Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ (Eph 4:31-32).
“Why are there so many angry theologians?” Christianity Today wonders. I’ve asked myself that same question. While I love debating theology, too often, the disagreements turn ugly.
Christian communities should act differently from society, but that change doesn’t happen automatically. Paul says we must put off specific negative attributes and put on some positive ones.
Where vices are concerned, Paul says we should put away bitterness, anger, wrath, shouting, slander, and malice. Bitterness leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Anger and wrath are often synonyms but might refer to the difference between a short-term outburst of anger and the kind that festers over time. Shouting and slandering represent the verbal abuse you hurl at people or type online. And those are all part of the larger problem of malice.
You might read that list and think they should obviously not be part of Christian society. But the truth is, Christendom has historically indulged in the very worst forms of those vices.
I want my kids to understand a little about church history and how Christians can and will suffer persecution. I was sharing portions of Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman Van Bragt, an 1160-page history of how the Roman Catholics and Protestants persecuted the Anabaptists. It’s filled with letters, personal confessions, and eyewitness accounts of their suffering. The Anabaptists were imprisoned, robbed, mutilated, tortured, drowned, and burned alive by fellow “Christians” living in “Christian nations.”
Similar books, such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, De Persecutione Anglicana, and A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, show how Protestants and Catholics killed each other, too. Frankly, Christendom often treated religion like a blood sport (the peaceful Anabaptists and Quakers being the exception).
In the modern West, our churches generally no longer use physical violence against each other, but we can still display those same evil attitudes of the heart. For example, have you ever seen bitterness in the church, heard slander, or felt angry at your fellow believers? Have you ever seen it in theological debates? On social media? In church splits?
We all have. And shame on us.
What’s the alternative?
It’s easy to focus on what we must not do, only to miss what we should do.
Paul says we should meet slights and betrayals by showing kindness, compassion, and forgiveness to one another. That’s what normal church life should be like.
Kindness. Paul said God raised us up in the heavenlies to show us kindness (Eph 2:7). And in Galatians, he says this is one of the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22). If it seems that kindness doesn’t come naturally—you’re right. You need the Spirit to be kind to people who would normally make you angry.
Compassion. The word literally means “good bowels” (eusplagchnos). Different cultures depict emotions as coming from the gut. When you have compassion, other people’s feelings are felt by you. Instead of being unmoved by their suffering, you feel it in yourself, in solidarity with them, and weep with those who mourn and suffer with the sufferers. In English, we should locate the feelings in the heart and say that the compassionate person is tenderhearted.
Forgiveness or graciousness. The word charizomai has two common meanings, “show kindness to” and “graciously bestow” (Moulton and Milligan, p. 684). Your English translation might use either forgiveness or grace. The idea is that if you’ve been wronged, instead of blowing up in anger, the proper response is to be gracious to, or to forgive, the offender. That gracious attitude is the antithesis of bitterness.
Finally, what is your motivation to act this way?
Hopefully, you simply see that it makes moral sense to be gracious to one another rather than wrathful. But as a motivation, Paul emphasizes the way God has treated you. Even though you sinned against Him, the Lord showed you grace and forgiveness in Christ, so if that’s how the Head treats the Body, that’s how it should treat itself.
All Christians should pay attention to the one-another commands—especially theologians. If they did, maybe one-day people will ask, “Why are the theologians so kind?”
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.