Choosing Our Verbiage Carefully When Discussing Differences

It’s no surprise that even a global pandemic has been a polarizing issue in America. We live in a cultural context where everything is made a political issue, and each of the dominant political parties is willing to do anything to score points. This politicized culture has created its own brand of rhetoric that breeds destruction, and it has seeped into the church too. Christians, however, must do better. As Christians, we need to choose our verbiage carefully when discussing differences with one another.

The Bible has a lot to say about the power and responsibility of word choice. So, Jesus tells us that we will be judged for “every careless word” we utter (Matt. 12:36). Even more pointedly, Jesus says not to call your brother “fool” (Matt. 5:22). Peter warns us that we will forsake a blessing if we do not guard our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit (1 Peter 3:10). James tells us that godly people keep a tight reign on their tongues (James 1:26), adding that the tongue has the potential to corrupt our whole body and alter the direction of our lives (3:6). In other words, Scripture warns us to be very careful with our words and to speak wisely, and with the ultimate goal of building up others (Eph. 4:29).

This, of course, does not mean that we should never say hard things. It does not imply that we cannot ever disagree with others, give voice to our opinions, share our perspective, or challenge someone’s point of view. Rather, the issue is how we do it and what motivates us to do it. Christians are bound to disagree on many things. Our hyper-politicized culture often means that when we have strong opinions then we have to fight about it. How we speak about these things is important. In particular, the way we characterize other people and their perspectives matters.

The following are four examples of poor verbiage that we need to evaluate more carefully in conversations with others over political issues and especially during this pandemic:

  1. “Fear over Faith” –> This is not a good description of differing positions, generally speaking. While it is true that some are fearful it is not true that all are fearful. Wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and abiding by government mandates does not make you automatically afraid. Differences on this matters come down to issues of priority and interpretations of responsibility. Some believe that the virus is serious enough  to warrant the recommended safety precautions. Others believe that certain safety precautions are too extreme. You may disagree with someone else’s assessment on any of these matters, but that does not automatically make them fearful and you brave. It’s simply a difference of priority and interpretation of responsibility. Furthermore, if you wear a seatbelt and lock your front door at night then you recognize responsibility is reasonable and not a result of simply being “ruled by fear.” It should be added here, of course, that some people are afraid but that this fear is not entirely unfounded. Furthermore, fear is not necessarily the opposite of faith. Many examples in the Scripture depict faith and fear as coexisting (see this article for more on that thought).
  2. “I just want to glorify the Lord” –> The verbiage here is, of course, not bad. This is what all Christians should be concerned about (1 Cor. 10:31). The problem with suggesting that my position is interested in glorifying God is that it implies the other position is not. We often assume that glorifying the Lord can only happen through one method or approach to an issue, and if I am trying to glorify the Lord then obviously my counterpart is not. It may be true that one approach is more honoring to the Lord than another, but we should not assume that someone else is less interested in this goal. It’s possible that both the person wanting to reopen the country, and the person wanting to remain under quarantine are striving to honor the Lord, they just view the means to that end from different vantage points. Any verbiage that communicates my motives are more godly than yours is an unhelpful conversation starter with brothers and sisters in Christ.
  3. “We need to love our neighbor…” –> Here is another statement that is true and Biblical. When it’s said we often mean to imply that I care about my neighbor but you, in your position, do not. Don’t get me wrong, there are, of course, selfish people whose focus is not the interest of others (Phil. 2:3-4). But making this kind of statement assumes that I know the heart of the person I am speaking with. It assumes that anyone who holds a position different from mine doesn’t care about their neighbor. In actuality the pandemic and corresponding quarantine have impacted a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Caring for neighbors in one way may end up causing harm to another a neighbor. So quarantine protects many individuals, but it also costs many individuals their livelihood and some their businesses and life’s work. The challenge for us is figuring out what the most responsible thing is for the common good, which is not easy to discern. Those who believe we should remain in lock down are not intending to disregard their neighbor whose work is on the line. Those who want to reopen the state do not necessarily hate those who are at risk to the virus. We should not automatically assume that those who disagree with us don’t love their neighbor; this leaves no room for conversation and mutual understanding.
  4. “We can’t stay this way forever” –> This is a phrase that reflects the frustration of our current situation. But it doesn’t actually address issues of disagreement. No one wants to live this way “forever.” I don’t think anyone is even remotely saying that. The question is about what represents a reasonable time-frame, and here is where people disagree. Some people believe that a reasonable time-frame has been reached, and others do not. Respectful conversation with brothers and sisters in Christ avoid the type of rhetoric and accusation that suggest some people are fine with living this way. No one likes quarantine, no one likes wearing face masks, or putting their life on hold in significant ways. The difference is not between who wants to keep living this way and who doesn’t. The difference is with regard to when to stop living this way.

The point here is not to suggest that there aren’t right and wrong answers to pursue, or that there aren’t good and bad practices. The issue we need to wrestle with is how we discuss these issues within the body of Christ. Our conversation on matters where we disagree needs to be colored by humility and grace. I would argue that Christians do need to reflect harder on the difference between truth and opinion, fact and interpretation, and principles and applications. But whatever we discuss should be done in love. According to Scripture what we say matters, therefore it should matter to us.

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