Grace and Truth: What’s Tone Got to do With It? Much Indeed (Part 1)

Southern Baptists have often joked that the SBC is America’s largest Protestant denomination due, in part, to the reality that our churches multiply by dividing. Translation: Many church plants should be more accurately labeled “church split.”

In the early 1990s, when I worked as a secular newspaper journalist, there were three Baptist churches in the town where I lived with the same name, only they were (and I’m using a fictitious name to protect the guilty): “New Hope Baptist Number 1,” “New Hope Baptist Number 2”, and “New Hope Baptist Number 3.” Sanctified logic, often a missing element among those involved in a church brawl, suggests Number 1 in that scheme was the parent congregation whose fracture birthed Number 2 and the blaze grew from there.

“Church” and “brawl” are strange words to see juxtaposed next to each other. But we know from Paul’s gentle admonition in Philippians 4:2 to Euodia and Syntyche that everybody’s not going to get along in the post-Genesis 3 church.

Disagreement is one thing, but how we disagree is another, and that’s the point of this issue of The Courier on Christian civility. Southern Baptists will gather in a few weeks in Indianapolis for their annual meeting and there will be disagreements — some of them are important (such as our confessional future, which I pray will be preserved in its fullest, most robust expression), though most are intramural debates between conservatives. The world watches the SBC, so how we handle those issues on which we disagree is vital for our witness.

Tone is vitally important for civil, God-honoring disagreements and debates. Yet, it’s often overlooked; like a good umpire at a baseball game, tone, when it is right, will remain largely invisible and will keep things moving along in good order. How we say things can be as important as what we say. And tone is far more than whether we raise our voice in debate. Another word for a civil tone is humility — a willingness to follow Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Because I tend to love myself and am probably overly confident in my views on secondary issues (the gospel and doctrines central to historic orthodox Christianity are never up for debate), I’ve had to remind myself of that passage almost daily during my 28 years in ministry.

Here are some things I’ve learned about handling contentious conversation that I learned both in my years as a pastor and my decades as a layman. I’ll unpack five this month and five more next month, just ahead of the SBC annual meeting in Indy.

Please note these are not lessons learned because I’ve somehow conquered the flesh and am an expert in handling conflict. Oh, that it was true! By God’s grace, I hope there’s been growth in that crucial area. No, these are lessons learned from years of not always handling debate and conflict as a Christian should and later working through the carnage with an open Bible (usually Proverbs). When entering difficult conversations:

1. PREPARE YOURSELF SPIRITUALLY.

Pray and meditate on pertinent Scripture verses before you enter the conversation. Since the trouble in our talk is really a matter of the heart (Matt. 12:34), then we must enter these conversations with our hearts properly prepared. Typically, when engaging in these conversations, I’ll pray for God to make my heart right so that I’ll have the right tone and avoid getting angry. My heart needs to be overwhelmed by God’s grace, reminded what’s at stake, and shown again how patient God has been with me. I pray that I will be patient and slow to speak to my antagonist and they will be the same with me.

2. ASK THREE QUESTIONS.

The late theologian Roger Nicole was known for his graciousness, particularly in interacting with those who disagreed with his theology. God gave him a keen ability to maintain a Christlike posture and use calm, God-honoring words amid heated debate.

He suggested we ask three questions to help us to maintain a Christlike bearing amid disagreements: (1) What do I owe the person who differs with me? (Rom. 13:7–10 is a good place to begin answering this question); (2) What can I learn from a person who differs from me? (3) How can I cope with the person who differs from me? Carefully considering these questions will help us slay pride and selfishness that too often lies at the root of our nasty debates and quarrelsome conversations.

3. BEGIN WITH THE MOST CHARITABLE JUDGMENT POSSIBLE.

Do your best to set a positive tone. Nothing circumvents hopeful communication like a conversation that begins with heat, continues with flames growing higher, and eventually (often quickly) grows into an anger-filled wildfire that burns relationships to the ground. If you begin with calm words that arise out of charitable judgment, this will help to relax both you and your conversation partner. Remember Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Let’s say you’re confronting a fellow church member about the sin of gossip. You wouldn’t want to start with, “Why in the world have you been saying such awful, ridiculous, slanderous things about me? I think you’re crazy!” Even if you are fairly certain they’re guilty of saying awful, ridiculous, and slanderous things about you (and you’re convinced they really are crazy), it’ll be better to start the conversation with something like, “I’d like to talk with you about something you supposedly said about me that has been communicated back to me. Now, I want you to know that I’m not assuming you said it, but I wanted to speak with you directly to be certain — It may have been misheard or misunderstood.” Consistent with Christ’s Golden Rule, you want others to assume your innocence, so do the same to them — even when it’s clear they are guilty. Don’t fly in hot and fire away with a barrage of angry words that will mow them down them like a 120-calibre cannon.

4. CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS AT THE DOOR.

Keep a tight rein on this particularly rebellious stallion, for it can gallop away from you in a hurry. By the time you get it bridled and back in the barn, the damage may be substantial. Unbridled emotions are probably the most common match that lights the fuse that dynamites our conversations.

God has made us emotional people, so emotion is not a bad thing — not always — but raw, unchecked emotion in a difficult conversation is often the road to nowhere. Unhinged emotions make you want to walk out and slam the door — or worse. They make you want to build a logical argument and shove it down their throat. They make you want to give them the cold shoulder. They tempt you to just absorb perceived mistreatment and move on, vowing to be done with them.

You want to respond in a manner that’s controlled. You want to avoid responding with bare emotion. In a conversation that has potential for heated conflict, it’s important to pray for genuine humility and ask the other person questions like, “Before we talk about how I think you’ve wronged me, I want to hear you out. Please be specific and tell me how I may have unintentionally hurt you.” This will elicit far better results and may lead to a God-honoring dialogue in a way that out-of-control emotions never could. This type of response could be the starting point for needed reconciliation.

5. KEEP A CLOSE WATCH ON YOUR BODY LANGUAGE.

It’s not always your words or even the way you use them that stir up a hornet’s nest within a conversation. Sometimes, it’s your bodily demeanor that adds unintended heat or an ungracious shape to your words. Ask your spouse or a close friend to help you detect tone or body language issues you may be unaware of. You may be sending others the wrong message unintentionally.

My wife once pointed out that I tended to flair my nostrils during a contentious conversation and would also contort my face in such a way that I appeared to be angry and dismissive of the other person. Or I would shake my head slightly while the other person was talking. Not exactly the way to foster helpful dialogue. She helped me work on that.

In Psalm 101:5b, David warns, “Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.” “Haughty look” refers to demeanor. An arrogant look arises from an arrogant heart, and God will countenance neither.

MORE NEXT TIME

We’ll examine the second five next month, days before Southern Baptists convene for business in Indianapolis.