Does Ephesians 4:29 Apply to Blogs?
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV). Could Paul actually mean that? Are we really never to gossip or slander or judge another person? If so, then why is this one of the most rarely obeyed verses in the Bible?
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV). Our speech is not to tear down but to build people up. Our words should be appropriate to the situation and should be an extension of grace.
Two verses later Paul adds, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” I am pretty sure that the type of corrupting talk he has in mind is the result of human anger, anger that should have been dealt with and sin that should have been forgiven, which is the topic of the next verse. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
This issue is sufficiently significant that it resurfaces a few verses later. “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (5:4).
One of the patterns that I have noticed is that we often are justified in our anger and that anger vents itself in ungodly language that clearly violates the clear teaching of Scripture. But because our anger is so strong, and our justification so deep, we feel that not only are we justified to speak in corrupting and graceless ways, but that we have some sort of divine mandate to do so. It would be wrong, we reason, to speak any other way.
I have often commented to myself (and those around me) that gossip, slander, and critical speech are the native tongue in the church. I was talking to a friend the other day who said that when they first started to attend their church, they decided to go to Sunday School. The two ladies in front of them (and it could just as well been men) were gossiping up a storm. In fact, one, in particular, was ripping on other women, so much so that my friends were uncomfortable and started to leave. Just then an elder came into the room, sat down next to the woman spewing poison, put his arm around her and started talking to her. She was his wife.
This kind of story can be replicated over thousands of churches, thousands of church leaders, and most everyone else. Our anger makes us strong, but it does not satisfy. We gossip and slander and tear down; but it never satisfies, so we continue to violate the clear teaching of Scripture. And we wonder why people are not attracted to the grace of Jesus Christ.
This attitude of entitlement — I have a right to express myself in angry and violent terms — shows itself in many venues. When I was pastoring, I had the rule that if someone wanted to encourage me, email was great. If they wanted to criticize me, it had to be done face-to-face. I have a file of happy notes that I read and reread, from students and parishioners. They are a source of great encouragement and edification. But if someone has something against me, the only biblical option is to talk to me face-to-face. Scripture makes no other allowance.
Email gives us great strength. Because we are not looking right at the person, we lose a sense of accountability and are often more willing to use stronger language, words that do not convey grace, make conclusions that are based more on imagination than fact. We make more ourselves, and we make less of the person to whom we are writing.
This sinful fact is exaggerated in the academy. We are taught, and we teach others, that in an academic situation it is right to be critical. At one level this is true. The academy is the place to exchange ideas, critique arguments, evaluate judgments. I love this type of debate. But at what point does helpful, grace-giving evaluation and critique move over the line and violate the words of Paul? And when this conflict does arise, who is right? The academy or Paul?
As a teacher and pastor, I have thought a lot about this issue, but a few days ago it surfaced again. Someone responded to a blog I had written that talked about a person who shot a bullet through a certain translation and mailed it to the president of the publishing company. I cannot repeat the response because of its vulgarity, but basically, the person said a bullet was too good for this translation. The title used sexually vulgar language, and the content of the blog used the F-bomb to describe their opinion of the translation.
What is amazing to me, but not unexpected, was that I have no doubt this person felt fully justified in the use of vulgar and profane language. His anger had established patterns of thinking that kept him from seeing his clear violation of God’s law. How does that happen? It reminds me of the student who spent 30 minutes cussing me out. When I suggested that his use of the S word was inappropriate for a Christian and a pastor, he justified his language by saying it wasn’t swearing, just being vulgar. Somehow in his mind, that justified his language.
It seems to me that all of us need to be aware of this trap. I remember being confronted by a good friend. I was speaking with another pastor about a person in the church I was frustrated with, and I wasn’t very kind. My friend loved me enough to take me into the other room and in no uncertain terms let me know my attitude was inappropriate. I had justified my speech because I was a pastor speaking to another pastor, and somehow I had built patterns into my thinking that allowed this type of ungracious speech. I was wrong.
Perhaps this is a lesson we all need to learn. There are ways to disagree with people and their ideas, even strongly disagree, that do not violate Jesus’ or Paul’s instructions on speech. We all have established patterns of thought that justify sin, even to the point that we can’t (or don’t want to) see an obvious lack of grace. And this is nowhere more obvious than in emails and blog postings.
So what if we accept the following guidelines?
1. Take every thought captive to Christ. In other words, think before we speak and write, weighing everything we say and write against the teachings of our Lord.
2. Feel free to disagree when it is appropriate to the situation, but always do so as an expression of grace.
3. When wanting to encourage, write it.
4. When wanting to criticize, if possible, do so face to face. If it is absolutely not possible, write only what you would say face to face.
5. No matter how angry or justified you feel, there is never a place for cruel or vulgar speech.
Maybe then we wouldn’t have to moderate blog postings.