Speaking with Integrity
I’ve always felt an affinity for Timothy, the apostle Paul’s young protégé. Timothy was an important figure in the early church, accompanying Paul on his missionary journeys, co-authoring six of the Epistles, pastoring the notoriously challenging church in Ephesus, the ancient epicenter of goddess worship, and functioning as Paul’s ambassador when stuff needed to get done, and get done right. Paul described Timothy as the best person he had for the job (philippians 2:20). Still, it seems that Timothy would have been perfectly happy to curl up and hide under his mentor’s cloak, glad to be along for the ride, but not wanting to be thrust into the spotlight.
I wonder if this was due to a deep aversion to conflict. Paul seemed to thrive on the stuff, writing searing letters, getting in public arguments with everyone from the apostle Peter (galatians 2:11) to the high priest (acts 23:2), and insisting on taking his legal case all the way to the highest court in the land. Timothy just got ulcers (1 timothy 5:23).
Conflict is a part of life in this world, but figuring how to deal with conflict in a way that honors God and others can be a challenge. How can we have the courage to confront the things that need to be confronted, and the patience to do it with grace?
Too Sweet, or Too Salty?
Engaging conflict well is difficult and often confusing. While there are a number of topics to be considered with how we each handle conflict (nature and nurture, our brokenness by sin and how that effects each of us differently), on the surface, there seem to be two kinds of people when it comes to conflict.
Some of us were brought up on a potent combination of Christian niceness and low self-esteem that makes us doubt our ability to speak up. Maybe we don’t offend anyone, but we don’t do much to address behavior that is offensive to God, either. We need to pay attention to the advice King Lemuel’s mom gave him in Proverbs 31:8–9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Keeping our mouths shut and minding our own business may be the most comfortable course of action, but often, avoiding conflict simply enables sin.
On the other hand, some of us seem to be spoiling for a fight and aren’t afraid to use our faith as a weapon to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with us. When I was growing up, there was an elderly woman in my church whose mental capacities had started to diminish. Long experience had taught us youngsters to stay out of striking distance of her cane, but alas, no one had warned the sound tech of the music missions group giving a concert at our church. I watched in fascinated horror as that old saint pulled a hymnal out of the back of the pew and began whacking the guy with it, hissing at him to turn it down. Happily, he was a nice young man with an awesome sense of humor—and it was pretty funny. But unless you are a living caricature, there is no excuse for that sort of behavior, literally or metaphorically, and perhaps the love and wisdom of Jesus may require us to intervene in both the moment and the life of those around us. Sometimes confrontation is what love requires. We’re never too old to continue to hear and accept the wisdom of the God who loves us to do what is hard for him but for our best.
Conflict Management Lessons from the Apostle Paul
Since we’re talking about conflict, I’m going to let you in on one of my admittedly immature pet peeves: those Bluetooth phone headsets that wrap around your ear. They’re fine for certain situations, but there’s always that one guy who insists on wearing his all the time, making it impossible to tell whether he is talking to you or someone on the other end of the line.
Reading the New Testament can feel a lot like that. In fact, many scholars have speculated that 1 Timothy was written in response to a letter from Timothy asking Paul to let him leave the conflict-ridden Ephesian church. I’ve got to say, if I was dealing with some of the issues Timothy was, I would be tempted to jump ship too! Predatory false teachers, gossipers, not to mention the theological and cultural challenges of running a baby church right on the doorstep of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
We can read Paul’s response to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:3–7.
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
If I were Timothy, I’d be thinking, Gee, thanks Paul. Tell me something I don’t already know. But actually, Paul is giving his protégé some excellent advice about dealing with conflict, advice that we get to benefit from as well.
Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
Over the years I’ve gotten into some pretty silly debates with fellow Christians. Most of the time those arguments accomplished absolutely nothing except to raise everyone’s blood pressure and create unnecessary division in the body of Christ.
In 1 Timothy 1, Paul warns Timothy that he needs to put a stop to all the meaningless tongue-wagging going on in the church and help his parishioners keep the main thing the main thing—Jesus and the difference the gospel makes. Now, I love to geek out about theology, but the Ephesians were taking it overboard, embroiling themselves in controversial speculations instead of advancing God’s work. They were enamored with their own wisdom and wanted to impress others with their theological wrangling. It was distracting them from the real focus of their faith: what God had done for them in Jesus. If we read further, Paul advises Timothy to kick out the worst offenders and not allow the people they had targeted to teach until the situation was resolved. This was serious business.
We could debate theology, or politics, or the relative merits of organic produce until the cows come home, and some of us might even enjoy that. These are even ways that we can live and work for the kingdom of God. But sometimes these things can become distracting and divisive; sometimes we have differing ideas on how Christian living looks (especially when it comes to politics, policy, and laws). Sometimes trying to address God’s work distracts from doing God’s work.
Go Ahead, Get Judgmental
Avoiding meaningless chatter and controversial speculations is one thing, but when people are teaching heresy (not just theological differences, but true, Christ-denying heresy), hurting others with their attitudes and behaviors, or living in bald-faced rebellion to God, retreat is not an option. We need to—dare I say it—get judgmental. That’s not to say that I don’t have my opinions and actively disagree with some positions, but I try to do so in constructive ways and for everyone’s benefit. Time to time though, we need to stand firm and stand against. As Paul tells Timothy, “command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 timothy 1:3). These words were written to Timothy, who was entrusted to teach and lead the church in Ephesus and part of that meant confronting false teaching. While we are certainly not Timothy, one point for modern readers is that false teaching exists and presents a danger. We must exercise wisdom and a great deal of humility when it comes to confrontation.
“Judge” is a loaded term for Christians. On one hand, Jesus warned us not to judge others. On the other hand, Jesus told us to make disciples, to teach people to obey God’s commandments, and to confront those who fall into sin. And Paul writes to the church in Corinth that they should judge some but not others (see 1 corinthians 5). What gives?
Part of this is a linguistic problem. In Greek, the root of the words we translate as “judge” can mean either condemn or discern. God does not want us to judge people in the sense of condemning them in our hearts or minds (matthew 7:1–2). Only God knows what is going on in a person’s innermost being, and only God can judge them fairly. But God does want us to judge in the sense of discerning whether certain things are right or wrong, so we can deal with the situation in a way that honors him.
This is a tricky line to draw. As handy as the adage “love the sinner, hate the sin” can be, it doesn’t work out very well in practice—probably because if we’re referring to a person as a sinner, defining them solely by their sin (as though we don’t have the exact same sin problem they do), they are going to feel condemnation, not love. We could try “love the beloved of God who coaches pre-k soccer and calls to check on his ailing mom every morning, but hate the infidelity to his wife and have compassion on the deep insecurity that led him to do it,” but that’s a mouthful. It would probably be best to just drop the platitudes, and do the hard work of distinguishing between our disapproval of a person’s behavior, and our love and deep respect for that person’s sacred being. Again, we need the wisdom from above to do this. Wisdom that is “pure,” not contaminated by selfish ambition, envy, or self-righteousness. The wisdom that helps us see people as God’s image and not just as their actions is peace loving and considerate. It engages for the good of the other and seeks what is best for them; it’s submissive and full of mercy. That means that wisdom from above places itself second, willing to forgive and look for healing and not retribution or vindication.
We can’t just say we love them either—we have to really, truly, clearly, actively love them. We were all created in the image of God, and though we all sin, we should not make sin the root of anyone’s identity. And God’s fundamental orientation toward those who bear his image is one of deep, compassionate affection.
Speak with Integrity
Like it or not, there will be times when we need to confront others, whether that’s calling your child out on a lie, asking your co-worker about a discrepancy in the books, or standing up in court and telling the truth about what someone did to you. In those situations, I like to remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7: “The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” With God’s help, even the most conflict averse among us can find the courage to speak the truth with power, to speak the truth with love, and to speak the truth by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Study: According to Scripture, what are some things the Holy Spirit empowers us to do?
Reflect: Have you ever “crossed” the line with your speech even though you had the best of intentions? Spend some time thinking about whether that discussion was really necessary given the potential relational cost.
Apply: Spend some time in prayer and ask God to help you avoid meaningless arguments with week. Pick one person with whom you seem to have disagreement and practice words that build.