In true political fashion, somebody has said something and a lot of other people are up in arms that they dared to say it. That same person has been given the opportunity to pretend they didn’t mean what they said and refused. The other people have gotten more angry about it. People entrench into their respective free speech or incitement to violence. arguments. It is nothing new, we’ve just got a new round of it.
This time, it was the Prime Minister daring to wave away some comments as ‘humbug’. Depending on who you choose to listen to on it, the Prime Minister was either waving away comments about Jo Cox’s death as ‘humbug’ or was calling ‘humbug’ the suggestion that referring to a proposal going through parliament as a ‘surrender bill’ would necessarily lead to people emulating what happened to Jo Cox. You can make up your own mind as to what he was saying.
My purpose here is not to talk about the rights and wrongs of whatever Boris Johnson said or meant. My purpose is to speak about how we use words in general. Because there are two issues here that we must hold in tension and ministers of the gospel (by which I, naturally, mean everybody who is a Christian who wants to honour Christ).
On the one hand, there is the issue of carefulness with words. Just as the Prime Minister ought to be careful with his words, so ministers of the gospel ought to be careful with their words too. If we want people to hear our message, we need to present it in such a way as it might actually be heard. It is no good insisting that people should just take me as they find me, or saying whatever we want in whatever terms we want. If the only goal is making ourselves physically heard, then yes, saying what we want how we want is fine. But if the goal is winning people to Christ, we need to make sure the message is both heard and conveyed in such a way as it might connect with the hearer.
On the other hand, the gospel is inevitably going to offend. It is vitally important that we do not allow other people to control our language to the point that we cannot actually explain the gospel. We need the ability to say words like ‘sin’, ‘Hell’, ‘judgement’ and the like. These are not words that everybody will want to hear but we must defend our ability to say them if we are to be clear on what the gospel actually is. When we allow people to make certain words unsayable, it is a short step to making certain ideas unthinkable, and that is a problem. Socially, yes, but all the more clearly for the sake of salvation. Without clarity in the gospel – which means clarity in our words that might well offend others – people are heading for a lost eternity and we have no means of doing anything about it.
The question, then, is how do we keep these things in tension. I would suggest that the latter must come before the former. We must have the freedom to say what is offensive first in order that we might exercise our freedom not to say some of those offensive things to make our message land. If our words are prohibited, we will not be able to share the gospel at all. If all words are on the table, it doesn’t mean we are required to use them all nor to say them in particular ways.
It is my view that the Prime Minister should be allowed to say whatever he wants but he is wise not to use the full extent of that freedom. In the same way, ministers of the gospel should be allowed to say whatever we want – including the more offensive parts of the gospel – even if we are wise to not always employ the full extent of our freedom. It is important to make sure that we are free to say what we want whilst making sure we are careful in what we say.