A strange feature of modern Christianity is its fixation on “tone.” Whenever someone speaks directly, without qualification or nuance, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, the tone police quickly arrive on the scene to make sure everyone’s feelings are safely intact. They say things like, “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it.”
Presumably, the correct tone must always be friendly, winsome, calm, and unemotional; people should speak with uncertainty, like a suggestion, or a hypothesis. “This is more Christ-like,” they say. After all, doesn’t the Bible say let your “speech always be gracious” (Col 4:6)? And aren’t we supposed to correct others in a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1)?
Yes it does. But is that all it says about tone? Of course not. Now, I will freely acknowledge that tone can be sinful. Christians should not rush into controversy or provoke others for sport We will give account for every careless word we speak. I will also add that graciousness and gentleness should be the default mode of Christian speech. So this article is not about getting Christians to dial the rhetorical heat up to 11 all the time. That’s unnecessary and obnoxious. This article is about is about those times when a harsh tone is needed because people won’t hear anything else.
I used to get irritated by Christian leaders who used a harsh tone, but when I became a pastor, that changed because my perspective changed. I saw things from the perspective of a spiritual father who loves his people. And I’m thankful for other faithful men (like John Piper and Doug Wilson) who’s boldness and courage have inspired me to follow their lead. Just as good fathers use hard words and harsh tones when necessary out of love for their children, faithful pastors do the same.
Not always, but more often than you think.
Love Means Put Away Falsehood and Speak the Truth
Christians need to put away falsehood and speak the truth (Eph 4:25). In Acts, the apostles prayed for boldness, not gentleness, because they were afraid and the stakes were high. They prayed for boldness because fear would have kept them quiet. Bold speech can be costly. Boldness takes courage. Gentleness doesn’t.
In modern times, we need men who speak truth boldly, because our society is suffering from a serious bout of truth decay. Godless ideologies are pulling unsuspecting people further into its web of deceit and poisoning their souls. The overlords who control almost every lever of cultural power have become untethered from reality. They control the news media, the entertainment industry, collegiate and professional sports, universities, and most of the federal government. They have embraced self-contradictory absurdities that they wish to impose on everyone else. They are deceivers who prey on the gullible niceness of peaceable Christians. Does that sound too harsh to you? If it does, then you’d better avoid 2 Tim 3:1-9.
When faithful pastors discern the times and warn others about it, they are loving people. Love speaks the truth (Eph 4:15) and protects people from being tossed to and fro and blown whichever way the wind is blowing. They do not love controversy for its own sake; they ask God to give them boldness to protect their flocks from wolves, using whatever means necessary to do so. Sometimes that means using a sharp tone to get people’s attention because it’s more effective. It cuts through the noise. But it’s never easy.
If there’s a fire in the house, a good father runs frantically down the halls shouting “get out now!” Only a fool would criticize his tone in that moment. He loves his family by warning them harshly to get their attention. The most unloving thing for him to do would be to gingerly stroll the halls while suggesting everyone seek alternate accommodations at their earliest possible convenience.
When a child chases a loose ball into the street, his mother shouts “stop! STOP!!” to get his attention. Her love requires her to be harsh because the danger is urgent.
The same is true of pastors. When spiritual dangers are high, faithful pastors match their tone to the urgency of the moment.
But when a pastor speaks an unpleasant truth, a typical reflex is to criticize the tone. Even when the message is spoken reasonably and gently, the fact that he said anything about it will evoke complaints. Often times, the person critiquing someone else’s tone is trying to take the high-road of civility while passive-aggressively attempting to silence the truth. They see themselves as being peace-makers, but they really love aesthetics more than truth.
I get it. Speaking in a sterile and academic way is safer and less likely to ruffle feathers. Bold declarations disrupt the status quo and provoke controversy. Is that Christ-like?
The Hard Words of Jesus
Anyone who reads the Bible honestly will acknowledge the frequent use of jarring words and harsh tones. Jesus is described as having a “sharp sword” coming out of his mouth (Rev 19:15). This isn’t a circus trick; it’s the Bible’s way of saying Jesus is a warrior and words are his weapons. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joins and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Jesus never minced words. He spoke with direct and unambiguous authority, condemning sin and demanding repentance. The people who heard Jesus said, “this is a hard saying.” Jesus frequently used hyperbole, insults, and name-calling. He slung blistering rebukes, such as his seven woes in Matt 23. He told people to fight lust by gouging out their eyes and cutting off their hands (Matt 5:27-30). He called people names, such as “hypocrites” (Matt 15:7), “brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34) and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt 23:27). Ultimately, Jesus was crucified for his words.
The Hard Words of the Apostles
John the Baptist was beheaded for publicly condemning Herod by name for his sin. The apostles in the book of Acts told the Jews that they had murdered their own Messiah. They blasted the authorities for their hypocrisy and unbelief, accusing them of blasphemy. When the Jews imprisoned them and ordered them to be silent, they did not issue a press release to apologize for their “hurtful” tone. They rejoiced and went on preaching.
Paul’s letters are filled with harsh insults, sweeping generalizations, sarcasm, and name-calling. He said “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:13). Paul used the word “skubalon” in Phil 3:8, which is a crass word for dung. He was vividly saying that worldly gain is a pile of crap compared to the worth of Christ. He insults his opponents a few verses later, calling them “dogs,” “evildoers,” and “those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). He told the Galatians that if they were such big fans of circumcision, they should try castration (Gal 5:12)!
The Hard Words of the Prophets
The prophets alternated between humor and horror. Elijah made fun of Baal while his prophets cut themselves by suggesting he was too busy to answer because he was sitting on the toilet (1 Kings 18:27). Ezekiel went full shock-jock mode when he obscenely compared the nation of Israel to a whore who refused payment as a prostitute and instead paid men to have sex with her. I won’t even quote Ezek 23:20 here. Trust me. It wins the blue ribbon for harsh tone.
The Need for Hard Words
Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Christians should always and only speak hard words. But sometimes we should. And we should also not be so quick to complain about tone. People who have “itching ears… will not endure sound teaching.” Instead, they find preachers to suit them. What sort of “tone” do you think false teachers have? False teachers do not warn as a loving father does; they ease people’s consciences with vague suggestions as they turn away from truth and wander off into myths. (If that sounds too harsh, then you’d better stay away from 2 Tim 4:3-4.)
Some people would rather hear TED talks from PhD professors than the bare-knuckle proclamations from the prophets. PhDs are safe. Prophets are dangerous. The direct, unapologetic language of the Bible grabs our attention and provokes a response. Scripture cuts us open and lay us bare.
Interestingly, scripture sharply condemns those who use soft words when hard words are needed (Jer 6:14)! The false prophets were condemned for coddling and flattering God’s people when his wrath was immanent. Paul told Titus to “rebuke [the false teachers] sharply, that they [the church] may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). That may sound rude or divisive, but notice that health and maturity was the intended effect. When Peter preached, the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Despite these numerous examples from scripture, modern evangelicals don’t have much stomach for direct language.
When Someone’s Tone is “Hurtful”
When a comment hits a little too close to home, they say “it’s offensive” or “it’s hurtful.” It isn’t fun to say this, but sometimes our feelings need to get hurt. Yes, sharp words hurt feelings, but that’s a good thing. They cut in just the right ways. Feelings are not sovereign; God is. Hurt feelings do not determine reality, no matter how sincerely felt. But God cares about our souls more than our feelings, so he uses sharp words to provoke a response.
Non-offensive words are easy to tune out. Offensive words have life changing power. Offensive words grab us by the collar and shout, “listen!”
I was once sharply rebuked by a man once for having a prideful attitude. I got defensive and angry, thinking he was too blunt. What he said to me was hurtful; but he was right. His words were not hurting me as much my own sin was. I was arrogant and needed the correction. I was “cut to the heart” and committed myself to actively repent of this sin for the rest of my life. That was about 25 years ago. He loved me with hard words and it changed my life for the better.
Just as a doctor needs to cut the patient to perform surgery, God cuts us to heal us. Stinging rebukes are often necessary for spiritual health. A pastor who never speaks in this way is like a father who never disciplines his kids. They always end up wild and rebellious. Yet, “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6).
No one likes hearing a harsh “tone,” just like no child likes discipline, but it is the loving thing to do (Heb 12:5-8). When used appropriately, it is effective. A pastor who doesn’t ever use a harsh tone with his people is a weak shepherd that doesn’t love his people.
There are real dangers in the world, and wise shepherds will do what they can to protect their sheep. Words are weapons. The Bible is a sword. It cuts. Sharp knives are always safer than dull knives, because they cut in exactly the right place.
If someone hears a pastor’s faithful warning and his instinct is to say, “I don’t like your tone,” then there’s a good chance he got cut and didn’t like it. He heard something that hit the mark. His idol is being dethroned and it’s fighting back. Hard hearted people complain about tone because it’s their last defense. They know they heard something true, so tone is all they have left to complain about.
The bottom line is this: don’t be so quick to criticize someone else’s tone. Trying to get someone to soften their tone is often nothing more than thinly veiled emotional manipulation. The net effect is weakness, impotence, and division, because truth was not properly upheld. Hard words may ruffle feathers, but when skillfully deployed, they produce unity and fruit.
We need hard words, and bold Christians speaking them. Perhaps now more than ever.