Polarization. Tribalism. Division. Outrage.
These words are regularly used to describe our current cultural moment. Sadly, they are often accurate descriptions of our cultural climate, which has been made increasingly evident in recent months. American culture is like two boats heading in opposite directions, with the members of each boat yelling at those of the other boat. If you aren’t an angry voyager on one of the boats, you are hopelessly drowning somewhere in between.
Unfortunately, many believers exemplify this worldly tendency toward polarization and outrage. We shout. We gossip. We quickly label those we disagree with, and then we divide from them in anger, annoyance, and plain disinterest. A quick jaunt through almost any neighborhood of Christian social media will look sadly similar to that of the surrounding culture.
But why should this cultural descent into outrage matter so much for the church and church leaders? This polarizing tendency shapes our character more than we realize. It pushes us to extremes in the qualities we exemplify. We become experts in wielding a hammer. So, of course, everything looks like a nail.
My humble suggestion is that at least part of the solution to polarization among believers doesn’t lie in directly addressing our tribalism. We can endlessly bemoan outrage culture with little-to-no effect. We need leaders of character in the church to show us how to thrive in between the boats.
Character and Church Leadership
It is well-known that the New Testament requirements for elders (found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) have more to do with character than skills. We need to spend more time thinking about what it looks like to display these character qualities. To do that, we need to grasp what we mean by “character.”
Think of character as the sum of your tendencies, dispositions, inclinations, and affections. It’s all the virtues and vices that determine who you are and what you will do. Character is an established reality, not a passing choice. For example, if you possess the character quality of patience, your natural response to an annoying circumstance will be one of kindness, not anger. Character develops a bit like a golf swing. At first you have to think through every movement and detail of your swing. But over time, as you learn and practice, your swing becomes more automatic. The qualities that make up our character work the same way. Over time, we think and act in ways that carve grooves onto our souls. It is those grooves that determine character. Puritan Thomas Watson described the development of Christlike character as a fixed thing:
The blush of godliness is not enough to distinguish a Christian, but godliness must be the temper and complexion of the soul. Godliness is a fixed thing. There is a great deal of difference between a stake in the hedge and a tree in the garden. A stake rots and moulders, but a tree, having life in it, abides and flourishes. When godliness has taken root in the soul, it abides to eternity: 'his seed remaineth in him' (1 John 3:9). Godliness being engraved in the heart by the Holy Ghost, as with the point of a diamond, can never be erased.
Obviously, as followers of Christ, we want the “temper and complexion of the soul” to be shaped by our Lord rather than the world. And this is precisely the problem we encounter in our polarized cultural moment. The grooves of our souls are being cut and deepened by the world as an attitude of polarization shapes every aspect of life. So how should we respond? I’m convinced we need shepherds who cultivate the Christ-like quality of gentleness.
In 1 Timothy 3:3, Paul writes that the elder must be “gentle.” Paul isn’t looking for men who act gentle in one or two arenas of life, or who do something gentle several times a month to save face. The roots of gentleness grow deep in his soul. To exhibit this quality, a man must have the channels of his character carved over time to reflect our Lord.
One does not become gentle over night or in response to some dramatic event.
Gentleness simmers long
To understand why this quality is so necessary in our “outrage” culture, we need to see that Paul understands gentleness to be the virtue opposite the vice of violence (1 Tim. 3:3). When we read the word “violent,” we think of a man who expresses his anger physically. But Paul isn't only talking about one who hits with his fists. The NASB uses the word “pugnacious,” and the picture is of a man prone to a fight, either verbal or physical. His character has been formed in a way that keeps him alert for the opportunity to disagree. He's irritable and treats others in a rough or harsh manner, but he's often unable to recognize these tendencies in his own life.
On the playground of social media, this is the bully roaming the social feed, hunting for an altercation. He's quick to identify the problems with others, and is drawn to controversy like an insect to light. For obvious reasons, Scripture forbids a man like this from holding the office of an elder. Rather than bringing unity and peace to the local church, he fosters frustration and division, often without realizing it. If Paul were ministering in twenty-first century America, he would quickly identify the pugnacious man as one who exemplifies “outrage” culture.
Instead, Paul tells Timothy that elders must be men who embody gentleness. Alexander Strauch has called gentleness “one of the most attractive and needed virtues required of an elder.” The rest of the New Testament confirms Strauch’s take. In James 3:17, the virtue of gentleness flows from heavenly wisdom. In this passage, gentleness is paired with being “peaceable” and “open to reason.” The gentle leader nurtures rather than dominates. He is not gullible, but he eagerly listens and is able to see things from a different perspective. He may not ultimately agree with a certain point of view, but he pursues relational peace even amidst disagreement (James 3:18).
In Titus 3:2, Paul exhorts every believer to be gentle toward all men. The context (v. 1) of this exhortation even includes political authorities—a timely word for our current moment.
Gentleness grows where the soil has been plowed by grace
Paul makes this clear in verses 3–7. The gentle man has gazed into the mirror often enough to see his own sinfulness and brokenness (v. 3), and yet, God has shown him goodness and kindness beyond measure through the work of Christ (vv. 4–7). The grace of God has stamped gentleness onto his character, and it will manifest itself in his words and actions.
The Necessity of Gentleness
I believe that the present cultural circumstances require attention be paid to this leadership quality. Of course, the biblical qualifications for elders are not subject to cultural winds or seasons. However, it’s often the case that certain moments highlight the need for certain qualities. Now is one of those moments, and gentleness is that quality.
In the midst of the cultural upheaval that 2020 brought with it, more than ever we need shepherds who are gentle. Your church members are learning how to respond both to political authorities and frustrated church members by watching you. The pugnacious pastor will only fuel the fire of outrage in his congregation, while the gentle shepherd will calmly and patiently teach and model the truth for the good of his flock (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Let’s push back against the darkness of polarization and outrage by letting the grace of God shine the light of gentleness through us and into the church.
 Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 14.
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995), 197.