religion, or certainly the Christian faith, is not all a matter of personal opinion. If it is not true independently of what you think, you might as well not bother with it. If it is not true in any sense apart from yourself, what value can there possibly be in believing it? On the other hand, I can hear people thinking, if it is not true for me personally, no matter what any supposed authority might say, how can I believe it?

This is an awfully big problem for people today. I don't know how much it troubles you. If you are a traditional believer, perhaps not very much, for you accept the truth about God as it has been handed on to us. But what if that tradition is like the language and culture of a foreign country to you. The truth about God has to be embodied in everyday things, in a living culture, in the way people think and act towards one another at a particular place at a particular time. That is why God sent his Son into the world, to live our life and die our death, so that the truth which takes us beyond this life could be revealed in our human life. That is why, too, there are many cultural differences in the way that even the one Christian faith is expressed, understood and lived out in different places and at different times. It is different for very poor people in a Chinese village who have recently adopted the faith, from what it is a prosperous Melbourne suburb among people whose families have believed in Christ for many generations. It is different even in a mixed community like ours amongst those who come from say a Southern European, or Asian, or Pacific Island or other 'ethnic' background, compared with the older Anglo or Celtic forms of the Christian religion. Denominational differences are not as sharp as they once were and may, in many ways be irrelevant, but the cultural differences are still obvious.

Differences about the truth in our church at present

In the Uniting Church, as in Australian society more generally, we have learned not only to tolerate such differences but to value positively the diversity of cultures that enriches us all. But there are limits. People are not prepared to allow any old version of the truth whatever equal standing, otherwise it would challenge the whole point of their believing at all. This is in fact what happened at the 1997 National Assembly of our church when the sexuality report was under debate. It was being claimed by some that tolerance of differences, in a genuinely inclusive church should lead to the full acceptance of people living in homosexual relationships. They said it was just like accepting people of a different race or different culture, and that they should be accepted as they are without any judgment of what was right or wrong in their particular lifestyle. But when it came to the point it was people who were indeed of a different race and those from different cultural backgrounds who said most clearly, 'No, we do not believe that would be a true expression of the faith.' It was the aboriginal representatives who said most strongly that their understanding of the truth would not allow what they believed to be false, and in that they were supported by people from the council of ethnic congregations. Those who had sought acceptance and endorsement of their homosexual way of life in the same way as different ethnic groups are accepted felt then that their claims of love had been denied by other people's understand of the truth about the word of God in those very groups with which they sought to have themselves compared.

So we come back to where we began, what do you do when the truth hurts? You speak the truth in love, but you still speak the truth, and you still love. You certainly do not say that anything goes or that one opinion is as good as another, or that cultural differences must allow people to do what would otherwise be regarded as sinful. People in the early church had to face the same kind of question when Gentiles were received into the church which had been entirely Jewish to begin with. They struggled over whether the new Christians from Greek and other non-Jewish backgrounds should be required to so change their way of life that they followed Jewish customs in everything. It was established after a good deal of conflict between different groups, and between Peter and Paul and others, that the Gentiles need not became Jewish and keep the old Jewish law which had been thought of as the law of God, especially in things like what they could eat and the festivals they observed. But that did not mean that the Gentile Christians could live in any way they pleased, and certainly not that they could continue to do what they had been doing in the past before they became Christians. The fact that they came from a different culture did not excuse them from living a holy and disciplined life. They were required to change, not to become Jewish, but to change nevertheless. It was in this context that Paul talked about speaking the truth in love. After using that phrase and spelling out its purpose to promote the body's growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16), Paul continues:

He insisted, you must no longer live as the Gentiles live. They had lived licentious lives and that, said Paul, was not the way of Christ:

Then followed the text with which we began from today's reading, imploring us to speak the truth to our neighbours:

How we are to speak the truth

The truth cannot be abandoned in order to include people who are different, but it might be hurtful sometimes to speak the truth about God and the way God expects us to live. It must be done, not because people who are different and outside our groups can be rejected, but for the very opposite reason, for we are members of one another. There is a good deal more that can and should be said about the question of homosexuality and what it means for the church, and I will plan to address it in more detail before the end of the year. Today I wish to make only one point in regard to the claims for acceptance that have been promoted in the church. The claim for acceptance like people of a different race or culture, to be treated as the Gentiles were treated in the early church and in Christ's teaching does not mean that people can be accepted without being expected to change their behaviour. It is not at all like the inclusion implied by Paul's famously inclusive word to the Galatians:

Whatever group they came from, it was essential for the truth of the gospel, that they were accepted in spite of such differences, but it did not mean that people could do as they pleased just because they came from a different group. The truth about God still mattered. The inclusion of all without discrimination as to nation, gender or social and economic status, still required all, wherever they came from to be renewed in the spirit of their minds, and to clothe themselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. In more abstract terms, a generalized doctrine of Gentile inclusion is not valid, and it cannot be used to justify behaviour that is consistently understood in scripture and Christian teaching to be abhorrent to God. More could be said from scripture about that too, which I hope I might do another day; for now, in more simple terms: the claims of love cannot be used to deny the truth. So let us then, in love, speak the truth about God as it has been revealed to us.

Please do not forget, however, the kind and gentle way in which Paul called on people to speak the truth. You can even be angry (Ephesians 4:26), but do not let the sun go down on your anger; Be constructive and resolve the problem. Do not let it fester and eat away at you. As Paul put it, do not make room for the devil (Verse 27). Sometime we hear people talk of speaking the truth in love and then using it as an excuse to be spiteful and damaging to one whom they claim to love. That is not what Paul was recommending. He went on to say,

Let me conclude by reminding you of the testimony of Laurie Jean Wilson given at the Assembly, some of which I included in our newsletter [at Templestowe]. Did you read it? She told how Christ transformed her from a lesbian lifestyle. One important factor in it was way that her home congregation had accepted her in spite of what they knew about her:

It is not easy, speaking the truth in love. It is only by the grace of God that it can be done at all. Yet we trust God to show us the way, to renew us together with those with whom we share the truth, by his grace alone.

[For more on the experience of Laurie Jean see her web site. For further material on homosexuality in the church see the relevant section of Issues in the Uniting Church on this site.]

© David Beswick, Templestowe Uniting Church, August 1997

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