People often appeal to Paul’s example when confronting people concerning false doctrine or sin in their lives. His polemics, especially to the Galatians, are often used to defend our own less than gracious encounters.
But there are some problems with this that I think we should consider.
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 only 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 in a candid way. He was their pastor. Pastor’s can and sometimes should speak in such a manner to their flock.
Third, like Christ, Paul did not always engage people in such a way. In fact, he encouraged his people to be gracious, humble, and respectful in all their 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 there are people out there who not only think they are an apostle, but also think that they are talking to their own congregation. Some even seem to enjoy polemical engagement in an unhealthy manner. In fact, I think that a lot of people would not know what to do if they did not have someone to fight.
Many times this attitude is found more in my own conservative Christian circles than in any other. There is about a 10% very vocal minority in conservative Christianity and, unfortunately, most Evangelicals are hit with their paintballs and identified with them. But, to be fair, these type of polemical radicals it can be found in any group.
Why do we sometimes act this way?
I am not sure.
Maybe its 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 mind of those who oppose.
Or . . .
Maybe we think that 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 my students, if you are not confident about what you are saying you can do three things: 1) you can first speak deeper, 2) speak louder. And if both of these don’t work, 3) speak with a British accent!! In truth, I have found that the most fundamentally uninformed folk believers are often the most polemically militant because they, deep down, don’t really know why they believe what they believe. Their only recourse is not a gentle engagement, but a raised voice.
Confidence calms. Confidence does not make you more agreeable, but more understanding. Think of 007. He is never out of control. He is never polemical. Why? Because knows he is in control.
Do you want to follow Paul? Listen to what he says about the qualifications of an overseer:
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money.
(1Ti 3:2-3; emphasis mine).
[M]align [speak evil of] no one, be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. (Tit 3:2)
I love the NJB translation:
“[Don’t] go slandering other people but to be peaceable and gentle, and always polite to people of all kinds.”
Paul is an example, but we must place this example in the right context.
When you talk about theology, truth, and encourage others in their life, are you gentle and uncontentious? Or are you harsh, slanderous, out of control, angry, and . . . ahem, insecure? If the latter, what type of effect does that really have?