I talk a lot about tact in communication on this blog. I use the fancy term “irenic,” which is the opposite of the word “polemic.” To be irenic means that we approach things with peace and patience, taking into account the importance of not merely what we say, but how we say it. To be polemic means that we approach things in a more warlike manner, often with emotional expressions of belligerence. I try to be irenic in most of my dealings with people. After all, my business is one of the most explosive subjects in the history of the world: theology. In neutral, theology always tends to a warlike posture, defensive and ironically hateful, even in Christian circles. People justify their ungracious engagement in many ways. Often it is assumed that right theology trumps tact to such a degree that it is virtually lost. Yet the Bible is clear about this, right? After all, we are to proclaim our faith with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). We are to “gently” correct those in opposition, in hopes that God will lead them to the truth (2 Tim. 2:25).

Since the Bible seems so clear that we are to engage each other (especially those who oppose) with such a careful and kind tone, why is it that the majority of theological writings seem to ignore these commands? Well, of course we can call to account the anonymity of online interaction. After all, if we can hide behind emails, blogs, comments, and Facebook interaction, our sinful nature can get the best of us.

However, I have seen people seek to justify their polemics not by hiding behind the internet but behind Jesus and Paul.  And it is true. There seem to be examples in the Scripture where the prophets, Apostles, and even Christ do not behave irenically. In other words, they often seemed to engage people with a fierce resolve, respecting the truth more than the person with whom there is conflict. Which example do we follow? Do we follow the explicit statements given by Paul or do we gain encouragement from his sometimes less-than-gracious interaction? Let me try to deal with Paul and Christ one at a time.

1. Should we defend the faith like Christ cleansed the temple?

We often think we should speak with the authority of Christ. In defense of our attitude we will appeal to Christ’s attitude toward the pharisees or his cleansing the temple. After all, didn’t he call the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34)? Didn’t he call them hypocrites and white washed tombs (Matt. 23:27)? This does not sound too kind and charitable, does it? Did Christ forget to read 2 Timothy? Oh wait, it was not written yet.

However, to refer to the example of Christ in these instances can be problematic, seeing how Christ’s actions are not always intended to set examples for us. I know this sounds odd, but think about it. He worked great miracles in order to demonstrate his unique authority; he engaged people with divine introspection, knowing their thoughts, motives, and intentions; he was the ultimate divine judge who has every right to judge all people. To compare how Christ engaged people’s waywardness to how we engage them is like my older daughter saying she has the right to ground my younger daughter because she is supposed to follow in my example. Christ is God. While we are to follow in the footsteps of his example in many ways, we do not follow his authority.

Not only this, we need to remember that this was not the modus operandi of Christ. Do you ever notice that he was only polemic toward the self-righteous who arrogantly believed they had all the answers and were a step above all the rest? This ought to tell us something.

2. Defending the faith like Paul interacted with the Galatians.

Many times we will appeal to Paul’s example. His polemics, especially to the Galatians, are often used to defend our own less gracious encounters. But this has problems as well.

First, Paul was an apostle who carried the authority of an apostle. Being such, he had both divine authority and the divine ability to speak to a situation with infallible guidance. This is something that most of us we cannot claim. Can we?

Second, Paul primarily spoke in such a way to those who were under his authority. He was their leader and had the right and obligation as their leader to engage them candidly. He was their pastor. Pastors may, and sometimes should, speak in such a manner to their flock.

Third, like Christ, Paul did not always engage people in this way. In fact, as noted above, he encouraged his people to be gracious, humble, and respectful in dealing with those with whom there is disagreement. In 1 Thess 2:7 he describes his own ministry as one of gentleness, comparing it to a mother caring for her children.

Sadly, it often seems as if some of us not only think we are apostles, but we also think we are talking to our own congregation. Some even seem to enjoy polemic engagement in an unhealthy manner. In fact, I think a lot of ministries would not know what to do if they did not have someone to fight.

This attitude is frequently found more in my own conservative Calvinistic circles than in any other. For this I am sorry and ashamed. Sometimes Calvinists make the worst Calvinists. But, of course, it can be found in any group. Some of the most popular Arminians I know are losing their influence among all but their own due to their polemics. And you Baptists, put your nose down. You have a knack for it as well.

Why do we sometimes act this way?

I am not sure.

Maybe it’s because we are so confident in the particulars of our faith that we feel we have the right to shout the loudest. We have the greatest message. We feel our polemic will force the truth into the minds of those who oppose.

Or . . .

Maybe we think we have to set an example of the truth to those who are listening from the outside. Like in a debate, we don’t really think we are going to convert our opponent, but we hope to solidify our position among those who are listening.

Or . . .

Maybe it is because we are so insecure in our position that we think the louder we are, the more true our words are. As I tell students, if you are not confident about what you are saying, you can first speak deeper, second speak louder. And if both of these don’t work, speak with a British accent!! Or to put it another way: the less confident we are in something, the harder we pound the pulpit. In truth, I have found that the most fundamentally uninformed believers are often the most polemically militant because deep down, they don’t really know why they believe what they believe. Their only recourse is not a gentle engagement, but a raised voice.

What part of gentleness and respect don’t we understand?

I am certainly not perfect with this issue. Believe me. This is self-therapy. But let us all try to be more gentle, humble, and respectful when defending the faith. It will take more time, patience, and tact, but it is worth it. Rashness never births anything good. If we do this, not only will we gain a wider audience, but our message might actually be heard! But, if nothing else, let’s not hide behind Jesus or Paul in justifying our sin. In this respect, they are not role models for us.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    6 replies to "Why Jesus and Paul are NOT Role Models"

    • Marv

      Get you WWJND bracelets here.

    • Aaron Walton

      I understand where you are coming from, but I think you may be analyzing it incorrectly.
      For example, Elymas the magician is one where Paul wasn’t rebuking someone who was (1) religiously self-righteous or (2) under his authority; yet is strongly rebuked (Acts 13:8-11).
      Look at what happens: “Elymas opposed them, seeking to turn the procounsul away from the faith.” “Paul, filled with the Spirit said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now behold the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.”
      That is the least gentle reaction I can imagine.

      Before my comments, Your third option also omits the possibility for passion; like Jesus’ zeal in the temple (Jn 2). Does having passion for righteousness, mercy and truth birth sin? I don’t think so. I think what you said can be true, but not necessarily.

      To me it seems the issue is the situation: It seems to me that there are times for gentleness and times to be stern. The problem is we are stern about the wrong things and too gentle on the weightier matters. We often think like the unbeliever: “our tongues are our own” (Ps 12:6 NASB) as if we could say whatever we want, as if we didn’t belong to the Lord. We fail to ask the Lord to “set a guard over our moth and keep watch over our lips” (Ps 141:3); fail to realize we will be judged for our words (Mt 12:36-7).

      I don’t think it is one or the other but that real discernment is needed. Discernment that Jesus and Paul had and most people lack today.

    • bethyada

      So do we exclude all the biblical examples? Prophets, apostles,… Peter spoke like this, as did John, and John the Baptist rebuking Herod.

      Because some people find it easy to speak harshly inappropriately does not mean that there is not a place for firm words.

      One example is, I think, men who are not interested in responding to truth. If they speak mockingly and are influential, then a retort in kind that lowers their esteem in the eyes of others (ie. those who had listened to them now realise that they are full of it) may be appropriate.

      Consider Douglas Wilson’s take on this.

    • Brian Osisek

      In reading some of the reaction posts to Michael’s blog it seems that the other side (polemeics) is being put forth. While Michael presents in general how we are to present truth to an unbelieving world (irenically).

      I’ve found in the Christian life that balance is the key–speak the truth, but speak truth in love–this idea is a beautiful picture of biblical balance.

      And Michaeal’s blog does put forth this balance!

      Michael, your post was an encougement to me–I myself, always need to be reminded that it is our love for God’s truth coupled with our love for people that makes us the most balanced.

      After reading your thoughts, I noted to my wife that I’m most humbled when I’m dealing with people–I think “what good does all my academic theological training and head knowledge do, if I do not care deeply for people with whom I share this truth.”

      Anyway, good job Michael at presenting a balanced approch at how we are to present truth to others.

    • Alex Jordan

      Hi Michael,

      I won’t post this anonymously; you spelled “anonymity” wrong. I’m getting to find your misspellings entertaining (I mean that affectionately)…

      I think you make a good case here for irenic interaction and I would agree that the mix of theology, sinful human nature and anonymity on the Internet is a potent one that lends itself to abuse. I think in general we should be irenic, speaking the truth in love, respectfully and with patience and gentleness. Human nature is a lot more prone to harshness and argumentativeness than it is to speaking the truth with sensitivity.

      Yet it does seem there are situations that call for a more aggressive tone. I think when we see those who are teaching very unbiblical nonsense that is doing great damage to people’s souls and leading them away from Christ that we are obligated to speak assertively, even harshly, so as to correct and rebuke such teaching and help to rescue others from it bad influence. Of course pastors are most qualified to do this kind of thing for their own people, since they have more direct responsibility for, and authority over, their flocks.

      But those who teach publicly may also need their unbiblical teachings confronted in a public way, and perhaps not only by pastors but by fellow Christians. Of course we ought not to read motives into them and should stick to critiquing the teaching, being that unlike Jesus, we can’t read hearts.

      I do think your blog models the irenic approach well and consistently.

    • ZaneH


      That is good stuff!!!! I especially find myself slipping in to a polemic attitude especially if the people Im in discussion with a polemic mindset is already underway. A great reminder for me to hold the line on the better irenic way and be a better representative of Jesus. Not only is it important for the non virtual relationships such as spouses (my wife would shout a big “amen”, fellow believers, and our neighbors but especially important in a “virtual world” where many of the relationships have no tangible context other than what is on the computer screen.

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