Apologetics Index

When Church Leaders Should Be Gentle and When They Should Be Stern

By David Kowalski

Orthopraxy (right practice) is often as essential to Church life as orthodoxy (right belief), and no aspect of right practice is more important than the maintenance of a proper leadership style in the Body of Christ. Perhaps no part of leadership style is more crucial than leaders’ acting gentle or stern at the appropriate times.

Leadership demands maturity and wisdom, and wise leaders will recognize the difference between those times in which they must be gentle and those in which they must be stern. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a proper time:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up…
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing..
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.” — Excerpts from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV

Shepherding God's people

As a general principle, Church leadership should be characterized by gentleness. A shepherd does not carry a rod and staff to beat the sheep but to gently guide them and protect them from predators.

Leadership is not “pushership”

As a general principle, Church leadership should be characterized by gentleness. A shepherd does not carry a rod and staff to beat the sheep but to gently guide them and protect them from predators.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV

Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” — 1 Peter 5:3 ESV

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” — Mark 10:42-45 ESV

Leadership is not “pushership.” Bullying is not the same as inspiring. Leaders must know how to distinguish between these. Dixon Edward Hoste, who followed Hudson Taylor as the General Director of the China Inland Mission, expressed this principle:

When a man, in virtue of an official position demands obedience of another, irrespective of the latter’s reason and conscience, this is the spirit of tyranny. When, on the other hand, by the exercise of tact and sympathy; by prayer, spiritual power and sound wisdom one is able to influence and enlighten another, so that he through the medium of his own reason and conscience is led to alter one course and adopt another, that is true spiritual leadership.” 1

Rebuke is a legitimate aspect of ministry

There are, however, times that leaders are called upon to take a less gentle posture. First, Paul told Timothy that elders in the church who are hardened in sinful ways (not just stumbling and getting back up) must be rebuked:

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” — 1 Timothy 5:20 ESV

This posture is a kindness toward the elder in moral rebellion as he needs to be shocked out of his complacency, and it is a needful posture to help maintain a godly fear of sin within the church.

Heretics, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing, are also to be sharply rebuked:

…Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.” — Titus 1:13-14 ESV

Paul tells Timothy that rebuke is a legitimate aspect of ministry:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” — 2 Timothy 4:2 ESV

Public correction benefits the church

The word for rebuke that Paul uses, epitimao, communicates a notion of reproof and censure that may sometimes be the equivalent of a scolding. As with the rebuke of the rebellious, the purpose is to benefit the Church at large — not just to persuade those being rebuked (as some Christians mistakenly believe). Jesus rebuked (epitimao) demons (Mark 3:12, 9:25) and fever (Luke 4:39). Neither the demons nor the fever were kindly persuaded, though Jesus’ rebuke did forcefully convey an authoritative command that demonstrated His authority.

Paul’s reproof of Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:16-18 seems to have had a secondary effect in mind — the warning of others about the dangers of these men’s error.  This is sometimes needed because purveyors of error often claim to be teaching orthodox, Christian doctrine. False teachers do not advertise themselves as deceivers. Instead, Paul speaks of the skill with which these teachers present “…every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14 ESV). This kind of crafty deception is something that should be exposed and publicly corrected for the good of the church whether or not the reproof leads to the false teacher’s repentance.

Mature leaders know when to be gentle and when to be stern

There is misconduct of lesser importance — such as needless quarrels over non-essential matters 2 — which leaders must address using a spirit of gentleness with the hope that the nitpicking quarreler will come to his senses and repent of his ways:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And 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.” — 2 Timothy 2:23-26 ESV

Many people who have taken to themselves the role of shepherding God’s sheep use the rod and staff to beat the sheep when they should be gentle, yet they stand by idly when wolves attack the sheep. There is a time to be gentle and a time to be stern. Mature leaders know the difference.

© Copyright 2019, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.


  1. Dixon Edward Hoste, quoted in J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967/1980), 83.
  2. It is not wrong for believers to express their opinions on debatable matters such as fine points of eschatology but it is wrong for them to engage in uncivil quarreling over such things.

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Category: Blogs, Column: David Kowalski
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First published (or major update) on Sunday, April 28, 2019.
Last updated on April 30, 2019.

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