Conduct unbecoming!

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When I was in the RAF it was very much expected that we behaved in a certain manner. A manner which was ‘becoming’ of our status. There were things we could do, which may not have had many repercussions in Civvy Street, but in the military, would almost certainly land you in trouble. Such behaviour was summed up by the phrase, ‘conduct unbecoming’. And it covered everything from a minor offence that required a quick one-way conversation with the Sqn boss (such as being too drunk at a Sqn function) to something more serious that resulted in a court-martial and dismissal from the service.

‘Conduct unbecoming’ was a phrase that meant an individual had failed in their responsibility to act as members of Her Majesty’s armed forces should act. If that is true for the military representing a human sovereign, how much more should it be the case that we are not guilty of ‘conduct unbecoming’ a Christian and failing in our responsibility to act as members of the divine King’s family should act. Our passage before us tonight is a hard one. Not because it is difficult to understand, far from it, but because the honest application of it may well show how easily we accept ‘conduct unbecoming of a Christian’ in our own lives and in our own church. We’ve already heard the reading once – it included unbecoming conduct such as lying and anger and gossip and unkind speech, and there’s a very real temptation to think that such things don’t apply to us. Rather we might think “this is contrasting us and the world out there” or “this is contrasting me now with the me before I was a Christian”.

And whilst that’s a valid secondary thought process – it misses the primary context, because Paul is addressing a church. He is writing to converted people…about how they relate to each other which means, church, that converted ‘sealed-by-the-Holy Spirit’ believers, like you and like me, were being called out for lying, being angry, stealing, gossip and unkind speech. And we need to think about this tonight – and ask “is this something Paul would call us out for? Would he call me out for how I’m relating to the person I’m sat next to, the members of my small group, those in positions of responsibility and leadership, those in my family?”

We need God’s help in that so let’s ask him for it now! Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father,
As we study these few verses in your word now, please would you show us how to walk in manner worthy of your name. Give us humility to see specific areas of our lives that need to change to enable us to act in a manner that is becoming of the one we claim to follow. Amen.

If you have your bibles do open them up to Ephesians 4. Quick recap: Paul is writing to a bunch of Christians in Ephesus, which is on the west coast of what we now call Turkey. And you can divide Ephesians into two main chunks:

  • Ephesians 1-3 are all about what we should believe as Christians (theological truths)
  • Ephesians 4-6 are all about how we should live as Christians (how we put that truth into practice).

And in this section (end Ephesians 4/beginning Ephesians 5) Paul highlights five areas with examples of conduct unbecoming contrasted with conduct that is becoming a follower of Jesus. And the great thing is, he doesn’t just say “don’t do that, do this”. In every area he gives us a reason why conduct unbecoming is so damaging. So, five areas. Here’s the first:

1. Speak the truth…because we’re all one body (Ephesians 4.25):

Therefore, [in light of your conversion to Jesus] having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour…

Speak the truth, not lies. You know it’s incredible really isn’t it, how instinctive lying is to us. We’re in trouble or embarrassed and we want to lie to cover up. We’re trying to make a good impression and so we exaggerate to cover up deficiencies. But we don’t just lie to cover-up what we’ve said or done do we? We lie to cover up how we are feeling, how we actually are and whether that’s from guilt, shame or a belief that no-one can be struggling like I’m struggling, the net result is the same; it damages the body of Christ. Look at Paul’s reasoning:

…let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.

Church, the best way to speaking the truth is to deliberately open-up with brothers and sisters who love Jesus! Now that takes courage and trust.

And we can’t, nor should we, share our deepest issues and problems with everyone. But we can be real with everyone. So, if we have had a bad week or we are struggling, that Sunday evening conversation that normally goes:

“Hey! How are you?”
“Yeah I’m good ta, how are you?”
“Yeah good thanks”

That conversation is actually ‘conduct unbecoming’ a follower of Jesus if you’re struggling. But it can actually go quite differently without you needing to bare all:

“Hey! How are you?”
“Yeah, I’m alright – but I’ve struggled a bit this week. Would you pray for me?”

And then depending on how well you know the person, how well you trust them the conversation can go in all sorts of real directions. You don’t have to give any more details if it’s not appropriate, but at least we are acknowledging that sometimes things aren’t ok. And we are beginning to speak the truth, because we’re all one body.

2. Control your anger so the devil doesn’t divide the body (Ephesians 4.26-27)

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Isn’t it interesting what Paul is saying here. He’s saying that anger in itself is not necessarily wrong - indeed, we know Jesus got angry and yet he never sinned! That’s because there is a good kind and there’s a bad kind of anger. The bad kind is uncontrolled, bitter, lingering, resentful, it seeks retaliation. But the good kind is righteous and focuses on sin, corruption and injustice and its extremely rare in sinful human beings prone to self-righteousness.

So we have to read this verse with extreme caution, because on the one hand we must learn to hate sin like Jesus did (and frankly we Christians could do with showing more righteous anger over issues like abortion and abuse and exploitation of the weak and marginalised and so on), but on the other hand, we must remember that’s not uppermost in Paul’s mind here. He’s on about anger in the church. My anger at you. Yours at me. For whatever reason. And unless we deal with it carefully and pursue reconciliation quickly (before the sun goes down), the opportunity for the devil to gain a foothold and divide and destroy our friendships and our witness is immense. Friends, with the Lord’s power, we must control our anger and frustrate the devil’s purposes.

3. Work hard and honestly to contribute to the body (Ephesians 4.28)

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

Stealing here includes way more than just shoplifting, fraud and robbing banks. Any kind of sponging or taking advantage is ruled out – from the subtle borrowing of office equipment from work; to wasting time at work surfing the internet; to not paying your bills in a timely manner or failing to pay a fair wage to those you employ. All dishonesty for personal gain is conduct unbecoming a Christian. Rather, we are to work hard – the original Greek suggesting ‘to the point of weariness’ – in order that we may give to those in need in the body.

I love seeing the Christian generosity in action:

  • Weekly shopping being done for those who are struggling
  • People carriers loaned to other families, so they go on holiday
  • Holiday homes provided for those on low or no income
  • Harvested fruit and veg being shared around
  • Clothes, bikes, football boots, toys, cars all passed on a shared around.

You may well ask, who is really in need in our church? Well, the more we share our lives together, the more we see answers, but right now I’m thinking of students who need surrogate families or who may be already struggling with cash flow this year. I’m thinking of members of our church family who have been or will be made redundant - will we stand with them financially and help them with their monthly outgoings in the short term? We are to work hard and share the fruit of our work with anyone in need.

4. Only use words that build up…because we all need grace (Ephesians 4.29)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, [you remember Thumper in Bambi – “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all!” – that about sums it up!] but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Everything we say should only build up and give grace. There should be no other reason to open our mouths! So do a little mental exercise with me.

Think back over the last couple of days or so. Can you think of a conversation where that hasn’t been true of you? A housemate, a family member, someone in your small group, a conversation that lacked grace and failed to build up. Such conversations represent conduct unbecoming a Christian. We need to ask the Lord to help us get into the habit of thinking before we speak: How can we do good? How can we encourage? How can we build up? Because we all function best in an atmosphere of grace.

5. Reject all hostility and lovingly forgive because we have been lovingly forgiven (Ephesians 4.31-32):

Let all bitterness [inner resentfulness] and wrath [indignant outbursts] and anger [the bad kind] and clamour [shouting/quarrelling] and slander [accusatory, defamatory, gossip] be put away from you, along with all malice…

In other words, any manifestation of hostility & negativity must go – it’s conduct unbecoming a Christian! Instead Ephesians 4.32:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another…

Why? Because God in Christ forgave you. This is an incredible motivator – one we all too easily forget: we are forgiven, we are redeemed, rescued people. It’s possible that as you’re listening to this message you’re thinking, I’m so rubbish at being a Christian, I’m not doing well enough for God to accept me, to love me. There is no condemnation here! All of these pleas for changed behaviour spring from the fact that you are already forgiven! They are not things to do ensure we get or remain forgiven!

So, if you are believing and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re already part of the family. Take a look at Ephesians 5.1 which says:

Therefore [because of Christ’s generous grace] be imitators of God, as beloved children.

We’re already one body, we’re already adopted into the same family, and like children copying their parents we need to imitate our Heavenly Father. And to show what that looks like in a nutshell, Paul returns to his favourite terminology of the Christian life as a walk (Ephesians 5.2):

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Walk in love JPC. Walk in sacrificial love. If that is done, it is enough!

So, as I said at the start, the passage is fairly straight forward to understand. The hard part is applying it. Too many of the things mentioned in these few verses I quickly excuse in my behaviour; those unkind words, that short fuse that I pretend is righteous anger, that saying something about a brother or sister whose not around, in a way I’d never dream of saying if they were with you face-to-face. That’s just me folks. What is it for you?

Please re-read this passage. Ask the spirit to search your heart and identify any conduct unbecoming a beloved child of God. If we don’t, then we will be giving the devil an opportunity to divide and destroy the unity of the church and, to use Paul’s language in this very passage, that grieves the Holy Spirit of God. Let’s pray:

Lord God help us to identify conduct that is unbecoming one who bears the name of Christ.
Lord help us deal with this sin, for that is what is.
By your mighty power please would you change us and renew our minds to live in a way that honours you and protects the unity of the body. Amen

It may be that as we’ve been going through this list one or two areas have stuck out at your that require attention. If so, let me offer a few follow-up resources:

  • Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges
  • A Small Book about a Big Problem: 50 short mediations on anger, patience and peace by Ed Welch
  • How to stop church-killing gossip – Gospel Coalition blog by Justin Taylor
  • Gospel Speech Online – Speaking the truth in love in a digital world by Lionel Windsor
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