On the Virtues of “Intemperate” Speech


The past few years have witnessed an increasing number of accusations of “intemperate” speech on the floor of General Assembly. Often it seems as though the accused stands guilty of little more than expressing an opinion with which the accuser disagrees. Worse yet, a man suffers the accusation of intemperance simply for expressing his opinion as though he actually believes it, using strong words to convey strong convictions. But surely the bar of “intemperate” speech stands higher than this. Should not elders, who love both the flock and the Shepherd, speak with conviction? I want to suggest that in the courts of the Church, devout men ought to state strong convictions strongly, and nothing in our polity precludes men from so doing.

Governing Documents

Would it surprise you to learn that neither the Westminster Standards nor the Book of Church Order nor the Rules of Assembly Operation nor Robert’s Rule of Order use the word “intemperate?” Our BCO does, however, speak of “temperate” speech. BCO 45-5, which discusses Dissents, Protests, and Objections, states: “If a dissent, protest, or objection be couched in temperate language, and be respectful to the court, it shall be recorded.” Noah Webster defines “temperate” as that which is “moderate; not excessive,” or “[c]ool; calm; not marked with passion; not violent,” or “free from ardent passion.”[1] We might then surmise that intemperate speech employs excessive, hot, tempestuous, violent, or ardently passionate language. In other words, intemperate speech lacks self-control, the speaker having surrendered his lips to a flood of emotion over which his character has lost dominion.

But that’s not what we’ve seen on the floor of General Assembly. If anything, we delight in order, speaking with measured reserve, such that courtesy holds sway. And courtesy toward one another ought to mark our gatherings. Robert’s Rules Article 1, Section 7 on “Debate” states: “Speakers must address their remarks to the presiding officer, be courteous in their language and deportment, and avoid all personalities, never alluding to the officers or other members by name, where possible to avoid it, nor to the motives of members.”[2] In other words, a man should address the moderator, refrain from naming other men, avoid imputing motives, and show proper respect to his brothers. I tend to think we do that well.

But does “courteous” speech preclude the use of strong words flowing from strong convictions? By no means. When Robert’s Rules addresses principles for “Decorum in Debate” in Article 7, Section 43, it asserts: “It is not allowable to arraign the motives of a member, but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms. It is not the man, but the measure, that is the subject of debate.”[3] Again, no speaker should assail a brother or impute to him ill motives. But when a speaker addresses an overture, a policy, or an idea, a point of theology, ecclesiology, or missiology, a report, a document, or some other “measure” properly before the floor, then he possesses every right to speak about it—even to condemn it—in “strong terms.”

Light AND Heat Communicate

Mere gentility in speech conceals rather than reveals a man’s opinion, for it conveys the substance but not the temperature of his thought.[4] It conveys light, but not heat. Does Overture XYZ seem to him merely unnecessary or genuinely unwise? Merely unwise or genuinely dangerous? Merely dangerous or genuinely fatal to orthodoxy and orthopraxy? Must he speak of an overture he believes betrays the gospel itself in the same tones with which he addresses an overture that adds a comma to an arcane sentence in the BCO? I prefer to know not only what a man thinks, but also how deeply he feels it, how strongly he favors or opposes a given measure, and whether it ignites within him white-hot indignation or barely keeps his attention.

Some moments demand passionate speech. What man considers his language when screaming, “The bridge is out!” while a passing car hurtles toward destruction? Would you chide a man for “intemperance” because he raises his voice against an impending tragedy? What man states in cool, measured tones his objection when his wife suffers a public insult? Does a man’s love for his wife not imply equal hatred for all that slanders her? Would you begrudge him for speaking so? What man offers soft, tranquil words when his toddler toddles toward the edge of a pool? Would you rebuke him for roaring in fear for his child?

The Psalmist cries out, “O you who love the LORD, hate evil” (Psalm 97:10)! Can a man truly say he loves the LORD except that he, with equal intensity, hates evil, and speaks of it as though he really does hate it? William Perkins argued that “all true and able ministers must pray and strive to have a tongue full of power and force, just like fire, to eat up the sin and corruption of the world.” And while he acknowledged that “[i]t is a worthy gift of God to be able to speak mildly and moderately so that our speech falls like dew upon the grass,” he also insisted that “it is the fiery tongue that beats down sin and works sound grace in the heart.”[5] If a brother senses his Church in danger, if he fears for its orthodoxy, or if he believes to his bones that its proposed course of action will dishonor Christ or wound his blood-bought sheep, would you chastise him for speaking accordingly, with a tongue burning with holy fire? Even if you disagree with your brother about the relative value or effect of a given proposal, shouldn’t you thank God that he, true to his own conscience, sounds an alarm when he senses danger and speaks alarmingly about it? Wouldn’t you want a man to love your Church enough to speak passionately to protect its wellbeing? If we cry, “Intemperate! Intemperate!” each time a brother speaks with conviction on the floor of General Assembly, we do little to preserve the civility of our court but much to blunt its candor.

Sins of the Tongue

The Scripture condemns smooth speech (Isaiah 30:10; Romans 16:18), flattering speech (Psalm 12:3; Proverbs 26:28), corrupting speech (Ephesians 4:29), obscene speech (Colossians 3:8), crooked and devious speech (Proverbs 4:24), and lying speech (Proverbs 6:16) among other sins of the tongue (James 3:1-12). But it never condemns an honest man who speaks with passionate conviction, and whose face glows with the heat of his doctrine. Direct, passionate, forthright speech need not include spite, anger, or character assassination. Even Robert’s Rules of Order understands this, allowing good men to differ strongly, and to speak strongly about their differences, so long as they address the measure and not the man.

The Sum of the Matter

If strong men using strong words to convey strong convictions comprises “intemperate” speech, then I pray that more men in the PCA begin to speak intemperately.



[1] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York, NY: S. Converse, 1828), no pagination. Republished in Facsimile by the Foundation for American Christian Education, 2004.

[2] Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised for Deliberative Assemblies (New York, NY: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1915), 39.

[3] Robert, Robert’s Rules, 180 [emphasis added].

[4] I owe the phrase, “temperature of thought,” to Robert L. Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric; Or, A Course of Lectures on Preaching (New York, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1870), 116.

[5] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying and the Calling of the Ministry (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2011), 161.