The Winsomeness Wars


People are tired of hearing about winsomeness. I’ve probably lost readers just by using the word in my title. What more is there to say? James Wood has written on this topic several times, the most recent entry focusing particularly on pastoral ministry, and he has treated the topic well. His main point in this latter article is that a false and unbiblical notion of niceness, which is little other than an attempt not to offend, has come to define the very meaning of winsomeness for many.

His argument is not that the hostility of our culture to biblical truth allows us to disregard biblical teaching on how we speak to others, but rather that this hostility requires us to be aware of how much pressure there will be on us to conform to the world, and to think that we are being unfaithful because the world doesn’t respond well, even when we seek to do so in a way that is not unnecessarily hostile or cantankerous.

A more biblical approach, Wood contends, is cognizant of the fact that there are three kinds of people that need addressing, and that a different way of speaking is necessary for each: sheep need to be gently encouraged, wolves need to be fought, and fools need to be corrected. A “generic winsomeness” is not, in fact, biblical at all.

All of this is right, but the Truly Winsome (TW) still seem to think that Wood (and those who agree with him) are arguing for nasty, aggressive, underhanded, spiritual knife-fighting in the church so long as such fighting gets the job done. Perhaps it is a fool’s errand to hope this misunderstanding can be corrected, but it’s an errand I will undertake in this article, as I seek to expand on Wood’s own argument.

In short, a one-size-fits-all approach to how we convey the truths of scripture to others is impossible if we take scripture itself seriously. Instead, our words must be fitting words, words that match the different situations we face, situations directly addressed in the Bible.

But first we must look at the word “winsome” itself.

The necessity of winsomeness

The argument of TWs is pretty simple: the Bible teaches it. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether it is a successful strategy in our cultural moment, Christians must be winsome when expressing their convictions, even when they interact with those who might disagree, or perhaps even scorn those convictions.

What does it mean to be winsome? Many texts could be appealed to, but perhaps the chief biblical proof text is Col 3:12–14:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Could it be any more straightforward? Be kind to others, show them compassion, and so on.

Many more such texts could be appealed to. One of my goals in this article is to give a fairly comprehensive treatment of the New Testament’s teaching, so I will list many more here.

Christ’s teaching

Jesus Christ himself in addition to teaching about the required dispositions of his disciples, also embodies these dispositions in his own life. He is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). A “bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory”  (Matt 12:20, quoting Isa 42:3). In instructing his disciples in leadership he warns them not to be like “rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over them” (Matt 20:25­­–26). Christians (especially leaders) are called by Christ to be gentle and humble, just as Christ himself was tender and gentle with weak Christians (the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks). He contrasts leadership in the church with the brutal domineering and self-aggrandizement of pagan rulers. As we will see below, however, Christ’s gentleness does not entail a refusal to speak and act in ways that would by no means pass as winsome in our hyper-sensitive culture.

Apostolic teaching

The apostles likewise write about kinds of dispositions that must be true of believers. They are to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19), help believers fallen into sin “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1), speak “the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” and to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:31–32), to put away “anger, wrath, malice” (Col 3:8), “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil” (1 Thess 5:15), and “to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). In this last example the reason given is the mercy we’ve ourselves been shown by God in Christ. Having had such mercy lavished on us, how can we not, Paul asks extend such kindness to our brothers and sisters in Christ? James writes of “the wisdom from above” that it is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17)

Leaders in the church

All Christians must attempt to live at peace with, and seek the good of, each other, must be gentle is correcting the sins of their fellow believers, must lovingly speak truth, must build each other up and not be consumed with bitterness, anger, or revenge toward fellow believers, must be tenderhearted, must avoid sinful quarreling and be courteous, and must be peaceable and open to reason.

We can see that leaders in the church have a heightened responsibility in this regard. Paul was “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7) and “like a father with his children” (1 Thess 2:11) in the church in Thessalonica. An overseer in the church must not be “violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Tim 3:3; see also Titus 1:7–8). He must “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Tim 6:11). He “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” precisely because this through this gentleness “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24–25). The pastor must “put away all malice” (1 Pet 2:1) and not be “domineering over those in your charge” (1 Pet 5:3).

Engaging non-Christians

The texts above are about Christian interactions with fellow believers. This is an important thing to highlight: they don’t actually address how we speak with non-Christians. However, the Bible is not silent about this either, although it is much less frequently addressed. Two texts in particular stand out:

Col 4:5–6: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person

1 Pet 3:14–17: But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Christians, then, are commanded to be gracious in our speech to outsiders, even as we answer their false claims about God, the Bible, and so on.  We are to make our defense of the gospel “with gentleness and respect,” so that unbelievers will have no excuse to revile Christ because they (rightly) revile our conduct. We are also called to treat unbelievers in a certain way, not repaying personal evil with personal evil (Rom 12:17), for example, and keeping one’s conduct honorable (1 Pet 2:12).

Our necessary stance toward believers and unbelievers appears to be very similar. If one word stands out in all of the texts cited above it is gentleness. As Christ was gentle, so must his people be. This is the character trait that TWs have in mind.

That said, we must define gentleness properly as well. If Christ is the perfect exemplar of gentleness, then our conduct and speech must match his own, and this gets to the heart of what is wrong with certain winsome approaches.

Different situations call for different responses. This point is one of the main things that has been missed in the winsomeness wars, and so it is worth unpacking in even greater detail.

The problem with a “winsome approach” is that it takes a biblical virtue that is only a virtue in the appropriate setting and seeks to apply it when it is not appropriate, in fact, when to apply it would be sinful. It is a one-size-fits-all approach to defending biblical truth that is fundamentally at odds with the full counsel of Scripture. We must now turn, then, to the evil of winsomeness.

The evil of winsomeness

What is it that unites all of the texts listed above? It is this: they are about our interactions with fellow believers who are faithfully, though imperfectly, following the Lord, or they are about pastors shepherding such saints, or they are about how we should speak to those inquiring about the hope we have within us.

The texts are not, however, about how to respond when fellow believers have wandered off into serious sin; they are not about our interactions with hardened enemies of the church (within or without); and they are not about how we engage in cultural or political battles (whether we even should is another matter). But the Bible has a lot to say about these situations too.

Non-winsomeness and fellow believers

Two kinds of texts make clear that winsomeness with regard to fellow believers is inappropriate—that it would even be biblically wrong—in certain situations.

First, we read often in the New Testament about the necessity of strongly warning believers within the church about the dangers of neglecting holiness or of engaging in unrepentant sin (Col 1:28): “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”1 Such texts are the prerogative of the pastor. When he sees his people drifting into error and sin he must warn and rebuke them. Warnings of this sort will often be far from gentle.

Second, we encounter many texts that speak against or about erring, yet genuine, believers in a way that is far from gentle. Such texts even include sarcasm (1 Cor 4:8, but see v. 14 for the purpose), and very strong sarcasm, such as in 2 Cor 12:13: “For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!”2

There are strong words of admonishment such as in 1 Cor 15:34: “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.”3 Sometimes it is even stronger than that, as in 1 Cor 4:18–21:

Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?4

The very reason for the hardness of the speech is the hope of repentance, where winsomeness simply would not be sufficient (2 Cor 7:8–9, but see also vv. 10–12):

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

The goal of these words is always the spiritual good of the saints.5 In fact, it is not stating things too strongly to say that such un-winsome words must be spoken precisely because we love our fellow believers, not in spite of that fact. At one point, Paul avoided traveling to Corinth precisely because he wanted to spare the Corinthians from the unpleasantness of what he would have had to say. So he wrote instead (2 Cor 1:23). Though at other times he did indeed plan to visit, warning that he would not spare the Corinthians, yet hoping to not need to be as severe as might be warranted (2 Cor 13:1–3, 10).

The very strong words of rebuke found in what is written to seven churches in Revelation are a significant test case since they are direct exhortations from Jesus Christ himself: See Rev 2:14–16, 20; 3:1–3, 15–17. Revelation 3:19 gives the pastoral purpose behind such strong words: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”

There are times when, for the good of one’s soul, even to spare such a one from hell, fellow believers must be given a dose of very strong spiritual medicine in the form of a hard rebuke. Gentleness at such times would be deadly.

Non-winsomeness and enemies of the church

There are two classes of enemies of God’s people in the New Testament, those inside the church, and those outside. The former are the focus, but the latter are not excluded.

Consider some of the ways those outside the church are described: they unrighteously suppress the truth (Rom 1:18), they are fools (Rom 1:22, and throughout the Psalms and Proverbs), shameless (Rom 1:27), debased in mind (Rom 1:28), and full of “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice,” “envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness” (Rom 1:29). “They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 2:29–31).6 Would anyone called any of these things perceive it to be a gentle comment on his character?

But the Bible’s teaching on enemies inside the covenant community is even more strident than that.

Jesus refers to hardened opponents within the leadership of Israel as hypocrites (Matt 6:1–2, 16; 15:7; 23:13, 23 ,25 ,27 ,29), “false prophets,” “ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15; 10:16), and “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). He tells his disciples to “shake off the dust from your feet” with regard to the villages that reject them, as a sign of their condemnation (Matt 10:14). His very coming necessarily produces sharp divisions between those who believe in him and those who don’t (Matt 10:34–39; 1 Cor 11:19). He refers to the current generation as an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 16:4). He calls Peter “Satan” (Matt 16:23), Herod a “fox” (Luke 13:32), and the scribes and Pharisees “blind guides” (Luke 23:16) and “serpents, brood of vipers” (Matt 23:33).

Paul calls those attempting to persuade the Philippian believers to be circumcised “dogs” and “evildoers” (Phil 3:2) whose “god is their belly” and who “glory in their shame” (Phil 3:19). He cites a Cretan poet describing the inhabitants of Crete as “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12), adding laconically “this testimony is true” (Titus 1:13), before describing them in their unbelief as “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16).

Paul goes so far in Galatians as to write that he desires those who are attempting to deceive the Galatian Christians into works righteousness to castrate themselves (Gal 5:12). Certainly not gentle. And yet Paul immediately follows this with the command to love and serve one another in the church. (Gal 5:13–15). Love for the endangered flock, righteous anger toward those who would harm them.

Peter writes that false prophets deceiving believers in the church are “like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant” (2 Pet 2:12) who are “blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions” (2 Pet 2:13) with “eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin” and “hearts trained in greed” (2 Pet 2:14). These are, he continues in the same verse, “Accursed children!” Peter, too, doesn’t appear to have received the winsomeness memo.

The one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah, John simply calls “the liar” (1 John 2:22) and “deceiver” (2 John 7), while the one who refuses to repent of sin he says is “of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and the one who hates his brother is “a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Mincing words would be false to the truth.

Jude refers to deceivers within the church as “ungodly people” (Jude 4), “like unreasoning animals” (Jude 10), “hidden reefs . . . waterless clouds . . . fruitless trees” (Jude 12), “wild waves of the sea . . . wandering stars” (Jude 13) and “scoffers” (Jude 18). Such scoffers—not those who call them to account—are the ones who “cause divisions” (Jude 19) in the church, something Paul also warns about (Rom 16:17–18).

In our zeal for not offending those in error, let us not forget Paul’s charge against deceivers in the church: “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). “They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). Gentle speech toward such enemies within the church might be able to masquerade as kindness in today’s culture, but it is a “kindness” toward those who are to be silenced, at the expense of those who must be protected.

Non-winsomeness in the culture war?

I’ve not addressed winsomeness and the culture war. It should be noted, however, that the New Testament’s so-called “winsomeness texts” have nothing to do with politics and culture. They are about how pastors are to speak to their flock, to enemies within, and to non-Christians when presenting the gospel to them. What kind of speech is appropriate in the political and cultural spheres is dictated by principles of justice. The Bible certainly teaches what is just (even with regard to speech), but justice is not the same thing as what is appropriate with regard to pastoral speech or Christian-to-Christian communication. Politics isn’t evangelism and it is wrong, even destructive, to apply the objective standard of one realm to the other.

The appointed means of securing that justice is the civil magistrate. Pastors, in their regular preaching, will certainly have to address important moral implications of scripture for life in the world, but they must direct their attention and energy primarily to the needs of the flock. The magistrate, on the other hand, is ordained by God to implement justice in the world.

Justice is not winsome; it is not gentle, though it must leave room for mercy. The power of the sword is not kind. To attempt to make it so is to subvert justice, to promote evil. Christians certainly are required to be respectful of the governing authorities (1 Pet 2:17) and to adopt a stance of submissiveness to their lawful commands (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13), but insofar as they participate in politics and culture they should do so supportive of the implementation of strict justice. The governing authority himself (Rom 13:1) is to be a “terror” (Rom 13:3) as he fulfills his mandate as a “servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (Prov 21:15).7

Conclusion: The Love of Christ Compels Us

The attempt has been made in this article to give an extensive summary of the situation-specific ways in which Christians are called to use their words. Sometimes what is called for is gentle correction of fellow believers, sometimes much stronger rebuke of the same. Hardened enemies within the visible church call forth very hard words of warning, while enemies on the outside of the church—if violently attacking it—would fall under the purview of the State and its power of the sword. Non-Christian inquirers, on the other hand, are met with gentle, reasoned speech.

The short of it all is that the appropriate way of speaking is determined by the specifics of the situation. Martin Luther’s famous phrase captures the essence of the New Testament’s teaching well: “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” Paul agrees: “ If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). What motivates Christ and his apostles is not the necessity of a single, universalizable mode of speech, but the truth of the Gospel, which must be defended above all else. What is necessary at all times is “the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor 4:2).

It is inevitably true that some will speak harsh words when gentle words are called for, but in our day the far greater danger is surely the opposite: speaking a word of peace when there is no peace,8 leaving the people of God vulnerable to external attack, or self-deceived with regard to their own sin.

It is not sufficient to say that Christians must be bold, confident, and faithful, as if gentleness, always normative, simply need be supplemented with courage. No, Christians must speak what is appropriate to the situation they face.

Sometimes that word will be anything but gentle and kind; sometimes it will be as tender as a mother with her infant, nursing child (1 Thess 2:7). Discerning when to speak in which way requires holiness and wisdom.

But with the apostle Paul we may ask, no matter how we must speak: “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth” (Gal 4:16)? The “love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor 5:14): we must speak precisely—and only—what is necessary in each situation we face.

*Image Credit: Wikipedia

Show 8 footnotes
  1. See also 2 Tim 3:16–4:2; Titus 2:15. There are numerous such warnings throughout Hebrews, though something as mild as “you have become dull of hearing” (Heb 5:11) would probably be too offensive (non-winsome) for many today.
  2. See further 2 Cor 10:1–2; 11:1, 4, 7, 16–21; 12:11–13.
  3. See also 1 Cor 3:1–4; 11:17–22.
  4. See also 1 Cor 6:5; 16:22; 2 Cor 10:3–6.
  5. See 2 Cor 10:8–11; 12:15, 19; 13:11; Gal 1:6; 2:14; 3:1; 2 Thess 3:14–15.
  6. See also Rom 2; Eph 4:17–19; 5:11.
  7. Proverbs, of course, being directed to the king (Prov 1:1–2), who is tasked as the magistrate with the strict implementation of justice: “A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes” (Prov 20:8); “a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense” (Prov 10:13); “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov 17:15); “Partiality in judging is not good. Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right,’ will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations, but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them” (Prov 24:23b–25); “When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves” (Prov 28:12).
  8. Jer 6:14; 8:11; Ezek 13:10, 16.
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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.