This past year I've found myself dealing with some labels applied to me from those who at one time were my fellow church leaders. While there still is no evidence that I've behaved in any way unbefitting of a church leader, the labels and accusations have caused a decent amount of introspection over the last year. You can see some of the accusations in previous posts, I won't repeat them all here. Since those posts my sharing of my statement and subsequent blog posts have unironically and without evidence been called propaganda and defamation. If that wasn't enough, they have also been blamed for the 70+ people who have left the church over the last year. It seems that I was supposed to just let the leaders speak about me however they liked and be grateful that they meant well. I continue to be very grateful that not many have believed the image of me that was painted, however the words are out there and the introspection remains a regular part of my week.
So what has brought all this up again enough to blog about it? I've recently been asked to speak at the CU and the topic is about the importance of gentleness and love in the Christian walk and in how we share our faith with others. Teaching others about gentleness and love, given the narratives shared about me, feels a little more complicated. My aim isn't to go into further details of the mess here or defend myself - I do that enough in previous posts. My aim is to dig into what it means for a Christian to be gentle and as a reflection it may not be one of my most coherent and structured posts. I'm hoping in doing this though, I'll have some helpful thoughts to go into my talk in a couple weeks time. I also hope that it may be helpful to you, the reader, and if you have any comments, please feel free to share them below or send me a private message.
The Apostle Paul has the most results when it comes to searching for the word gentle. Here is a selection:
Titus 3:2-6 (NET2): "[Christians] must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people. For we, too, were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior."
1 Timothy 3:2-3: "The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious (ESV translates this as 'quarrelsome'), free from the love of money."
Ephesians 4:1-3: "I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, putting up with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
2 Timothy 2:24-25: "And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth..."
Now all these verses are helpful and, I believe, truthful and traits to live by. My concern is that we read these passages in isolation thinking there isn't much need to draw out the meaning of the author (Paul in all the above cases) because they seem self-explanatory. We easily forget that they were written by a middle-eastern Jew almost 2000 years ago to different groups of people who have different cultural expectations for what it means to be 'gentle', especially when it comes to things like 'correcting opponents'. Take for example Paul writing to the Galatians, in the same letter he says the fruits of the spirit include gentleness and kindness, he says,
"You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? ... I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves!"
Or lets take Jesus' words
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:3-5)
and connect them with what he had to say to those blocking access to God?
"“You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Matthew 3:7)
or even Jesus' actions,
"He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.”" (John 2:14-17)
A key takeaway from this is that zeal, or passion, is not to be confused with a lack of gentleness or being quarrelsome or partaking in heated disputes (the incident in the temple seems more than a little heated). It is also not to assume that because someone is softly spoken and showing little emotion that they are automatically the one who is being gentle. What is being said and how it is said are both important, the latter can definitely undermine or overemphasise the former, but there are also times when how something is said is vital to understanding the importance of the what.
Now I don't compare myself with Jesus or Paul in the situation I found myself in though I do hope my behaviour modelled them better than what has been said about me.
I think that in the UK generally and in the church more specifically, the unsaid expectation is that being softly spoken, calm, and without much emotion, is being gentle. If you raise your voice then you've lost the argument and you definitely aren't being gentle - no matter what it was about. On reflection, this kind of assumption and culture can easily lead to a false peace and an environment where abuse isn't dealt with. I've quoted it before in previous posts but Jeremiah has much to say against those who claim there is peace even though people's wounds have not been taken seriously (see Jeremiah 6:14). In a culture where gentleness is prioritised as being softly spoken, or calm, emotion becomes a threat and something unbefitting of a Christian. The cause of the emotion is not recognised or dealt with because anger is deemed inappropriate even if it is the natural response to an issue or to hurt. The anger and frustration then becomes the main focus of those who are meant to help and the person raising the issue becomes the problem to be fixed. The cause of the wound remains, all for the sake of keeping things gentle and peaceful and the wounded are hurt even more as they are now the problem.
There is no gentleness or peace when issues of justice are ignored or the wounds of those in or coming into the church are not taken seriously or are dealt with in an inappropriate manner.
One of the things I notice in the verses shared above is that in Titus 3 the emphasis is showing courtesy to all without slandering or being hateful. The Christian life isn't opposed to correcting others, in fact it is very strongly in favour of seeking justice and persuading people for the need for repentance and their forgiveness. However it is focused on doing so in light of the fact that all people are made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect, along with the fact that we are all imperfect.
This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7, an often misquoted and misapplied passage. Jesus tells his disciples to be careful of judging others about issues where it is clear to all that you have a bigger issue - however you judge others, the same measure will be applied to you. In stating that the behaviour and actions of the church leadership I left was wrong, I am making a judgement by which I may be judged. Therefore the Christian should be humble in passing judgement, recognising their own failings before God. This does not mean judgement can not be made or poor behaviour within the church called out, but it should be done carefully without slander and hate. Gentleness then is more about not slandering, hating, ascribing motives, attacking integrity, or undermining the image of God in those you disagree with or are hurt by. Show your emotions but do keep them under control.
I hope that my blog posts have been able to model this, in each one I've asked for any sign that this isn't the case to be highlighted so I can correct it. This post is no exception. I'd love to know what you think.