“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgement (Matthew 12:36).”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution contains this clause; “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” One Washington state man determined to exercise this right recently by burning an American flag blanket to make his statement. (1) Unfortunately, his demonstration went a bit further than he intended as it started a five-acre wildfire that four units of firefighters had to extinguish.
What a metaphor for the power of our speech. Many shoot off at the lip without consideration of the consequences that will follow. A comedienne on a top-rated sit-com blasts a hateful tweet and has her show cancelled. A has been actor invites sexual violence against a politician’s twelve-year-old son only to recant in humiliation the following day after incurring public outrage. Often, Christians will insist upon voicing their bitter political invective so carelessly as though they don’t care that opportunities to ever reach lost souls in their sphere of influence are crushed by their freedom of speech. Worse still, some Christians take to social media and lob shots at others in the faith that they disagree with, not content to address the content alone, but to indict their motives and character all potentially before the eyes of unbelievers (John 13:35). It is especially here that one tweet, blog, or retort can inflame and perform a scorched earth policy that has devastating effect.
Paul admonished the Christians in Galatia that they were to love their neighbors as themselves and warned, “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15)!” In the sermon on the mount Jesus addressed this very subject, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgement.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22).” One commentator says here that, “Jesus reminded His disciples that no punishment was too severe for one who destroys a brother or sister by malicious words and deeds.” (2)
A mean-spirited barb spewed in a bitter moment can spread like wild fire causing extensive damage. Just one tiny spark is the picture James used to demonstrate the destructive capacity of our words; “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell (James 3:6).” Such behavior and damage has come to be expected of those in our society but it was never intended that those in the church should be guilty of such fiery invective.
Preachers in the church are to use their authority, by Scripture to preach exhort and rebuke where necessary (2 Timothy 4:2). If a fellow Christian has sinned against us, it is our duty to go directly to them and no one else initially to address this wrong (Matthew 18:15). To those in the body of Christ all that we say is meant to build them up and not to tear them down (Ephesian 4:29). And especially as our speech concerns unbelievers we should reserve our rights of free speech so that we might reach them with the gospel. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:6).” While we have the right to speak let’s make sure that what we say is right.
“The place in the Scripture which he read was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth (Acts 8:32).’”
- Sellers S. Crain, Jr., D.Min., Truth For Today Commentary Matthew 1-13, Resource Publications, Searcy, Arkansas, 2010, p.170.