How Do Pastors Pick Their Fights?

We need pastors and elders who have enough self-control to avoid needless controversy

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.”

 

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.

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