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Unintended Consequences

Adrian Reynolds reflects on our speech. He says church leaders need to speak well – and listen well – to avoid being misconstrued. That’s especially true in the use of social media.

Unintended Consequences primary image

There are over one hundred proverbs about speech. It’s not surprising really. Every one of us has been on the wrong end of a sharp word, and we’ve probably delivered our fair share too.

No doubt there is plenty of speech that is wilfully malicious from the outset. Some people say hurtful things with the specific intention to wound. I’ve come across this, and I’m sure you have too.

But for the most part, the danger with spoken words is that they are often misunderstood or misconstrued and become something they were never intended to be. That’s where the greatest danger for church leaders often lies.

This was brought home to me at the weekend reading an article in The Economist about Home Office policies and one that ended up having unintended consequences. It was the decision by Theresa May, whilst Home Secretary, to push down the responsibility for checking immigration status of potential renters to landlords.

Along with the decision came strong penalties (heavy fines and possible imprisonment) and a set of instructions running to 35 pages. As a result, most landlords, fearful of the penalties and overwhelmed by the guidance, only rented to people with British passports and even then, only to white people. It seemed the safest option. In other words, a policy which did not set out to be racist ended up operating as a racist one, discriminating against large sections of society.

I’m not asking for your comments on the merits of the policy nor the politics behind it. I’m simply showing how something that was intended for (let’s be charitable) good purposes turned out to have the opposite effect.

And so it is with our speech.

A word that is intended to build or add to a constructive dialogue, ends up being inflammatory and causing an over-reaction that spirals out of control. I’ve spoken such words, and I’m almost certain you have too.

Social media, of course, accelerates the effect and spread of such conversations. I like using social media to keep in contact with people, but both in the things I say, and in the manner in which I receive what others have to say, I increasingly realise its dangers too. So, I’ve identified two useful areas for my own sanctification.


I need to learn to speak well.

A lot of those proverbs are about what we say and how we say it. On into the New Testament, the instruction is clear. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29). Our goal in speech is the building up of the listener.

Too often I speak for my own benefit, expressing what I want to say – either to make a point or in defence of myself. But Christian speech is – unsurprisingly – entirely other-person centred. And to take my immigration story and apply it, that means I must not simply think of others (though that might be a start) when I tweet or post on Facebook, but I must think of how others will receive what I have to say.

You may disagree, but my own view is that it is not enough of a defence for a politician to say “that was never the intended consequence.” It’s something – sure – but it’s not enough. In the immigration case, a wise person would say, “you should have been able to spot it.”

So it is with our speech. This is true for me: I need to think about how my words will be received; I cannot hide behind good intentions.


I need to learn to listen well.

Inevitably, however, especially with the way in which social media broadcasts our words to multiple audiences, we need to develop the skill of listening well. I’m not so good at this, though I am married to a woman who is. Mrs R is brilliant and always (in the first instance) thinking charitably of what others meant when they say things that I find difficult.

My cynical character often despairs at this Pollyanna approach, but of course (as in most things) she is right. It’s too easy to assign ungodly or uncharitable motives to the speech of others without any thought whatsoever. And then my responses are defensive, aggressive and uncharitable.

You’ve no doubt seen this escalation yourself, probably even been part of it, as I have. Listening charitably is hard. I’m sure, for example, that it’s no comfort to those sidelined by the landlords’ policy to know that it was never intended to harm them. But, as Christians, we must think well of others. Brothers and sisters are saved by the same gospel and indwelt by the same Spirit. Our default position is charity, just as God’s is towards us.

For me, this means responding slowly, thoughtfully. Again, the way social media works does not encourage this, but it’s a policy I need to pursue, you may need to as well.

And if we can’t speak with wisdom, Proverbs does offer us another suggestion:

“Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongue” (Prov 17:28).

Adrian Reynolds photo
Adrian Reynolds - FIEC Associate National Director

Adrian has been on FIEC staff since April 2017. He previously served as one of the leaders of The Proclamation Trust and as Associate Minister of East London Tabernacle. He is married to Celia, they have two married daughters and another at home.

Follow Adrian Reynolds on Twitter – @_adrianreynolds