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).

And again:

[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?

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

    10 replies to "Why Paul Should Not Always Be Our Example in Confrontation"

    • Alden

      I found this post interesting on a couple of levels, since I teach conflict management skills, and I’ve also just written a book on Galatians that should be out sometime this summer.

      I have to disagree with you on your first 2 points. First, Paul did not claim any special privilege due to his being an apostle, and lays out in Galatians where his authority comes from. He specifically tells them that should he preach anything other than the Gospel, they should tell him essentially to go to hell.

      Second, he was writing as someone who had evangelized that area, but not as a pastor, per se. He didn’t claim any authority over them, but appealed to their relationship.

      I do agree with your 3rd point: Paul was typically fairly gentle. I expect that even his encounter with Peter, as recounted in Galatians, was a respectful meeting. Peter, in fact, referred to Paul as “beloved.”

      Paul’s attitude in this particular letter show more than anything how strongly he felt about the Gospel, and that he valued that over any relationship. The problem is not that people model themselves on Paul; if they did, they would care more about the Gospel and each other than their petty issues. If they wanted to fully embrace Paul’s attitude – his whole attitude – I think it would be a great thing.

      In spite of my couple of points, I agree with you. Belligerence and confidence do not go together. There are many ways of confronting, and Paul is careful to say that we should speak the truth – in love. I believe that confrontation and conflict are very beneficial things, if done properly. I also think it is beneficial for churches – especially boards and committees – to learn how to properly use conflict (which always exists, whether it’s readily apparent or not) to build relationship and make wiser decisions.

      Sorry for preaching, I sometimes get carried away.

    • I also think one reason people come to act this way is lack of faith in the power of God. It is when people think it is totally on them to convince someone of their position they become extreme and polemical.

    • Steve

      Great post as usual. I love the idea about talking in a British accent. It does seem like some people take that accent as having more authority.

    • Michael T.

      I think there is a place for polemical speaking and rhetoric. Let me give an example. I was in a Bible Study among 20-somethings at my Church and as part of a series we were going over various hot button issues (money, sex, racism, etc.) and what the Bible has to say about them. During the series on sex we spent a night discussing homosexuality. Now the churches position as well as the position of the majority of those in the Bible Study is that homosexuality is sin. However, one individual in the group was adamantly against this position saying that she had read (likely on the internet) that the Greek words in question were being mistranslated. Now having heard this before and looked into it myself I felt it necessary to correct this misinformation including why it was inaccurate. Why did I do this? While it is closest to number 2 on you’re list of reasons. Knowing this individual I knew it was highly unlikely I was going to convince her. Rather I wanted to make sure that her misinformation did not go unopposed in such a group setting.

    • Derek

      Unfortunately, I think there are situations in which we must be a bit polemical. But even then I think we can do so with tact and gentleness.

      For example, I don’t think many would agree that adultery is open to debate. But, as Michael said, many want to argue about things such as homosexuality, when Paul was emphatic that those who practiced such would not enter Heaven — and even lumped homosexuality in the same list as adultery (1 Cor. 6:9-10)! I don’t think we can be so broad-minded as to let such doctrine leaven the lump, so to speak. And yet, in my experience, I have seen the polemic flail from the other side, from people who I would otherwise view as good Christians, who call people Pharisees for parroting Paul on this issue. If anything, I would have to agree it is their tradition that is of men, which was the true root of Pharisaeism (see Matthew 15 and Mark 7).

      In short, we must compare all our doctrines to the apostles’ words. The closer the two accord and the more important the doctrine (i.e. whether or not it is one of those turn-or-burn doctrines), the more one can afford to be polemical. According to Paul, there are times when a pastor has to more or less tell a divisive person to shut up (Titus 3:10). If that isn’t polemical, I don’t know what is. 🙂

    • Eric Lewis

      “Why do we sometimes act this way?”
      Because it is a calling that God has placed on our lives. For example, I come from a Black Muslim Background, and my wife comes from a Unificationist (“Moonie”) background. We defend the accuracy of the bible, in the spirit of love, and tell them of their fallacies of their interpretation of scripture.
      Also there is a burning in our spirits for the truth of God’s word and a spiritual “anger” (for lack of a better word) against the bad doctrine that is being preached (especially in our poor communities) and how it is yielded against those who trust in the Leadership of these churches and ministries. Where are the men and women of God who will not tolerate the misuse and misinterpretation of scripture? Will you be cowards all of your life, and not call sin sin, or will you have the courage of the early disciples who proclaimed the truth of scripture? Is God the God of Paul only? Is God the God of the early disciples alone? Does the Holy Spirit bring discernment only to the Apostles?
      Does that mean that we do it in fleshly anger? NO! Does this mean that we argue simply to prove us right and others wrong? No!
      We do it because it is a calling, and we do it because so many believers are being led astray, and non believers are accepting a Jesus that is not the Jesus Christ of the Bible? Aren’t people’s soul worth it?

    • wandering_sheep

      Excellent post. I think there is another reason for the overzealous approach, closely tied with the third (insecurity), which is FEAR. Fear that “our” truth will somehow be overpowered by “theirs” if we stop shouting long enough to let them get a word in. That our entire system of beliefs will collapse like a house of cards if we even consider seeing things from their point of view.

      If we truly have faith in our truth, we should not have this fear. And if we wish to reach anyone, on anything, we must first see things from their point of view. More question marks, less exclamation points. The angry fella in the picture topside certainly seems to have missed this one…

    • PeteRock

      There use to be a time in my life where I was skeptical of all who didn’t believe the way I did and my feelings towards them were surely not pleasant either. That’s because I was indoctrinated to what only my church/denomination believed in. But as I availed my self to re-evaluate my beliefs (due mostly to my lack of satisfaction in them) I’ve notice that my approach, conversation, and attitude towards those of other faith changed tremendously. I’ve learned to think right; learning to rightly divide and analyze without fear of being swayed away from true Christian orthodoxy.

    • Hodge

      Why do people seem to think that pastors own a church? All Christians are to rebuke and reprove and correct, not just pastors. This idea is nowhere in the Bible. It comes from our modern notion of relationship ethics, where only those closest to you, or to whom you give authority, can speak against what you do. Nonsense.
      As someone who was a pastor: 1) You cannot do the job given to every Christian to train your members, so the members have to edify one another in the truth; 2) the church isn’t a cult that belongs to the “leader”; and 3) the idea that only the pastor should correct Christians of his congregation, and Christians from other congregations shouldn’t rebuke those of other churches, reeks of relativism. Christ is head of the one faith, one body, with one Spirit. The overseer is given authority to teach and discipline, but he doesn’t exclusively have a responsibility for the group under his authority. I am so sick of hearing this in my local congregation. It basically allows people to go unrebuked because the pastor is blind, or allows people to be deceived because the pastor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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