Pastors, don’t be a jerk. Be a shepherd.

Boyce College professor Denny Burk has a word of advice for pastors: A wise and courageous pastor will always remember the wisdom of Solomon when exhorting his people: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov.12:18). A good pastor is not going to use his words like a sword but like a scalpel. A sword and a scalpel are both made for cutting. But a sword is for killing. A scalpel is for healing. Even in confrontation, a pastor’s aim is not to deliver the coup de grâce but to heal.

Listen as Denny Burk offers appropriate ways for a pastor to treat family members. He writes:

The venting of the proverbial spleen seems to be the order of the day from cable news to social media and sometimes even in interpersonal interactions. We like to hear someone who agrees with our views “tell it like it is,” especially if the telling involves a few zingers against people whose views offend us. We thrive on this kind of outrage because it appeals to our sense of self-righteous indignation. It feels oh so good to be oh so right. And there’s nothing quite as satisfying as dressing down “those people” who don’t agree with us.

This spirit is destructive wherever it is found, but it is especially destructive when it stands behind a pulpit. Even for preachers, it can be tempting to turn the pulpit into a platform for outrage. When that happens, preaching can become more an expression of a carnal pastor’s irritations than a shepherd’s care for the people of God. This is not to say that preachers must avoid confronting sin. It is to say that whenever you have to confront someone, it matters how you say what you say—even if what you are saying is right.

Paul seems to have had this dynamic in mind in exhorting young pastor Timothy about how he was to address the different people in his congregation. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul says this:

1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.

At first blush, it can be a little confusing to hear Paul forbid Timothy from “rebuking.” Is Paul really saying that pastors must never “rebuke” anyone in the congregation? Doesn’t that contradict what Paul has said elsewhere about the necessity of rebuking false teachers? Doesn’t it contradict what the Bible says generally about the goodness of a faithful rebuke (Prov. 17:10; 27:5; 28:23)?

There really is no contradiction, however, as the problem is mainly one of English translation. The word translated as “rebuke” in the ESV probably isn’t strong enough. Rebukes can be life-giving and helpful, but that is not the kind of “rebuke” in view here. The literal sense of the term is to beat something with your fists. It is a term that in certain contexts suggests physical violence. But the word also has a figurative meaning that refers to verbal violence. The NIV’s “speak harshly” captures what Paul is trying to communicate. It is possible to abuse someone with fists. It is also possible to abuse someone with words. And Paul is saying that the pastor is forbidden from verbally assaulting his congregants.   Continue reading

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