In our day of political correctness, it is not surprising that polemics is disparaged. Whenever a bold voice emerges to uphold God’s standards or to defend the gospel, and especially to call out heretics, one can be sure that in the quick response-ability that the internet affords, someone will be citing 1 Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” It is the fast route to silence people with whom we disagree, especially if the content is controversial. It has been said somewhere that this verse is the gold standard for the Internet Tone Police. People spew it forth as a mantra believing that whomever their purported target is will immediately fall down and repent in dust and ashes.
First and foremost, this text has nothing to do with polemics or with tone. It is an essential part of Paul’s extensive argument about the temporary nature of certain spiritual gifts. To employ this phrase as if it concerned “speaking without love,” pure and simple, and specifically about tone, or perceived tone when written words are at the center, is sorely mistaken.
Second, there are places that show that tone or perceived tone is in fact implied and rightly so. In Matthew 23, Jesus is overflowing with indignation at the religious zealots of his day warning them. So it is not surprising to find Christ’s disciples doing the very same thing. For example, John the Baptist cries out at the hypocrisy exhibited by religious leaders:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Third, the Apostle Paul, who wrote the Corinthians passage, has some rather strong statements in his writings. First, Paul in Galatians issues some serious accusations against the church. “O foolish Galatians,” Says the Apostle, “who hath bewitched you . . . are ye so foolish . . . ?” (Gal.3:1, 3). Again, he says, “I am afraid for you . . .” and “Am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Gal. 4:11, 16). You will also find Paul chiding the Corinthians as carnal and immature, then tells them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. To the Philippians, he has some choice words calling the enemies of the gospel, “dogs.” And, one must not forget an instance of his preaching recorded in Acts:
So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister. And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?Acts 13:4-10 (emphasis added)
Clearly, taking the politically correct approach and misrepresenting what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13 as if is about so-called “tone,” Paul himself would be guilty. This is utter nonsense!
Let’s stop appealing to this verse as an attack against bold speakers of truth, no matter how unpopular that truth may be! It would appear to be much more honest for one’s response to a controversial statement to either keep silent or to be numbered with those who either agree or disagree. At least this way you will not need to hide behind a pretext!
Truly, what we have here is the cowardly trying to find a text to support a position that they have already come to on other grounds. Because they do not want to admit to the truth, they will assert that “it’s not what you say but the way that you said it!” We have witnessed this all too often in these days of weak-spined preachers trying to gain popularity points that have more in common with the culture than with Christ.
At the end of the day, as our Lord demonstrated on several occasions, there is nothing more loving than the truth. “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, ‘Will ye also go away?'” (John 6:67).