A sincere dilemma

Here’s a dilemma I have. I haven’t been able to resolve it yet. But, I think spotting the dilemma itself has some value. 

It works like this: 

On the one hand, I will read a passage like Titus 3. Paul says: “be gentle, and… show perfect courtesy towards all people, for we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (3:2-3). I read that and find it very convicting. It’s so easy for me to be harsh in my attitude to others and rude. The fact that someone is theologically or morally wrong doesn’t mean I’m free to be heavy-handed towards them or rude about them. In fact, God’s grace to me calls me to act in the opposite direction – to be kind and patient towards them. I ought to regularly think: “There but for the grace of God, go I”. So, I feel the pinch and relevance of this call to gentleness and courtesy. I’m not trying to evade it. 

What’s more, at a time of political polarisation, and some of the mob-like pressures of social media, it’s particularly necessary to flag up these two particular qualities. I can think of one of my seminary professors who modelled to me what civil disagreement looked like. I admired how this professor could strongly and firmly disagree with an opponent, while still showing them great respect. 

But, my dilemma is how to square “gentleness” and “courtesy” with other things Paul tells Titus to do in the same letter. Here’s what I mean: 

“be gentle”

“Rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15)… 

“be gentle”

“Rebuke those who contradict” (1:9)… 

“be gentle” 

“Rebuke them sharply (1:13)… 

“show perfect courtesy towards all people. 

 “they must be silenced” (1:11) 

“show perfect courtesy towards all people” 

“Cretans are always liar, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (1:12)… 

“show perfect courtesy towards all people” 

“They are detestable” (1:16)… 

“show perfect courtesy towards all people”. 

 “such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (3:11)… 

Now, Paul isn’t a schizophrenic. He is writing under divine inspiration, so he isn’t being contradictory. But my dilemma is how to conceive of “gentleness” and “courtesy” in a way that still has room for what Paul says in the right-hand column. I find it hard to know what a sharp rebuke would look like which couldn’t be accused of a lack of a gentleness. I find it hard to know what a negative moral evaluation of a community would look like which couldn’t be accused of being discourteous. 

I also think that because of the prevailing culture, some Christians will sing the praises of virtues like “gentleness” and “courtesy”, but wouldn’t want to touch the church’s duty to rebuke and express moral detestation with a barge pole. In fact, I suspect lots of Christians feel uneasy about what Paul says in the right-hand column, and certainly don’t feel eager to see minister’s implement them in church life. After all, “gentleness” and “courtesy” are appealing virtues in the wider culture. Everyone loves someone who smooths over and lubricates social relationships. But figures who “rebuke” wrongdoing and express “moral detestation” at people in the room are not generally very welcome in that room (though I admit they may be popular online)! This means we’re prone to lift a value like “gentleness” out of its moral context and isolate it. “Gentleness” then starts to operate in ways that are actually unbiblical, stopping us reacting to sin in the right way. As a minister, I know it’s pretty easy to chicken out of confronting sin and describing it accurately e.g. “warped” (Titus 3:11). I find it easier to cultivate gentleness than disgust at sin close to home.

So, my dilemma is how can gentleness exist side by side with sharp, authoritative rebukes? How can courtesy exist side by side with moral revulsion? They clearly can. They clearly form part of the Bible’s unified moral vision, but I’d love to suss out how! Clearly, God’s grace that’s appeared to all men will require us to press in to both the gentleness and the moral revulsion of a book like Titus. If you have any suggested ways through the dilemma, I’m all ears – send them in an email.