Honouring the Truth-teller – part one

March 3, 2003

Further to the theme of last week’s WW about whistleblowers, this w e e k l y w o r d begins a three-part article written by a former army chaplain.

HONOURING THE TRUTH-TELLER, Part one, by Dr Roger Sapp

The Meaning of Truth
The Greek word that is translated ‘truth’ in the New Testament is a very powerful and meaningful word. It is ‘alethia’. The ‘a’ (alpha) at the beginning of a Greek word often means that it is a negation of the rest of the Greek word. For instance, the English word ‘atheist’ comes from ‘a-theos’ which means literally, ‘no god’. In the case of alethia, the literal meaning of this word is ‘nothing hidden’. This means that the phrase found in Scripture that describes the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth literally would be ‘the Spirit who allows nothing to be hidden’. Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words defines this Greek word that is translated as ‘truth’ as meaning: ‘the reality lying at the basis of an appearance, the manifested veritable essence of a matter’. This definition should inform us that the Spirit of Truth is always working to move us as believers beyond the appearance of a person, a matter or an organisation to discover its reality and essence.

Leaders Need Truth in Proportion to Influence
The Bible speaks a great deal about the value of truthfulness in relationships. The subject of reproof in Scripture is a good example of this. Only the fool and the wicked man according to Proverbs cannot hear godly reproof. Reproof is always the truth as someone else sees it. Consider King David’s words about his need for those around him to speak to him truthfully from their perspective: “Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” (Psalm 141:5). Our responsibility to hear the truth from individuals around us grows in proportion to the sphere of our influence. The larger the influence, the more we need people around us to speak their perception of the truth to us and the less likely they are to do it. Leaders must teach and emphasise truthfulness or they will more likely get affirmation from their subordinates rather than truthfulness.

Recognizing the Truth in Different Packages
The leader must also recognize truth when it comes. It seldom will come in a nice package and identify itself as truth. Truth can come to us in the form of the unflattering opinions of others, angry words, criticisms and even slander. The speakers will almost always see themselves as telling the truth. As King David said in the passage above, sometimes the truth-teller will smite us. Nearly all of these kinds of smiting events will have an element of truth that needs to be discerned. The leader who is insecure will not glean the truth about himself and his organization from these uncomfortable truth events and can dishonour the person seeking to tell the truth. Embraced truth will set us free no matter what package it comes in.

Actions and Attitudes Reveal Values
The leader who verbally encourages truthfulness must be prepared to continue his instruction when he actually gets truthful feedback from his subordinates. If the feedback comes in one of these uncomfortable packages, if he is not careful, he may shut down the flow of information to him by his response. If he acts insecure, angry or quietly withdraws from that person, he teaches by his actions that he does not value truthfulness. In other words, value systems are always observable in the behaviour of leaders. For instance, if the leader judges the input of the truth-teller by how well he or she offered that input, the leader will receive decreasing truthfulness from those around him. He has taught by his attitudes and behaviour that truthfulness is not valued. If individuals around him must earn the right to speak the truth to him by proven loyalty, he is training and producing subordinate leaders that will value loyalty over the truth. Leaders who have been trained in this way will speak very little to him and confuse affirmation with truthful feedback. Neither will they honour the truth-teller when he speaks to them.

Speaking the Truth Wisely
Because the truth is often difficult to hear, it is necessary for those who feel responsibility to speak the truth to do it as wisely as possible. Failure to do this insures that we will not spiritually grow up. The Bible connects our spiritual growth with speaking the truth. It tells us that speaking must be out of the motive of love. “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). This means that the truth-teller must have sincere concern for the person and organization that he is speaking to. This is where truth-telling becomes an expression of love. In the military, the value system of officers says that they should speak the truth to their commanders. However, there is also a value that says loyalty to the leader means that you speak to him in a way that does not embarrass the leader or damage his reputation within the military organization.

Normally, that means that confrontational truth is spoken in private and with proper military courtesy. Conversely, the commander has the responsibility to hear the truth no matter how poorly it was spoken by the subordinate. This requires him to be secure in himself and to earnestly desire the truth from his subordinates. The reaction of the commander to the subordinate’s truth-telling will teach the subordinate whether or not he can continue to speak the truth to this particular commander. The same thing is true in the Church and in all organizations. Leaders must love the truth, even when it smites them, and appreciate the truth-teller if they want all their subordinates to continue keeping them properly informed. Leaders of local churches and all organizations of the Church must allow subordinates the right to speak the truth as they see it. They must maintain a value system that honours the person seeking to tell the truth. They must not see truth-telling as disloyal behaviour. Failure to do this will produce serious hidden problems within the organizations of the Church and make the truthful person an outcast. This cannot be what the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit who allows nothing to be hidden, desires in the churches and organizations of the Kingdom of God.

Part two of this series will discuss the character traits of the truth-teller.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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