Both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul wrote to the church regarding the Christian’s behavior toward their government. (1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4). See my previous post.
The two main behaviors: 1) be subject; 2) honor.
A major questions is, “How can a Christian apply these behaviors toward a government that they disagree with on major issues?” I offer two practical ways to answer this question. One in this post and one in the next post.
Speak to the issue, but don’t verbally attack the person
One way to show honor to someone while at the same time disagreeing with them is to speak to the issue. For Christians, personal attacks are unacceptable ways of communicating.
Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” – Ephesians 4:29-31
How Christians Should Not Speak.
Paul used the term “corrupting talk” which could also be translated “harmful talk”. It is not hard to see how personal attacks fall under this category. An attack is meant to harm. James called the tongue “a fire”, “a world of unrighteousness”, and “a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. (James 3:5-8). Words are capable of harm, great harm. James goes further,
“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” – James 3:9-10
Verbally attacking people made in the likeness of God ought not to be so. Notice that the criteria is based not on how the person acts or what the person believes, but on how God created them. Christians do not verbally attack people because God created them in his likeness. So disagreement with government or your coworker or your neighbor or anyone does not give you the right to verbally attack them. To do so is to dishonor them, but even more significant, you dishonor the God who made them. These verbal attacks are sin.
Personal attacks are signs of the very things Paul tells us to put away: bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. How could honor possibly come from these things? It cannot. If these are the feelings you have, then do not let yourself speak. Rather, you need to repent and put these feelings away. I know that is not an easy task. We often feel these feelings because we’ve been hurt, and in turn we want to harm others, especially those we believe were instrumental in hurting us. But that is not Christian. You are not to return evil for evil: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:17, 21. Paul says “repay no one”, this gives us no room to make a case for personal attacks based upon how they have harmed us. In turn, if we verbally attack someone we are doing what is dishonorable and we have been overcome by evil. Paul goes further in Ephesians 4 by saying that our harmful speech grieves “the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
In summary, verbally attacking people insults and grieves the Creator God, and shows you to be dishonorable, overcome by evil, and full of a malice that should be put away not released in speech. It reveals your desire to harm, not honor as God calls you to do.
Does this mean that a Christian cannot express disagree with someone, especially their government? Of course we can. But we must be careful how we do it. We must address the issue, not attack the person we disagree with.
How Christians Should Speak.
Paul describes how Christians should speak, not only how they shouldn’t speak. He used the term “good” or it could be translated “helpful”. It is the antithesis of “harmful talk”. While attacks are meant to harm, the Christian is meant to help. Paul laid out three qualifications for helpful speech: 1) for building up; 2) as fits the occasion; and 3) that it may give grace to those who hear.
Christians have so many helpful things to say regarding so many issues: abortion, racism, sexuality, violence, care of vulnerable, marriage, freedoms, etc. I believe Christians should speak on these things, not because we have something to say in and of ourselves, but because God has something to say about these issues.
What does Paul mean by “for building up”? A Greek-English lexicon gives this definition: “to increase the potential of someone or something, with focus upon the process involved—‘to strengthen, to make more able, to build up.’” (Louw-Nida 74.15). Christians speech should bring a strengthening to the conversation. Personal attacks bring chaos to conversations, but addressing issues of disagreement for the purpose of strengthening the other brings a stability. If you disagree with someone, you disagree with them on an issue. And it is that issues you should address, in the hopes of increasing the potential of strength. The Christian’s strength is not found in themselves or their own view, but in God and his views. Your speech should be used to direct people to God’s views. But this will not happen if you paint a target on someone and lob your name-calling grenades, shoot your ridiculing bullets, and jab at him with your hate swords. You must speak to the issues and present the strength of God’s view.
What does Paul mean by “as fits the occasion”? The Greek just has one word here that basically means “particularly needed” (Louw-Nida 57.40). Christians should always speak the truth, but also recognize that all truth is not meant to be spoken all of the time. I have preached the gospel at every funeral I have been asked to participate in. A few of those funeral have been for non-Christians. At these, I preached that those who believe the gospel have eternal life in heaven, but those who do not believe will not have eternal life in heaven. While I knew that the deceased had not professed a belief in the gospel and therefore was not in heaven. It was not particularly needed for me to share this truth directly. I often have opportunities well after the funeral to speak with members of the deceased’s family where this truth was particularly needed … hard, but needed. When you disagree with your government on an issue, it does not mean you should take every opportunity to say everything you can about your disagreement. There is a right time and place. I have found that social media is usually not the right time or place for serious discussions on issues of disagreement. Because of the casual and disembodied nature of social media, these discussions often degrade into verbal attack of the person. Being aware of the occasion means that you are paying attention to the situation others around you are in, not just the point you want to make. Speaking as fits the occasion is part of a Christian’s speaking the truth in love.
What does Paul mean by “that it may give grace to those who hear”? The word for grace is the same word used of the grace God gives to us, meaning undeserved or unmerited kindness or favor. The Christian’s speech is meant to show an undeserved or unmerited kindness from God through the Christian’s speech to the hearer. The way a Christian speaks needs to be consistent with the grace God gives. Verbal attacks cannot convey God’s grace and should be rejected. Rather, Christians should speak to issues in a way that calls out sin and points to God’s gracious answer for sin. Grace includes warnings as well as encouragements. This means you should call abortion sin, and call people to a better way that protects life, and show people who have had abortions the forgiveness God offers, and pity the people who continue to staunchly uphold abortion with the hope that they will change when lovingly confronted by God’s grace.
Christians should speak to issues, but refuse to verbally attack any person. In this way, you can honor your government while disagreeing with it on any given issue.