The Strongest Men Are Gentle

Lennie is famous for his lack of gentleness.

One of John Steinbeck’s lead characters in Of Mice and Men, Lennie is a giant of a man, strong as an ox, with a mild mental disability. He has big muscles and a big heart. He loves petting soft things, but doesn’t know his own strength. First, he unintentionally kills a mouse he is stroking. Later it’s a puppy. Finally, he accidentally and fatally breaks a woman’s neck.

Lennie’s problem isn’t his strength. Strength is a gift. Others benefit from Lennie’s strength, especially his friend George. What Lennie needs is not to lose his strength, but to gain the ability to control his strength for good purposes. To use his power to help others, not harm them.

Power in its various forms is a good gift from God, to be used by his people for the ends of his kingdom. And like other good gifts, power is perilous when wielded improperly. The answer to the dangers of strength is not its loss, but the gaining of a Christian virtue called gentleness.

Let’s Bring Gentle Back

“Violence is the destructive use of strength. Gentleness is its life-giving exercise.”

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Gentleness today may be the single most misunderstood Spirit-produced virtue of the nine listed in Galatians 5:22–23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Two millennia later, gentleness is often used as a positive spin on weakness. But gentleness in the Bible is emphatically not a lack of strength, but the godly exercise of power. Gentleness does not signal a lack of ability but the added ability to steward one’s strength so that it serves good, life-giving ends rather than bad, life-taking ends.

Take rain, for instance. Hard rain destroys life, but “gentle rain” gives life (Deuteronomy 32:2). Violent rain does harm, not good. The farmer prays not for weak rain, or no rain, but for gentle rain. The means of delivery is important. We need water (the power for life) delivered gently, not destructively. Gentle doesn’t mean feebly but appropriately — giving, not taking, life.

So also, “a gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). Gentle doesn’t mean weak but fittingly strong, with life-giving restraint — giving something good not like a fire hose but in due measure. Or consider sailing. A gently blowing wind (Acts 27:13) answers a sailors’ prayer, while a violent wind spells trouble (Acts 27:18).

The virtue of gentleness is seen best in God himself, who “comes with might” (Isaiah 40:10). How does he wield his strength toward his people? “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). Violence is the destructive use of strength (Isaiah 22:17). Gentleness is its life-giving exercise.

What Our Daughters Want

“We want leaders with strength and power, not to use against us, to our harm, but to wield for our good, to help us.”

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When the apostle Peter contrasts good power with bad, just rulers with the unjust, he describes good leaders as “good and gentle” (1 Peter 2:18). The opposite of a crooked master isn’t a weak one — who wants the protection of a weak lord? — but “good and gentle.” We want gentle leaders, not weak ones. We want leaders with strength and power, not to use against us, to our harm, but to wield for our good, to help us. Which is what makes the image of a shepherd so fitting in both the Old and New Testaments. Sheep are manifestly weak and vulnerable. They need strong shepherds, not weak ones. They need shepherds who are good and will use their power to help the sheep, not use and abuse them.

My 4-year-old daughter doesn’t want a weak daddy. She wants me to be strong — and to use that strength to help her, not hurt her. And what she needs most is not for me to flex my muscles over her. It’s clear enough that daddy is bigger and stronger. She needs to see that I’m gentle. That her daddy is not only strong enough to protect her, but that she can trust me to use my strength to serve and bless her, not harm her.

Weak men are often preoccupied with showing and talking about their strength. Truly strong men give their energy and attention not to showing off their strength but to demonstrating their gentleness. They are able to rightly exercise their manifest power for others’ good. Insecure men flex and threaten. Men who are secure in their strength, and the strength of their Lord, are not only willing but eager to let their gentleness be known to all (Philippians 4:5).

Gentle Men for the Church

It should be no surprise, then, that Christ requires such of the leaders in his church: “not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:3). Among the fifteen explicit qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2–7, four are negatives: “not a drunkard, not violent . . . , not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Only one of these negatives pairs with an explicit positive: “not violent but gentle.” Perhaps the reason Paul doesn’t provide the positive virtue of the other three is because none of them can quite be captured in one word. Yes, pastors should stay sober, make peace, and be generous, but none of those simple contrasts captures the full range of the desired positive like “gentle.”

“Insecure men flex and threaten. Men who are secure in their strength, and their Lord’s, are eager to let their gentleness be known to all.”

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Among other implications, what that does say for “not violent” — with its simple positive “gentle” — is that it is assumed that the elders will be strong. They will have power. The question will not be, especially as they serve together as a team, whether they have strength, but whether they know how to use this strength to help others, not harm them. They must know, and have demonstrated, how to channel God’s good gift of strength with appropriate restraint and self-control. As individuals, and as a team, they must be gentle.

It’s clear from elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles that Paul means it when he lists gentleness. It is not optional but essential in Christian leadership. “As for you, O man of God, . . . pursue . . . gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). True gentleness in the pastors not only gives life to the flock but also models for the flock how it can give life to the world: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, . . . to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2). And perhaps most significant of all for leaders: “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Even the correcting of opponents, which we might assume, if anything, could be undertaken violently, should be done with gentleness.

Gentleness Himself

In the end, whether as congregants or pastors, whether as men or as women, husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, bosses or employees, genuine biblical gentleness is formed and filled by God himself. When we admire God’s gentleness — and he is its paragon — we don’t celebrate that he is weak. Rather, as his feeble sheep, we enjoy that not only is our Shepherd infinitely strong, but he is all the more admirable because he knows how to wield his power in ways that give life to, rather than stifle, his beloved.

“Not only is our Shepherd infinitely strong, but he is all the more admirable because he wields his power in ways that give life to his beloved.”

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Our God is not like Lennie. Mighty and gentle, he came not as a domineering and abusive king but as a good and gentle Lord. “I am gentle and lowly in heart,” he said (Matthew 11:29). He descended gently into our world in Bethlehem, grew in wisdom and stature in Nazareth, taught with toughness and tenderness in Galilee, and rode into Jerusalem “humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5) to lay his own life down for us. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23) — not because he was weak or powerless, but because he was powerful enough to be Gentleness himself.

So, we, like the apostle Paul, both receive and seek to imitate “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1). In his strength, he has freed us from the need to flex, and he commissions us to let our gentleness be known to all (Philippians 4:5). He gives his undershepherds power and strength for serving the flock, not subjugating it. He gives his people influence and authority to steward without being protective of it or becoming jealous when he gives more power to others.

Whatever influence we have is not ours by right but on divine loan, to use for his great purposes in the world — with gentleness.

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The Danger of Politicized Pastors

We often think of today’s politics as especially fractious. But at least by the 1800 presidential election, America had already adopted many of the features of its no-holds-barred campaigns. In particular, the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson saw vitriolic attacks on Jefferson’s alleged atheism. (Jefferson was a deist – or, more specifically, a Unitarian – but he was certainly not an atheist.)

A pro-Adams newspaper repeatedly thundered that the question of the election was “GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT [Adams]” or “JEFFERSON – AND NO GOD.” Yes, they used ‘all caps’ before Twitter.

Adams was disposed toward Unitarianism, too, so his theology was not all that different from Jefferson’s. But the two differed sharply about whether state governments should continue to support a preferred Christian denomination, or an “establishment,” in the language of the First Amendment. Adams thought the states should keep established churches, and the established denomination in Massachusetts was the Congregationalist Church, the old church of the Puritans.

Jefferson, by contrast, delighted evangelicals – especially Baptists – by championing the disestablishment of the Anglican (or Episcopal) Church in Virginia. The process of disestablishment there concluded with the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786.

Many of the Federalist pastors of New England, who received financial support from state governments, saw Jefferson as an existential threat to religion. They were wrong. Jefferson wanted to get the government out of the business of playing favorites in religion.

Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Rush gave a compelling biblical explanation for church-state separation in the midst of the fall 1800 election season, in a letter to Jefferson:

I agree with you in your wishes to keep religion and government independent of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World. “Cease from your political labors, your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.

From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever Shall exist in the World. Human Governments may receive Support from Christianity but it must be only from the love of justice, and peace which it is calculated to produce in the minds of men. By promoting these, and all the Other Christian Virtues by your precepts, and example, you will much sooner overthrow errors of all kind, and establish our pure and holy religion in the World, than by aiming to produce by your preaching, or pamphlets any change in the political state of mankind.”

When pastors become political campaigners, politics corrupts the church and distracts it from its core business. Obviously, we never want the government to become hostile to religion or to place believers under special disadvantages because of their faith. And we must remember that the First Amendment gives equal weight to disestablishment and to the free exercise of religion.

However, as a matter of prudence and the health of the church, we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. Getting involved in campaigning and partisanship disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the Kingdom of God.

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