What does it mean to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15)?
There are important context clues to help us understand this phrase. First, just a few verses earlier, the apostle has celebrated Christ’s gift: church leaders “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12), growing into maturity and experiencing the fullness of Christ. The work of these church leaders is contrasted with “the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” that causes those without discernment to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (4:14). So, at its heart, this is a passage about the purpose that drives Christian service. Its goal is that the body of Christ would be built up and that believers would be more firmly rooted in their faith, gaining greater capacity to experience the fullness of Christ.
If we draw larger principles about Christian communication from this passage, we might say that the goal of our speech ought to be consistent with the goals of ministry: to build others up and encourage them to be anchored in Christ, thus to becoming more fully free and alive. Our speech should not be used to deceive, demean, or dominate others, but to help them be full and free in Christ.
But it is certainly the case that committed believers disagree on many things they perceive to be true about things such as secondary doctrines or ethical decisions, so it is important to remember that the primary truth that believers seek to “speak in love” is the good news of Jesus itself. We so often use our words to justify or congratulate ourselves. We might begin to feel superior to others in our conviction that we possess “the truth.” Paul will remind the Ephesians a few verses later that the truth is “in Jesus” (4:21). This truth is neither our discovery nor our invention; it is the sort of thing that no one can boast about, the sort of thing that we can only ever speak humbly about because we are astonished that it has found us. So with our words we point people to Jesus Christ. The only appropriate way to speak of him is in a way that fits the character of his gift. He is the Love and the Truth that sets us free.
About the Author
Justin Ariel Bailey is assistant professor of theology at Dordt University. He, his wife, and their two children are members of Covenant CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa.