John Squires recently wrote a blog that provided some solace for the soul in a difficult time in the Presbytery and Synod of SA, Uniting Church in Australia.
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. I came across a fine Greek word, parrhesia, 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”. It was a quality in public speaking which had been valued, long before Paul’s time, and would continue to be valued, after his own lifetime.
I came across 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. Then, he says, “let your gentleness be known to everyone” (4.5). 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 (epi-ay-case), which the NRSV translates as “gentleness”. This is almost the polar opposite of parrhesia. Instead of boldness, frankness, and the 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 (gentleness) encourages an honest and thoughtful engagement between people, 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.
John concludes: 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. 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 (gentleness). Let’s yield. Let’s be gentle. Let’s live the Gospel of abundant grace and liberating hope. Indeed.
And finally, these words from the Seasons of the Spirit resource: “Everything that we plant will not grow; everything that we build will not stand; but continue to plant seeds of hope, and build communities of love. Do not be discouraged, because we do not work in vain. May the grace of God, the love of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, continue to work with and through us.”