Let Passing Controversies Pass
When Wise Pastors Choose to Say Less
Pastors are teachers, and teachers can be talkers. Not all teachers, but many. Good teachers love to read and think; they amass knowledge and have opinions. Over time, they learn to formulate thoughts and choose words with greater ease — and it can become all too easy to just say something, when wisdom would be more guarded with words.
The temptation for pastors to be talkers, and get sucked into endless triviality and frivolity, is no new trap. The apostle Paul saw it, and spoke to it repeatedly, two millennia ago. Pastors are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3) in both our behavior and our speech, including what topics we choose to address with our limited energies and words.
This kind of triage has always been a struggle, as words can come so easily to men whose very life and calling centers on teaching through words. Added to that, we now find ourselves in times that are increasingly politicized, with new technologies for instantly publishing words for the world to see. “Staying in your lane” is becoming a lost art in many fields.
As so many seem to give way to the madness, though, might there be at least one group of respectable men to whom we can look to maintain a measure of self-controlled sanity?
Foolish, Ignorant Controversies
Ancient Ephesus had something similar to our modern problem. Timothy, on assignment from Paul to put God’s house in order in the big city, had to fight the temptation to be drawn into all manner of senseless chatter. There were talkers in town, and it bled over into the church. Had Timothy lost his sober mind, he could have been pulled into foolish, passing controversies that feign significance in the moment. He could have allowed those issues to become painful diversions from the real work of providing for, and genuinely protecting, souls.
“As the teachers in the church, we owe it to our people not to lose our witness by taking up trivial controversies.”
To this, Paul says, without mixing words, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23). Avoiding quarrels — immature bickering on topics that are not currently worthy of mature attention and energy — is a surprisingly recurrent theme in Paul (for example, Romans 13:13; 14:1; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 2 Corinthians 12:20; 1 Timothy 2:8; 6:4).
Paul calls Timothy, and all pastors with him, to be stewards of the faith — quick to hear, slow to speak, men who love others and pursue peace — rather than speculators who are quick to talk and ready to pounce on the next vain discussion. “Avoid the irreverent babble” (1 Timothy 6:20). It is first a word for Timothy, but then through Timothy for all the believers:
Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14–17)
Between the warnings in verses 14 and 16 (“not to quarrel about words” and “avoid irreverent babble”), Paul directs Timothy to diligence and care with his words — to rightly handle “the word of truth.” The risen Christ calls Timothy then, and pastors today, to feed and form the people, and prepare them to be discerning not just responsively but proactively, not just avoiding vanity but setting their minds and hearts (and mouths!) positively on truth.
None of this means elders avoid every battle, but that they learn to pick them well. The default, and main energy, goes to the harder work of making peace through faithful teaching. Elders indeed must be those who are able, and unafraid, to expose error that contradicts sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), while at the same time being men who know how to “avoid quarreling” (Titus 3:2) and eschew “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).
Irreverent, Silly Myths
Yet another place where Paul exhorts pastors to stay out of stupid tussles is 1 Timothy 4:7: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.” Bob Yarbrough’s commentary here is particularly insightful:
Some ideas or proposals are so far beyond the pale of plausible that a pastor has no time or business giving them the dignity of extensive attention. This does not mean writing people off crudely. But overall, Paul’s view (and example) is to focus on and promulgate the truths of Christ and the faith, not to be distracted with undue attention to aberrant beliefs. There are contemporary analogies, for example, in conspiracy theories, so-called urban legends, and endless issue-oriented (and often polemical) blogs and websites from which most pastors find it wise to recuse themselves. (Pastoral Epistles, 238)
To be clear, this is not a reductionistic call for all pastors to stay off social media (though many find that wise). Rather, more holistically — in our preaching and teaching, our conversations and emails, our text messages and online comments — do we “focus on and promulgate the truths of Christ and the faith”? After all we’ve seen in the last year, with conspiracy theories and urban legends and endless issue-oriented polemics, I can’t help but resonate afresh with Yarbrough’s encouragement that “most pastors find it wise to recuse themselves” from the glut of silly myths and irreverent babble circulating at present.
Who Sets the Agenda?
Practically, one question to ask ourselves as pastors — about our preaching schedule, about our meeting agendas, about our conversations — is, Who sets the agenda? Is it the world? Is it what’s trending on Twitter? Is it the never-ending flow of daily news that keeps us from giving our limited attention to what’s most important and enduringly relevant? Is it the latest error you’ve been made aware of in a famous church or Christian spokesmen far, far away? Or is it even the loudest, most immature voices in our own church?
When Yarbrough mentions Paul’s “example” in the quote above, he adds this important footnote:
It is an ongoing source of scholarly frustration that Paul is not more specific about the names and views of his opponents. He tends to focus on what he holds to be true and redemptive rather than allow gospel detractors to set the agenda for his remarks or exhaust his energies in venting so as to profile them.
He focuses on what he holds to be true and redemptive — and he does not “allow gospel detractors to set the agenda.” What a word for pastors in the Information Age. Yarbrough doesn’t say that gospel detractors don’t inform Paul’s ministry. Indeed they do. We have thirteen letters from Paul that give evidence to his being seriously informed by, and aware of, quite a number of grave errors in his day. However, being aware of error, and responding to error through a “focus on what we hold to be true and redemptive,” is a far cry from letting error set the agenda.
Our Pastors’ Text String
One grace we’ve stumbled upon as an elder team at Cities Church is what we affectionately call “the pastors’ text string.” It’s a text-message thread with just the nine of us. And it’s busy (some days more than others). For one, it keeps us up-to-date with each other’s lives (four work for the church and five of us work elsewhere). It’s a great place to drop personal updates or prayer requests for the team.
It also helps us to keep from posting stupid stuff online. We all have foolish thoughts and our weak moments of giving in to babble and chatter, and trying to figure out what’s foolish, for now, and what’s not. Better to keep those conversations in private, in a safe place — the accountability of our fellowship of pastors — than to post them online for the world, or to say them, untested, from the pulpit for the church.
“We are called, as pastors, to be heralds of divine glories.”
The text thread also helps us, along with our face-to-face meetings every other week, to discern what kind of errors to expose in our teaching. What dangers relate to our flock, not just a church in the news in another state? What larger trends genuinely touch a nerve in our church? And what controversies in the wider world are just silly myths and irreverent babble to ignore in the precious little teaching time we have on Sunday mornings?
Consider Your Calling, Brothers
Within our team of nine, we have all sorts of personal opinions about masks and government mandates, US history and Twins baseball, Hamilton and Harry Potter, Dabo Swinney and the SEC. But as pastors, we have a unique and weighty calling as gospel spokesmen. As the teachers in the church, we owe it to our people, and to the name of Christ, not to lose our witness by taking up trivial controversies in public that feel exciting in the moment but eat away at our space and leverage to focus on the true and redemptive.
Brothers, we are called, as pastors, to be heralds of divine glories. Our charge, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, is “the most interesting, the most thrilling, the most absorbing subject in the universe” (Preaching and Preachers, 101). We speak of God and Christ, of human sin and righteous wrath, of the odious cross, triumphant resurrection, and ever-present help by the Spirit. So we do well to be careful economists of our words, so that when we open our mouths, our words have worth, and our people are ready to listen. It is a sad reality when a church knows its pastor to be a talker about whatever is trending, rather than a preacher of ancient, timeless glories and the old, old story. We have a Book from God, and the corner on the market of “true and redemptive.”
Wise pastors who recuse themselves from modern folly and frivolity do not cut themselves off from the thrill of ministry but steward the power of their words for precisely what is most real and lasting and thrilling.