I grew up in a southern US culture that used euphemistic expressions like “God bless your little heart” to mean… Well, I can’t say what that really meant while discussing a Wesleyan ethic of speech. But I promise you that what it meant wasn’t always nice.
There’s a lot in the Bible, a lot in the words of Jesus, and a lot in Wesleyan and Methodist culture about what comes out of our mouths. The world would be a better place if we could pay more attention to the words we generate with our mouths and our keypads. But not just the world outside of our churches: in a time of Methodist rancor and division, this historic culture of carefully guarded speech (and writing) is as needed as ever.
Jesus recognized a world awash in verbal vomit. In fact, that’s just about exactly how he described it:
“… it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (St Matthew 15:11).
It’s a puke joke. What goes into the mouth does not defile. It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles us. So the letter of James says: “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
Jesus and James describe a cycle of verbal violence set on fire by what comes out of our mouths. And, I dare say, from our keypads. The way out of the cycle is simplicity of speech: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (St Matthew 5:37). “… let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no” (James 5:12).
There is a long Christian tradition of guarding speech carefully. Eastern Orthodox bishops speak very slowly, very calmly, and very deliberately. Part of the discipline of Orthodox monasteries is to form monks in this practice of careful, deliberate speech.
Careful guarding of speech was also a central element in early Methodist life. It was enshrined in the General Rules. Methodists met weekly in their classes and asked each other: this week, have you been able to avoid “The taking of the name of God in vain”? This week, have you been able to avoid “Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing…”? This week, have you been able to avoid “Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation…”? It’s about what comes “out of the mouth.”
John Wesley’s sermon on “The Cure of Evil Speaking” is particularly revealing. Wesley defined “evil speaking” in this way:
For evil-speaking is neither more nor less than speaking evil of an absent person.
That is to say, you can say whatever you need to say directly to the person: looking directly in their eyes, following Jesus’ words in St Matthew 18:15-17, which was the text for Wesley’s sermon. Wesley continued: “still this command, ‘Speak evil of no man,’ is trampled under foot; if we relate to another the fault of a third person, when he is not present to answer for himself.” You should not criticize a person in a situation where they have no chance to speak or answer for themselves.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we were to follow that ethic about “evil speaking”?
There’s one more aspect of a Wesleyan ethic about speech that should appear here. The principle is that we should not make anonymous accusations or attributions. In my study of Wesley’s letters I’ve come across his concern that his correspondents will say something like “Those who say…” without naming who actually said what they claim.
We have to name names to be responsible. Not, “Those who say we should have no sexual boundaries…” Really? Who said that? When? Without a specific reference, we should doubt it. Just as we should not speak critically of a person behind their backs, we should identify responsibly who says the things with which we’re concerned. Name a name. That holds us to a high standard for responsible speech.
Part of our sanctification is the sanctification of the mouth. And the keypad: any way in which we express ourselves. Even if the end of sanctification is the transformation of the heart, sanctifying what comes out of our mouths and our keypads can form our hearts. And we need our speech and expression to be formed by divine grace. “Come, Lord Jesus.”
(The photo at the top shows “The Old Class Room” at Historic St George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.)