Speaking the Truth in Love, Ephesians 4:15
by Berry Kercheville
Consider a Bible class studying Ephesians 4:4, “There is one body…” The teacher asks the class to explain. Someone says, “The body is the church and therefore there is one church.” Someone else chimes in on how sad it is that people think all churches are going to heaven when Jesus only built one church. Others make similar comments demeaning denominational concepts. After a few minutes (or thirty minutes!), the class goes on to “one Spirit.” What is wrong with this scenario? The teacher did not equip the class. The next time these class members have a conversation with a friend who believes any church is acceptable, they will respond by saying, “There is one church! Ephesians 4:4 says so!” Did they speak the truth? Yes. Did they speak the truth in love? No. Equipping has failed because an unbelieving friend has been misled.
Brief answers and brief explanations not only are detrimental to the new Bible student, they have a tendency to leave the wrong impression and therefore do harm. Our habit of using shorthand, insider language in Bible classes has transferred to the same language used with those outside the church building. In so doing, we equip Christians to push people away instead of drawing people to Christ. Short answers to complex questions ruin opportunities to share the gospel when similar conversations are repeated.
I can hear someone say, “But there is one church. What was wrong with plainly saying what the scripture says?” Here is where the teacher can become an equipper. How did your friend hear the words, “There is one church?” Your friend understood the word “church” in a denominational sense. The message sent was that there is only one “denomination” going to heaven, the one of which you are a member. Of course, biblically there is no such concept as the body of Christ being a collective of churches. Therefore, the truth you intended to communicate was not heard truthfully. Shorthand answers are egregious errors that do great damage. There are a multitude of examples of this kind of teaching. A Bible class among Christians should always begin with the primary goal of, “How would I explain this text so a friend would understand?”
When I was young, I had a discussion with a lady about salvation. I jumped right to the point. “Baptism saves you,” I said, “1 Peter 3:21.” The woman’s demeanor changed. She told me if that is what I believed, I was to leave her house immediately. As I was walking toward the door somewhat dumbfounded, I said, “I just quoted the scripture.” With that, she insisted all the more that I leave. For years, as I reflected on that event, I was amazed that a religious person would so blatantly reject a plain Bible statement. But when I slowed down and engaged people with discussions in which I did more listening than talking, I discovered why the woman ask me to leave her house. My verse quotation became a “verse grenade” that sent the wrong message. To her, “Baptism saves you,” meant getting dunked in water is an action that of itself has saving power. We must remember, Protestant denominations have been fighting the Catholic teaching of salvation through “sacraments” that have meritorious value. To hear us say, “Baptism saves you,” is to communicate a similar belief. It is communication of error, though truth was intended.
Here was my problem. I grew up being taught verses that would defeat false doctrines. The context played a diminished, secondary role to the “answers.” All I knew was, “Baptism saves you.” But that isn’t even what the text says. In fact, the statement by itself is false. Baptism does not save you! The whole verse says, “Baptism now saves you…as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Okay, what is baptism? It is an appeal to God for a good conscience, which comes through the power of the resurrection of Jesus. If we emphasize just immersion, we diminish the work of the resurrection of Jesus in our obedience. As one friend said to me, “You people believe in water salvation.” When I told him I believed no such thing, he was shocked. He thought all churches of Christ believed in water salvation. Why would he believe that? It is because he had been repeatedly verse grenaded!
Teachers Must Be Equippers
Turning our Bible classes into equipping sessions is not a simple task given the traditions embedded in most churches. The way we study the Bible and the way we conduct our Bible classes is foundational to fulfilling our identity as image bearers of Christ who share the gospel message. When we only know “shorthand answers” we incorrectly reflect the image of Christ and fail our mission. In doing so, we literally train members to push people away instead of drawing people to Jesus. By reflecting a poor image of Christ, we place the local church in a bad light and lose opportunities to share the gospel.
Our challenge is to be teachers who “equip,” not lecturers or discussion facilitators. To do this, the teacher must have an understanding of how a new Bible student or an outsider is hearing the words of the class. Therefore, the best teacher is one who has taught non-Christians and understood what it means to have compassionate biblical discussions. If the purpose of an equipper is to bring Christians to “speak the truth in love,” the equipper himself must have experience in teaching those who need it most. Since evangelists, shepherds and teachers are charged to equip saints, the training ground is a Bible, an unbelieving friend, and a kitchen table or coffee shop. Speaking the truth assumes a recipient. To speak the truth in love assumes I know how the recipient receives the message. Paul told Timothy, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Did you notice? A servant of the Lord must be able to teach. In context, who is being taught? Unbelievers. In other words, a teacher must himself be practiced in biblical discussions if he expects to train a Bible class to “be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks…yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).
Bible classes among Christians are not so we can rehearse what we have always believed, nor even to simply enhance our knowledge of the Bible. Knowing the truth is nice, but knowing how to explain the truth in a loving, gentle way, is a mark of maturity (Eph. 4:14-15).