Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger: A Plea to the Commissioners to the 71st General Assembly
James S. Gidley
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is in danger of splintering apart. As we come to the Seventy-first General Assembly, perhaps never before in the life of the Church have so many controversies been troubling us. Some of them are coming before this Assembly. We debate the days of creation, the law of God, and the doctrine of justification. We debate the merits and demerits of the public school, the Christian day school, and home schooling. We identify ourselves as theonomic, redemptive-historical, or "truly Reformed." Because of such things, some of our members will not attend the worship services of certain other congregations of the OPC. Because of such things, a minister in good standing in one presbytery is prevented from receiving a call in another presbytery. Because of such things, we are suspicious of each other, we fear that our brethren are on a slippery slope to destruction, and we are ready to hurl anathemas at each other.
We are ready to justify our fierceness by appealing to Galatians 1:8: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." Some of us seem to be ready to keep on fighting until the Church is split, for split it must if the truth is to be preserved. But it is by no means obvious that every issue debated in the Church involves another gospel. And whether we are dealing with an issue of such magnitude or not, Paul also warns the Galatians: "If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:15).
In such a time, what shall we do? We ought to heed the words of James:
"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires" (James 1:19-20).
Quick to Hear
It seems that we have made it a virtue not to listen to others. Once we have identified someone as belonging to a certain camp or taking a certain position on a litmus-test issuethey all seem to be litmus-test issues these dayswe already know what they are going to say, and we already disagree. There is no need to listen to them, except perhaps to find points from which we can launch our rebuttal. But let us beware when we set aside the express teaching of the Word of God: "Let every person be quick to hear." If this is important in everyday life, how much more important is it in rendering judgments in the courts of the church! Divine wisdom declares:
"If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.... The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him" (Prov. 18:13, 17).
But human wisdom declares that we need not listen to those who have taken a different position from ours on an important issue. For there are some offenses so grievous that to stand accused is to stand condemned. In our secular culture, one accused of child molestation or sexual harassment is presumed guilty. In the eyes of the world, he is guilty and can never recover his reputation. In the church, one accused of heresy or doctrinal error is presumed guilty. There is no need to weigh evidence or to listen to explanations, for the man's teaching speaks for itself. Besides, if he were orthodox, why would anyone accuse him of doctrinal error or heresy?
Or is "innocent until proven guilty" one of the laxities of our secular culture? Perhaps divine law does not admit a principle so favorable to the offender. But Scripture itself says, "Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (2 Cor. 13:1). That means that an accusation cannot stand without evidence, which is to say that the accused is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. There is no exception for charges of doctrinal error or heresy.
Slow to Speak
As a certain wit has expressed it, the good advocate must have "the courage to never shut up." But divine wisdom says:
"When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent" (Prov. 10:19).
"The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things" (Prov. 15:28).
"Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent" (Prov. 17:27-28).
"Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Prov. 29:20).
Many a dispute would be quenched by silence, many a quarrel would be stillborn, if not kept alive by our desire to have our say. And when at length we speak, many a quarrel would be ended by speaking gently, according to divine wisdom:
"There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Prov. 12:18).
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.... A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit" (Prov. 15:1, 4).
We would all agree that such restraint and gentleness are required in personal matters. But what if momentous doctrinal issues are at stake? Must we not then speak forcefully? We may if our office allows it, and we must if the truth demands it. But no one in the OPC, we trust, claims to hold the office of apostle or prophet. Since we are not apostles or prophets, we may not assume that our pronouncements are beyond questioning. And no individual elder or minister, or group of ministers and elders not constituted as a court of the Church, can lawfully declare someone to be a heretic or to be guilty of censurable error.
Even when our office demands that we speak out against errors and heresies, it never allows us to slander anyone. The defense of the truth and the slander of our neighbor make strange bedfellows, to say the least. Significantly, when Peter exhorts us to put away sin, he tells us to "put away all malice and all deceit ... and all slander" (1 Pet. 2:1). All malice, even that which springs from the odium theologicum (theological hatred), and all slander, even slandering our theological opponents, is to be put away. James says:
"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12).
Who are we indeed? We would do well to remember that revilers (slanderers) are numbered among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Slanderers are ranked together with thieves, adulterers, and idolaters.
When we do speak, let us bear in mind the ninth commandment. According to the Larger Catechism, the ninth commandment requires "a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers" (LC 144). Likewise, the ninth commandment forbids "speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; ... misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; ... raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy" (LC 145).
Slow to Anger
Anger seems to accomplish much. An angry employer drives his employees to greater productivity. An angry husband and father keeps his wife and children in submission and "runs a tight ship." An angry wife and mother gets her way as the rest of the family does not dare to risk her ire. An angry pastor bullies his congregation, so that no dissension appears within his flock, and a happy uniformity of belief and opinion prevails. An angry presbyter intimidates a judicatory of the church and sways a vote his way. But against this stands divine wisdom:
"Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly" (Prov. 14:29).
"Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Prov. 16:32).
"Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare" (Prov. 22:24-25).
"A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression" (Prov. 29:22).
But is there no such thing as righteous indignation? Is there not a holy anger against the enemies of God and of his truth? No doubt there is, but we should doubt whether it really exists as often as it is professed. Most of all, anger must not be present in courts of judgment. Anger hinders deliberation and the formation of a righteous judgment. Anger has no place in the courts of the church.
What then shall we do? Do not be enticed into thinking that the "ordinary" rules of godly speech and behavior do not apply to us. A neon warning sign ought to flash every time we go online or open our e-mail.
Web browsers are incapable of sorting out the value of the information in the thousands of sites that match the key words in a search. The distinctions between evidence and hearsay, between a primary source and a secondary source, are being eroded. A theological hypothesis that might in former times have been quietly discussed among friends is now posted on the Web or forwarded by e-mail to hundreds of people on a mailing list and made into a national or global controversy among people who scarcely know each other, if at all. In cyberspace, the effects of gossip and slander are greatly magnified.
I plead with you, young pastorand old pastor, if the warning applies!beware of the Internet, beware of e-mail. They not only tempt you to indulge in slander and gossip and magnify their effects, but can also eat your time away and thus make your ministry of praying, preaching, and counseling ineffective. What would happen over the next five years if you took the time you would have spent surfing the Web and instead prayed for the church of Jesus Christ, studied the Word that you are to preach, counseled and encouraged the weak, and visited the sick and dying?
What Kind of Assembly?
Soon we will come together as the Seventy-first General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. If the apostle Paul could somehow come among us, might he write to us as he did to the Corinthians?
"I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish ... that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (2 Cor. 12:20).
What would a godly and orderly Assembly look like? The Spirit of God, speaking again through the apostle Paul, provides the prescription:
"Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:31-32).
There is one simple feature of the General Assembly that can help us to correct abuses: each commissioner has exactly one vote on each question that comes before us. In casual conversations and in the hurly-burly of the Internet, the loud voices, the clamorous and insistent speakers, seem to prevail. While the silence of the many may not be consent, the many may be cowed into submission. But in the Assembly, it is neither the number of the speeches nor their decibel level that determines the outcome, but the number of votes. The silent men have real power in the Assembly, and if ever an Assembly needed to feel that power, it is now.
Speeches are not to be counted, but weighed. The silent man in the Assembly may seem to be doing little and contributing nothing, but in reality he is doing the most sacred work: he is weighing the arguments of the speakers in the balance. And often a speech on the floor of the Assembly is so light that, like a helium-filled balloon, it actually lifts the scale that it was intended to lower.
But this Assembly (and future assemblies) may require something further of the quiet men. They may now need to speak a gentle word in season, a temperate word, a word of peace, that calls us to our senses from the heat of fractious debate. As Presbyterians, we are not generally given to displays of emotion. But, sadly, the most intense expressions of emotion among us are often outbursts of anger. May we instead pray for and welcome outbursts of overflowing kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness!
It is also the duty of every commissioner to see that order and decorum are maintained in the Assembly. A speaker who indulges in slander, abuse, or invective may be called to account not only by the moderator, but also by any member of the Assembly. Only let us not abuse our responsibility to silence opponents. A breach of decorum has not occurred simply because a speaker forcefully states a position with which you happen to disagree. Nor is it orderly or godly to raise a point of order in the middle of a speech simply because you happen to believe it is beside the point.
What Kind of Spirit?
Let us be mindful of the spirit with which we come to the Assembly. Perhaps we are ready to come to the Assembly in the spirit of bold Phinehas, ready to transfix the adulterous and unfaithful in our midst with our verbal spears, thus sparing our Church from the jealous wrath of the Lord (Num. 25:6-13). Perhaps because his righteous zeal had stopped the plague that day in Moab long before, Phinehas was chosen many years later to lead a delegation to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh to bring them to judgment for rebellion against the Lord (Josh. 22:10-34). They had built an altar by the Jordan, other than the altar of the Lord, and all Israel had "gathered at Shiloh to make war against them" (vs. 12). Such evident apostasy had to be dealt with swiftly and severely, without regard either to pity or to former friendship.
But as a lasting lesson on how to do justice among the people of God, the Holy Spirit sent Phinehas and his delegation, not with spears, but with words. They were stern words of accusation and rebuke, to be sure, but the delegation came, not only to speak, but also to listen. They were willing, not only to hear the reply of the offending tribes, but also to be persuadedand persuaded they were. Phinehas and his brethren did not seem to be embarrassed about reversing their previous judgment regarding the offending tribes. On the contrary, they and all Israel rejoiced to be able to do so.
That altar by the Jordan seemed to be a symbol of rebellion, a violation of the second commandment or at least of the regulative principle. It was an innovation, never heard of in past tradition, and, worse yet, apparently not commanded by God. To all appearances, it was a thing without warrant from the Word of God. Why would any godly Israelite listen to any defense of such a detestable thing? If ever there was a time when no defense was possible, that was it.
But, marvelous to say, that was not it! What might have become an abiding symbol of schism and apostasy, like Jeroboam's golden calves at Dan and Bethel, became instead an abiding symbol of the unity of God's people. They were separated by the Jordan River, but united by the worship of the one true God.
And shall not we, who have inherited the better promises of a better covenant, excel them who served only "a copy and shadow of the heavenly things" (Heb. 8:5-6)? If we do, it will only be through the Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator of that better covenant. For he died and rose again that he might reconcile us to God, and by his Spirit baptize us into one body.
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).
May he be with us in the Assembly! May he be with us all our days!
The author, a ruling elder at Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pa., is the president of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2004.