Family Rules: Part Three
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32
My mom is one of seven siblings. Like most rural families in the 40’s, their house was very small, and the kids created their fair share of drama. My grandmother was a believer—she was a model of godliness for decades. My grandfather, however, wasn’t a Christian until very late in life.
However, even in his pre-Christian days, he knew enough to know that it was good for his kids to be in church, and he probably just wanted to get the kids out of the house for a while on the weekend. So, he laid down a rule, one especially applicable to the kids as they got into their late teen years: if you want to go riding on Sunday afternoon, you have to go to church on Sunday morning.
Grandpa’s family rule—regardless of what motivated it!—made a lasting difference for the good of his children, and for their children in turn.
In the final part in the “Family Rules” series, we’re looking again at a bullet-point list of rules that guide God’s family, the church. Ephesians 4:31-31 isn’t very long, but it is dense. There’s so much there to unpack and discuss.
Family Rule # 6: Part with Destructive Attitudes and Actions
I’m a huge music fan—always have been—of most every genre of music you can think of. My heart is especially drawn to classic rock—80’s and earlier. But I don’t just love the music; I’m a big fan of several bands as well. I’m not one of those people who says, “Oh, I don’t know who sings this song; I just like it.” Nope. I want to know who is singing the songs I like.
That, unfortunately, means I’m also familiar with every music fan’s greatest fear: a band breakup. It’s awful. All this talent and energy and then…poof!…it’s all gone, just like that. The Beatles. The Eagles. Fleetwood Mac. Uncle Tupelo. The story is repeated over and over again throughout music history.
And do you know what? It’s never—or almost never—because band members say, “You know what? It would probably be best to steward our gifts on our own. I love my bandmates, and I think they’re amazing. There is no scandal; nothing bad happened. We’re still going to work together sometimes, in fact.”
Instead, things go down in flames after a long buildup. Relationships are destroyed. Potential is squandered. Lives are sometimes ruined, and in almost every instance, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
In fact, if you look at the dissolution of almost any relationship or organization—from a marriage to a Fortune 500 corporation—you see the same thing: it was destroyed from within, from people adopting postures and behaviors that systematically destroy one another.
Unfortunately, the church isn’t immune to this. How many churches and ministries have gone down in flames because people went to war with one another instead of going to war for one another? Too many to count, that’s how many.
Paul knew that. He knew that people are people. We’re sinners, and even believers—those indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit—are still prone to all sorts of attitudes and actions that, if left unchecked, will destroy us, both individually and as a family. So, he issues a clear and sweeping command.
Look at verse 31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
Before we look at the litany of things he mentions here, notice the nature of the instruction: let all these things be “put away from you…” Don’t toy with them. Don’t give them an inch. Have nothing to do with them.
As we go through this list of the things Paul tells us to put away, I want you to think about which are particular temptations or struggles for you. Which ones do you need to work the hardest at putting away? Where do you most need prayer, accountability, and repentance? Where do you need freedom and forgiveness? Take a moment and ask the Spirit to help you right now…
Now, let’s look at what attitudes and actions Paul says to put away.
First, he mentions bitterness. Aristotle defined the Greek word Paul uses here as “the resentful spirit that refuses reconciliation.” That’s a pretty good definition. It’s a spiritual open wound that you don’t want tended.
There are some tell-tale signs of bitterness. If someone constantly defines themselves by what they’ve lost or something they think God owed them but didn’t give…they’re probably dealing with bitterness. Perhaps it’s a person they’re mad at. Perhaps it’s God. But they have been maliciously injured—or feel they have been—and they’re going to hang onto that tooth and nail. If someone constantly complains about, well, everything, they’re probably dealing with bitterness. If someone seems to be a grudge-keeper, dreaming about revenge, they’re dealing with bitterness to some degree. If someone sees themselves as a victim or martyr, bitterness is almost certainly an issue.
So, here’s how it works—or doesn’t work—in the context of community, of the church. Johnny and Jimmy get into an argument one day about a theological question. The argument quickly turns personal, and the next thing you know, the two guys have said things to one another that are entirely inappropriate. Instead of reconciling, they choose to remain angry and things fester. With time, even their kids—who used to be friends—stop speaking to each other. The whole time, Johnny feels slighted by Jimmy and feels a perverse delight in being the persecuted truth-seeker. And you know what? Johnny feels the very same thing. With time, their attitudes will begin poisoning the whole church as their animosity toward one another becomes fodder for gossip and rivalry.
That’s just one of a thousand ways bitterness can play out in a congregation. And Paul says to put it away.
Wrath and Anger
Next, he mentions wrath and anger. Of course, wrath and anger are both attributes ascribed to God—both are his perfectly righteous attitudes against sin and evil. Humans can exercise righteous, God-reflecting and God-honoring anger. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about our sin-motivated proclivities. Think of wrath as an off-the-handle act, “blowing your gasket,” or “lashing out”—being carried away by your passions. Have you ever done that? You lost your temper and left a bunch of collateral damage in your wake. How did that work out for you? In fact, have you ever seen it work out well?
Anger, on the other hand, is referring to a settled disposition of hostility toward someone. I have a buddy who, years ago, pastored a church in the deep south. There was a guy in the church who couldn’t stand him, and my buddy could never figure out why. Nothing he did was ever good enough. Finally, he got a call to another church. I went to help him move, and as we were pulling away from the church that day, the guy had already gone to the building and taken my friend’s name down from the sign. That guy was constantly angry at my buddy, and to say that it wasn’t conducive to the health of that small congregation is probably an understatement.
And as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, even anger that starts off righteous can become unrighteous in the blink of an eye. So, even if our anger is aroused due to sin or evil that needs to be confronted, remember that it can quickly devolve into a desire for a pound of flesh where we, not God, are at the center of the story. And that is how the Bible views human anger and wrath: as extremely dangerous.
Proverbs 22:24-25 says it well: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”
Wrath and anger have no place among God’s people. We are to put them away.
Paul then follows up with a word we don’t hear a lot, but it’s a concept that’s very familiar to us all: clamor. One commentator describes it like this: “the loud self-assertion of the angry man who will make everyone hear his grievance.”
Throughout the legislative session, I worked a couple of days each month down at the capital, serving as an on-premises pastor (and something of a missionary) to legislators and their staffers. It has been a fascinating experience, to say the least.
A lot happens at the capital. A lot of hard work, a lot of careful deliberation—for all the cynicism about politics, there really are some good people doing good work. But do you know what else happens a lot in those hallowed halls? Clamor.
People scream at one another—or at the legislators themselves, who really can’t respond. It seems that everyone has the same underlying conviction: “What I have to say is all that matters.” And, for some, it’s even worse: “I am the only person here that matters.” This isn’t simply a matter of passionate belief; it’s a matter of a person making themselves sovereign, and making everyone else bow to their will.
You catch a glimpse of how this plays out in a local church over in 1 Corinthians 1. This church had all kinds of problems—horrible stuff. But the first thing Paul addresses is the issue of factions within the church. Some of the people were saying, “I follow Paul.” Others were saying, “I follow Apollos.” Still others were saying, “I follow Cephas,” or Peter. And the really spiritual-sounding types were saying, “I follow Christ.” And in the process, they were destroying one another, fighting against the very unity the Holy Spirit had provided. They were clamoring against one another—demanding their way, their superiority. They didn’t care about their brothers and sisters at all; they cared about themselves. Everything had devolved into “we are for us.”
If you come across a church that deals with factions, with disunity, you can 100% guarantee that clamor is an issue. But beloved, in a place that is based upon the laying down of life for the beloved, there is absolutely no place for clamor. This is what Paul means later in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that “love does not insist on its own way…”
Next up is slander. The Greek word is blasphemia, from where we derive the English word “blasphemy.” It means “to speak a word against,” intentionally spreading falsehood. The term is used in Scripture with reference to blasphemy against God, but it is also used to refer to abusive or slanderous speech against another person. This is so obviously evil that our society, which doesn’t see much as evil anymore, makes slander legal grounds to sue an offender.
Slander can encompass anything from false accusations to falsehoods about a person’s character, qualifications, etc. Gossip, rumor, inuendo…these are all ways slander is enacted, sometimes thinly veiled as a “prayer request” or a “concern.”
Jim Cymbala has pastored Brooklyn Tabernacle, a megachurch in New York City, since 1971. Early in the church’s history, something happened that set the tone for much of the church’s future ministry.
It was on a Sunday morning. They were receiving new members, just as we did a few weeks ago. I’ll let him tell the rest of the story:
I said something impromptu to the new members standing in a row across the front of the church. As we received them, the Holy Spirit prompted me to add, “And now, I charge you that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—that you stop that person in mid-sentence and say, ‘Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it Pastor Cymbala? Let’s go to his office right now. He’ll apologize to you, and then we’ll pray together so God can restore peace to this body. But we won’t let you talk critically about people who aren’t present to defend themselves…I’m serious about this. I want you to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And know this: If you are ever the one doing the loose talking, we’ll confront you.”
To this day, every time we receive new members, I say much the same thing. That’s because I know what most easily destroys churches. It’s not crack cocaine, government oppression, or even lack of funds. Rather, it’s gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit.
Beloved, we’ve probably all been guilty of this at some point in our lives, so we have to guard our hearts and tongues carefully. Put away slander.
Finally, Paul says to put away malice. Evil intent. A hateful heart. This is kind of a catch-all term for everything he’s named, plus a host of other offenses he hasn’t. The church is a family. You may not have had the best family experience growing up; maybe you don’t right now. But friends, a family is supposed to be the place where you’re known to the bottom and loved anyway. A place you can be yourself, and yet be encouraged to change for the better. A place where you’re stretched and challenged, and yet always secure.
There is no place for malice of any kind against your brothers and sisters in Christ. None. Zero. Ever. And so, we have to be on guard. We know these are potential landmines, or Paul wouldn’t have warned against them.
We put off these destructive attitudes and actions. We throw them away. We go to war against them. That’s the first family rule today. But, as he does so often, Paul calls us not merely to lay aside certain practices, but to pick up, to adopt, their opposite. That takes us to our next family rule: Have a Heart for One Another.
Family Rule #7: Have a Heart for One Another
Back in 2011—I remember the year because it happened the day the Cardinals had one of the most dramatic World Series wins in baseball history—I saw an act of love between brothers in Christ that I’ll never forget.
We were at a presbytery meeting. In the Presbyterian Church, congregations are grouped together into geographical associations called presbyteries. About once a quarter, pastors and elders from the churches get together for a weekend of meetings, discussing theological questions, vetting pastoral candidates, and strategizing on missions efforts.
On the docket for that Friday afternoon was a discussion regarding a pressing theological question and a subsequent vote that would make the presbytery’s stance explicit. This wasn’t an issue of orthodoxy, but a secondary matter that was still quite important and came with a lot of emotion from both sides.
The two men scheduled to speak—one representing each side of the debate—were the pastors of two very large, very strong churches in the presbytery. Each man was godly, wise, and intelligent. Each spoke respectfully and with conviction. After more questions from the rest of us came the vote. Side A defeated Side B by a single ballot. The moderator read the results, and it was on to the next matter. The brother representing Side A had a family event to get to, so he excused himself, and the rest of us went on with the meeting.
About 30 minutes later, he walked back into the sanctuary and asked for permission to speak. The moderator granted him the floor and he said, “I just can’t leave it like this. There is too much opportunity for dissention with what just happened.” And then he proceeded to give an impassioned plea for the integrity of his brother with whom he disagreed. He didn’t change his position, but he wanted to make sure that everyone had acted in love, rather than personal animus, when they voted.
The next thing you know, the pastor representing Side B asked to take the floor and spent the next several minutes expressing his love and concern for the Side A brother, ensuring him that the vote was fair and
square, and we needed to move forward, even though Side B—his side—had lost.
The heart these two men had for one another—and that they modeled for the rest of us was extraordinary. This is the kind of heart Paul is directing his friends to adopt in verse 31: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”
“Be kind to one another.” Be kind. In other words, demonstrate your love for one another. Make it concrete. Recently, when I shared with y’all some of the difficulties I’ve been going through lately, y’all didn’t just say, “I love you.” You did that for sure. But you also demonstrated it. You gathered around me and prayed for me. You brought our family meals. A couple of you took me out to lunch. One of you went on a 5-mile walk with me. Several texted throughout the week. You were showing kindness. That might sound trite or quaint in our world, but beloved—Galatians 5 lists kindness as a fruit of the Spirit. Earlier, in 2:7, Paul highlight’s God’s kindness in sending Jesus. Over in Romans 2:4, he says that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance.
Kindness is love in action. The gospel message—the message that God sent Jesus to live, die and be raised again for us—is a display of kindness greater than anything we could ever imagine. And he calls us to a life of kindness to one another as well.
And that kind of posture toward each can’t just be mechanical—“I took someone a meal, so I checked the kindness box. I can forget about them now” No. This is a heart thing: Paul says to be “tenderhearted,” affectionate. It’s what a parent feels for a child, what a friend feels for a friend, what God feels toward his people; it’s a disposition of mercy, grace, patience. That’s what brothers and sisters within the church are to feel for one another, by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Finally, Paul says this: “forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” After all, when you put sinners and sinners together, you’re going to get sin. It’s inevitable. Remember, Paul had to warn against all those things in verse 31 because we’re prone to them all. So, forgiveness must be a regular practice within God’s family if things are going to flourish. Otherwise, we’ll constantly be at one another’s throats, holding grievances against one another.
Now, forgiveness doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences when people sin—real ones, that have to be dealt with. There often will be. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we blindly start trusting someone again; love and forgiveness are given freely, but relational trust often—not always, but often—has to be restored over time, especially for serious offenses.
That said, though, Paul makes it clear that forgiveness is not an option. We must forgive. Why? Because “God in Christ forgave you.” Just as God forgives everyone who trusts that Jesus died for their sins and was raised from the dead—that he did that for them, so we forgive one another. No matter how much someone has sinned against us, it is nothing compared to how we have sinned against God, and yet he joyfully, and completely forgives us, and we are called to do the same.
Do you see it? The heart Paul is calling us to have for our brothers and sisters—not only our forgiving of one another, but everything he’s described in this verse—is rooted in what God has done for us in Jesus.
It all comes back to the gospel.
As we become more enraptured in what our great God has done in forgiving us, it moves us toward one another in forgiveness. And it’s this continual rhythm of mutual forgiveness that both makes long-term relationships possible, and that points us back to the truth of the gospel. As we forgive, we are reinforcing the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, to one another. If any place should ever be a place of forgiveness, it should be—it must be—the church.
Brian Henson, Trinity Community Church
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