My pastor has a saying he repeats often. “This isn’t a 10,” he says, meaning that the issue we are discussing might be important but not ultimate. It’s a practice he’s taught me to use in my relationships—with my wife, my children, and my coworkers—in order to reduce friction.
I don’t know that this is specifically what Paul had in mind when he was writing his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But in what many scholars believe are his final written words to the church, the apostle urges a healthy tension between courageous steadfastness on doctrine and a gentleness of spirit.
Different types of people need to hear different parts of this tension. Some of us who are rightly worried about theological slippage in our churches and Christian institutions need to hear Paul’s repeated emphasis on gentleness as a necessary virtue. Listen, for instance, how often this idea comes up:
In his list of qualifications for pastoral leadership: “[Be ...] not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:3 CSB).
In his instructions on biblical manhood: “Pursue ... gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).
On what leadership looks like: “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone ... instructing his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25 CSB).
Regarding what to teach God’s people about engaging opposition and hostility: “Remind them … to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:1-2).
Paul didn’t simply encourage this in these young men but modeled it. He was gentle, he told the church at Thessalonica, “as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). And the words gentleness and kindness are sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters. What’s interesting is that this kind of admonition is coming from a man who was known for his pugilism. Paul wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet when it came to confronting false teachers, casting out demons, speaking up against the idolatries of the age. He rebuked. He exhorted. He spoke prophetic, often hard words to the people of God.
And yet he urged kindness and gentleness. How can this be so? First, I think Paul spoke truth, not as one trying to “own” his interlocutors or embarrass those with whom he disagreed. He didn’t even take joy in discovering and rooting out sin and corruption in the church, as if to win applause or attain hero status—the seeming motivation of so many would-be prophets in the church today.
No, Paul didn’t relish these fights. The only way he ever engaged in conflict was with genuine tears and sorrow. And so must we. If and when we are called to a ministry of hard words, it must be because we love those to whom the words are directed.
Paul didn’t stand over fallen believers with arrogance—he sat alongside them with pity and love.
Secondly, Paul always came with a dose of humility. Over and over again he approached his polemics with awareness of his own sinfulness and weakness. He didn’t stand over fallen believers with arrogance—he sat alongside them with pity and love. So often our apologetics and discernment aren’t in pursuit of church purity or brotherly love. They’re about the cheap and fleeting dopamine hits that come from being seen as right. We carelessly wield the sword of truth, caring little whom we cut and maim in pursuit of applause. Paul rebuked with a firm tenderness.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Paul knew which conflicts mattered. He told Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). Fight, not the petty, unimportant, cheap fights but the ultimate, eternal battles. Choose wisely the things you are willing to lose deep friendships over. Think long and hard before you type up that tirade or social media screed. Ponder the purpose of that argument with your teenage son or daughter. Ask yourself what Paul seems to be saying to all of us: Is this a good fight?
Most of us imagine, in the middle of a dispute, that we are the prophet Jeremiah speaking truth to an unwilling audience. Or Elijah on Mount Carmel or Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. But could it be that we’re the disruptive Tobiah and Sanballat who tried to distract Nehemiah from God’s work, or the contentious person in Titus 3:10, or the quarreling, sinful church members in James 4:1?
There is a temptation—severe in this age of confusion—to never fight. But Paul doesn’t say to do this. Kindness isn’t niceness. It’s not looking past sin or lacking courage to stand up for Christian orthodoxy. But similarly, courage isn’t being the loudest person in the room or the sharpest wit on social media. Christians must fight, but we do battle with heavenly weapons, like gentleness, kindness, and grace. And we don’t pick battles just for sport; we fight only the good fights.
Photograph by James Day