I’m looking forward to the MACP in less than two weeks (more info can be found here). We have some excellent speakers lined up and a very important theme. I hope you will consider coming.
Unity within the congregation and among biblically faithful congregations have always been important, but sadly have been more rare than should be so. The general sessions will focus on biblical texts that should shape our minds and lives regarding this subject. I’m convinced that the edifying exposition of these texts will encourage you in the work of Christ.
The workshops sessions will be a problem for you because you’re going to have to skip something that you’ll really want to attend! In addition to our guest speakers, men from our church and seminary will be leading workshops focused on leadership, evangelism, and discipleship. Here are some of the topics being covered:
Cultivating Mission-Minded Unity in the Congregation
Cooperation Without Compromise?
Navigating Ministry Trials and Criticisms
Maintaining Unity through Biblical Forgiveness
2:42 Life Groups: An Idea for Small-Group Discipleship
Multi-Ethnicity in the Local Church
Guarding Moral Integrity
Building a Culture of Evangelism
In the Word Together: One to One Bible Reading
The Gospel and Sanctification
Factors for Building a Cohesive Church from 1 Corinthians 12-14
Building Unity Around Historic Confessions
Worldview Evangelism: Engaging Underlying Beliefs
If you’re interested in a profitable time in the Word, encouraging fellowship with like-minded brothers, and seeing the work of Christ move forward, then please take advantage of this opportunity to be equipped and encouraged. We will do all that we can to make it a refreshing time for you and to send you back home with a full heart and mind, as well as some great resources in your hands. Hope to see you in two weeks!
“Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel”
Dear Fellow Servant of Jesus Christ:
It seems like every day brings more bad news in this crazy, sin-cursed world. And it seems, at least sometimes, like God’s people are dropping into defense-mode as the world becomes increasingly hostile toward Christianity. While all of this may be new to us, it is not different from the landscape that the churches in the New Testament faced. The Philippians, for example, were “granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29).
The darkness of our day should make us more urgent about obedience to Christ’s commission, not less so. To that end, the theme for our fall conference this year, based on Philippians 1:27, is “Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel.” By God’s grace, we’ll gather for two days, October 16-17, to focus our attention on biblical truth about building greater unity within and between our assemblies for the sake of the gospel. Incredible gospel opportunities are all around us. We need to sharpen our focus on biblical truths that will equip and encourage us to make the most of them.
I hope you will plan to join us on October 16-17, 2014 for what I believe will be a wonderful time of refreshing fellowship, helpful workshops, and encouraging preaching. We will do all that we can to make it a time of genuine spiritual encouragement for you. We would love to have you join us!
Every now and then I receive, either directly or indirectly, word of someone on the warpath about some issue within a local church. I use the term “warpath” because this kind of person is absolutely determined to win a conflict (which, by the way, is usually of his own making). The pattern is somewhat predictable. The upset party tries to correct those with whom he disagrees, but when his complaints are not heeded, he broadens the conflict by sending out letters or emails to a large portion, if not all, of the church’s membership. Often he or she is not content to limit the efforts to the church itself, but let it spill out further in hopes of bringing as much pressure as possible to achieve a victory in the dispute.
I received one of these emails from out of the blue this past weekend. Apparently a pastor made the mistake of quoting a pagan with an immoral lifestyle and this caused a great bit of consternation for a man with a keyboard and access to email. Since the pastor did not immediately admit his error, the man with the keyboard decided to share his complaint with a bunch of other people, including me (even though I live quite some distance away and am not really connected to the problem or solution).
Because, sadly, this kind of thing happens more than it ought, I decided to share my response to his email in the hopes that it might encourage others to respond in similar fashion to this kind of tactic if they encounter it. Ignoring it is often an acceptable option, but sometimes it is appropriate to push back in order to defend someone who has been unjustly attacked. People who send out these emails are seldom teachable because they are usually self-deceived enough to think that they are the only ones who see the truth, but perhaps God will use a careful rebuke to prick their conscience. Anyway, here’s my reply.
I am not sure what your aim was in sending me this email, but I really don’t appreciate what you’ve done here. In fact, I think it is an unbiblical attempt to hurt the reputation of another believer.
Further, you seem to have adopted a position which would call into question the integrity of the Apostle Paul since he quoted pagans in his sermon in Acts 17 (v. 28 “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children’”) and in his letter to Titus (1:12 “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’”). As a general and important principle, I have found it wise to never make criticisms of other people which also become a de facto criticism of the Bible itself. It is a dangerous place to be when one considers himself more spiritual than the Bible.
The Bible is clear that if you have an issue with another believer that you are to go to him and seek reconciliation. There is no justification for your spreading your complaint about Pastor Doe to me. You have sinned and should acknowledge that before God and those to whom you have spread your accusations. Don’t let pride cause you to hunker down in a defensive posture. If you have lost confidence in Pastor Doe as a shepherd, there is a right way to address that and this is not it. Angry words stir up strife, not resolve problems.
For the sake of His name,
David M. Doran
Last week was an exciting week for a couple of educational institutions. Bob Jones University named Steve Pettit as its new president effective May 10th and on that same day Ken Endean was installed as the new president of International Baptist College and Seminary in Chandler, AZ.
I am thankful that I have known both of these men for over 30 years. Steve and I first met out on the soccer fields of BJU when I was a freshman and he was in grad school. Ken and I actually met for the first time on the drive from Michigan to BJU as both our families stopped at a rest area for a break on the journey. I have the highest respect for both of them. They are men of godly character, strong conviction, and love for our Lord Jesus Christ and His church.
Although I had no say in it, I’ll confess that Steve Pettit was at the top of my list for president of BJU. Steve has preached here at IC many times through the years, and we’ve preached together in other venues. I loved what he did in cultivating a solid discipleship mindset and process at Northland Camp, something all of my sons benefitted from as campers and two of them did as counselors. We’re both pretty busy with our respective responsibilities, so we don’t talk often, but whenever we have, I’ve come away from the conversations encouraged, sharpened, and thankful. As an alumnus and also as the dad of BJU student, I’m thrilled that Steve is the new president and will be praying for the transition.
As I mentioned, Ken Endean and I were in college together (I’ll spare the stories about how ruthless he was when he used to check my room!). When I left First Baptist Church of Troy, Michigan to return here to Inter-City as the senior pastor, Ken came to take my place at FBC. Ken did an excellent job there for 7 years before transitioning to Maine to serve as the senior pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church. God blessed his ministry there and he has been a model of faithful shepherding. I believe he will likewise do an excellent job in leading IBC&S. He has a heart for ministry mentoring and will provide clear, steady leadership. Every time I’m out in the western states I’m impressed by the great need for biblical, balanced churches to reach those states for Christ. May God use Ken and IBC&S to equip men for gospel ministry out there!
We live in an astonishing day that at times makes a very large world operate like it is very small. 100 years ago, the sinful actions by a pastor on the other side of the country would probably be known only by those affected by them and those responsible to correct them. Changes in technology and culture, hand in hand, have changed all of that. At least it seems like it has changed all of that.
I say seems because the part that has certainly changed is our knowledge of sins committed across the continent. But because this knowledge is no longer tied mainly to those affected by and responsible to correct them, I wonder if our knowledge is all that we think it is. We often have no firsthand knowledge of the sins committed, only reports of them, and those are often run through filters that distort and confuse more than inform. We also have very little firsthand knowledge of what steps have been taken to correct sins, probably properly so since we often are not actually party to either the problem or remedy.
I’m pointing this out because I want it to be clear that I find this aspect of our day very troubling. Land mines dot the field and there is hardly a safe place to step in trying to discuss this. To raise concerns about how accusations are made, received, and viewed as credible is to open yourself to be criticized as a defender of sinful people. To express concerns about the qualifications of people who are charged with serious sins and errors is to open yourself to the charge of being a hater, not believing or practicing grace, or of wanting to besmirch the name of Christ before a pagan world. To question the accuracy and/or sincerity of a person’s apology is perhaps to court the worst kind of flack–how could someone who believes the gospel not accept an apology?
So, I know that I am stepping on to thin ice in a post that touches on Mark Driscoll’s open letter of apology, but I think there are some significant issues in how we view this type of thing that potentially affect all of us. I think I can safely come along side of this public apology and Ray Ortlund’s response to it because I don’t have to take sides or express views on matters to which I am not privy. Driscoll has admitted error. Ortlund has stated that the moral obligation now lies with those who called for his repentance. Ortlund says some good things, but I think the net outcome of his post is not helpful.
I was very disappointed that Ortlund introduced the specter of haters into the equation. Although I don’t believe that he thinks that all who have criticized Mark Driscoll have done so out of hatred, there is no denying that the tactic of labeling critics as haters is a too common practice (you may, for instance, have seen Steven Furtick’s “Hey Haters” video). If genuine repentance and forgiveness is the goal, then why toss in this prejudicial label? Any public apology or call for its acceptance is diminished by anything that implies the criticisms spring from ill-motive.
Time for Fruit?
An accurate, sincere apology should be accepted. Absolutely. To refuse to accept it is sinful. For long-term, habitual patterns of sin, though, words are not enough to resolve the problems that have been created, nor to truly assess the sincerity of any apology. Anybody who has counseled people who have habitually sinned in any area knows that some folks easily express verbal remorse, but do not follow that up with real change. In biblical terms, they don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20). The Scriptures are clear that “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). It calls us to confess and forsake, and determining if someone has forsaken a particular sin pattern takes time. This issue is not as simple or easy as Ortlund’s article makes it out to be.
Forgiveness and Consequences
Even granting the sincerity of a public apology does not eliminate the fact that some sins bring consequences which affect future relationships and actions. A church treasurer who embezzles funds can repent and apologize, but I doubt that very many people think he should be allowed to continue managing the church’s funds. When someone serves in an office which requires that he meet the qualifications established in Scripture, an apology does not necessarily wipe away the impact of disqualifying actions and/or patterns of life. So, as an example, if someone is accused of and admits that he has violated God’s Word that shepherds are not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3), should an apology simply wipe that away? Does he immediately get a “do over” or should a new pattern of humble service be demonstrated before being restored to leadership? If character actually matters, then character should be displayed.
Let me say this again and quite clearly: this is not a post about whether Mark Driscoll should step down from his pastoral role. It is a post about how we respond to the confession of sin, with particular focus on someone who is in pastoral ministry. It is very important, I believe, because our sub-culture is coming very close to elevating ministerial success over ministerial qualification. There are a few reasons for this, but the largest explanation is the celebrity culture that dominates our world and, sadly, the church. More on that later.
One week from today, on March 19, 2014, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary will host our 10th annual William R. Rice Lectures. Dr. Rice was the founder and first president of DBTS, as well as the pastor of Inter-City Baptist Church for 40 years. I’m grateful that he was my pastor from the time I came to Christ until adulthood, and that I’ve had the privilege of having him as my predecessor here at IC. He was a faithful pastor committed to the exposition of God’s Word, building a solid doctrinal foundation for the church that has enabled us to remain strong and pressing forward for God’s glory. The longer I serve here, the deeper my appreciation grows for Dr. and Mrs. Rice and their legacy in my life, in our church, and through our educational ministries. Enormous eternal impact.
We are pleased to have Peter Hubbard, pastor of North Hills Community Church (Greenville, SC), as our lecturer this year. Peter is the author of Love into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual, and the Church. Given the rapid shifts in our culture and the politically charged atmosphere in which we live and do ministry, this is a vitally important topic. Too much of the discussion, though, provides mainly heat and little light. Peter has worked hard to reverse that, and I think you’ll greatly benefit from these lectures. You can find out more here.
We’d love to have you join us next week. There is no cost, but we do need you to register so that we can plan properly for the event (by phone at 313.381.0111 or email at email@example.com). Because this is such an important subject, we’re giving a copy of Peter’s book to the first 100 registrants. I hope you can make it. We’re looking forward to a great time of fellowship and profitable instruction from the Word.
People too often turn biblical statements into cliches in order to wield them to their own advantage when convenient. One I’ve been noticing a lot recently, drawn from 1 Corinthians 13:7, is “love believes all things.” Because the biblical words have been turned into a free-floating cliche, some people seem comfortable using them in whatever way suits their purposes.
For instance, we are told to accept a person’s unverifiable and/or unverified claim because “love believes all things.” Or, someone who has severely broken the trust in a relationship uses “love believes all things” to guilt other people into accepting his word without question or doubt. Practically, those two approaches treat the biblical words “love believes all things” as if they mean “love suspends all judgment” or “love is gullible.” Is that really what Paul was saying to the Corinthians and us? Highly unlikely.
I say that because those two uses of “love believes all things” actually contradict other clear biblical teachings regarding both wisdom and love. In Proverbs, we find these words, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (14:15). Only simpletons accept everything without evaluation. Biblical love does not contradict biblical wisdom. It is not naive.
Think, too, about how Paul prayed for the love of the believers at Philippi, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11). Clearly, there is no conflict between love and discernment. In fact, the proper exercise of one (love) demands the other (discernment). If love seeks the good of others, we have to know and understand what that good is.
So what does Paul mean by “love believes all things?” I’ll let Gordon Fee answer that: “Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everything and everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope” (“First Corinthians,” NICNT, p. 640). The NLT, while a little paraphrastic, captures the idea well, “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” The key here is that instead of translating it as “all things,” the Greek word Paul uses would be better translated as “always” since it is being used adverbially (i.e., always believes vs. believes all things).
Biblical love does not require us to accept accusations without verification. Neither does biblical love mandate that we keep extending trust to someone who has flagrantly violated it. To the contrary, God’s Word stands solidly against gullibility and in favor of discernment. Don’t let someone falsely guilt you into bad judgment by using biblical words like a cliche!
By virtue of the ministry I’ve been allowed to have, I often interact with ministry leaders who are facing intense ministry and personal challenges where they serve. It is not an easy day in which to serve the Lord, that’s for sure, but when has it ever been such? I suppose the difficulties in our day sometimes seem larger because of the magnifying glass called the internet. One person can sound like a thousand. A problem is broadcast around the world in minutes and remains on the cyber-shelf for all to see long after it has been resolved. Accusations can be flung with limited consequences and an incredibly low standard for proof.
It is the world we live in and it is probably not going to get any better, so all who aspire to leadership better accept the fact that it will happen and learn how to respond productively to it. There is a lot that could be said about productively responding, but in this post I want focus on one—don’t let it derail your ministry! Perhaps the only thing sadder than ungodly attacks is when those being attacked allow their attackers to set the agenda and redirect them away from fruitful ministry.
Thinking about some folks getting hammered recently, I was reminded of Nehemiah’s steadfast leadership in the face of much struggle and opposition. Nehemiah 6 records how he faced three serious challenges, yet remained focused on his purpose and ministry.
He faced the challenge of distractions (vv. 1-4). Two men, opposed to his work, invited him to a summit meeting—in fact, they sent him four invitations (v. 4). Rather than get caught up in their distraction, Nehemiah firmly replied, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (v. 3). Because their invitation had nothing to do with his mission, he refused to get distracted by it.
He faced the challenge of distortions—people said things about him that were not true (vv. 5-9). Those who did not like the work that Nehemiah was doing tried to discourage and intimidate him by spreading unfounded and baseless accusations. They accused him of promoting himself and of seeking an agenda of rebellion. Few things take the wind out of someone’s sails like these kinds of distortions. But rather than get discouraged and quit, Nehemiah rebuffed their accusation and remained steadfast in his mission. He prayed and pressed on!
He faced the challenge of deception (vv. 10-14). Next, Nehemiah faced a challenge from an unexpected source—an acquaintance, someone he thought to be on his side. Shemaiah attempted to trick Nehemiah into acting wrongly by fleeing into the temple in self-preservation. Its seems that the plot was designed to cause Nehemiah to panic and act cowardly. If he fell for it, then the leader would be discredited and the people would be disheartened. Instead of turning to hide, Nehemiah “perceived that surely God had not sent him” (v. 12) and he kept pressing on.
Distractions. Distortions. Deceptions. I believe that anyone seeking to do something for the Lord will face these challenges. Like Nehemiah, if we are walking in obedience to the Lord (cf. 2:12), we must not allow them to stop us. The answer to the distractions, distortions, and deceptions was Nehemiah’s intensity, integrity, and insight. He was completely committed to doing what God put in his heart to do. He was focused on the work, not himself, so he refused to engage with character assassins. He would not violate God’s Word in order to protect himself and he knew that anybody asking him to disobey God was not acting on God’s behalf.
Ministry leaders can’t afford to mistakenly think that the echo chamber of a Facebook page or internet forum actually represents a “multitude” of concerned voices. A vocal minority should never be allowed control of the agenda simply because they can scream louder, fight dirtier, and use the internet to bully their way forward. Nehemiah understood that there is nothing to be gained by trying to pacify people whose sole ambition is to harm the work. His words should be ours, “Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (v. 3)
Friend, don’t become weary in doing well. Don’t let struggle and opposition sidetrack you from God’s will. Don’t get sucked into a squabble which is designed to derail and destroy the work. Keep praying and keep pressing on for the Lord’s glory!
Erik Raymond has an interesting post up at The Gospel Coalition entitled The Problem with Polemical Preaching. Although his opening lines suggest that polemic preaching impairs sermons and muffles ministries, he actually concludes that there is a legitimate place for it within one’s ministry as long as one does not become characterized by it. He draws counsel from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the matter that is mainly helpful and which all of us who preach regularly should consider.
I’d like, though, to toss out a few ideas to place along side of Raymond’s concerns, some of which differ slightly and some of which simply complement them.
Pauline Call for Polemics
I think that there is greater biblical warrant for polemical preaching than Raymond’s post suggests. It seems clear that Paul considered the ability to engage in polemical preaching to be a qualification for elders, based on his instruction to Titus, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Paul goes on to say that these false teachers must be silenced and sharply rebuked (vv. 11, 13). If it is a qualification, doesn’t that mean our ministries must be characterized by it to some degree?
Win? Hopefully. Warn? Absolutely.
I’m not sure, either, that narrowing the outcome of polemical preaching to winning or losing your opponents is helpful. What about third parties who are listening to the preaching? Perhaps I’m off on this, but most of the polemical preaching that I’ve heard (and engaged in) isn’t exclusively aimed at winning over the “opponent” as much as refuting their position in order to protect others from their errors. Should we desire to win those who teach error back to the truth? Certainly, but they are usually not even present to hear the polemical sermon. For the sake of those being influenced by error, polemical preaching is a necessary activity that can help congregations grow to maturity “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).
Most pastors use polemical sermons to tackle errors that threaten their own congregations, not to confront false teachers directly. Even well-known preachers who engage in polemics in a conference are usually only addressing the ideas of their “opponent” rather than the person. A sermon isn’t a debate; it is a declaration. There is no need to assume that all polemic preaching is grumpy. It is quite possible to be winsomely polemical. But, I’d quickly add, that OT prophets and our Lord seemed not to think that being bitingly polemical was somehow sinful (cf. 1 Kings 19, Isaiah 44, and Matthew 23).
Let’s Balance Our Polemics and Our Assessment
I share Raymond’s concern about imbalance on this point. I have seen men hurt their ministries by creating a culture of criticism within their congregations, and once you unleash that beast, you can never satisfy its thirst for blood. Yet, I’ve also seen men who would never challenge or oppose error and therefore failed in one of their basic pastoral responsibilities, resulting in great harm to God’s people. The easy answer, I believe, is to do systematic exposition of the biblical text since that allows the Scriptures to control your preaching. When it confronts, you confront. Where it is under attack, you expose the weakness of the attacks.
Let’s be careful, though, of drawing faulty conclusions about how polemical other preachers are. It seems to me that the picture is easily distorted by the fact that polemical issues tend to generate a lot more attention than normal pastoral preaching. If I may risk an example, let’s consider John MacArthur’s ministry. My guess is that many readers of the TGC blog might think someone like MacArthur fits the bill of Raymond’s concerns, especially in light of the Strange Fire conference brouhaha. Is MacArthur a polemical preacher? Definitely at times. Most of his decades of preaching ministry, though, has been devoted to the chapter by chapter exposition of God’s Word from the pulpit of Grace Community Church.
The polemical side has shown itself, it seems to me, when he is addressing issues outside of Grace that threaten, in his mind, the health of evangelicalism. The only reason people even hear him speak at that point is precisely because of some threat to biblical truth that needs to be confronted. Since that is all some people hear, they might wrongly conclude that he is mainly (or exclusively) a polemical preacher. That would be a very shallow conclusion.
From a personal standpoint, I have experienced the tension this produces. Because of my connection to DBTS, I’ll get asked to speak at conferences that focuses on some issue and am assigned (or chose) an issue to address for the conference. If all anybody ever heard of my preaching was in that kind of context, they would be inclined to think I’m a polemical preacher. But if they showed up Sunday after Sunday at Inter-City Baptist Church, they’d have a very different picture as we walk through books of the Bible (currently, the Gospel of John).
My point? All faithful pastors must engage in polemics as they faithfully preach the Word. Some men, with access to a megaphone outside of their own congregation, will need to speak regularly about issues that matter and do so polemically. While that may be only a fraction of their overall preaching ministry, it may be the only part that most people see. As for me, I’m thankful that God puts watchmen on the walls. They have helped me. I hope they never stop sounding warnings about danger simply because they might be labeled as polemical preachers.
I think the case can easily be made that no day compares to ours in the amount of opinion which showers over us each day and as for the avenues in which you can express your own (print, internet, radio, personal interactions). If value rises according to rarity, then never has talk been as cheap as it is now!
The abundance of talk can open doors for believers to speak God’s Word to the issues of our day and, hopefully, point people to Jesus Christ. But it also can suck us into worldly and careless use of our words—something that ought to cause genuine concern for us in light of the Lord’s warning about being accountable for “every idle word” and the wisdom of Proverbs that tells us “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (10:19).
In the course of my life, I have never seen a tool more susceptible to trouble on this point than the internet. Discussion groups, chat rooms, and weblogs have opened the flood gates of talk for anyone with internet access. It doesn’t matter what the topic or one’s qualifications for discussing it, the microphone is open and people line up to share their thoughts. The same is basically true for talk radio, although the flow is slowed a little by the number of available phone lines and the mysterious “call screener” (which often seems to mean a person who selects the most radical and outrageous callers!).
The overall effect of this phenomenon on our culture, and on the church, is difficult to measure, but it also is difficult to miss. Since controversy and conflict draw crowds, that is what abounds on talk radio and the internet. The “conversation” generally consists of a very disjointed flow of opinion and counter-opinion, with very little offered as proof or analysis. This kind of conversation has its place, but it also has real dangers. Idle words can be dangerous. Remember, “many words” makes “transgression unavoidable.”
Proverbs 18 contains at least two principles that can be helpful in a world like ours which is full of words. While Proverbs says a lot about our speech, these two texts mainly address our listening. By helping us listen better, they provide valuable wisdom for life and for speaking.
Listen First (v. 13)
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”
The point of this text is that we must seek to understand a question before we try to answer it. It is probably best understood within the larger proverbial contrast between wisdom and folly. A fool is generally not interested in knowledge, only his own thoughts (18:2). He also rushes ahead without consultation and seeking knowledge (12:15; 19:2). People who do not restrain their speech, but utter all that passes through their minds, are even worse than fools (29:20). To guard your words is to guard your soul (21:23). Wisdom is marked by careful thought and restrained words; folly is marked by careless thought and impulsive speech.
Matthew Henry offers this insight into this text, “It is folly for a man to go about to speak to a thing which he does not understand, or to pass sentence upon a matter which he is not truly and fully informed of, and has not patience to make a strict enquiry into; and, if it be folly, it is and will be shame” (p. 895).
Why is this the evidence of folly and why does it lead to shame? At the root is pride. The desire to be viewed as having a full and quick mind leads a person to fire off answers before fully hearing the question or understanding the issue. Thoughtful silence or asking time to consider a matter is viewed by some as a weakness, so their pride pushes them to speak when they ought not.
Pride also produces inflated views of our own knowledge and wisdom, (“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him,” 26:12). Only a proud person assumes that he understands something before he hears it, so when we speak before we listen we reveal our arrogance.
The most obvious application of this text is to put our mouths in park and our ears in drive! The exception to this is when you ask questions to help you understand someone better or to make sure that you have understood them properly (“Is this what you mean?”). And to listen effectively, we will need to suspend judgment until we have gathered enough information to wisely make a call. Sometimes, amidst the information overload in which we live, we may have to accept the fact that we simply can’t assess things well enough to speak wisely about them. It might be better to express no opinion than a half-baked one!
Listen Fully (v. 17)
“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”
The basic thrust of this proverb is similar to one we use in our culture, “There are two sides to every story.” The point here is that we should suspend judgment until we have fully investigated something. “This observation seeks to discourage hasty judgments, particularly in a legal proceeding. Appearances can be misleading, and so critical questions need to be raised to establish the truth or falsehood of testimony” (Longman, p. 358).
This is important to remember because we all possess a limited perspective. Not every disagreement is the result of intentional dishonesty. Sometimes it boils down to perspective—both are sincere in what they believe, but they are not looking at it from the same direction or with the same knowledge. It is unwise to simply accept the first version of whatever story you hear, even if it comes from a reliable source.
Often, sadly, the problem runs deeper than differing perspectives. Depravity being what it is, sinful people will yield to the temptation to state the case of things in ways that are favorable to themselves. Information is selectively chosen and carefully presented so as to give the best possible impression and to secure the desired result.
Whether intentional or not, half the story is more prone to error than the full story. Wisdom wants to hear the full story, or at least enough of it to exercise careful discernment. “The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps” (Pro 14:15). How can we listen more actively?
First, we can postpone decisions in order to gather more information. While not perfect, I have tried to follow the maxim that wisdom doesn’t come by rushing it. Someone who wants a decision immediately usually isn’t practicing wisdom, so I don’t feel any need to assist them in foolishness.
Second, we should be very clear with people that we cannot agree with them without hearing the other side of things. We don’t need to be rude about this, but should say something like “I have no reason to not believe you, but God’s Word tells me to make sure I hear both sides” and share this verse with them.
Third, we should learn basic principles for examining truth claims. What exactly is being claimed? What evidence and arguments are being made to prove this? Are these arguments valid? Are these arguments true?
Several years ago I was chided in a public forum for urging more caution in our speech with these words, “Yes, this is a talk-radio and anyone-with-a-keyboard environment where all of us can express how we feel about issues and events without having to worry about its correctness or our authority.” This is completely wrong from a biblical perspective. God’s children never are free from the responsibility to “worry about [the] correctness” of our ideas and words!
It is a dangerous thing when people, especially believers, adopt the notion that their right to say something is more important than actually having something truthful to say. These two texts in Proverbs go a long way toward refuting that false notion. If we all obeyed them, we would probably speak less. Given what Proverbs 10:19 says, that means we would probably transgress less too. More silence and less sin—sounds like a win-win solution to me!