If we want to really get to the bottom of that phrase, “speaking the truth in love,” we should probably get nerdy. So get out your Scofield Reference Bible and your Strong’s Concordance, and let’s do some good old-fashioned Bible study.
The question on the table is, “What exactly does Paul mean by ‘the truth’ when he mentions ‘speaking the truth in love’ in Ephesians 4?”
As your Bible study teacher, I have to say, “Let’s first look at the context.” If you’re reading the New International Version, you can tell by the header that the context for Ephesians 4 is “Unity and Maturity in the Body of Christ.” It is a sad irony that people use “speaking the truth” from this passage as a means to exclude. Paul begins the chapter this way:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1–6
If you notice, the phrase “in love” shows up here as well. So it makes sense that if you are “speaking the truth” to people in love, you are also “bearing with one another” in love. Those go hand in hand, but people who like to use the truth as a weapon conveniently tend to leave that part out.
So, whatever “speaking the truth in love” means, it can’t be separated from these traits:
- being humble
- being gentle
- being patient
- bearing with one another
- making every effort to keep unity through the bond of peace
According to Paul, telling the truth cannot be separated from all these other things. So if we’re not exhibiting all of these traits alongside our “truth telling,” our words are invalid. If we are not walking in truth, what comes out of our mouths isn’t authentic and isn’t true in the biblical sense.
Given that Paul talks more often, more explicitly, and more emphatically about unity in his writings than about standing up for the truth, if we’re picking and choosing which verses to prioritize in our systems of belief, I will go with “bearing with one another in love” over “speaking the truth in love.” Bearing with one another is just as much a part of love as speaking the truth. In fact, I would argue that bearing with one another is a prerequisite for speaking the truth.