The power of a soft tongue
These are fractious days in the Canadian public square. Once proud of our polite and forgiving demeanour, our self-image as a relatively agreeable country shaped by our founding motto of "peace, order and good government" is fraying.
Mistrust of politicians and media is high, and respect for authorities diminished. And all this is amplified by social media tribalizing disagreements. Pejorative and caustic language demonizes opponents and generates feelings of marginalization, mischaracterization and misunderstanding.
The divisions over masks, vaccines and mandates have penetrated the Church. Recent polling undertaken by the EFC shows how deeply divided Evangelicals are over restrictions, more so than other religious groups.
Recent polling by the EFC shows how deeply divided Evangelicals are over restrictions.
Evangelicals were evenly divided on whether governments and employers should make every reasonable accommodation for those not getting the vaccine (48% agree, 48% disagree) and were split 46% to 48% on whether one should be required to get a vaccine to keep their job. And 57% felt only those with vaccine passports should be allowed to attend religious services of more than ten people, with 37% opposed.
While the vast majority of churches complied with pandemic restrictions, pastors and elders’ boards have been caught navigating the dissention within their ranks and among congregants.
Both within and outside the Church, these challenges demonstrate the need for peacemakers and diplomacy, both promoted and practised by Jesus and Paul.
The foundation is Jesus’ tribute to peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount, calling them blessed (Matthew 5:9), and Paul’s urging, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). The injunction is to make "every effort to live in peace" (Hebrews 12:14).
A history of being a peacemaker is important diplomatic work in any context. "Come and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18; Proverbs 29:22). If you were once a vocal partisan or someone perceived to be biased, it will be very difficult to engender the trust of all sides.
It’s better to be known as someone who has consistently lived peaceably. And yet God’s work in Paul’s life shows our personal past need not be insurmountable – someone who once struck fear in Christ followers did become a champion of unity within the Church.
More specifically, it is vital to avoid giving offence. Jesus warns the person through whom temptation comes (Matthew 18:7) and Paul admonishes us to give no offence, neither to the Jews, the Greeks or the Church of God. In this, our freedom in Christ is critical.
In this freedom found in Christ we seek to find common ground with those we are engaging.
In Christ, we have the freedom to refrain from causing offence, even if the offending activity is lawful. Paul says even though we have freedom, not everything we can do is beneficial, and we are not to be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). And while we are free and belong to no one, "I can make myself a slave to everyone – to win as many as possible" (1 Corinthians 9:19–22).
In this freedom found in Christ we seek to find common ground with those we are engaging. We can show empathy and understanding as Paul demonstrated in Athens (Acts 17). In our conversations we affirm what we can, and we seek not to offend (Matthew 17:27) or cause to stumble (Romans 14:21-22).
"For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ " (Galatians 5:13–14 NRSV). All this is undertaken in an attitude of humility – "consider others better than yourself" (Philippians 2:3).
These are not easy admonitions. It takes discipline.
In contrast we are not to be lovers of ourselves, boastful, proud, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control (2 Timothy 3:3). Rather, "a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
Certainly we are to contend for our beliefs and live faithfully, but we do so with wisdom characterized by grace (Colossians 4:5–6) and persistence. "Through patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone" (Proverbs 25:15). Think about it – the power of the tongue is in its "soft" use (as the ESV puts it).
May our witness be as peacemakers and our tongues gentle.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.