15th Assembly

Let your gentleness be known to everyone

Let your gentleness be known to everyone (Philippians 4:5)

I have been thinking in recent days about modes of speaking; ways of proclaiming deeply-held beliefs, ways of engaging in constructively and fruitfully with people who hold different opinions from me. Life these days in the church—and life these days in the public arena, with political debate and social media interaction—seems always to be challenging me, in the way I think about ideas, and speak with other people about those ideas.

Years ago, when I was immersed in studying the letters of Paul, in the original Greek and in the context of relevant Hellenistic literature of the time, I came across a fine Greek word, parrhesia. This noun, and its related verb, appear 40 times in the New Testament (most often in the Gospel attributed to John). I studied it. It was an intriguing word.

Ten of these New Testament occurrences of parrhesia are in letters written by, or attributed to, Paul, and most of these are places where Paul refers to this concept with great admiration. Indeed, he explicitly applies it to his own way of operating (1 Thess 2:2; 2 Cor 3:12, 7:4; Phil 1:20).

Parrhesia seems a most suitable and fitting word for Paul to use to,describe his modus operandi. It is variously translated as boldness, frankness, courage, assurance, a fearless freedom in expression, an unreserved style of speaking … or, perhaps most simply, “plain speaking”.

Sound like Paul? Yep, I reckon it does. A common picture of Paul is just this: he told it like it was, he stood tall and let it rip, proclaiming for all to hear exactly what he thought, how he saw things. Paul made regular use of parrhesia. And rightly so, for it was a quality in public speaking which had been valued, long before his time, and would continue to be valued, after his own lifetime. 

Parrhesia—boldness, frankness, sheer unvarnished honesty—was a moral virtue, prized amongst philosophers and rhetoricians, and regularly used by Jewish and Christian orators. Even into our own time. Christian preachers who are famous in history are revered and honoured for their fine public speaking skills—Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela all spring to mind. 

(Yikes, all men … shows my bias and the bias of public speaking throughout history … with apologies.  Then again, such boldness and frankness has long been a very masculine characteristic in public discourse.)

No doubt you have encountered a preacher or pastor who exemplifies parrhesia. Who tells it like it is. Who does not hold back. Indeed, I have encountered such people, right throughout my adult life. Even up into the present. Even in the last few days. Even as my church continues to debate and argue about how we understand marriage and how we might (or should) ((or must!!)) practice it. My goodness, there have been instances of this very recently.

But in the midst of this noisy discussion, I came across a comment by a colleague about another verse in one of Paul’s letters … another word, another idea praised by Paul, another quality which had long been valued and honoured and promoted within the Hellenistic literature.

The verse is a short one in Philippians 4, where Paul is addressing the believers in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia. There had been some tensions amongst this group of believers; Paul exhorts them to express unity of purpose, to support one another, and to live in a way that honours the faith they share together. He explicitly encourages them to support two women, Eudoia and Syntyche, who are especially beloved of Paul.

He instructs them to “rejoice in the Lord”. Then, he says, “let your gentleness be known to everyone”. That instruction is striking for two reasons. First, it is oriented towards “everyone” … perhaps a more literal translation would be, “to every human being”. Not just within the community of faith, but to everyone whom they encounter and engage with, anywhere in society.

The second, even more striking, feature, is Paul’s use of the Greek word epieikes, which the NRSV translates as “gentleness”. This is almost the polar opposite of parrhesia. Instead of boldness, frankness, and the tub-thumping directness of a hard-hitting public argument, Paul encourages gentleness, mildness, a sense of fairness in the way that believers are to engage with others. To be reasonable. To offer generosity in attending carefully to the other. To offer forbearance and patience.

But there is more. That word epieikes, and related words, are found in various places in Hellenistic literature, in writings which encourage an honest and thoughtful engagement between people. It is used by rhetoricians, philosophers, and historians, to indicate a way of engaging constructively, respectfully, openly, with other people. Indeed, the word has, at its root, the short verb eiko, which means, to yield, to give way to, to surrender.

So, Paul instructs the Philippians, at this point, to engage in respectful conversations with each other, in which one party yields to the other party—one party steps back, steps aside, pulls back from their boldness and frankness, stops and listens, ponders and reflects, allows the other party to express their view and to have it heard and registered.

And the same word pops up in a couple of other places in New Testament letters, where it appears in contrast to “quarrelling” in 1 Tim 3:3 and Titus 3:2, and in connection with being “peaceable” and “open to reason” in James 3:17. So these verses urge those who are fighting within the church to settle their dispute and focus on more important issues in the gospel. To do this would a provide a positive testimony, in a context where disputes about honour and reputation were common and all too unhelpful.

It seems to me that this is surely “a word of the Lord” for our time. For our place. For our current discussion. For our church, rent by divergent and disputing views. For our society, plunged into the morass of fake news and false accusations and incessant tweeting. But especially, for the Uniting Church in Australia, for those who have spoken out long and hard, in boldness and frankness, about marriage.

Let’s just demonstrate some epieikes. Let’s yield. Let’s be gentle. Let’s live the Gospel of abundant grace and liberating hope. May it be so.

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4 thoughts on “Let your gentleness be known to everyone

  1. Evan Hadkins says:

    Did you know that in his later years Foucault was greatly impacted by that word (in secular writings)? He died before he could fully think it through.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    Here’s a challenge. I think the climate change denialists became prominent because others were reasonable and yielding. Which gave the impressions that the denialists weren’t just lying and misrepresenting facts (on which see Oreskes’s Merchants of Doubt). Which lead me to conclude that vacating the field can lead to lies winning the day. So opposition needs to be expressed – factually and respectfully for sure. The yielding wasn’t seen as gentleness but acknowledgement of truth (which is misleading). I do realise this is different to the arguments about marriage – horses for courses?

  3. Pingback: “When you suffer, the whole body of Christ suffers” | An Informed Faith

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