Christians should understand the importance of evangelism that is built on a biblical gospel message, but the message itself is not the only thing that matters. The Bible speaks in detail about how we are to conduct ourselves when interacting with others. Your behavior and tone will either support your gospel message, or contradict it.
Some wrongly think that evangelism is strongly confronting people with truth in order to win an argument. Paul said he did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming the testimony of God (1 Cor 2:1). Yet, too many Christians are obsessed with demonstrating superiority of speech and wisdom.
Some Christians are downright quarrelsome and harsh toward unbelievers. They will tell you that they do it in love, but no one would ever get that from hearing them speak.
Evangelism is not just about what we say, but it is also about how we say it. It is not just an information dump, nor some academic process of laying out all the facts of the gospel. We labor to see the saving work of God in them. We long to see people forgiven and redeemed.
Evangelism requires an attitude of kind, courteous, and patient humility.
Jesus said the greatest commandment of God’s Law is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And, He said the second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:36-40).
So, our evangelism must be motivated by our love for God, and our love for our unbelieving neighbor.
God’s Instruction Regarding Tone
Paul told us to refuse to engage in foolish and ignorant speculations, because they produce quarrels. He said the Lord’s bond-servant “must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:23-26). The word “quarrelsome” means being apt or disposed to heated arguments or disagreements. We are to be peaceable, and not combative, contentious, or pugnacious.
Peter said we must always be ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:14-16).
Paul tells us to conduct ourselves “with wisdom toward outsiders, letting our speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that we will know how we should respond to each person” (Col 4:5-6).
We must be peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, and without hypocrisy (James 3:17). This verse means that we must be peace-loving, peace-promoting, quick to forgive, and willing to submit to all kinds of mistreatment and difficulty with an attitude of kind, courteous, and patient humility.
With humility of mind, we must regard others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3). That is the definition of true humility. Scripture warns that knowledge can make us arrogant, but that love edifies (1 Cor 8:1).
Who are we supposed to imitate from Scripture? Those who justify using a harsh tone in evangelism will often claim they are following the example of the Old Testament prophets, sent by God to strongly warn His people of coming judgment and the need for repentance. But, nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to imitate those prophets and their tone. Nor are we are ever told in Scripture to imitate or model our ministries after John the Baptist, who was uniquely sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah.
We are, however, told to imitate Jesus Christ. Peter said that Christ left an example for us to follow in His footsteps, who when being reviled did not revile in return (1 Pet 2:21-23). Paul told us to imitate Christ who loved us and gave Himself up for us (Eph 5:1-2). Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Christ, who is our head (Eph 4:15). Paul exhorts us to be imitators of himself too, as he is an imitator of Christ (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1; Phil 3:17, 4:9; 1 Thess 1:6).
Our examples regarding tone are found in the New Testament. It is important to recognize which parts of the Bible are “prescriptive” (telling us what to do and how to do it), and which parts are “descriptive” (telling us what happened, but not instructing us to do the same).
Consider Jesus’ gentle and patient tone with: the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-27); Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21); the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-45); Levi the tax-collector, and his friends at the reception (Luke 5:27-32).
Consider the tone of these examples of personal evangelism: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:25-40); Peter to Cornelius the Centurion (Acts 10); Paul to the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:22-34); Paul to Governor Felix (Acts 24); Paul to King Agrippa (Acts 26).
Consider the tone of these public preaching examples: Peter preaching on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36); Peter preaching to the temple crowd (Acts 3); Stephen preaching to the Sanhedrin before they stoned him (Acts 7); Paul preaching to the Jews in the Synagogues (Acts 9:20-22; 13:15-43; 14; 17; 18; 19; 28); Paul preaching to the Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34); Paul preaching to the angry crowd in the temple (Acts 22).
A Time and a Place
There is an appropriate time for stronger language and a harsher tone. Jesus had some harsh words for certain people in the Bible. He called some of the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, fools and blind men, white washed tombs, serpents, a brood of vipers, foolish ones, concealed tombs, children of the devil, liars, and declared woes upon them (Matt 15:7; 23:13, 15-17, 23-25; 27-29, 33; Luke 11:39, 43, 52; 12:1; John 8:44, 55). He publicly called out these dangerous false teachers, and He publicly warned others about them.
However, there is a difference between how false teachers and how average unbelievers were handled. Jesus didn’t use a harsh tone when sharing the gospel, even when the unbeliever was a Pharisee.
Some Christians are deliberately controversial in order to bait unbelievers into an argument. They do this thinking it is a good way to start a conversation. They dare people to argue with them. Often their goal is not so much to share the gospel, but to intellectually destroy those who are in opposition.
The Bible calls this being “contentious.” A contentious issue is one that is controversial and that people are likely to argue about. A contentious person is someone who likes to argue or fight, and enjoys provoking others into heated arguments.
The Bible says it’s better to live in a desert, or on a corner of the roof, than to share a house with a contentious spouse, who is like a constant annoying drip (Prov 19:13; 21:19; 25:24).
Proverbs exhorts us to abandon the quarrel before it breaks out (Prov 17:14). It says that any fool will quarrel, but keeping away from strife is an honor for a man (Prov 20:3).
Paul and James say that enmities, strife, disputes, and dissentions are sinful deeds from the lusts of our fallen flesh (Gal 5:19-21; James 4:1-2). It is by NOT grumbling or disputing that we Christians appear as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:14-15).
We are not even to argue with false teachers, avoiding unprofitable wrangling about words and foolish controversies, because it is worthless and leads to the ruin of the hearers (1 Tim 6:4-5; 2 Tim 2:14; Titus 3:9).
Arguments and quarrels are always comprised of many words, but God says that he who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. It says that even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent (Prov 17:27-28).
If you find things are getting heated, and you are talking past one another, or if it becomes about proving that you are right and the other person is wrong, take a breath and step back. Arguing turns people away from Christ, but never toward Him.
One danger of arguing is that it is very easy to become angry. Ugly heated passion can lead to “angry evangelism.” Our speech becomes more sarcastic and our tone less loving. We stop pleading and start mocking instead. We are never to lose our temper (I confess that I struggle with this personally).
When out in the streets, we are not to grow angry with difficult law enforcement officers, but submit to their authority (Titus 3:1-2). Some Christians are rude to policemen, then post videos on YouTube calling it “Christian persecution,” but they actually got in trouble for being a “Jerk for Jesus.”
Even when we suffer abuse for Christ’s sake, we should not grow angry. Peter said not to be surprised at the fiery ordeals for your testing but rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ. If you are reviled for His name, you will be blessed (1 Pet 4:12-14). When the apostles were jailed and flogged, they rejoiced that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41).
A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute (Prov 15:18). A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression (Prov 16:32; 19:11; 29:11). We are told not to take seriously all the words spoken about us and the curses directed at us (Eccl 7:21).
James cautions, “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
It is even disqualifying for an elder to be a “pugnacious” man, meaning that he is eager or quick to argue, quarrel, or fight (1 Tim 3:2-7; Titus 1:7-9).
My friend Tony Miano (A former Sheriff’s Deputy turned Street Preacher) wrote this confession:
People liked my booming voice. People liked the way I handled and sometimes crushed hecklers. People liked the way my “cop eyes” stare seemed to burn holes through people. And I liked that they liked me – a lot…
As a street preacher, I became known for heralding the gospel like a warrior. Oh, I told everyone how much I loved the lost. I told people that I wasn’t fighting with people. I was fighting for souls. I convinced others, and I convinced myself… The street cop and the street preacher seemed to be a match made in heaven. It wasn’t. I was angry…
I got angry when they drove by, flipped me off, or mocked me in some other way. I used to shout Bible truths to them with anger in my heart, not with hope for their souls. Today, I can’t wait to stand on a street corner and face whatever momentary, light afflictions by way of persecution the Lord may bring my way. A middle finger now receives a sincere smile and a wave, in reply…
God could not have made Himself more clear to me. I must be kind to everyone. Everyone. I must patiently endure evil–all kinds of evil. I must correct every opponent with gentleness. After all… Don’t I want God to grant repentance to every human being I meet–repentance that will bring them to their senses – repentance that will give the only way of escape from the snare of the devil – repentance leading to faith in Jesus Christ the Lord for their salvation?…
I don’t love anyone to whom I am unkind. There is no way around it. Kindness may be shown in a gentle or soft word that turns away wrath (Prov 15:1). Kindness may also be shown with a stern warning (Heb 12:25). Whether soft or stern, the heart behind the words must be a heart filled with kindness to, and love for, the one to whom the words are spoken.
Does being Winsome, Kind, and Gentle = Being Weak or Soft on Sin?
Some people wrongly think this is so. Jesus was winsome, kind and gentle, but He never hesitated to boldly call out sin. Jesus proves that unflinching truth can be spoken boldly, gently, and kindly at the same time. Proverbs says a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov 15:1).
Paul exhorted us to bless those who persecute us, and do not curse them (Rom 12:14). He said we are to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men (Titus 3:1-2). We are to be at peace with all men (Rom 12:18).
The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By way of contrast, among the fruits of our sinful flesh are enmities, strife, outbursts of anger, disputes, and dissentions (Gal 5:19-23).
Consider How Unbelievers See You
People should hear from us a gentle and kind tone that is never condescending or harsh. Our tone must say, “I’m approachable and willing to listen.” Be mindful of what your face says about you, too. We don’t want a scowling and angry face that says we are spoiling for a fight.
If they raise their voice in anger, you lower yours. If they get red-faced, let your calm demeanor stand in sharp contrast. Let them hear the patience and love in your voice and see it in your eyes.
Love is patient, kind, never arrogant, it does not act unbecomingly, it is not provoked, it does not take into account a wrong suffered, it endures all things (1 Cor 13:4-7). Paul said that even if we speak with the tongues of angels, but do not have love, we sound to others like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1).
We want be approachable and safe, not scary and intimidating. We want to be someone they feel they can confide in, someone who can comfort the broken hearted and lead them to Christ.
We are ambassadors of Jesus Christ, representing Him before the eyes of men (2 Cor 5:20). Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).
Your Tone Matters!