Three Critical Misuses of the Tongue

By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.

When used metonymically in the Bible, “tongue” represents one’s language and the expression of it by any means. Hence, “tongue” includes every form of linguistic expression, not merely oral speech. One could lose the use of his physical tongue and still need to “bridle his tongue.” He could write in an unbridled way or even nod or shake his head “yes” or “no” to a truth or lie.

James warns us of the dangers of the “tongue.” We are to be swift to hear, but slow to speak (1:19). An unbridled tongue renders one’s religion useless (1:26). One should speak as one who shall be judged by the law of liberty (2:12). Teachers need to especially guard the tongue because of its unruly nature (3:1-12).

All of this suggests that Christians, especially those of us who publicly speak and write a lot, need to keep a bridle on our tongues. A bridle has a two-fold purpose: (1) restraint and (2) guidance. Bridling one’s tongue does not always mean to refrain from speaking, but to properly guide one’s speech. Silence is not always golden, sometimes it is plain yellow.

When there are things that should not be said, a bridled tongue will refrain from speaking, When there are things that need to be said, a bridled tongue will say them in a way they should be said.

We would like for you to consider three critical misuses of the tongue found among brethren. These, in the judgment of his writer, cause untold harm to the Lord’s cause.

A Hypocritical Tongue

Peter warns us against being exploited by “false teachers among you” who use deceptive or feigned (KJV, ASV) words (2 Pet, 2:3). The word translated feigned or deceptive is plastos, from the verb plasso, meaning “to mold, i.e. shape or fabricate” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). Such teachers carefully mold their hypocritical words so as to dupe naive brethren into furthering their devious purposes. “They speak great swelling words of emptiness” (v. 18). “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption” (v. 19).

We must not allow conniving brethren, teachers or otherwise, to sweet talk or flatter us into advancing their unscrupulous goals with their hypocritical words. Sometimes brethren, with malice toward others, will skillfully enlist good brethren to grind their axes for them. It is easy for those of us who preach to allow someone, with malice toward another, to enlist us to become his whipping boy. He may praise our ability, knowledge, and courage to boldly preach the gospel and let the chips fall where they may oh, how we like to hear it. He just happens to know of something that needs a strong rebuking sermon devoted to it. He is just sure that by making us aware of the problem he can expect to hear a good scolding shortly. If we listen closely, we may be able to detect that his interest is not in saving anyone from sin, but to see that the object of his malice gets the verbal whipping that he so richly deserves.

Not only do we need to be careful lest we be exploited by feigned words, we need to constantly examine ourselves to make sure that our own speech is sincere – without ulterior design or double talk.

One should not be a double-tongued (cf. 1 Tim. 3:8). Vincent says this means “saying one thing and meaning another, and making different representations to different people about the same thing” (Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 234). Strong says it means “equivocal.” Equivocal means “having two or more meanings; purposely vague, misleading, or ambiguous: as an equivocal reply” (“Webster’s New Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition).

I heard a story that allegedly happened during the premillennial controversy among brethren several years ago. A teacher in one of “our” colleges was thought by most informed folks on campus to hold premillennial views. Yet, no one had been able to pin him down on it. So, three or four of the students on campus, who had heard the rumors, decided that the best thing to do was to just ask him. So, they went to the brother and asked, “How do you stand on the premillennial issue?” He replied, “Now boys, I stand foursquare!” That settled it! Or did it?

Brethren, our speech needs to be kind and courteous, yet strait forward, without guile, deceit, craftiness, equivocation or hypocrisy (2 Cor. 4:2; 1 Thess. 2:3)

A Noncritical Tongue

Some pride themselves in being virtually noncritical that is, except for their sharp criticism of critics. These like to think that they are “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.” Over a period of time, this shows in their public speech and writings. Like the proverbial monkeys, they hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. These are very long on exhorting and extra short on reproving and rebuking (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-4). Exposing the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11) is generally beneath their dignity.

These are aware, even quite sure, that brethren must have faults, after all no one is perfect. But to tell another his fault (Matt. 18:15-17) – now that is a different matter. If you must tell one his fault, then make sure to do it so that he will not feel badly about it. And above all, no matter how public the fault, these would never openly criticize publicly -like telling it to the church.

The noncritical religious leaders of Israel (“watchmen”) were called “dumb dogs.” “His watchmen are blind, they are ignorant; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber” (Isa. 56:10). He goes on in his criticism of these dumb dogs, showing why they choose to be dumb: “Yes, they are greedy dogs which never have enough. And they are shepherds who cannot understand; they all look for their own way, every one his own g~in, from his own territory” (v. 11). They were more interested in personal prosperity, safety and comfort than the welfare of Israel. While one would not want a watch dog that barked at everything, he would not need one that barked at nothing.

There were non-critics in the New Testament. The Corinthians were not critical enough of the man who had his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5). Paul had already judged in the matter, but they were dragging their feet. They needed to correctly judge this man and deal with him (vv. 12-14).

Then, there were those who sat idly by and allowed Paul to stand alone in his confrontation with Alexander, the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:16). No doubt, these folks did not want to be too critical of Alexander. I suspect they had rather for Paul to have accentuated the positive. However, the Lord stood with Paul. That is what counted.

A Hypercritical Tongue

We can go to the opposite extreme by becoming excessively critical – hypercritical. Rather than the dumb dogs of Isaiah, we may become as dogs that bark all the time at everything and nothing.

Some hyper-critics constantly find some way to criticize the best of deeds because they are sure that they must be done from ulterior motives. These constantly suspect sin without having any real reason for suspicion. They just know it must be there somewhere. I heard of one brother who was so intent on keeping the church straight that he was caught peeking through the windows of brethren to catch them in sin so they could be weeded out of the congregation.

Other hyper-critics are nit-pickers. They find some fault in the most innocent of people and activities. They can take the least of their “don’t likes” or judgment-calls and elevate them to a major church problem. They can find the one insignificant misspelled or misspoken word in the midst of hundreds of words excellently spoken – and magnify into a blunder of major proportions.

Hyper-critics are a clear danger to themselves and the church. They sin against brethren by condemning the innocent (cf. Matt. 12:7; 7:1). They disrupt congregational peace by tearing down rather than edifying (cf. Rom. 14:19). They destroy their own closeness with brethren. Brethren avoid becoming too closely associated with them out of self-defense. Then the hyper-critic wonders why brethren avoid him and feels persecuted. He seldom realizes that he has destroyed his right to close association by his ceaseless, senseless, judgmental prating against his brethren.

Let us watch our tongues for our own good and that the cause of Christ. Let our speech be with without hypocrisy and guile. Let us also strive to settle on that righteous ground between total non-criticism and hyper-criticism. We will all be the better for it.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 16, pp. 494-495
August 16, 1990