Words that Tear Down

Victor Chininin Buele

We as Christians are very gullible. We strive to see the best in people in the name of grace, but that makes us vulnerable to wolves who herald grace but are nothing like Jesus. They put on a good show, that’s for sure.

Today I want to highlight one common fallacy in North American churches, a false dichotomy that brings about much pain and abuse and devastation—the false dichotomy between words that heal and words that tear down.

I recently heard a class based on Ephesians, specifically chapter four, where this dichotomy was prominently featured.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV)

The contrast presented was clear: you can use your words either to build up the Body of Christ, the church, or you can use your words to tear it down.

And of course, that is true. To some extent.

The tongue has much power and is very difficult to tame (James 1:26, 3:1-12). I remember as a child the common proverb that the pen is mightier than the sword. I remember spending a lot of time thinking about how my BIC pen from school could hurt more than the swords I saw the army officers carry. There is much power in our words, and if we use them for evil purposes, we will tear down the Body. We will tear down everything.

As I was listening to this young man teach this seminar on biblical communications, I give him credit for doing his best to handle the text. He gave a lot of background information and tried to summarize things effectively. But this dangerous dichotomy was left there. And it is not a passive dichotomy.

I was reading Dr. Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s A Church Called Tov, and they mention that scientists say that “when our brains are not focused on a task, when they are in downtime, our minds naturally go into storytelling mode” (55). That is entirely consistent with our daily experience. It is also a great kindness of God to reveal Himself to us through the history of redemption in His Word, so we can understand and relate to Him. The gospel is partly a story. It is the true narrative. It is also good news. It is metanarrative. It is a call to repentance and belief. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).

That’s why it is imperative to address this dichotomy. When we go into storytelling mode, hardly ever do we find that we were the losers in a verbal encounter. We always find ourselves the victors. And most importantly, we spend more time rehashing something that happened in our minds than the time we actually spent living the event itself. That’s why the dichotomy of words that tear down versus words that build up is critical. It colors our recollection of events, and it will do us harm.

When we believe this narrative, or even more dangerously, when we believe that God teaches this dichotomy through the inspired words of the Holy Spirit to the Apostle Paul, we find that we have closed the door and locked it to any meaningful call to repentance.

We lose the gospel.

False grace will teach us that our words must only build up, and that would define building up as saying words of affirmation or praise or at least knowing to shut your mouth if you don’t have such words of affirmation or praise.

This false grace would take any call to repentance and holiness, any challenge to misappropriated spiritual authority as a tear down event. “These manipulation techniques [discrediting the critics, demonizing the critics, spinning the story, gaslighting the critics, making the perpetrator the victim] are highly effective because they plead sympathy for the evildoer. Suddenly, anger is misdirected and listeners are angry with accusers for their mistreatment of the church or pastor” (66). Any words that would call an abuser to repentance are now not about the abuse but about the character of the person who is calling the abuser to repentance, or about the way that it was done or the way it was not done. It is a tear down event. Motive is read as the destruction of the abuser. A vendetta. Being snared by Satan to do his will to damage the reputation of the abuser and the church, to destroy the work for the Kingdom, to malign the name of Jesus, to be divisive.

This dichotomy does not leave any space for the confrontations of Scripture. Paul went to Peter to challenge him for distorting the gospel for both Jews and Gentiles. There is no space in this dichotomy for such a rebuke. There’s no space in this rebuke even for a letter such as 1 Corinthians, much loved to allegedly prove the point that believers must be quiet about abuses inside the church and suffer silently and be defrauded rather than to expose these things to light. (I wrote about this in another occasion asking who the people of Chloe were and teasing some of this out. Spoiler: the people of Chloe are in large part why the letter to the Corinthians was written, and there is no rebuke of them as gossipers or slanderers).

I was reading Dr. Matthew Barrett’s book The Grace of Godliness recently, and I was greatly edified by seeing the doctrines of grace as a call to piety, to holiness, to a more intense and loving pursuit of living in the presence of God. One thing I noticed in his analysis is that this false dichotomy has no place for history either. The book’s starting point are the Canons of Dort. If you read how they addressed the Remonstrants you will see there that words such as the ones used to write the refutation of errors in the Canons would easily be considered words to tear down under the modern church’s strategies of self-protection and mishandling of abuse. But the heart of the Canons was to build up the Church. And what they left us was an intensely devotional document that can be a great encouragement for the discouraged, and a motivation to holiness for the one who is weary.

There is such a thing as words that expose the darkness in order to build up. And that is just the motive: to shine the light in the darkness until Christ comes back. If we frame our life only in terms of this false dichotomy, our devotional life will fizzle out, and we will become intensively combative and actually divisive.

We do have a choice, will we build up or will we tear down the Body of Christ?

Abuse and neglect are tearing down the Body even if pious, carefully-crafted words or false narratives seem to win the day.

In order to leave this in a positive note, I want to show something the authors of the book mentioned above list: seven steps for public communication about sexual sin in the church from Jim Van Yperen. This obviously applies to more than sexual sin, and they are a great way to help us to think of ways to overcome this false and dangerous dichotomy:

1. Speak God’s Word—that is, “use the words God would use to describe sin”

2. Be specific and succinct, honest and direct

3. Take unconditional and comprehensive responsibility

4. Express genuine remorse, and humbly ask forgiveness

5. Submit to change

6. Make appropriate restitution

7. Seek full reconciliation—with an important caveat: “The goal of reconciliation is to restore a sinner to fellowship, not a leader to power”

Jim Van Yperen, How Can a Church Witness Well in the Aftermath of Sexual Abuse?

Or you could just sit there, cowardly, and keep saying that those who are calling you to repentance are evil, snared by Satan, committed to a radical agenda to destroy you and your beloved church, bitter and angry, unforgiving and full of deceit.

The choice is clear:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (ESV)

Or as a different man, one of the pastoral residents at my church, rightly challenged me on his sermon on Sunday:

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…

Psalm 95:7b-8a (ESV)

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