By Mike Hess
Rob, a zealous and bold young pastor, was thrilled that a local church would extend a call to him to come and preach the Word Sunday after Sunday. Fresh out of seminary and an impressive internship, he couldn’t wait to unload on his congregation all the knowledge stored in his head that was just waiting to be exploded upon his hearers. He was locked and loaded.
Rob wasn’t a bad guy. He loved the Lord, the Bible, his wife, and small children. Though his motives were sincere, his actions were severely misguided. He was eager to prove to his new congregation that he belonged in ministry. Thanks to social media and the internet, Rob was well-versed with the theological controversies surrounding popular Christian personalities. In fact, as time went on, he was more familiar with current theological squabbles than he was with the spiritual needs of the people God had called him to pastor. The more he injected himself in fruitless debates and controversies, the more his tone became combative and contrarian—both personally and publicly.
His congregation began to take notice. More and more his preaching took on a combative tone. In fact, one member characterized him as obnoxious, rude, and offensive in personal interactions. Instead of listening to people’s burdens and concerns, Rob was always trying to prove a point, it seemed. His email exchanges in response to honest and sincere questions became edgier and more vitriolic. And his social media exchanges looked more like a bar fight than they did gracious and honest discussions. He even began to use his Facebook and Twitter updates as opportunities to take passive aggressive swipes at church members with whom he was having issues.
For example, when he realized that some members had taken issue with the tone of a sermon, he would update his Facebook status on the evils of gossip and talking behind people’s backs. He would also take to Facebook immediately after any discussion that involved any kind of dissension, harping on the stubbornness of not submitting to God-ordained pastoral authority. On top of that, his online interactions became demeaning and downright angry. People in the church were beginning to get concerned. Not just with his tone but with the stewardship of his time. Where was he getting the time to post four to five times a day on social media and consistently interact with every counterpoint to his status updates? All the while, he was telling his church he was too busy to make hospital visits, do personal counseling, or meet one-on-one with those who had spiritual needs.
Things continued to spiral downward for Rob. Any attempt by others in church leadership to lovingly confront Rob turned into a condescending condemnation of the messengers. They were often called “weak,” “compromising,” or “unwilling to stand for the truth.” Rob’s doctrinal position or passion were not the issue. His application of that truth, however, was a glaring issue that severed relationships and limited his pastoral influence. Eventually, most in the church avoided any personal contact with him, as it usually resulted in an unpleasant exchange of berating and browbeating.
Rob ended up being dismissed from his church. A short pastorate that began with so much excitement ended badly. Even worse, Rob’s church had a Biblical mandate for removing him from the pastorate. He had violated on several occasions an important qualification for the Lord’s servant. Scripture not only tells a pastor what he must be, it also tells what a pastor must not be.
Timothy, this is who you don’t want to be . . .
Oftentimes when we think of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), our thoughts gravitate toward what a pastor must be, such as “blameless” or “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3). These character traits are nonnegotiable. But Scripture doesn’t stop there. In 2 Timothy 2:24–26, Paul gave Timothy a remarkably important title, “servant of the Lord.” If Timothy was to have the kind of ministry that draws wayward sinners to a knowledge of the truth, he should not have had certain characteristics and should have had others.
So the question is, Do you desire the kind of ministry that makes the knowledge of the truth compelling? Do you desire to model this? If you desire, like Timothy did, to model and apply being the Lord’s servant, examine with me what 2 Timothy 2:24–26 says the pastor must or must not be to have a Christlike tone in ministry.
He must not be quarrelsome
This is the second time Paul forced this point home to young Timothy (cf. 1 Tim. 3:3). Being quarrelsome is not so much a propensity to get into physical brawls as it is an attitude of being hostile, contrarian, vindictive, or quick to fight or argue. Unlike the false teachers of Timothy’s day, he was to be easy to get along with. Being a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker was to be his natural inclination.
“Quarrelsome” pastors are quick to condemn. They’re often unaware of what their tone does to their listeners. Quarrelsome individuals are divisive and have a “win at all costs” attitude. The Bible is often weaponized instead of utilized to give hope. They fail to consider others as more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3–4).
He must be gentle to everyone
Homer Kent explained this well years ago: “[The pastor] must be willing to hold up under evil treatment.” In other words, he is kind to those who treat him badly. He doesn’t return evil for evil. The proper tone of pastoral ministry is kindness to those who humanly speaking do not deserve it. Can we be candid for a moment? Some of a pastor’s deepest scars will come from God’s people. Sheep can do hurtful things. To pastors personally. Even to their families. But the Lord’s servant must respond differently. A Christlike pastor’s tone is one of kindness to those who do not deserve it—not a kindness that avoids bold confrontation with the truth, but an intentional kindness even when confronting or rebuking sin.
He must be able to teach
In other words, he’s a skillful teacher; he has the skillset and God-given desire to teach. The proper tone of pastoral ministry involves gently and graciously teaching those who are making foolish choices or believing wrongly. As I look back at myself as a young believer, I recognize that those who exhibited the most patience had the greatest impact on me. A skillful teacher winsomely crafts how he words Biblical truth for maximum effectiveness. People willingly listen to a pastor who understands that his teaching applies to him as much as to those who hear it.
Just as a surgeon skillfully cuts with the intent to eventually heal, the pastor must figuratively do the same with truth. The power of the Word cuts to the deepest recesses of one’s being (Heb. 4:12) with the intent to build the individual into the image of Christ (Col. 1:28–29), not to belittle or humiliate.
He must be patient
When you think of patient, think of an individual who is not easily annoyed or irritated. This doesn’t just refer to being patient, but patient after being mistreated. Several things can tempt a pastor to lose his cool: being called out on social media, an edgy or accusatory email, someone being unkind to his wife or children, criticism of his preaching, or when a family leaves his church badly. The Lord’s servant must patiently trust God when he has been wronged by others.
He must instruct his opponents with gentleness
Notice whom Paul tells Timothy to “instruct” (“correct heretical teaching”). He’s telling him to instruct his “opponents” with gentleness—those who oppose the gospel and those who have “shipwrecked” their faith (1 Tim. 1:19–20). A pastoral tone that glorifies Christ is “gentle” when correcting the immature or misinformed.
It’s natural for pastors to object by saying, “Shouldn’t we be earnestly contending for the faith?” Yes! Of course, we should. But God never commands us to be earnestly rude or obnoxious or condescending. Take a moment to carefully examine how you interact with those who strongly disagree with you. Correcting someone who is Biblically wrong does not give us the right to be sinfully condescending.
There are several Biblical examples of this:
- Jesus winsomely and graciously interacted with a spiritually misguided Nicodemus in John 3. Our Savior didn’t hide or hold back from telling him the truth. But He did so in a way that spoke the truth without belittling.
- Paul held nothing back in Acts 17 in his exchange with Greek philosophers on Mars Hill. Yet his exchange was respectful and gracious. He didn’t condescend to his audience while sharing the gospel.
- In John 4 Jesus asked heart-probing questions of a woman who had been enslaved to sexual promiscuity. He didn’t sugarcoat her spiritual state (v. 18). But His rhetoric was redemptive, not rude.
Yes, Biblical examples abound of hard-nosed confrontation of people in rank sin (see passages like Matthew 23; Acts 7; Jeremiah 14, to name a few). In each of these cases, we must understand who was speaking and who was the audience. In our case, as pastors and church leaders, we do not sit in the office of Old Testament prophet or of God Incarnate (Jesus), nor are we in a transitional time in church history like in the book of Acts. We are given God’s final and sufficient Word to proclaim God’s truth in the way God says we should proclaim it. By all means, don’t shrink back from calling out sin. But do so in a manner that reflects the spirit of passages like the one we’re considering.
Second Timothy 2:24–26 is meaningful to me because a dear pastor friend used it early in my ministry to expose an unhealthy tone. He read this passage to me to reiterate the importance of showing patience and grace with those who contradict us. The truth of these verses stung and brought hope simultaneously. I knew this was an area I needed growth in, but I also knew that God’s grace would be sufficient to supply what was needed. That group of men in my local association of GARBC churches mentored me and helped me see my blind spots as a young pastor. All of it began with these verses being read to me to expose some issues with my pastoral tone.
- Avoid the tone of being overly sarcastic, snarky, funny at others’ expense, or poking fun at people’s appearance, ethnicity, or age. Convey to the sheep entrusted to your care that your goal is to build them up in Christ, not to publicly belittle them for the sake of being funny. Humor and laughter are gifts from the Lord, but they shouldn’t be used at the expense of making others look bad.
- Consider having a few mature and wise pastoral mentors examine the tone of your preaching, personal exchanges, and social media posts and interactions with others. Be willing to hear the hard truth. Ministry evaluation can be a great gift when you have wise voices speaking truth and the grace to respond with humility.
- Think of the people entrusted to your care as sheep for whom you will give an account one day, not as people you’ve been given to browbeat or berate on a weekly basis.
- Determine to confess and give your anger and frustrations to God. Only He can change the people you’ve grown frustrated with.
- Meditate on passages that specifically address the issue of the tone of a believer’s speech, such as Ephesians 4:15, 29; Colossians 4:6; Luke 6:45, especially when you’re tempted to be lured into an unhealthy discussion on social media or a fruitless debate.
- Never forget, the Lord’s servant must not only be concerned with the substance of what he says, but also the tone with which he says it. Our ministry is a stewardship. May we steward it well by loving God supremely and loving others sacrificially.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. This article is the cover story of the forthcoming January/February 2020 issue of the Baptist Bulletin.