This cliché is starting to feel like Orwell’s Newspeak. It seems to serve as a buzzword among those who consider themselves faithful to Christ (i.e. those who adhere to a narrow, rigid doctrine based on literalistic interpretation of the New Testament). The phrase seems innocuous, even noble, but it ultimately is used to mask judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
In the first place, those who claim to “speak the truth in love” often use this as an excuse to nastily condemn those who they find repulsive. For example, many condemnations of the homosexual lifestyle are often vitriolic,* as are condemnations of drug users, lazy poor people, and other assorted lowlifes and deviants. Of course, homosexuality is wrong, as is laziness and drug abuse.** However, those people who are cognizant of their spiritual poverty in these matters do not need vitriolic condemnations, for they already know they are wrong. And those who are wrong but don’t care that they are wrong will not be more inclined to listen to irascible Christians scream at them and their sins. Thus, “speaking the truth in love” to sinners often turns into a cover for passing judgment on others, often in a quite obnoxious and emotionally violent way.
In the second, considerably more innocuous place, “speaking the truth in love” is used to excuse an absence of necessary rebukes. In this case, “loving” becomes “nice,” and the goal is to avoid offending the person who deserves rebukes. This standard is strictly reserved for “the faithful,” which is defined as those who take hardline doctrinal stands that everyone agrees with, while taking care to hide their skeletons in the deepest recesses of their closets. In this case, there are some Christians who are living in sin, but no one rebukes them sharply because to be harsh to brothers and sisters in Christ is to be unloving.
Ultimately, “speaking the truth in love” really means that you won’t be judged, and publicly admonished and shamed if you join the club. This is the opposite of what Christ did, though, for Christ’s harshest condemnations were reserved for those who thought they were faithful—the Pharisees. Christ was nowhere near as harsh to those who recognized their spiritual poverty and their need for a savior. In essence, Christ made a distinction among sinners, and acted in the manner proscribed by Jude. Since we are to imitate Christ, it thus behooves us to actually speak the truth in love, and not just use the phrase as an empty buzzword to mask our hypocrisy.
* Not that this is always wrong; there are many homosexuals –particularly gay activists—who are quite pharisaical in their behavior.
** Though not necessarily drug use.