Cultivating Christ-Honoring Speech in Church Courts (Proverbs 15:1–4)

Ryan M. McGraw

It is important to be mindful both of what we say in church courts and of how we say it. John Kitchen wrote of two models of speech, “Speech has the potential to quiet a riot or to fan the embers of anger (Prov. 12:18; 15:18; 25:15).”[1] On this side of glory, Christians, including presbyters, often display a mixture of both models. While through sanctification of the Spirit we shine in Christ from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), we can often unintentionally set our light under a basket by shading it through indwelling sin in our speech. Proverbs 15:1–4 can set healthy parameters around how we should conduct ourselves in debates in church courts. The burden of this essay is to show, in light of this text, that we must learn as presbyters to moderate our speech so as to honor Christ and to edify his church. Doing so will enable us better to promote the glory of our Savior and the peace and purity of the church. In order to explain and to illustrate these principles, I have extracted the parts of Proverbs 15:1–4 into a list of positive exhortations and negative injunctions, highlighting distinctly the principle of accountability found in verse three. Since no man spoke as Christ did (John 7:46), and because the Pharisees condemned themselves out of their own mouths (John 9:41), both examples are useful to illustrate vividly the principles taught in this text. This article concludes with some directions designed to help presbyters speak well in church courts.

Speech to Cultivate

“A soft answer turns away wrath.” (v. 1)

Cultivating a “soft answer” is vital in promoting the church’s wellbeing. It is not enough to be right. We must cultivate what Kitchen calls, “a conciliatory tone.”[2] A “soft” or “gentle” answer yields great fruit. Kitchen notes, “A ‘gentle answer’ can quench even white hot anger.”[3] All of the principles given in Proverbs 15:1–4 presuppose disagreement among the parties involved. What would a presbytery or a general assembly be without healthy disagreement and debate? This is not wrong in itself, but it can be either helpful or hurtful depending on how we conduct ourselves as presbyters. We know the experience of watching movies or reading books where a levelheaded and calm mentor brings a hotheaded student into check. The mentor puts his pupil to shame and reins him or her in by responding calmly, patiently, and gently in the face of angry retorts. While presbytery and general assembly debates are not simply about winning, it is rare for someone who is visibly angry, and who uses inflammatory words, to win many votes. Remember that “with patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Prov. 25:15).

“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge. (v. 2)

This proverb concerns the form of our speech more directly.[4] How we say what we say is as important as what we say. This strengthens the point made by verse one. It includes when we speak, what words we use, and our tone of voice.[5] Sometimes it is not the right time to speak. We can apply this principle by hearing out others’ arguments fully before responding to them. Our words must always be full of wisdom as well. This involves saying the right thing, at the right time and in the right way. Even Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor both with God and men (Luke 2:52).

We may, however, speak at the right time and use the right words, but say them with the wrong tone. To illustrate, I once took a seminary student to his first meeting of a particular presbytery. Within the first hour of the meeting, a presbyter spoke to an issue over which he was particularly agitated. Without knowing the man or his background, the student was surprised by the man’s red face, breaking voice, and vigorous gestures. We must be more self-aware than we often are regarding how others perceive our speeches in church courts. Having the right thing to say and knowing an appropriate way to say it still may not suffice to say it well. If one cannot do so, then one should remember the biblical adage, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). While we cannot remain silent over moral issues, we should consider both how we speak to issues and whether we are in a fit state do so wisely. You may need to speak regardless of these considerations, but sometimes it would be better to let someone in a better state of mind do it instead. In the OPC, chances are that someone else will speak to the issue. Remember that our aim is Christ’s glory through the peace and the purity of his church. Whether or not we communicate wisely can help or hinder these goals.

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life.” (v. 4)

A “gentle tongue” is a “soothing” tongue. This verse adds the idea that a gentle tongue has healing power. A verbal parallel to the Hebrew text is Jeremiah 8:15: “We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror.”[6] Our speech in church courts should aim to heal divisions rather than to justify them on the pretense of a good cause. Remember that this does not touch on the substance of a debate, no matter how serious it may be. It reminds us instead of our goals in a debate and how such goals affect the words that we use and how we use them.

The effect of a gentle or healing tongue is a clear allusion to the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. While the angel with the flaming sword teaches us that man can never regain access to the Tree of Life through keeping the covenant of works, Christ both merits and purchases for us the promise embodied by the tree (Rev. 22:2). In relation to our text, however, this reminds us of Jesus’s warning that by our words we will be justified and by our words we will be condemned (Matt. 12:37). In theological terms this entails the justification of our works rather than that of our persons (James 2:17–18). Nevertheless, such good works are found in the way to life.[7] In the context of Proverbs, Kitchen reminds us that wisdom of speech (Prov. 3:18)[8] is related organically to righteousness of life (Prov. 13:12).[9] Life results from right desires and hopes, which stem from right faith and practice (e.g., Ps. 37:3–6).

Healing words can promote life to others as well.[10] Surely this is part of what Paul had in view when he wrote, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Personal godliness and sound doctrine are twins. They are born together and they grow up together. James applied explicitly his teaching on works justifying the faith of justified persons to how we speak to and about our brothers (James 3:1–13). Aim prayerfully to promote spiritual health and personal godliness with your speech in church courts.

Illustrations from Christ

Christ is both the foundation of our justification and the pattern of our sanctification. This includes our speech, even when dealing with others who are in error or who simply disagree with us. Jesus dealt gently with Martha before raising Lazarus by responding with the right words, at the right time, and in the right way, even when she implicitly questioned his actions and motives (John 11:21–27). Jesus answered her gently, and he wept with her and her family (John 11:35). When his disciples found it unthinkable for him to go away, even though it proved necessary for their salvation and for ours, Jesus explained what he was doing and how to follow him (John 14:1–11), what they should do after he left (vv. 12–14), and how the Spirit would enable them to do it (vv. 15–31). Upon his ascension into heaven, when his disciples still fostered false hopes that Christ would liberate the nation of Israel from the Romans, he patiently told them that such things were not for them to know, but that they must wait for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:6–8). Jesus urged the multitudes, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29). If Christ spoke so wisely in the midst of such confusion, then let us imitate his soft answer, wise speech, and life-giving words in our labors in church courts. Let us not make church courts laborious and our fellow presbyters heavy laden.

Speech to Avoid

“But a harsh word stirs up anger.” (v. 1b)

To face the facts, presbytery and assembly debates can become tense. All of us have likely been guilty at some point of inferring wrongful motives to others or of assuming the worst outcome at a meeting. Pregnant suspicions and emotions often give birth to harsh words. Kitchen observes, “Unguarded words escalate any ill will that may be already present.”[11] While wise words are designed to promote debate and to add clarity to issues, harsh words are designed to wound the other person. We should guard our hearts so as not to take disagreements personally. Losing a debate, even an important one, is also rarely the end of the ecclesiastical world.

This warning applies poignantly to the particular words we use. Kitchen adds, “How many arguments, rifts and fights could have been avoided by simply refraining from a single word!”[12] Avoid saying things such as, “in response to Bob,” “this course of action is thoughtless or foolish,” “this is unloving,” “no one doubts the innocence of the accused,” etc. Such responses are harsh in that they can come across as attacking people instead of arguments, they impute wrongful motives, and they bully those in opposition to your position.

“But the mouth of fools pour out folly.” (v. 2b)

Kitchen’s summary of this clause is apt: “The fool simply opens wide his mouth and lets flow whatever comes to his lips.”[13] This is a weakness that can grow out of a healthy concern in the OPC to let everyone have a say. Instead of speaking because we can, we need to ask whether our speech is helpful and adds to the current discussion. I once witnessed a presbytery “debate” in which there were roughly ten speeches in a row in favor of an action. The ensuing vote was unanimous. This appears to be an example of unintended folly because it is hard to see how this “debate” was not a waste of time. Such practices give the impression that we are more concerned that our voices are heard than that the action is approved. Remember that, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19).

Conversely, we can act foolishly in a debate due to thoughtlessness and a lack of prayer before speaking. Kitchen says of the man in view here, “He speaks whatever comes to his mind and cares not for those who don’t like it.”[14] The intent of the speaker is not in view in this proverb as much as the attraction or repulsion that each kind of speech described brings. If we need to say things that are unattractive or unpopular, then let us at least aim to say them in an attractive way to the body we are speaking before.

“But perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (v. 4b)

Perverseness involves twisted or crooked speech. This is possibly the worst abuse listed in these verses; “Twisting words to serve our own evil intent ‘crushes the spirit’ of those we are in relationship with.”[15] This kind of speech aims to achieve our own ends without regarding explicitly Christ’s glory or the edification of others. While we should never assume or imply that others are doing this during a debate, is any of us above temptation in this area?

For instance, if you have had a long-standing doctrinal or personal dispute with another presbyter who is brought under moral charges, could you not be tempted to use the occasion to try to “get rid of him?” In such circumstances some assume guilt before hearing the details of the case. Whether such a man is guilty or innocent may or may not be connected directly to the doctrinal dispute that you have with him. We are liable to show our prejudice against a man in how we speak to an issue related to him. This example can go the other way. We can defend the actions of a presbyter due to an established friendship with him, blinding us to the evidence relevant to the debate at hand. We must show no partiality; neither must we be respecters of persons. Isaiah’s verbal parallel, in which he addresses God’s enemies, illustrates strikingly the result of this kind of speech: “Behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart and shall wail for breaking of spirit” (Isa. 65:14).[16] This counsel demands becoming self-aware before weighing in on an issue. Let us neither grieve the church nor the Spirit through perverse speech, whether intentional or not.

Illustrations from the Scribes and Pharisees

The Pharisees were masters of harsh and foolish words, as well as of perverse speech. Strikingly, this led them to refuse to hear evidence and to twist evidence in a debate. When the blind man whom Christ healed presented the evidence of what the Lord had done, the Pharisees concluded, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34). The disciples had asked whether the man was born blind for his own sin or that of his parents (John 9:1–2). Jesus told them that it was neither (v. 3). Based on the evidence, the formerly blind man concluded that Christ was from God (vv. 30–33) and later that he was the Christ (v. 38). Yet the Pharisees would hear none of this. They determined the outcome of the case before hearing the evidence. It should not surprise us, therefore, that they later hurled insults at Nicodemus when he urged them to give Jesus a hearing before rejecting his teaching (John 7:51). Taken to its extreme, this led them to distort evidence when they had none to go by. They voted to crucify Jesus on the pretense that he threatened to destroy the temple and raise it in three days (Matt. 26:59–62), even though he spoke of the temple of his body (John 2:19). After the resurrection, their persistent prejudice against Christ led to bribery and outright lying when they instructed the guards at the tomb to tell people that Christ’s disciples stole his body at night (Matt. 28:11–15). Lest these examples seem to be outlandish and beyond us, remember that they witness to the fact that lesser sins give birth to greater sins. Harsh words promote foolish speech and foolish speech gives rise to perverse speech. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

A Principle of Accountability

“The eyes of the Lord are in every place.” (v. 3a)

The children’s catechism teaches us, “I cannot see God but he always sees me.” The author of this proverb draws the implication from divine omniscience that if God sees all things, then he also hears all that one says.[17] God knows all that we do and why we do it. He is more aware of us and of our motives than we are of ourselves. We must labor to speak with a good conscience before God and men (Acts 24:16).

“Keeping watch over the evil and the good.” (v. 3b)

God examines the speech of all kinds of people. God’s knowledge is a terror to the evil and a comfort to the good.[18] God’s knowledge of all should alarm the evil and bring the good to repentance and obedience. Paul applied this idea to the evil when he said,

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

He applied it to the good, when he wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:10–11a). No man is justified on the ground of his works before God (Rom. 3:20), but those who are justified must give an account of their service to God in Christ.

God’s knowledge of us should help us participate in church courts rather than paralyze us from participating in them. David exemplified this in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. (Ps. 139:1–6)

We will never be entirely free of sinful speech on this side of glory, but we have potential to do much good with our speech when we speak in God’s presence, through faith in Christ, with the Spirit’s help.

Illustrations from Christ and from the Scribes and Pharisees

Two statements from Christ serve to illustrate this principle of accountability. Christ said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Later in the same gospel, he said, “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29). Note the connection our Lord makes between maintaining God’s presence and doing God’s will.

The Pharisees, by contrast, did their righteous deeds to be seen by men (Matt. 6:1). They made sure that everyone was aware when they gave alms to the poor (Matt. 6:2–4). They prayed so that men would notice and help them promote their reputation for piety (Matt. 6:5–6). They disfigured their faces and maintained a sad countenance when they fasted (Matt. 6:16–18). They neither did God’s will nor enjoyed his gracious presence.

How can we apply these examples to how we speak at presbytery? We should ask ourselves several pointed questions: Am I speaking on the floor simply because I want my voice heard, or does my speech add to the substance of the debate at hand? Am I afraid to speak when others expect me to take their side in a debate and I disagree with them? Am I persuadable, listening to the arguments of others, or do I simply plan to vote as others expect me to? We should seek to do good through speaking in church courts, rather than simply enjoying the good privilege of speaking.

Concluding Directions for Presbyters

Kitchen’s conclusion to this section of Proverbs is a fitting summary of the content of this article. He wrote, “We are endowed by our Creator with the capacity to bring either genuine, substantive help to those around us or to inflict incalculable lasting harm upon them—all of that by simply opening our mouths!”[19] A few directions can help us apply further the teaching of Proverbs 15:1–4 in church courts.

1. Don’t take things personally and don’t make things personal. Speak to the moderator and leave previous speakers anonymous. Robert’s Rules of Order requires this procedure for good reasons.

2. Beware of imputing wrongful motives to your brothers in debate. Assume the best of them rather than the worst.

3. Pray throughout debates, asking the Lord not only for what to say but how to say it well. It is alleged that during the Westminster Assembly debates over church government, George Gillespie, who was a heavy hitter in those debates, wrote repeatedly on his paper, “da luce domine,” which means, “Lord give light.” Whether this story is real or apocryphal, it is a useful reminder to pray at all times.

4. Remember that those with whom you disagree are not Scribes and Pharisees, but fellow presbyters and brothers in Christ. Love Christ by speaking the truth to them in love.

5. “Let your gentleness be evident to all, for the Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5).[20] Reformed Christians have not always cultivated the fruit of gentleness well, but our Lord did. Let us imitate his character by grace even as we long to see his face in glory. Let us be gentle in our speech.


[1] John A. Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2006), 325. Kitchen will serve as a useful and simple guide to this passage throughout the material below.

[2] Kitchen, Proverbs, 325.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 326.

[6] Ibid., 327.

[7] See Westminster Confession of Faith 16.2, 6.

[8] “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”

[9] “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” See Kitchen, Proverbs, 327.

[10] Kitchen, Proverbs, 327.

[11] Ibid., 325.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 326.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 327.

[17] Ibid., 326.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 327.

[20] ἐπιεικὲς (epieikeis) bears the connotation of yielding, gentleness, or kindness.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, North Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, May 2017.

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Watch Your Language

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Reformed Confessions: The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560)

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