Some time ago, I wrote about how we can be more thoughtful literary evangelists. In that article, I shared about my distaste for Christians using harsh language. Now, I’m not talking about swearing or profanity. That’s a whole different thing.
Instead, I’m talking about angry and fiery rhetoric—the kind that gets rewarded by social media algorithms and ratings. The kind that demonizes people with whom we disagree, and labels anyone who disagrees with us because… Well, more often than not, I suspect it’s because we just want to be right, even if it’s just in our own minds. We don’t really care if we’re going to win people with a sound argument. We just want to feel justified, maybe vindicated.1
As I look at the way Christians and society as a whole behave, I am concerned. Actually, that might not be strong enough language. I am scared out of my mind for us all. Christians are at risk of defaming the name of Jesus because of the way we speak. And people who need Jesus only develop stronger blinders because what they see from us is too often something repugnant.
Speaking to the guilty as one of the guilty
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen far short of my own standards on this matter. I’ve sinned with my words many times. I have been guilty both in my early years as a Christian, and as a slightly more mature one.
I’ve tended to be too quick to judge people based on certain theological viewpoints that I disagree with. I was wrong in doing so. I wasn’t being charitable in the way that I desire to be, and I’m convinced that the Lord desires us all to be. Likewise, I have been too willing to defend people who should not have been defended. I was being too charitable with them when the evidence pointed otherwise. And I was wrong to do so.
So I’m not coming to this as someone with an unblemished record. I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips, to borrow Isaiah’s lament (Isaiah 6:5). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been guilty of sinning in this way that has granted me some perspective. And here’s what I’ve seen: there actually is a time where harsh language is appropriate. Sometimes—though rarely—the only proper response is to be extremely harsh.
But how do we know when harsh language is most appropriate? Here are four principles that I should guide our thinking.
1. Am I using harsh language about my sins and failings?
This is something we see Paul in particular model well, as he directed many of his harshest comments toward himself. Specifically, to his own attempts to attain righteousness apart from Christ, which he described with a Greek word that could be translated as harshly as a word that will make some readers unsubscribe (Philippians 3:8). He said he was the least of the apostles, the least of all the saints, and even the chief of sinners. He didn’t hesitate to look inward, to consider his own heart. And when he weighed himself, he didn’t feel the need to make a compliment sandwich.
This is the most important time for us to use harsh language: when we’re dealing with our own sin. We should be unflinchingly honest—harsh—about our own sin. Call it out for what it is. Don’t sugarcoat it, or treat it as a pet. Name sin as sin—name it as disgusting and vile in the way that fits your vocabulary—and turn to the Lord for his help in destroying it in your life.
But even in that, do not forget who you are. If you are a Christian, you are not your sin. You are a child of God, saved by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so when you are condemning your sin, you must do so from that perspective. You are telling yourself, be who you are in Christ.
2. Am I addressing a specific sin within my community?
When it comes to your community—specifically your church or a close group of Christian friends—harsh language can be appropriate, but it should always be tempered with grace.
Paul did this well in his writings. In 1-2 Corinthians, he chastised these wayward Christians for allowing vile and vulgar sins of all sorts: everything from idolatry to celebrating all kinds of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 10:14-22). But what did he say to them? He said that the kingdom of God does not belong to the ungodly, and rhyming off a laundry list of sin (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). But he also said, “Some of you once lived this way.”
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. But he also continually points them back to the source of their only hope, which is Christ.1 Corinthians 6:11, NET
Whether we’re involved in one-on-one discipleship, in a community group, or we’re in some kind of pastoral role in our churches, we should pay attention to this example. We should call attention and condemn ongoing, unrepentant, habitual sin. We should never celebrate it or allow it to remain unchecked within our communities. But we should do so first and foremost by reminding those who are caught up in sin, “What you are doing is not who you are in Jesus. Those things are not yours anymore.”
3. Am I addressing false teaching?
This is probably the place where Scripture’s examples are the most unrestrained. When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the errors they let seep into the church, he made his feelings undeniable. Any teaching that would distort the gospel is the most vile and damnable evil. He condemned and mocked teaching that attempted to add to the gospel (Galatians 1:8-9; 5:12).
For his part, Jesus didn’t play around in this area either. He warned that anyone who led one of his disciples astray would be better off tying a millstone to his neck and jump to his own death than face what Jesus had waiting for him (Matthew 18:6). And don’t even get me going on his warnings to the churches in Revelation…
Here is where I think it’s fair to be the least apologetic about using harsh language, even as we aim to be our most cautious. Heresy has no place among Christians. If teaching is clearly wrong, it should be called out as being wrong. Whether someone is saying every day is a Friday, your salvation depends on you, or God’s going to make it rain sweet moolah all over your house if you just
send in a fat cheque “sow a seed,” it all comes from—and leads to—the pit of hell.2
An important caveat before you start using harsh language here
Be careful here too. We can’t give room for false teaching, but we also want to avoid ad hominem attacks. Those have no place in the Christian life. Instead, we might be wiser to take the same stance Jude advocates when he reminds us that the archangel Michael didn’t directly rebuke Satan, but instead said, “The Lord rebuke you.”
Similarly, we need consider our role within our communities. If we’re concerned about false teaching and we’ve seen it gaining a foothold within our local church, we should start by speaking with the pastors and elders. They are the ones tasked with protecting the church as a whole from harmful teaching, and so they are the ones who have the primarily responsibility to address it.
4. Practice restraint
Jesus, Paul, the rest of the Apostles, the prophets all confronted the errors found among God’s people and those who think they’re God’s people. They gave no caveats, and seemed to have no hesitation in doing so. But rarely did they direct harsh language toward the lost. To them, they came with kindness, gentleness, and compassion, even as they challenge their way of thinking and their way of believing.
So here’s my point: Harsh language, in general, is something that should be used rarely and with great reluctance. And as a general rule, if you find yourself eager to do it, you shouldn’t. It’s better to err on the side of turning aside wrath with a gentle word (Proverbs 15:1).
- Which is to say, stop using “woke” as a pejorative. It’s lazy and embarassing.
- This is also true of much of the nonsense running under the “Christian nationalism” moniker, teaching that rejects the biblical mandate to pursue mercy and justice in the world, among other key issues.