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Where Did Gentleness Go as a Pastoral Virtue?

I’ve long felt that in Reformed circles there is a great need for pastors and theologians to cultivate the virtue of gentleness.

I think we all know that gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23. It appears again in a similar list of Christian virtues in 1 Timothy 6:11, virtues specific to Christian leadership.

But gentleness is not usually one of the first qualities we look for in a pastor. In fact, I think gentleness is one of those Christian virtues that falls through the cracks when we’re evaluating ourselves and others.

Wimpy God, Tough God

Indeed, there has been among us, I think, some confusion about what to do with gentleness. Certainly the old liberal theologians distorted the concept when they used it, in effect, to eliminate the wrath and judgment of God from their preaching. God, they said, was so gentle, so kind, that he would never punish anyone for sinning against him. Thus they robbed God of his justice; indeed, they replaced the biblical God with a grandfatherly, lenient, indulgent god of their own imagination.

Together with this distortion of God was a distortion of Jesus. The liberal Jesus was a kindly soul who hugged babies and patted lambs on the head, but who had within him not a drop of righteous anger or jealousy or zeal for the truth. For the liberal, such a God and such a Christ surely wouldn’t approve of any stern measures to preserve the holiness of his church. In liberal churches, formal discipline for doctrinal matters—indeed, even for moral transgressions—became a thing of the past.

Evangelicals understandably reacted against that misunderstanding of divine gentleness. They heaped ridicule and scorn upon the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the liberal theologians and set forth Jesus as the risen and ascended Lord of heaven and earth, who would soon return in flaming fire to bring his terrible judgments on the earth. C. S. Lewis’s Aslan was, he reminded us, not a tame lion. And so, we have argued, there is a place for formal discipline in the church.

Sometimes pastors must be stern, strong, and jealous for the righteousness of God. Many Reformed teachers today, fortified by such teaching as Abraham Kuyper’s “life is religion,” Van Til’s apologetics of antithesis, Jay Adams’s nouthetic counseling, and the dominion theology of the Christian Reconstruction movement, especially emphasize that Christians are not to be wimps. We are not to meekly tolerate societal wickedness; we are to be a true Christian army, putting on the whole armor of God, casting down imaginations, taking every thought captive to Christ, conquering all human enterprises in the name of the King.

So swings the pendulum, from walk-all-over-me liberalism to dominion militancy. I don’t want to turn away from the militancy. I see a lot of value in Kuyper, in Van Til and Adams, indeed in the Christian Reconstruction movement as well. (I don’t see quite as much value in it as they do.)

But what’s happened to gentleness in all of this? Again, we know it’s part of the Christian life, and especially that it’s one of the qualifications of the Christian pastor. Yet it slips through the cracks. Ironically, the concept of gentleness seems itself to be very gentle. It doesn’t shout out at us; it almost seems to hide within those long lists of virtues.

Let’s look more closely where God defines himself to Moses:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6–7)

Yes, there is judgment there. Fearsome judgment. But there is also mercy, long-suffering, and compassion. As the New Testament says, God is love.

God Is Gentle

Sin deserves instant death, but God is so merciful and gentle with sinners. We learn how gentle when we read in the New Testament that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The Lord Jesus comes as God’s gentle shepherd of his people. Remember Isaiah 40:11? “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Yes, our Lord is gentle.

Jesus didn’t jump all over people who were guilty of sin. To the immoral woman of Samaria, he offered the living water of eternal life. He offered her a wonderful gift, before her sins even entered the conversation. Yes, he discussed her sins at a later point, but in a tender way. He healed people first, and then said, “Go and sin no more.”

And think of how often Paul emphasizes the importance of gentleness in the ministry:

We could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (1 Thess. 2:6–7)

I Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ . . . (2 Cor. 10:1)

Think of the little book of Philemon, where Paul asks his friend to treat well the former slave Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to Philemon. Onesimus is now a Christian brother. Paul says to Philemon that he could, as an apostle, command Philemon to do the right thing, but instead he humbly entreats on the basis of love: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (v. 8). Then he adds: “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will” (v. 14).

Paul had great authority as an apostle, but, as Jesus taught, Paul didn’t believe a leader should “lord it over” his flock, commanding them to do this and that, threatening them, coercing them, making life miserable for them. Rather, he sought to resolve problems in the gentlest way possible. Like a good parent, he didn’t want to provoke his children to wrath. Rather, he wanted to teach them, by word and example, how to love the ways of God from the heart. And loving God from the heart involves spontaneous obedience.

More Like a Shepherd

Certainly there’s no disparagement of justice, no compromise of the church’s holiness. Paul did advocate excommunication for those who couldn’t be reached any other way (1 Cor. 5), but he saw even excommunication as a means to restore and heal: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).

But Paul’s concept of the pastor is certainly a lot less like a king or general than like a shepherd or even a nursing mother.

Another way to put it, perhaps, is that Paul did not see himself as standing in an adversarial relationship with his people. He wasn’t their enemy, but their friend, their father, their nursing mother. I guess I’ve been rather saddened by some reports I’ve heard of elders who have taken an adversarial stance against their own sheep.

Toughness and Tenderness

The church is not an academic debating society, not a place where one seeks by whatever means to prove himself right and to prove the other guy wrong. It is, above all, a place where we care for one another as nursing mothers care for their babies. And if that atmosphere of caring, protecting, nurturing, and loving is ever replaced by an adversarial climate, the very life of the church is in danger.

If we preach the toughness of God without passionately seeking to maintain his gentleness, we commit an error opposite to that of modernism and one just as bad. Speaking the truth in love—that’s the balance God calls us to maintain.

Let your gentleness be evident to all [why gentleness, rather than something else?]. The Lord is near. (Phil. 4:5)

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)

Restore, reprove, rebuke; but don’t let the gentleness of Jesus ever be lost.

What about you? Are you able to nurture others in this way? Maybe you love people, but you don’t know how to correct them in a truly gentle way, without harshness, without hurting. If so, find someone who can serve as a model and teacher for you in this area; it is tremendously important. And, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the love of his sheep, stay out of the pastorate until you have learned.

Where Did Gentleness Go as a Pastoral Virtue?