Reflections on Life Together: The Ministry of Holding Your Tongue
January 21, 2021
In today's Reflections on Life Together, Pastor Scott shares about the ministry of holding one's tongue. Often we think of ministry more in terms of what we say to someone, but sometimes serving others requires refraining from saying something to them—and from stopping from even making the judgments that underlie most of our criticisms. But when we receive people in their gospel freedom under the Lordship of Jesus, we then begin to experience the reality of true Christian community, strong and weak together.
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Growing up, I’m not sure how many times I heard this wise exhortation from my parents: “If you don't have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” How many times would my life have been better, my relationships more peaceful, my love for others better expressed if I had just held my tongue? But this isn’t just family wisdom. This is biblical wisdom. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” And James 4:11 begins, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law….” The Bible is clear: Every word we say to one another ought to be a good word that that will do good for those who hear it. It ought not to tear down, but build up, to give grace and life and good to those who hear—not evil, or condemnation. If that makes it sound like we ought to be hearing a lot more silence, then we’re probably starting to understand what the Bible is saying! Bonhoeffer puts it plainly:
It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him. This prohibition does not include the personal word of advice and guidance…But to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief. (Life Together, p. 92)
But Bonhoeffer takes this even a step farther. Our willingness to hold our tongues isn’t only practical wisdom or necessary obedience. In our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, holding our tongues can actually be a ministry to them. What we don’t say can serve them by honoring the freedom that they have in Christ; the fact that he is their Lord and we are not; that he alone is the one they must please, not us. Most of our negative words to one another aren’t because someone has dishonored or disobeyed the Lord, but rather because they have upset us, disappointed the expectations we have placed on them, transgressed our opinions or preferences even if they are strongly and perhaps religiously held. But what we’ll discover is that, when we stop giving expression to our evaluations of others, we'll stop doing as much evaluating to begin with. And that is important because when we stop evaluating, then we stop trying to dominate and instead enjoy the other as a free creation of God—we enjoy them as God made them, not as we would have made them in our limited wisdom and power, in the narrowness of our self-centered perspective:
Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and, to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God’s creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. (Life Together, p. 93)
And when we do this, rather than evaluate them and control them and use them, we are able to truly love them for who they are, as God made them, as ones for whom Christ was pleased to die, which means we no longer dismiss people as weak or expendable or undesirable. Rather we begin to recognize that it is precisely because they are different from us in meaningful and even difficult ways that they are most valuable to us and a reminder to us of God’s greatness and power. This is how Bonhoeffer puts it in some of the most profound words of this always profound book:
In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. …Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship. (Life Together, p.94)
This is an urgent word for the church in America today as the temptation to divide across lines of political disagreement, racial difference, and other disputes over areas where we have gospel freedom threatens to tear apart the unity of Christ’s Body. Who are you too quick to exclude, expend, or expel from your fellowship? Who do you consider too weak for your strength in Christ? In other words, to whom do you need to extend the ministry of holding your tongue and stopping your judgment? This Sunday in our Grow Groups, we’ll look together at Ephesians 2:11–22, where Paul talks about how some of the best news of the gospel is that all kinds of people, even people who are very different from us, have all been reconciled to God in Christ. And if we are all united with Christ, then we are all one with one another, too. To deny our need to bear with one another as one body in Christ—across races, across nationalities, across class, across political lines—to refuse the ministry of holding our tongues and affirming our brothers’ and sisters’ freedom in Christ is to deny the reality of the salvation that Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross. We eliminate with our words and actions those we think are weak, different, wrong for the sake of thinking ourselves strong. But in doing so, we kill the fellowship Christ died to create. But we’ll talk more about that on Sunday. On Zoom or in the room, we’ll see you there.