Friday, July 18, 2014

Christian Tone Police

Just how important is tone? Is tone more important than actual words? Is using a proper tone the most important aspect of communication? How do we determine what the proper tone is? Who determines it? What is it based on?

A few weeks back a group of habitual Christian tone violators had a discussion and I'm going to piggy back off that here.

Tone has become of chief importance in this hyper-sensitive culture of ours. The internet is constantly patrolled by the Tone Police. The Tone Police are self-appointed judges of the internal motivations and intended tones of inaudible voices on the web. These tone experts are not just effeminate liberals or junior high girls but they are also adult Christians. Tone has been elevated above the truth. People, as evidenced by the popularity of false teachers like Joel Osteen and Steven Furtick, love to be lied to and manipulated by men who speak with a nice, gentle tone while simultaneously they despise any man or woman who speaks truth in a tone they have arbitrarily deemed unloving or “not very nice.”
And it truly is arbitrary. There’s no real way to measure tone, especially online. What is good tone for one person is hateful for someone else. Tone is a flavor. It can be described and distinguished but it can generate a multitude of different responses. None of the responses make the flavor wrong by any objective standard. What we should be judging instead of tone are words and whether or not they are true. Don’t get hung up on tone. And really don’t associate a warm and gentle tone with Christ when it comes to how He interacted with false teachers.

This is where Christianity gets real uncomfortable and messy for those who believe tone is the highest calling for a believer. I don’t mean to say that glibly but for people to suggest (not argue of course) that tone is more important than truth or that truth should not be shared if written with the wrong tone are placing tone above truth even in dealing with false teaching:
Jeremiah 2: 2-5
“Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see;
Where have you not been violated?
By the roads you have sat for them
Like an Arab in the desert,
And you have polluted a land
With your harlotry and with your wickedness.
“Therefore the showers have been withheld,
And there has been no spring rain.
Yet you had a harlot’s forehead;
You refused to be ashamed.
“Have you not just now called to Me,
‘My Father, You are the friend of my youth?
Will He be angry forever?
Will He be indignant to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken
And have done evil things, And you have had your way.”

But Tim, that’s Old Testament. It doesn’t count. God isn’t mean like that anymore. It’s all about grace and peace and love and flowers and bunnies and rainbows. False teachers aren’t really around anymore and if they are around, they announce themselves plainly! That’s how God dealt with false teachers. Jesus was totally different. He just loved them and hugged them and spoke nicely to them until they changed their ways! He was all like, “Hey Mr. Not Exactly Perfect Theology have you ever considered, I don’t know, maybe trying things a different way? Like maybe seeing what the Bible says and then acting accordingly? I don’t know, just thought I’d throw it out there. You can take it or leave it. Hug?”

Sure that seems like something American Jesus, whom we have emasculated and sensitized beyond recognition, might say but what did actual Jesus say and how did He say it?

Matthew 23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
Surely that’s a misprint, right? Jesus couldn’t have possibly spoken to someone in such a discordant tone!!! How very un-Christlike of Jesus to use such an unloving and abrasive tone with some poor innocent false teachers!
That’s just a snippet. That entire chapter is brutal and despotic. It’s as if Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords has a right to do what He did.  A HUGE portion of His divinely appointed and perfectly carried out ministry was devoted to debunking myths, publicly humiliating false teachers, pointing out specifics and protecting His Father’s holy name. Did God in the Old Testament give specific prophecies foretelling the coming of Messiah but was unable to see that His Son would disagree with Him? Do you know what pitting Jesus against God does to the Trinity? Do you know how fundamental to the faith the Trinity is?
Alright Tim but that’s because He was Jesus. He was allowed to do that. We aren’t allowed to talk about false teachers using any tone that is not perfectly nice. It’s better to let rampant error run completely wild than to confront a false teacher with a tone that has been deemed unloving by some mercurial judge. None of John’s letters are mean-spirited and he certainly never demands people to reject false teaching at any cost! John was the Apostle of love after all.
2John 7-11For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
Whaaat??? Even John talks like that? Oh man! So you’re saying maybe tone is in reality not the highest calling for a Christian? Like maybe because tone is so completely arbitrary that we should really focus on evaluating people’s words? Woah! So like when Joel Osteen says stuff in a super nice way, he could be lying? And like when some other guy doesn’t sound real happy about something, he could just be legitimately upset and be telling the truth? Or maybe sometimes sarcasm is a useful tool in helping people recognize error?
Is this a call by me to just mock and ridicule everyone who speaks error? No. Influential leaders in the Christian community who publicly teach false things, should be publicly rebuked and the tone a Christian uses to expose the false teaching is wholly irrelevant. You can be as nice as you want or as condescending as you want. This is an area where the Holy Spirit tends to override your initial actions, however. There have been times when I set out to say things sternly and bluntly but was guided by the Holy Spirit to take a more kind spirit. In the end your words are more important than how you say them. That’s the truth.
If I’m talking to a new Christian, I am going to interact with him or her in a completely different manner than I would with an older Christian. In the same way we deal with kids, we deal with new Believers. It’s unrealistic to expect kids to behave like mature adults. It is also unacceptable to permit mature Christians to behave like infant Christians. And a Christian in a leadership position (pastor, teacher) with incredible influence doesn’t deserve to be graciously spoken with in private while their damning error remains easily accessible and widely spread.
And obviously I’m not going around screaming at people. I’m not saying, “Hey ya big ugly fatty!” to people. Exposing error, correcting false teaching, naming names and all that messy stuff has an inherently unfriendly tone to it. That’s how it is. It’s divisive. That doesn’t mean it’s sinful.

Take for instance the man healed of blindness in John 9. Carefully note the tone he takes with the false teachers. See for yourself if he’s being sarcastic and mocking:
So a second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give glory to God; we know that this man is a sinner.” He then answered, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” So they said to him, “What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?”  He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen; why do you want to hear it again? You do not want to become His disciples too, do you?”  They reviled him and said, “You are His disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where He is from.” The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes. We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him. Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” So they put him out.
And here’s the really kooky thing about the whole tone police phenomenon; it’s so subjective and visceral that it can never be clearly defined to anyone else. It (the tone that offends them) is sooo deep inside these people that they are incapable of articulating just what is so darn offensive. Isn’t that just like flavor? I can’t describe why I like Crunch bars or pizza, I just know that I do.  Again, I’m just talking about how we, Christians and by necessity also lovers of truth, engage with heresy and especially heretics and false teachers. This isn’t about how I talk to my wife about my day or how I engage my neighbor. This is about whether or not we have to be “nice” when dealing with error. I don’t go around saying “Pizza is Christian” or “shepherd’s pie is evil.” Those are just preferences and the way I feel about them doesn’t prove their goodness. Just as how someone who “feels that that man’s tone is too aggressive or unkind” is permitted to feel that way and it’s fine that they do but it doesn’t mean the man in question is wrong. You need to prove from Scripture that the man should not be saying what he’s saying or saying what he’s saying how he is saying it.

Allow me to issue a few disclaimers postscript. There are probably different ways people define sarcasm. Some look at it in more of the satirical sense. I associate satire with a narrative of some kind so i don’t think the words are always interchangeable. Sarcasm can undoubtedly have a negative connotation. I’m not talking about this kind of sarcasm:
“Tim, how did the Indians do last night?”
“Oh they did awesome! They lost 12-2.”
Perhaps ironic is the right word? I’m not sure. Alanis Morissette has so obfuscated the meaning of the word ironic that I’m not sure anyone knows what it means. She thinks irony is just bad luck. One could actually illustrate irony by looking at how Alanis defines ironic. That’s probably the greatest irony of all. Sometimes I do use irony and that offends people. Sometimes I’m just being sarcastic. Regardless, I recognize that sarcasm can be a sin but it can also be useful. The intent of my sarcasm isn’t to just be a jerk. The intent is to move people out of complacent thinking. Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins said, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy...”

Look at that I just made 2 pop culture references in 1 paragraph! That qualifies me to be an Acts 29 pastor, doesn’t it? I’m kidding I’m kidding. Everyone relax. All 4 of you people who are reading this can just chill out.

One final passage to consider and I’m not so much focused on the context of Paul publicly rebuking Peter but more about Paul’s careful selection of words:

Galatians 2:14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

Paul takes issue with fluctuation. That Peter (Cephas) was not straightforward was the issue. Peter failed to be upright with the truth of the gospel. He is not commended for compromising to appease the Judaizers. He is rebuked for refusing to be honest with the people.

Do we aim to please men or please God? Is the commandment to love God of higher importance than loving men? People are always going to be offended by the truth regardless of how nicely you say it. Let’s just be certain we say what is true and in accordance with God’s revealed word lest we offend the only One we absolutely must not offend.


  1. Tim,

    How is it possible to love man without first loving God? If we act hateful toward man then how can we say we love God? How is love going to be believable if by appearance we don't show any evidence (in our tone) in how (embracing toxic Methodologies) we communicate God's correction or be a witness of his love.

    When I witness the toxic and predatory practice of repetitive hateful sparring between adversaries with different Doctrines I see no evidence of God's love because it doesn't exist. (not even tough love)

    What I do see is a serious "Lack of Faith" and a "Lack of Love" for God, (and their own salvation is questionable) by the verbal attacker, for not sharing their burdens with the Holy Spirit when they have a serious difference of opinion after they raise an initial credible concern. Instead I witness daily or monthly attempts to verbally take out or destroy their "opponent" affecting the well being of whole families, if they think the person with differing doctrine they are attacking, has unrepentant sin and then suggesting they need to repent and from what I'm seeing they all need to repent while "toning it down".

    Love in Christ

    1. Mark,
      Thanks for commenting. I think we're more on the same page than you think. To illustrate the point of my original post someone could look at your comment and arbitrarily say your tone is mean and hateful.
      I don't think your comment is mean and hateful. Clearly it is not. The point I wanted to make is that we've overemphasized "tone" in Christian contexts. Lots of people use tone as a cop-out for not engaging the argument.
      "Well I don't like his tone, so I'm not listening."
      This seems to be how many people respond to anything even remotely polemical. They use someone's tone as justification to continue on in false doctrine.

      Should we be careful of our tone? Of course. But if we take it too far then we can never rebuke false teaching because such an interaction is inherently adversarial or inflammatory. We aren't called to be timid and terrified of upsetting people. Accurately handling the word of truth is, as I'm sure you're aware, very abrasive.

      When it comes to interacting with false teaching and false teachers I don't think tone is really that important. I'm not even sure how it's possible to interact with a heretic or purveyor of false doctrine and not get upset. God's character is being assaulted. That's something we should not take lightly.

      When someone says people can lose their salvation they are insulting Jesus. They are calling Him a liar. We are very much permitted to be stern and authoritative in our reply.

  2. I think we are pretty much on the same page.

    What I'm referring is the repetitive toxic behavior that goes beyond raising credible concerns or pointing out sin of an adversary with differing doctrines. Calvinist and Armlinian argue frequently claiming the other as heretics and embracing false doctrine. Then they get very personal verbally attacking one another and in some cases sparring with kids related to their "prey" which probably creates even more turmoil and damages relationships within those families.

    They are lacking faith in the Holy Spirit's abilities, by repetitively taking matters in their own hands and because there is no indication of "tough love" in their behavior, they aren't exercising the kind of love commanded by the Father to embrace..

    Mocking the.birth name of an adversary is an off topic ploy and simply another way of moving in for the Kill or to get the W.

    I haven't sugar coated the need to raise credible concerns but when the messenger has exhausted his views for months, it goes beyond redundancy and he needs allow God to carry the load.

    I've suggested to JD on several occasions that his Methodology is predatory and in some cases abusive. To go after someone for weeks and in some cases months is an overkill and a strong indication that he lacks faith in the ability of the Holy Spirit to carry burdens, we can't carry alone.

  3. I think I adequately addressed this when I wrote, "And obviously I’m not going around screaming at people. I’m not saying, “Hey ya big ugly fatty!” to people."

    That would sum up personal or ad hominem attacks, right?

    It's always best to keep the debate focused on the arguments.

    Much like it's best to keep this discussion focused on the topic. JD is not the topic. If you want to argue over the merit of what he does and how he does it, you are free to do that. If you're honest in your criticism of him and approach it from a biblical mindset, you just might be able to influence those who disagree. Just use your own blog page to hash these things out.

    Just be mindful not to be guilty of the things you feel JD is guilty of. If JD is anything like me, he's eager to have his doctrine and his life be aligned with Scripture.

  4. Tim B,

    You have been eloquent in your "tone" which is what I'm talking about. What I'm describing is a breakdown in tone in cyber Christian Media (by some, including JD) in an attempt to stay "eager in doctrine and be aligned with Scripture"

    I am mindful of the things we are talking about. I have a tendency to think at one time or another most of us are guilty of over doing it. So yeah, unfortunately I think I have been guilty of over doing it in my tone. I get no satisfaction by pointing out flaws in JD's tone and my intent is for his friends (like you) to rally around him and encourage him to "tone it down" and lean on the Holy Spirit.

    I'm also mindful we can't be afraid to step out of our comfort zone when it comes to spreading the Gospel. Sometimes our tone may be mis-interpreted when in fact we are being obedient and other times we are sinful in our tone when we mistreat others because we are "over-eager" or lack faith which is something even the Apostle Peter struggled with..

    I clicked onto your blog after reading your post on JD's Blog. (today) And after reading your "Christian Tone Police" in my view, it was no accident that I stumbled onto your blog as it fits in line with what's wrong with Christian Media today.

    Christians (in Media) at the very least need to stop being mean to each other and I think that is possible without compromising their view of God. I also think Christians (in Media) need more discernment so they know when to back off and lean on the Holy Spirit rather than embracing failed combativeness.

  5. I agree but would argue that there are ways we can say things that DO, in fact, convey different meaning, even if using the same words.

    HST, I have found that online dialogue can be nearly impossible because of the perception of tone. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't, at least sometimes, try to be sure about our own hearts before clicking "submit." :)

    I also believe there are different contexts. A prophet speaking to a condemned nation as God's mouthpiece is different from me discussing a difference of opinion with a fellow Christian on a blog site.

    For example, Paul in Galatians 2 was confronting a gospel issue, right? He wasn't arguing about how to do church or whether certain length skirts are sinful. It would be natural for his "tone" to be harsher, see 1 Kings 18 - Elijah wasn't a "nice guy," was he?

    But I've found people who seem to act as if no one on the internet should have feelings and that they aren't at all responsible for how their words could be interpreted. Call me cra cra, but it seems foolish to me that we would use a medium with little or no thought to how that medium affects the communication. I LOVE brothers and sisters enough that I want to try to be more careful than not - and at least apologetic when I find I've offended someone- even if I don't believe I sinned. I still lament if my words were mis-perceived and want to learn to do better.

    1. I tried to be clear I was only talking about tone in regards to how we interact with false teaching. I think my efforts to emphasize that situation failed. I definitely know we need to be considerate of how we come across.

      This was a somewhat reactionary post. There's plenty of people I've interacted with who played the "I'm offended by your tone" card. Or the general response to the Strange Fire conference. It left me scratching me head and wondering if they heard the same thing I heard.

  6. Tim, that's probably more an error on my part. I do agree with what you said, I was sorta just adding a point you really didn't address directly. Sorry if my comment came across as argumentative when I really meant to support you and add a note.