Life + Culture

How Do Pastors Pick Their Fights?

How Do Pastors Pick Their Fights?

We need men who know how to disagree without creating division. We need pastors and elders who have enough self-control to avoid needless controversy, and enough courage to move gently and steadily toward conflict.

Not a brawler. The 400-year-old King James Version (KJV) translates 1 Timothy 3:2–3 with surprising timelessness. Of the full list of fifteen, this qualification for pastor-elder in the church is one of just five negative traits. Modern translations say “not quarrelsome” (ESV and NIV) or “not . . . pugnacious” (NASB), but here the language of the KJV has endured. Indeed, we know who the brawlers are today, and it doesn’t take much foresight to recognize what a problem it could be to have one as a pastor.

However, a nuance that “not a brawler” may lack is distinguishing between the physical or verbal nature of combat. This is the upside of “not quarrelsome.” In 1 Timothy 3, the physical already has been covered: “not violent but gentle.” What’s left is the temperamental, and especially verbal.

We all know too well, by the war within us, how the flesh of man finds itself relentlessly at odds with the Spirit of God. We want to quarrel when we should make peace, and not ruffle feathers when we should speak up. And in a day in which so many are prone to sharpness online, and niceness face to face, we need leaders who are “not quarrelsome,” and also not afraid to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). We need men who “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) without being contentious. We need pastors who are not brawlers — and yet know when (and how) to say the needful hard word.

Men Who Make Peace

The flip side of the negative “not quarrelsome” is the positive “peaceable.” Titus 3:2 is the only other New Testament use of the word we translate “not quarrelsome”: “Remind [the church] . . . to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2). James 3, which warns leaders, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1), also directs us to “the wisdom from above”:

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17–18)

Healthy pastors are peacemakers at heart, not pugilists. They don’t fight for sport; they fight to protect and promote peace. They know first and foremost — as a divine representative to their people — that our God is “the God of peace” (Romans 15:33); our message, “the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15); our Lord Jesus himself made peace (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 1:20) and “is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14), preaching “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17).

And making peace is not unique to Christian leaders. Rather, we insist on it in our leaders so that they model and encourage peacemaking for the whole church. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said our Lord, “for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). “Let us pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19). “Strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). “If possible, so far as it depends on you” — all of you who are members of the body of Christ — “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

This kind of peacemaking not only means leading our flocks in preserving and enjoying peace, but also in making peace that requires confrontation. Some controversies cannot be avoided — and we engage not because we simply want to fight (or win), but because we want to win those being deceived. God means for leaders in his church to have the kind of spiritual magnanimity to rise above the allure of petty disputes, and to press valiantly for peace and Christ-exalting harmony in the places angels might fear to tread.

What Brawlers Fail to Do

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful, as the veteran apostle gives his counsel to younger leaders in the thick of church conflict. Perhaps no single passage is more perceptive for leaders in times of conflict than 2 Timothy 2:24–26. More than any others, these verses expand what it means for pastors to be “not quarrelsome.” It may be one of the most important words in all the Bible for church leaders:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Here Paul fleshes out the negative “not quarrelsome” with four great, positive charges (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 535). First is “kind to everyone.” The presence of conflict doesn’t excuse a lack of kindness. How pastors carry themselves in conflict is as important as picking the right battles. And the Lord calls his servants not just to be kind to the sheep, while treating the wolves like trash, but to be “kind to everyone” — to the faithful and to our opponents.

Then comes “able to teach” (or better, “skillful in teaching”), which appears earlier in the elder qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2) and is the main trait that distinguishes pastor-elders (1 Timothy 3:1–7) from deacons (1 Timothy 3:8–13). In the previous verse (2 Timothy 2:23), Paul refers to “foolish, ignorant controversies” — literally, “untaught” or “uneducated.” How many conflicts in the church begin in honest ignorance, and need pastors to come in, with kindness (not with guns blazing), to provide sober-minded clarity from God’s word? In the New Testament, pastors are fundamentally teachers, and Christ, the great Teacher, doesn’t mean for his undershepherds to put aside their primary calling when conflict arises.

Next is “patiently enduring evil.” Rarely do serious conflicts resolve as quickly as we would like. And whether evil is afoot, or it’s just an honest difference of opinions, pastors should lead the way in patience. That doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to inaction, or letting conflict carry on needlessly without attention and next steps, but patiently walking the path of a process — not standing still and not bull-rushing every issue at once, but faithfully and patiently approaching the conflict one step at a time.

Our Great Hope in Conflict

The fourth and final charge from 2 Timothy 2 is “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” In commending kindness, teaching, and patience, Paul doesn’t leave aside correction. God calls pastors, at heart, to rightly handle his word (2 Timothy 2:15), which is profitable not only for teaching, but for correction (2 Timothy 3:16). The goal is restoration “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

The pastor’s heart for peace, not mere polemics, comes out in the kind of heart that endures in needful conflict: we pray that “God may perhaps grant them repentance.” We long for restoration, not revenge (Romans 12:19). We pray first for repentance, not retribution.

And we remember that the real war is not against flesh and blood — especially within the household of faith. Our true enemy is Satan, not our human “opponents.” We long for them to come to repentance — to “come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil” — through kindness, humble teaching, patience, and gentle correction — remembering that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We do not want to be rid of our opponents; we want to win them back from Satan’s sway.

Hardest on Ourselves

How, then, do pastors pick their battles? What foolish controversies do we wisely avoid, and what conflicts require our courage to address kindly, patiently, and gently with humble teaching?

First of all, note that pastors never work solo in the New Testament. Christ not only put teachers in charge of his churches, but a plurality of teachers. And he intends for countless wisdom issues in pastoral work to be worked out in the context of a team of sober-minded, self-controlled, self-sacrificial leaders, who see one another’s blind spots and shore up one another’s weaknesses. Together, such men learn over time to be hardest on themselves, not their flock.

The heart of Christian leadership is not taking up privileges, but laying down our lives; not gravitating toward the easy work, but gladly crucifying personal comfort and ease to do the hard work to serve others; not domineering over those in our charge, but being examples of Christlike self-sacrifice for them (1 Peter 5:3). A pastor learns to contend well, without being contentious, writes Tom Ascol, “by seriously applying the word of God to himself before he applies it to others.” When trying to discern between controversies to avoid and conflicts to engage with courage, we ask,

  • Is this about me — my ego, my preference, my threatened illusion of control — or about my Lord, his gospel, and his church? Am I remembering that my greatest enemy is not others, or even Satan, but my own indwelling sin?

  • What is the tenor of my ministry? Is it one fight after another? Are there seasons of peace? Am I engaging conflict as an end in itself, or is preserving and securing Christian peace clearly the goal?

  • Am I going with or against my flesh, which inclines me to fight when I shouldn’t, and back down when I should kindly, patiently, gently fight? As the “servant” of the Lord, not self, am I avoiding petty causes that an unholy part of me wants to pursue, while taking on the difficult, painful, and righteous causes that an unholy part of me wants to flee?

  • Am I simply angry at my opponents, desiring to show them up or expose them, or am I sad for them — better, compassionate for them — genuinely praying that God would free them from deception and grant them repentance? Am I more inclined to anger against them or tears for them?

God means for his ministers to strike the balance, together, by his Spirit. We can learn to avoid foolish controversies and move wisely toward genuine conflicts. We can be unafraid of disagreements, while not creating divisions. In a world of haters, trolls, and brawlers, we can be men, set apart by Christ to lead his church, who fight well, in love, for peace.

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