Recently, a man, Graham Cooke, whose teaching has greatly influenced me, posted this quote from his The Art of Thinking Brilliantly on Facebook:
“Speaking the truth in love is not telling someone’s shortcomings as nicely as possible because that is not the truth. That is only true. The truth is they are dead in Christ and all that stuff is done away. The truth is who you are in Jesus, so when we are speaking the truth in love we are not putting someone down nicely, we are elevating someone brilliantly.”
At first glance, the normal reaction is in opposition to this, but as I considered it at a deeper level, I changed my view. Here’s why.
As I normally do, I first went to the Bible to dive deeper into the verse that is commonly translated to say, “…but speaking the truth in love…,” which is Ephesians 4:15, and dove into the Greek of the text (In my preaching through Ephesians, I’m actually almost to the passage in which this verse is found.), and second, I examined how the common application of the text fits with what Paul is saying in this section of his letter.
So, let’s take a look at the Greek used. The word that is translated “speaking the truth,” is literally translated “truthing.” In classical Greek, this word means “speaking the truth or more definitively, confessing the truth” (Expositor’s Greek New Testament as found at http://www.studylight.org/com/egt/view.cgi?bk=eph&ch=4#1-16). So, verse 15 should literally start, “…but confessing the truth…” Because of the specific conjunction used (a conjuction which makes a connection with the preceding, but does so in an opposing or contrasting way), Paul is making this statement in connection with and contrast to the other teachings that are present around these believers, some of which are being promulgated within the body. So, when one “confesses the truth,” Paul is talking about the Gospel. Additionally, Jesus said in John 14:6, “I (emphasized in the Greek by the inclusion of the pronoun) am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” So, the truth that is confessed is Jesus Himself, not propositional truth. Jesus doesn’t embody truth; He is THE Truth, or the true reality.
Concerning the prepositional phrase that follows “…but confessing the truth…,” there is disagreement as to what it is connected. The one thing to remember in Koine’ Greek is that there is no punctuation present. Any punctuation found in the text has been added by the compilers of the text. So, with what does “in love” go? There are those who connect it to how the truth is to be confessed stating that it is the element through which the truth is to be confessed. The argument for this position is that “confessing the truth” would be bald by itself and that it is natural to associate truth and love and that it is a parallel contrast to verse 14.
The second position connects “in love” with “may grow up.” As the Expositor’s Greek Testament states, “The main argument for connecting the clause rather with the following “may grow up” (= “but speaking truth (or rather, confessing the truth) may in love grow up”) is the fact that in verse 16, where the climax is reached, “in love” qualifies the main thought—that of the growth or the edification of Christ’s body. This is a consideration of such weight as to throw the probability on the whole on the side of the second connection.” So, I translate this verse as “…but confessing the truth, we may in love grow up unto Him in all things, who is the Head, Christ.”
So, in conclusion of the examination of the text, what Paul is saying here is this: by confessing, and thereby focusing, on the truth (the gospel, Jesus) in contrast solely with these other teachings, the body is able to, in love, grow up into our true identity we have been given from Christ, the head of the body. The focus is on the truth (Christ) and our identity. He is not saying that if I see someone sinning in some manner, I am to “speak the truth in love” to that person.
Now, let’s take a look at the common application of this phrase and see how it fits with what Paul is trying to say here. The common application is that Paul is saying that when one sees a person sinning that it is the responsibility of the one witnessing it to reproach and rebuke the one sinning (defined as speaking the truth), but must do so in and with an attitude of love. I’m sorry, based on my examination of the text, I just don’t see that as an acceptable application of the phrase because it is not in line with what Paul is saying. Paul is not advocating here that a person is to rebuke one who is seen sinning. He is talking about confessing the truth, which is Jesus and the gospel, in contrast to these other teachings. It is through confessing the truth which is rooted and established in love (for God, and therefore Jesus, is love) that the truth is seen in contrast to these other teachings. It is when THE truth is confessed that love abounds so that we can grow up into the reality of who we truly are in Christ.
And, when applying a text, it is wholly improper to apply it in such a way that it changes what the text is actually saying. Through application, a text cannot be made to say something it is not saying. And proper application must always maintain the integrity of what is actually being said.
What has been the common result of this common application is that many people relish the opportunity to expose and/or denounce, even in private, someone’s sin. From doing this, a sense of pride which says, “I’d never do that,” is common. What is, in my experience, not relished and practiced is “love covering a multitude of sins.” The reason I say all of this is to echo what Graham said above. When people practice “speaking the truth in love,” the main focus is on the person’s sin rather than the person’s true identity and reality (another acceptable translation of the Greek word translated as “truth”) of who s/he is in Christ, which should be the main focus, and allows him/her to feel superior to the person being rebuked.
When I consider how much people “relish” “speaking the truth in love,” I have to wonder just why they do so. Why do they emphasize doing that but not the other? Could it be that there is some sense of pride or superiority that they get to be the one rebuking?
Now, there are other passages which address how to respond to a fellow believer who is not living out his/her true identity as it is in Christ, but the main focus is always on the person’s true and real identity and restoration, not on the action. The focus is to be on demonstrating the proper way. This means that the starting point is the true identity. This means starting with a different thought and way of thinking. Unfortunately, whether admitted or not, it is more common to desire to rush in and address a person’s sin or failings because, by doing so, it makes us feel better about our own selves.
So, my goal is to be reluctant to rush head-long into this type of situation. I want to first consider how I can exemplify and share steps with that person that focus solely on his/her’s true identity as an adopted child of God, and not on the action. So, instead of talking about what the person actually did, maybe say something like, “Have you ever consider what it would mean, in a practical way, to act as Christ in this situation?” That type of question puts the focus squarely on Christ and the person’s true identity in Christ, by which God already knows us.