One Countercultural Calling

Good and Happy Pastors, Part 3

Eden Baptist Pastors Seminar | Minneapolis

In our first session, we dealt with the heart of pastoral ministry: working from joy for the joy of our people. Then in the second, we reflected on the two main tasks of pastor-elders: teaching and governing. Now, in this final session, I was asked to address two specific practical issues.

At first glance, “husband of one wife” and “not quarrelsome” might seem like a random pairing, but interestingly enough at least two threads hold them together. First, both are particularly countercultural today (one has been for a while; the other, all of a sudden). Also (and this was surprising to me), both were live issues in Ephesus in the first century, when Paul gave the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Warnings against quarrelsomeness and disordered relationships between men and women is the focus of chapter 2, which leads into the elder qualifications in chapter 3.

First, Paul addresses the men in 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” Two quintessential dangers for men: anger and quarreling. May it not be so in the church. Then he turns to women in verses 9–15. Admittedly, the issues here are modest dress and proper submissiveness in the assembly, but we have here male-female, man-woman issues, which are related to (though not the same as) “husband of one wife.”

‘Husband of One Wife’

The qualification is literally “one-woman man” (miās gunaikos andra).

In 2015, Desiring God surveyed eight thousand of its users. The study found that ongoing pornography use was not only dreadfully common but increasingly higher among younger adults.

  • More than 15 percent of Christian men over age sixty admitted to ongoing use.
  • It was more than 20 percent for men in their fifties, 25 percent for men in their forties, and 30 percent for men in their thirties.
  • But nearly 50 percent of self-professing Christian men ages eighteen to twenty-nine acknowledged ongoing use of porn.

(The survey found a similar trend among women, but in lesser proportions: 10 percent of females ages eighteen to twenty-nine; 5 percent in their thirties; increasingly less for forties, fifties, and sixty-plus.)

Today the “one-woman man” may seem like an endangered species in some circles. In our oversexualized and sexually confused society, it may seem increasingly rare to come across married men who are truly faithful to their bride — in body, heart, and mind. It may seem even more rare to find unmarried men who are on the trajectory for that kind of fidelity to a future wife.

Of the fifteen basic qualifications for the office of elder in the local church, one-woman man may be the one that runs most against the grain of our society. We’re relentlessly pushed in precisely the opposite direction. Television, movies, advertising, social media, locker-room talk, and even casual conversations condition the twenty-first-century man to approach women as a consumer of many instead of the husband of one. The cultural icons teach our men to selfishly compromise and take rather than to carefully cultivate and guard fidelity to one woman.

But what’s rare in society is still easier to find, thank God, in biblically faithful churches. The true gospel is genuinely powerful and changes lives, even under such intense pressure from a world like ours. You can be pure. You can retrain your plastic brain. You can walk a different path by the power of God’s Spirit, even if that other path was once yours. In the company of others who enjoy pleasures far deeper than promiscuity, you can become the one-woman man our world needs.

For All Christians

Just because being a “one-woman man” is essential for church leaders does not mean it’s irrelevant for every Christian. The elder qualifications, as Don Carson says, are remarkable for being unremarkable. What’s demanded of church officers is not academic decoration, world-class intellect, and talents above the common man. Rather, the elders, as we’ve seen, are to be examples of normal, healthy, mature Christianity (1 Peter 5:3). The elder qualifications are flashpoints of the Christian maturity to which every believer should aspire and that every Christian, with God’s help, can attain in real measure.

God does not mean for us to relegate one-woman manhood to formal leaders. This is the glorious, serious, joy-filled calling of every follower of Christ. It’s a word for every Christian man (and every Christian woman to be a “one-man woman,” 1 Timothy 5:9). And it’s relevant for married and unmarried alike.

For Husbands and Bachelors

Clearly, “one-woman man” applies to married men. In faithfulness to the marriage covenant, the married man is to be utterly committed in mind, heart, and body to his one wife. Being a one-woman man has implications for where we go, whom we are with, how we interact with other women, what we do with our eyes, where we let our thoughts run, what we access on our computers and smartphones, how we use direct messaging, and what we watch on screen.

It’s also relevant for married men in the positive sense, not just the negative. A married Christian must not be a “zero-woman man,” living as though he isn’t married, neglecting to care adequately for his wife and family. If you’re married, faithfulness to the covenant requires your interests being divided (1 Corinthians 7:35), but only with your one woman.

Do you have to be married to be a one-woman man? The challenge to be a one-woman man applies not only to married men but to the unmarried as well. Are you a flirt? Do you move flippantly from one dating relationship to another? Do you enjoy the thrill of connecting emotionally with new women without moving with intentionality toward clarity about marriage?

Long before they marry, bachelors are setting (and revealing) their trajectory of fidelity. In every season of life and every relationship, however serious, they are preparing themselves to be one-woman men, or not, by how they engage with and treat the women in their lives.

Isn’t It ‘Husband of One Wife’?

At this point, you may be feeling the weight of this phrase “one-woman man” both for elder qualification and for Christian manhood in general. Don’t our English translations read “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6? That seems like a clearer box to check. It’s either true or it’s not — you’re either married to one woman or more — without any of these questions about whether your eyes and mind might be wandering unfaithfully or if your connections are shady. And nothing that might apply to the unmarried.

In a previous generation, this may have been the most debated of the elder qualifications. Some take it to require that church leaders be married; others say it bars divorced men who have remarried; others claim it was designed specifically to rule out polygamy. But one problem, among others, with each of those interpretations is that they make the qualification digital — that is, plainly true or false — rather than analog, like every one of the other fourteen qualifications.

The traits for leadership in the local church are brilliantly designed to prompt the plurality of elders, and the congregation, to make a collective decision about a man’s readiness for church office. Sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable — these are analog and unavoidably subjective categories (not easy either-or questions) that require careful thought and evaluation.

I believe Paul intended us to read “one-woman man” as requiring the same spirit of discernment, not as a black-and-white, no-exceptions rule. Rather: Is this man today, so far as we know, through years of tested faithfulness, faithful to his one wife? Is he above reproach in the way he relates to women? Is he manifestly a one-woman man?

Ask Yourself

Brothers, ask yourself these questions, and be ruthlessly honest: Am I a one-woman man? What, if anything, in my life would call this into question? What habits, what relationships, what patterns do I need to bring into the light with trusted brothers, and ask God afresh to make me truly, deeply, gloriously, increasingly a one-woman man?

At the level of the public qualification, if you’re married, what is your reputation? Do people think of you — your speech, your conduct, your body language — as joyfully and ruthlessly faithful to your wife? Or might there be some question? Are you known for demonstrating self-control publicly and privately for the sake of the purity and fidelity of your marriage?

For the unmarried, what do your friendships and relationships look like with the opposite sex? Do you genuinely treat women “as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2)? Are you dabbling with pornography, trying to stop, but still allowing room for it? Or have you become tragically desensitized to impurity because of the boundaries being crossed on your screens? In your thought life, on the Internet, in your interactions, are you a one-woman man waiting for your one woman?

In Christ, we need not be satisfied with anything less. Try as hard as you can, you will not be satisfied. But in Christ, we are called to be one-woman men in a world that expects and encourages far less. And in Christ, you have the resources you need to see that fidelity become reality. This is what God expects and makes possible in the church and requires in its leaders.

And to end this section with a practical exhortation: Brothers, you are not a victim of your own heart. Seize it. Direct it. Renounce disordered desires. Resolve to cultivate new ones. How you handle your heart in individual moments forms a pattern that profoundly forms and shapes your plastic brain and desires. Do not pretend to adjust the fixed, objective world to your subjective, disordered desires.

Rather, take hold of your heart and tell it, “Heart, feel according to reality. Be shaped by truth. Learn to feel how you should feel about reality.” This is what wedding rings are for. They are fixed, objective, solid, near, on your very hand, to remind you of objective reality. You made an exclusive covenant. You vowed to her before God and your witnesses. Now, renounce sin, embrace righteousness, and grow your heart to flourishing within the life-giving tracks of the covenant.

Satan thrills to have you follow your sinful heart, whether you celebrate it full-on, like the world does, or whether you back into it by thinking there’s nothing you can do about it. Seize it in moments to form habits that mightily reform and reshape your heart over time. We tend to overestimate what we can do in the moment (and then get discouraged and give up), while we tend to underestimate what we can do, with God’s help, in the long run.

And all that happens within the matrix of God’s ongoing grace: his word, prayer for help, and accountability from brothers and your wife. This is not mere willpower, because God gave us his word and his Spirit. Word in hand, as your God-provided tool, and Spirit in you, go to work and conform your heart to reality.

‘Not Quarrelsome’

This brings us to “not quarrelsome.” Or, as the four-hundred-year-old King James Version (KJV) translates it with surprising timelessness, “not a brawler.” The best of the KJV qualifications are in verse 3: “Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler.” (And verse 7: “He must have a good report of them which are without.”)

Of the full list of fifteen, “not a brawler” is one of just four negative traits. Modern translations say “not quarrelsome” (ESV and NIV) or “not pugnacious” (NASB), but the language of the KJV has endured. We still know what a brawler is, and it doesn’t take much foresight to recognize what a problem it would be to have one as a pastor — or, God forbid, a whole team of brawlers.

However, a nuance that “not a brawler” may lack is the distinction between the physical and verbal dimensions of combat. This is the upside of the term “not quarrelsome.” In 1 Timothy 3, the physical (if there were any question) has been covered already: “not violent but gentle” (“no striker,” KJV). What’s left is the temperamental, and especially the verbal.

We all know by the war within us how the flesh of man finds itself at odds with the Spirit of God. By nature, we are prone to quarrel when we should make peace, and not to ruffle feathers when we should speak up. And in a day in which so many are prone to sharpness online and cowardice face-to-face, we need leaders who are “not quarrelsome” and at the same time have the courage to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). We need men who “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) without being contentious. We need pastors who are not brawlers — and yet know when (and how) to say the needful hard word.

We need men who know how to disagree without creating unnecessary division. We need pastors and elders with sober minds and enough self-control to avoid needless controversies, and with enough conviction and courage to move gently and steadily toward conflicts that await wise, patient leadership.

Men Who Make Peace

The flip side of the negative “not quarrelsome” would be the positive peaceable. Titus 3:2 is the only other New Testament use of the word we translate “not quarrelsome” (amachon): “Remind [Christians] . . . to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2).

James 3, which warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (verse 1), also directs us to “the wisdom from above,” which is bookended by peace:

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (verses 17–18)

Healthy pastors are peacemakers at heart, not pugilists. Like Mufasa: “I’m only brave when I have to be. Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.” They don’t fight for sport; they fight to secure and defend true peace. They are not wolf hunters but competent defenders of the flock.

They know first and foremost — as Christ’s representatives to their people — that our God is “the God of peace” (Romans 15:33); our message, “the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15). Our Lord Jesus himself made peace (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 1:20) and “is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14), preaching “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). Christian leaders want real peace — enough not to avoid the necessary conflict that may be required to secure real peace.

But making peace is not unique to Christian leaders. Rather, we insist on it in our leaders so that they model and encourage peacemaking for the whole church. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said our Lord, “for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). “Let us pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19). “Strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). “If possible, so far as it depends on you” — all of you who are members of the body of Christ — “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

This kind of peacemaking means not only leading our flocks in preserving and enjoying peace but also in making the peace that first requires confrontation. Some controversies cannot be avoided, and we engage not because we simply want to fight and win, but because we want to win those being deceived, and protect the flock from their deception. God means for leaders in his church to have the kind of spiritual magnanimity to rise above the allure of petty disputes, and to press valiantly for peace and Christ-exalting harmony in places angels might fear to tread.

What Brawlers Fail to Do

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful in this regard, as the veteran apostle gives his counsel to younger leaders in the thick of church conflict.

Perhaps no single passage is more perceptive for leaders in times of conflict than 2 Timothy 2:24–26. More than any other, this charge expands what it means for pastors to be peaceable and “not quarrelsome.” Alongside 1 Peter 5:1–5, I would put this text as one of the most important words in all the Bible for church leaders:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Paul fleshes out the negative “not quarrelsome” with four great positive charges.

First is “kind to everyone.” The presence of conflict does not excuse a lack of kindness. How pastors carry themselves in conflict is as important as engaging the right battles. And the Lord calls his servants not to be kind just to the sheep while treating potential wolves like trash, but to be “kind to everyone” — both to the faithful and to those who at present seem to be opponents.

Then comes “able to teach,” which, as we’ve seen, includes both ability and inclination (1 Timothy 3:2) and is the main trait that distinguishes pastor-elders (1 Timothy 3:1–7) from deacons (1 Timothy 3:8–13). In the previous verse (2 Timothy 2:23), Paul refers to “foolish, ignorant [apaideutos] controversies” — literally, “untaught” or “uneducated.”

How many conflicts in the church begin in, or are fueled by, honest ignorance, and need pastors to come in with kindness (not with guns blazing) to provide sober-minded clarity and instruction from God’s word? The people need patient teaching on the topic. Pastors, as we’ve seen, are fundamentally teachers, and Christ, the great Teacher, doesn’t mean for his undershepherds to put aside their primary calling when conflict arises. Conflict is the time when humble, careful, Bible-saturated teaching can be needed most.

Next is “patiently enduring evil.” Rarely do serious conflicts resolve as quickly as we would like. And whether some genuine evil is afoot or just an honest difference of opinion, good pastors lead the way in patience. That doesn’t mean resigning themselves to inaction, or letting conflict carry on needlessly without attention and modest next steps, but patiently walking the path of a process — not standing still and not bull-rushing the issue, but faithfully and patiently approaching the conflict one step at a time. The pastors should be the most patient and least passive men in the church — and therefore the most able to deal with conflict and make genuine peace.

The fourth and final charge from 2 Timothy 2 is “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (verse 25). In commending kindness, teaching, and patience, Paul doesn’t leave aside correction. God calls pastors to rightly handle his word (2 Timothy 2:15), which is profitable not only for teaching but for correction (2 Timothy 3:16). The goal is, first, protection of the flock from error, and then restoration of those in error “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

The pastor’s heart for peace, not mere polemics, comes out in the kind of soul that endures in needful conflict: we pray that “God may perhaps grant them repentance” (2 Timothy 2:25). We long for restoration, not revenge (Romans 12:19). We pray first for repentance, not retribution.

And we remember that the real war is not against flesh and blood — especially within the household of faith. There is a cosmic war that far outstrips any culture war. Our final enemy is Satan, not our human “opponents.” We want them to come to repentance — to “come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:26) — through kindness, humble teaching, patience, and gentle correction — remembering that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We do not first want to be rid of our opponents but to win them back from Satan’s sway.

Hardest on Themselves

How, then, do pastors pick their battles? What foolish controversies do they wisely avoid, and what conflicts require their courage to address kindly, patiently, and gently with humble teaching?

First, as we have noted again and again today, pastors do not work solo in the New Testament. Christ not only put teachers in charge of his churches, but a plurality of teachers. And he intends for countless prudential issues in pastoral work to be worked out in the context of a team of sober-minded, self-controlled, self-sacrificial leaders who check one another’s blind spots, and shore up each other’s weaknesses. Together, such men learn over time to be hardest on themselves, not their flock.

The heart of Christian leadership is not taking up privileges, but laying them down; not gravitating toward the easy work, but gladly crucifying personal comfort and ease to do the hard work to serve others; “not domineering over those in [our] charge, but being examples” of Christlike self-sacrifice for them (1 Peter 5:3).

When trying to discern between silly controversies to avoid and conflicts to engage with courage, pastors might ask:

  • Is this conflict about me — my ego, my preferences, my threatened illusion of control — or about my Lord, his gospel, and his church? In other words, is this for my glory or Christ’s? Am I remembering that my greatest enemy is not others, or even Satan, but my own indwelling sin?

  • What is the overall tenor of my ministry, and our shared ministry as a team? Is it one fight after another? Are there seasons of peace? Do I appreciate peace, or does it strangely make me nervous and send me looking for the next fight? Do I need conflict because I crave attention and drama? Is securing and then preserving Christian peace clearly my goal?

  • Am I going with or against my flesh, which inclines me to fight when I shouldn’t, and back down when I should kindly, patiently, gently engage? As the servant of the Lord, not self, am I avoiding petty causes that an unholy part of me wants to pursue, while taking on the difficult, painful, righteous, and costly causes that an unholy part of me wants to flee? And here we might ask about online versus “real life” in our own churches as well: Is this conflict actually my responsibility and objective calling in my church, or am I neglecting my real-life church to chase my curiosities online?

  • Am I simply angry at my opponents, desiring to show them up or expose them, or am I compassionate for them, genuinely praying that God would free them from deception and grant them repentance? Am I inclined to anger against them? Are tears for them even a possibility?

One last practical word here before we close. Let me mention Bob Yarbrough’s commentary on yet another place where Paul exhorts pastors to stay out of stupid tussles. First Timothy 4:7 says, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.” Yarbrough writes,

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”?

Who Sets the Agenda?

Practically, then, 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 spokesman 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 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.

Paul focuses on what he holds to be true and redemptive — and he does not “allow gospel detractors to set the agenda.” That is a good word for pastors in the Information Age. To be clear, it’s not 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.

God means for his ministers, together, by his Spirit, to strike the balance, dynamic as it can be. We can learn to avoid foolish controversies and move wisely toward genuine conflicts. We can be unafraid of disagreements while not creating divisions. In a world of haters, trolls, and brawlers, we are to be men, set apart by Christ to lead his church, who fight well, in love, for peace.

Brothers, we have a countercultural calling in this age, not only as pastors but as Christians. Don’t give in. Don’t coast. Don’t let the world take your lunch. Save both yourself and your hearers. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).