The Task of Responsible Christian Communication

Last Friday morning I shuddered to see Scott Swain wasting of his brilliance in a tweet thread. I’m sure it was beneficial for the many who saw it, but I wanted more. And I was hoping for a format that wouldn’t disappear in a newsfeed in less than 24 hours. So I asked him if he would turn it into an article for a guest post here at MoS, so we can at least get a week of cyberspace out of it and a better context for search engines and quoting. He kindly obliged and I’m happy to share it with you today:

“God gave us not a spirit of fear but of power and love and σωφρονισμοῦ” (2 Tim 1:7). What is “a spirit of … σωφρονισμοῦ”? Oliver O’Donovan argues that we should not follow the standard English translations of “self-control” or “sound judgment” and instead that we should translate σωφρονισμός according to its common usage in first-century Greek, i.e., “the teaching of prudence” (BDAG). According to this translation, the person endowed with the spiritual gift of σωφρονισμός is endowed with the gift of “a certain type of speech: instruction, warning, and correction, intended to make its hearers sôphrones, i.e., intelligent and discerning agents” (O’Donovan, Entering into Rest, p. 194).

This translation seems to fit the context well. In 2 Timothy 1:6 Paul encourages Timothy to fulfill his pastoral vocation—in which speech is central (see 2 Tim 4:1-5)—by stirring up the gift that was given to him through the laying on of hands. This translation also opens up interesting horizons for thinking about the task of Christian teaching and communication. If σωφρονισμός refers to “the teaching of prudence,” then the ends of Christian teaching must include the cultivation of prudence in the minds of learners.

Prudence plays a primary role in Christian moral reasoning. Prudence refers to the capacity for testing and discerning the will of the Lord in a given setting (Rom 12:1-2), for approving what is the most excellent course of action in a given situation (Phil 1:8-10). Though prudence depends upon contemplative wisdom regarding God and his ways in order to orient itself before God in the world (Rom 11:33-36), prudence is a species of practical wisdom, aimed at human action. By discerning the will of the Lord, prudence illumines a path for Christian obedience, directing us to the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).

Paul further unpacks his understanding of σωφρονισμός in 2 Timothy 2:23-26, with specific reference to speech toward those who are outside of the Christian community: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” Christian teaching and communication, according to Paul, is “not … quarrelsome but kind.” Though it corrects its opponents, it does not pick fights. Christian teaching is gentle and patient. It waits on the Spirit to do his indispensable work of leading its opponents on the path of repentance into “a knowledge of the truth.” Christian communication is “able to teach.” It is skilled at imparting prudence to its hearers. In sum, Christian teaching aims at prudential ends (the cultivation of Christian moral reasoning) by pursuing prudential means (kindness, gentleness, patience).

If the spirit of Christian teaching is a spirit of σωφρονισμός, then responsible Christian communication will involve more than “rallying the troops” to a cause. Responsible Christian communication will have little if anything to learn from the political punditry of the right or the left that floods our screens and fills our earbuds. Responsible Christian communication will commit itself to the slow but fruitful work of evangelizing outsiders and of equipping the saints to act as responsible moral agents under the kingship of the triune God. In doing so, Christian communication will manifest its union with Christ, its participation in the anointing and eloquence of “the servant of the Lord” who does not “cry aloud” or “lift up his voice … in the street” (Isa 42:2-3) but who possesses an “ear to hear as those who are taught” and therefore knows “how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isa 50:4).

All of this is important to remember in a Christian culture where being loving in our speech is sometimes reduced to being courageous in our speech. Christian speech is courageous speech, to be sure, but its courage is moderated by love of God and neighbor and therefore guided by the desire to impart the mind of Christ, which is the mind of wisdom, to those who will listen. God has not given us a spirit of fear “but of power and love and the teaching of prudence” (2 Tim 1:7).

Dr. Scott Swain is President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS Orlando.