Are You a Gentle Man?

Must We Be Weak to Be Gentle?

Everybody agrees that it is virtuous for a man to be gentle. Gentleness is a virtue that all Christians should value and grow in:

  • Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek [NASB: gentle], for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).1
  • Gentleness is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
  • God exhorts us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2).
  • God commands us, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness [NASB, NIV, CSB, NET, NLT: gentleness], 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” (Colossians 3:12–13).
  • The man of God must pursue gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11).
  • Peter tells wives that “a gentle and quiet spirit” is “very precious” in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:4).
  • God commands, “Let your reasonableness [ESV note, NIV, NET: gentleness; CSB: graciousness] be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).

God commands us to be gentle. But what exactly does it mean to be gentle? And what does it mean for a man to be gentle? Is a gentleman a soft man?

It’s crucial that we define gentleness according to the Bible and not according to modern cultural sensitivities. Is it sinful for a man to be aggressive? What exactly does the Bible say about gentleness?2

What Words in the Bible Refer to Gentleness?

In order to discover what the Bible says about gentleness, a word study on gentleness is a good place to start.3 It’s challenging to study the concept of gentleness because there’s not just one Hebrew word and one Greek word that our English translations render as gentle. There is a cluster of at least thirteen words—five Hebrew and eight Greek. 

I did an exhaustive word study, and I’ll spare you all the details. The gist is that I studied every passage that uses a word for gentleness, and as I reflected on the various passages, I attempted to synthesize them. I unfold that synthesis in the rest of this article.4

What Is Gentleness Like and Not Like?
Ten Illustrations

As I reflected on the various Bible passages in which the word or concept of gentleness appears, I discovered the range of meanings and determined what these words for gentleness most likely mean in key passages. What most helped me define the word was meditating on ten pictures that illustrate gentleness. In these illustrations, the Bible compares and contrasts gentleness. In other words, God tells us what gentleness is like and what gentleness is not like:

  1. Isaiah 8:6 says, “The waters of Shiloah … flow gently” or “slowly” (CSB). Running water can flow gently or violently. Gentleness is like a slowly flowing stream. Gentleness is not like dangerously surging rapids.
  2. The word of the Lord came to Elijah, “‘Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.’ And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper (KJV: a still small voice; NASB: a gentle blowing; LSB, NIV, NLT: a gentle whisper; CSB, NET: a soft whisper)” (1 Kings 19:11–12). Gentleness is like a soft whisper. Gentleness is not like a great and strong wind or an earthquake or a fire.
  3. King David ordered his military commanders Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5). This illustrates the qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3:3: “not violent (NASB, CSB: not a bully) but gentle.” Violence is intentionally using physical force to hurt, damage, or kill. A bully tries to harm or intimidate people he thinks are vulnerable. Gentleness is like soldiers dealing mercifully with an enemy. Gentleness is not like violence.
  4. “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain” (Ezekiel 17:22). The word for gentle here is tender with reference to a twig. It seems that the concept of gentleness here is how God treats a tender twig—that is, gentleness is like carefully handling a tender twig and nurturing it so that it can flourish. Gentleness is not like breaking a twig.
  5. “A soft (NLT: gentle) answer turns away wrath, / but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Gentleness is like speaking in a peaceful way that reduces the intensity. When someone is angry, you can respond with speech that de-escalates, calms, and subdues. In contrast, gentleness is not like speaking harshly. When someone is angry, you can respond in a harsh way that intensifies someone’s anger into a flaring temper.
  6. “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, / and a soft (NASB, NIV, CSB: gentle) tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15).5 The tongue is one of the softest parts of your body, and bone is the hardest. In this proverb, “tongue” symbolizes your speech, and “a bone” symbolizes an authority who seems immovable. Gentle or soft speech can persuade someone who stiffly opposes you. Gentleness is like speaking softly and patiently with the result that you disarm and persuade. Gentleness is not like speaking harshly.
  7. When Paul appears before Felix at Caesarea, he politely requests, “To detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly” (Acts 24:4). Gentleness is like a disposition that is kind, generous, and gracious. Gentleness is not like a disposition that is unkind, ungenerous, and ungracious.
  8. “Now when the south wind blew gently [NLT: When a light wind began blowing], supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to the shore. But soon a tempestuous wind [NASB: a violent wind; NIV: a wind of hurricane force; NET: a hurricane-force wind; CSB: a fierce wind; NLT: a wind of typhoon strength], called the northeaster, struck down from the land” (Acts 27:13–14). “Blew gently” translates a Greek word that contrasts with a tempestuous wind. Gentleness is like a light breeze that is refreshing, desirable, pleasant, and helpful. Gentleness is not like a hurricane-force wind.
  9. “Servants [CSB: Household slaves], be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle [NIV: considerate] but also to the unjust [NIV: those who are harsh]” (1 Peter 2:18). Gentleness is like a good and considerate master. Gentleness is not like an unjustly harsh master.
  10. Jesus exhorts, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Paul appeals to Jesus’s gentleness: “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1). Jesus embodied gentleness in his triumphal entry: “Behold, your king is coming to you, / humble [NIV: gentle; NET: unassuming], and mounted on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matthew 21:5). Gentleness is intertwined with humility. Gentleness is like Jesus. Gentleness is not like people who are arrogant, hardened, and brash.

Here are all ten contrasts in a table:

What Gentleness Is LikeWhat Gentleness Is Not Like
1. a slowly flowing streamdangerously surging rapids
2. a soft whispera great and strong wind or an earthquake or a fire
3. soldiers dealing mercifully with an enemyviolence
4. carefully handling a tender twig and nurturing it so that it can flourishbreaking a twig
5. speaking in a peaceful way that reduces the intensityspeaking harshly
6. speaking softly and patiently with the result that you disarm and persuadespeaking harshly
7. a disposition that is kind, generous, and graciousa disposition that is unkind, ungenerous, and ungracious
8. a light breeze that is refreshing, desirable, pleasant, and helpfula hurricane-force wind
9. a good and considerate masteran unjustly harsh master
10. Jesuspeople who are arrogant, hardened, and brash

So How Should We Define Gentleness?

Here’s my attempt to define gentleness:

Gentleness is the virtue of humbly and wisely showing tender kindness to someone.6

Let’s unpack that definition in four parts:

1. Gentleness is a virtue—that is, a morally good quality in a person.7 A Christian should be growing in this virtue (2 Peter 1:8).

2. You express the virtue of gentleness when you treat a person with tender kindness. Kindness is “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate” (New Oxford American Dictionary). But expressing kindness alone is not gentleness. You must express that kindness tenderly—that is, with compassion or sympathy.

So what might it look like for a father to be gentle toward his children? Fathers, you should honor the Lord and serve your children by responding gently when they are hurting, sick, scared, confused, squabbling, obnoxious, inconveniencing you, or irritating you. This is obviously easier said than done. We need God’s grace to be gentlemen!

3. Gentleness requires both strength and humility. One of the main Greek words for gentleness (πραΰτης, praütēs) refers to not being overly impressed by a sense of your self-importance. A gentle person is not so insecure that he needs to show off his full strength. A gentle person has the strength to be forceful and harsh—like surging rapids or a hurricane-force wind. But a gentle person humbly harnesses that strength for the good of others—like a slowly flowing stream or a light breeze.8

Contrast two scenarios: (1) An infant is incessantly crying, and an irritated father becomes irrationally angry and violently shakes the baby. That is not gentleness. (2) An infant is crying after pinching her finger, and a patient father securely holds and comforts the baby. That is gentleness. As David Mathis explains,

Gentleness is not the absence of strength but the addition of virtue to strength. … Gentleness is often used as a positive spin for weakness. But gentleness in the Bible is emphatically not a lack of strength; it’s the godly exercise of power. Gentleness does not signal a lack of ability but the added ability to steward one’s strength so that it serves good, life-giving ends rather than harmful ends. …

We want gentle leaders, not weak ones. We want leaders with strength and power, not to use against us to our harm, but to wield on our behalf for our good to help us. This is what makes the image of a shepherd so fitting in both the Old and New Testaments. Sheep are manifestly weak and vulnerable. They need strong shepherds, not weak ones. They need shepherds who are “good and gentle” and will use their power to help the sheep, not use and abuse them.9

4. Gentleness requires wisdom. That’s why I include the word wisely in the definition: “Gentleness is the virtue of humbly and wisely showing tender kindness to someone.” 

Wisdom is skill or ability. Here are five examples:10

  1. Joseph is wise in that he can skillfully govern Egypt (Genesis 41:33).
  2. Bezalel is wise in that he is skillful at craftmanship and artistic designs (Exodus 31:2–5).
  3. Hiram is wise in that he can skillfully make any work in bronze (1 Kings 7:13–14).
  4. The people of Israel are wise in that they are skillful at sinning! “They are ‘wise’—in doing evil! / But how to do good they know not” (Jeremiah 4:22).
  5. Throughout the Bible, God is wise in that he is skillful at accomplishing his holy will. God is perfect at everything he does.

To live wisely is to live skillfully. Wisdom is the skill to live prudently and astutely, and wisdom is necessary to be gentle.

Why Is Wisdom Necessary to Be Gentle?

Gentleness requires wisdom because there are times when we should not be gentle. We need God’s wisdom to know when to be gentle and to what degree.

Gentleness is not simply niceness or mildness. I’m guessing that most English speakers today misunderstand gentleness as essentially being nice—that is, to be pleasant and agreeable like Mr. Rogers.

Here are the two definitions of gentle in the New Oxford American Dictionary:

  • having or showing a mild, kind, or tender temperament or character
  • moderate in action, effect, or degree; not harsh or severe

Those definitions aren’t all bad. Gentleness involves kindness and tenderness, and gentleness is not harsh. But those definitions don’t adequately capture what the Bible means by gentleness. Gentleness is not a mild temperament, and the essence of gentleness is not being moderate. Moderate means “average in amount, intensity, quality, or degree” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

I’m concerned that some people in the name of gentleness are trying to feminize men to act more like women—to neutralize their testosterone.11 But “the glory of young men is their strength” (Proverbs 20:29). Men are generally strong compared to women and children—not moderately strong but really strong. And the temperament of men on average is more aggressive than the temperament of women. In God’s design, these characteristics of men are a feature, not a bug.12 We shouldn’t define gentleness in a feminized way that emasculates men. When God commands men to be gentle, he is not commanding men to be less like men and more like women. God wants women to be gentle as women should be gentle, and God wants men to be gentle as men should be gentle. Knowing how to apply this requires wisdom.

“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle [NIV: considerate], open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). A wise and understanding person acts “in the meekness [CSB: gentleness] of wisdom [NIV, NLT: the humility that comes from wisdom; NET: the gentleness that wisdom brings]” (James 3:13). In contrast, the wisdom that does not come down from above is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15), and it is marked by “jealousy [NIV, CSB: envy] and selfish ambition” (James 3:14, 16).

So Sometimes Is It Sinful to Be Gentle?

In some situations, it is sinful to be gentle. If a violent man breaks into your home and threatens your family, that’s not a time to be gentle toward your visitor! That’s a time to be aggressive and confrontational to protect your family.

Is the ideal man always like Mr. Rogers? Is there anything noble about a sacrificial fighter pilot like Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick? What about King David and his mighty men?

I think that some people have gutted the biblical virtue of gentleness to mean universal niceness. The word universal tips you off to a controversy about gentleness: Is gentleness an all-encompassing virtue—that is, should we always be gentle? Or is gentleness a situational virtue—that is, should we usually be gentle but not in every situation without exception? In some situations would it be sinful to be gentle?

Dane Ortlund, for example, says that for Jonathan Edwards, gentleness is an all-encompassing virtue: “Gentleness is not only for all Christians but also for all times. It is not a ‘mode’ into which a believer shifts on occasion. In this way gentleness is different from many other Christian virtues. Courage, for example, or chastity, is summoned forth by specific concrete circumstances. Gentleness is not summoned from time to time; it is what we are.”13 

I think that gentleness should be “what we are” as a general default mode but not in every circumstance without exception. So I think gentleness is a situational virtue. I should treat a kitten with gentleness; if a pit bull were attacking my daughter, I would not be lovingly protecting my daughter if I treated that pit bull with gentleness. It requires wisdom and courage to do what needs to be done.14

At least two passages might support the view that gentleness is an all-encompassing virtue:

  • 2 Timothy 2:24–25: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind [CSB: gentle] 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.”
  • Titus 3:1–2: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling [NASB: not to be contentious; NIV: to be peaceable; CSB: to avoid fighting], to be gentle [NIV: considerate; CSB: to be kind], and to show perfect courtesy [NIV: always to be gentle; CSB: always showing gentleness; NET: showing complete courtesy] toward all people.”

Do those two passages require that a man must always be gentle to everyone without exception? One way to confirm what Paul means is to analyze how he corrects some of his opponents in God-breathed Scripture, which does not contradict 2 Timothy 2:24–25 and Titus 3:1–2:

  • Galatians 5:11–12: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate [NET: castrate; NLT: mutilate] themselves!” Paul’s opponents are theologically wrong about circumcision—that is, the practice of cutting off the foreskin of a male’s penis. He exclaims that he wishes the false teachers would not stop with the foreskin but go the rest of the way and make themselves eunuchs—that is, cut off their penises and testicles. In the very next paragraph, Paul exhorts Christians to love one another (Galatians 5:13–15).
  • 1 Timothy 5:20: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Paul commands Timothy to publicly rebuke unrepentant sinners.
  • 2 Timothy 4:14–15: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.” Paul warns believers about a specific troublemaker by name and pronounces that God will judge him.
  • Romans 16:17–18: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” Paul warns believers to beware of specific kinds of people, and he says that we must “avoid them.”

I could cite many more examples from Paul and elsewhere in Scripture, such as Jesus flipping over tables in the temple and severely pronouncing woes on hypocritical Pharisees. When I consider such examples, the virtue of gentleness is not what comes to mind. But not for a moment do I think Paul or Jesus should have been more gentle in those situations. Rather, I think that gentleness is a virtue that requires wisdom to know when to express it and to what degree.15

Here are three additional reasons I think gentleness is not an all-encompassing virtue:

  1. Paul contrasts coming to the Corinthians (1) “with a rod” versus (2) “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Corinthians 4:21). There’s a contrast between (1) applying the rod of discipline versus (2) showing a gentle spirit. (“With love” should also describe how we use the rod.) That means that in some sense applying the rod of discipline is not gentle. When administered appropriately, discipline is painful (not gentle), but it is not oppressive: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Gentleness is not the virtue that best describes a father when he faithfully disciplines his child with a rod.16
  2. It requires wisdom to know when to give a “soft answer” or “gentle answer” (Proverbs 15:1; 25:15). A wise person speaks in more than one register—not exclusively in the gentle register. Jesus and Paul and OT prophets did not speak exclusively in the gentle register.
  3. The Lord is not always gentle. Sometimes he pours out his wrath on his enemies. In contrast, sometimes the Lord deals gently with particular people—namely, his own people when they need his tender care.

Now back to 2 Timothy 2:24–25 and Titus 3:1–2:

  • What does it mean that we should be kind to everyone? It means our general posture should be friendly and generous and considerate. It does not mean that a man should be friendly to a rogue who is attempting to rape his wife.
  • What does it mean to be gentle toward all people? It means our general posture should be to humbly and wisely show tender kindness to others. It does not mean that a pastor should be exclusively tender to a schismatic heretic who boldly and shamelessly is leading church members astray.
  • What does it mean to avoid quarreling? It means that we should not squabble about trivial matters. It does not mean that we should never fight. Some things are so precious that they are worth fighting for. We should contend for those things without being sinfully contentious (e.g., Jude 3: “contend for the faith”).
  • What does it mean to correct your opponents with gentleness? It means that when you are attempting to help your opponents see the error of their ways, you do so in a gentle manner.17 It does not mean that a pastor should be exclusively tender to false shepherds. We should have different postures when we are trying to win the person versus when we are trying to protect the flock. When you are trying to win the person, gentleness is the way: “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 [NET: courtesy] 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” (1 Peter 3:15–16).

The problems of untethered empathy and untethered winsomeness are similar to untethered gentleness. It is misguided to insist that the only mode in which a man should operate is gentle. Pastors should comfort and correct sheep (gently), correct fools (sometimes gently), and fight wolves (not gently).18 (Note that there may be a difference between treating someone gently from God’s perspective and treating someone gently from that person’s perspective; it’s possible for a person to wrongly perceive that a pastor’s correction is sinfully harsh.)19

However, it is relatively uncommon that a pastor should not be gentle. Gandalf doesn’t fight a Balrog every day. A man should be ready and prepared to go into aggressive protector mode at full strength when necessary, but gentleness should be his default mode; his character should incline toward that virtue. It does not mean that he always and without exception expresses gentleness toward all people. Here’s how John Piper puts it:

[Gentle] is the opposite of pugnacious or belligerent. He should not be harsh or mean-spirited. He should be inclined to tenderness and resort to toughness only when the circumstances commend this form of love. His words should not be acid or divisive but helpful and encouraging.20

Speaking of Gentleness, What Does It Mean for a Man to Be Pastoral?

When people say that a man is pastoral, I think they typically mean that he is gentle in the sense of caring, sensitive, calming, and comforting. Those are good qualities for a shepherd of animals to have,21 and those are good qualities for a pastor of people to have.

But being pastoral is more than being tender. It also includes being tough. Sometimes a faithful shepherd must protect the sheep by killing a wild animal (a wolf or bear or lion) or by grabbing a sheep before it wanders off a cliff.22 Being pastoral is a wise combination of strength and gentleness—of authority and compassion.23

Conclusion: Men, Be Strong and Gentle—Both Tough and Tender

A good man is both tough and tender—like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories or like Professor Albus Dumbledore in Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or like Aslan in Lewis’s Narnia stories:

  • Gandalf shows tender compassion to Gollum and encourages Frodo to do the same.
  • Professor Dumbledore shows tender compassion to Harry Potter after Voldemort murders Harry’s parents.
  • Aslan shows tender compassion to Reepicheep and his mice with cut-off tails.

But gentleness isn’t the virtue that comes to mind when …

  • Gandalf slays the Great Goblin 
  • or when Dumbledore duels Voldemort 
  • or when Aslan attacks and kills the White Witch.

Gandalf and Dumbledore aren’t tame wizards, and Aslan isn’t a tame lion.

The supreme model of tough and tender is God himself. Consider what God is like in Isaiah 40:10–11:

Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him; …
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.

“The glory of young men is their strength” (Proverbs 20:29). Men, we must use our strength to serve others—not to oppress them. So it shouldn’t surprise us how God directly addresses us as husbands and fathers:

  • Wives are sinfully inclined not to submit to or respect their husbands, so God commands, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. … Let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:22, 33; cf. Colossians 3:18).
  • Children are sinfully inclined to disobey their parents, so God commands, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20; cf. Ephesians 6:1).
  • Husbands are sinfully inclined to be harsh with their wives, so God commands, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:20; cf. Ephesians 5:25–33).
  • Fathers are sinfully inclined to provoke their children to wrath, so God commands, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21; cf. Ephesians 6:4).

Fathers, God made us to be strong, and we must use that strength for the good of our wives and children. That strength is a gift we must steward. Some men misuse their strength, but that is not a good reason to say that strength itself is bad. Strength is good if we use it the way God intends: strength plus gentleness. We must be both tough and tender.

Gentleness is the missing virtue that God rebukes false shepherds for in Ezekiel 37:4: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 37:4). False shepherds are harsh. False shepherds disregard the health of their sheep.

Doug Wilson explains that a good analogy for a man is a velvet-covered brick:

A husband must be hard in order to take on masculine responsibility. A husband must be soft in order to avoid crushing those for whom he is responsible. Maintaining these twin imperatives in balance requires great wisdom, far more than men may have apart from the grace of God.

Some men are all velvet …. Other men are all brick, mostly between the ears. …

Other men prefer to alternate between the two. Bricks when angry and abdicating velvet when covenantally lazy, they manage to incur all the negative consequences of both kinds of sin. This is the kind of husband whose wife thinks he is a tyrant, although he has never made one clear decision in all their years together. …

A man cannot honor a woman unless he is tender with her. …

The Bible tells men to be hard, and it tells them to be soft. Around each command, we find men clustering according to their own wishes and desires. One husband hears loud and clear the command to be hard, and so he engages himself to be harsh, critical, unloving, dense, imperious, stubborn, unbending, idiotic, and proud. Another man hears the command to be soft, and so he vacillates, waffles, abdicates, whines, complains, suffers, agonizes, and goes generally limp.

A man who does the former does so in the name of strength but has no notion of what biblical strength really is. A man who does the latter does so in the name of kindness but has no idea what biblical kindness actually is.

A man who is not strong enough to be tender is not strong at all. Everything he projects is nothing but counterfeit bluster. …

Instructed by biblical wisdom, strength and tenderness are not actually two different things. We may picture the two together by means of various analogies in combination—velvet and brick—but the two things together actually constitute one virtue, a virtue we may identify as essential to biblical masculinity.24

Men, be strong and gentle—both tough and tender, authoritative and compassionate, brick and velvet.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 24 footnotes
  1.  Scripture quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Thanks to those who examined a draft of this article and shared helpful feedback, especially Chase Davis, Charles Naselli (my father), Jenni Naselli (my wife), Kara Naselli (my fifteen-year-old daughter), Joshua Greever, and Joe Tyrpak. The resources I highlight in the following article contributed to my growing desire to study what it means to be gentle according to the Bible: Andrew David Naselli, “Ten Resources That Have Helped Me Make Sense of Our Current Culture and How Christians Are Responding to It,” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 4.1 (2022): 116–41.
  3. On how to do a word study, see Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), chap. 8 (pp. 206–29).
  4. Biblical scholars typically refer to the two dictionaries I quote from as HALOT and BDAG: Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. and trans. M. E. J. Richardson, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1994); Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

    Here are the thirteen words for gentleness along with definitions and examples:

    עָנִי (ʿanni) = “poor, not independent … 2. in a general sense poor, wretched, in a needy condition … 4. humble.” Isaiah 66:2: “But this is the one to whom I will look: / he who is humble (עָנִי (ʿanni); LXX: ταπεινόν (tapeinon)) and contrite in spirit / and trembles at my word.”

    עָנָו (‘anaw) = “bowed … (in Numbers 12:3) bowed, but in the sense of humble, pious.” Numbers 12:3: “Now the man Moses was very meek (עָנָו (‘anaw); LXX: πραΰς (praüs); NASB, NIV, CSB, NET, NLT: humble), more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (See also Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 61:1; Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12; Zechariah 9:9; Psalm 18:27; 37:11.)

    עֲנָוָה (‘ănawah) = “humility.” Zephaniah 2:3: “Seek the LORD, all you humble ( עַנְ (‘anaw—the previous word); LXX: ταπεινοί (tapeinoi)) of the land, / who do his just commands; / seek righteousness; seek humility ( עֲנָוָה (‘ănawah); LXX: δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosunēn); NETS: justice).”

    רַךְ (rak) = “tender, weak … soft, gentle, mild.” Proverbs 15:1: “A soft ( רַך (rak); LXX: ὑποπίπτουσα (upopiptousa); NETS: submissive; NASB, NIV, CSB, NET, NLT: gentle) answer turns away wrath, / but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (See also Genesis 18:7; 29:17; 1 Kings 19:11–12; Isaiah 47:1; Ezekiel 17:22; Proverbs 25:15).

    אַט (’aṭ) = “dejected mood, gentleness.” 2 Samuel 18:5: “The king (David) ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Deal gently (לְאַט (lə’aṭ)) for my sake with the young man (LXX: Φείσασθέ μοι τοῦ παιδαρίου (Pheisasthe moi tou paidariou); NETS: Spare for my sake the lad) Absalom.’” (See also Isaiah 8:6.)

    πραΰς (praüs) = “not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek in the older favorable sense.” Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek (οἱ πραεῖς (hoi praeis); NASB: gentle; CSB, NLT: humble), for they will inherit the earth.” (See also Matthew 11:29; 21:5; 1 Peter 3:4.)

    πραΰτης (praütēs) = “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness in the older favorable sense.” Galatians 5:22–23:  “The fruit of the Spirit is … gentleness (πραΰτης (praütēs)).” (See also 1 Corinthians 4:20; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:1–2; Colossians 3:12–13; 2 Timothy 2:24–25; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Peter 3:15–16; James 3:13.)

    πραϋπαθία (praüpathia) = “gentleness.” 1 Timothy 6:11: “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness (πραϋπαθίαν (praüpathian)).”

    ἐπιείκεια (epieikeia) = “the quality of making allowances despite facts that might suggest reason for a different reaction, clemency, gentleness, graciousness, courtesy, indulgence, tolerance.” 2 Corinthians 10:1: “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness (πραΰτητος (praütētos)) and gentleness (ἐπιεικείας (epieikeias)) of Christ.” (See also Acts 24:4.)

    ἐπιεικής (epieikēs) = “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.” 1 Timothy 3:3: “Not violent but gentle (ἐπιεικῆ (epieikē)).” (See also Philippians 4:5; Titus 3:1–2; James 3:17; 1 Peter 2:18.)

    ὑποπνέω (hupopneō) = “blow gently.” Acts 27:13: “Now when the south wind blew gently (Ὑποπνεύσαντος (hupopneusantos)) ….”

    ἤπιος (ēpios) = “gentle.” 2 Timothy 2:24–25: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind (ἤπιον (ēpion); CSB: gentle) to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness (πραΰτητι (praütēti)).”

    μετριοπαθέω (metriopatheō) = “moderate one’s feelings, deal gently … (in Hebrews 5:2) deal gently with those who sin in ignorance.” Hebrews 5:2: “He (i.e., the high priest) can deal gently (μετριοπαθεῖν (metriopathein); NET: deal compassionately) with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.”

  5.  “Soft” translates a word that the LXX translates as μαλακή (malakē). That’s the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 to refer to the “soft” homosexual male who is penetrated in contrast to the one who penetrates. Cf. Andrew David Naselli, “1 Corinthians,” in Romans–Galatians, vol. 10 of ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 265–66. The more neutral meaning of μαλακή (malakē) is simply “pertaining to being yielding to touch, soft, of things (like clothes)” (BDAG 613).
  6.  There are at least two different senses of gentleness. One denotes strength, and that is what I am focusing on here—that is, how gentleness is a virtue for masculine leaders like pastors, husbands, and fathers. The other sense denotes weakness and vulnerability. The gentle or meek are often parallel to the poor or downtrodden in various OT passages.
  7.  “Virtues are habits of intellectual and moral excellence, whereas vices are habits of intellectual and moral decadence.” Scott Swain, “Masters of Self: Cultivating Gentleness in an Age of Outrage,” Desiring God, 12 December 2019.
  8. “Gentleness is the little sister of humility. Gentleness and humility are often paired together in Scripture (Zephaniah 3:12; Matthew 11:29; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12). Whereas humility is moderate or proper self-regard, gentleness, which follows from humility, is moderate or proper self-restraint.” Swain, “Masters of Self.”
  9. David Mathis, Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ on Christian Leaders (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 223–25 (italics original).
  10. Cf. Michael P. V. Barrett, “Wisdom: Person or Personification? Thoughts on Proverbs 8,” Puritan Reformed Journal 8.1 (2016): 6.
  11. See Nancy Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2023). I recommend listening to Chase Davis interview Pearcey about the book on a recent episode of Full Proof Theology.

    Cf. D. Michael Clary, God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality (Ann Arbor, MI: Reformation Zion, 2023), 69–70:

    “Men who recognize that their masculine strength is needed in their homes, churches, and society will often rise to the challenge because the weight of these responsibilities draw out the strength needed to fulfill them. Men tend to thrive when they are given a great and noble goal to pursue that demands total sacrifice and commitment.

    “Unfortunately, our society does not properly recognize its need for strong, holy masculinity. The modern world too often regards masculinity as harmful or even ‘toxic.’ In fact, the world often judges masculinity by feminine standards. When toxic men are seen as defective women, the usual antidote is to try to make them more feminine. Our society has produced generations of ‘nice guys’ who are shriveling up on the inside, dying of boredom, and are afraid of or even ashamed of their masculinity. Although God has given them natural strength, many of them lack the purpose and direction to use it in a God honoring way.

    “If God has designed and equipped men for the task of being the leaders, providers, and protectors of society, then emasculating and feminizing them will not only weaken them, but also society as a whole. Evil men will use their masculine strength to tyrannize, and godly men will lack the strength to resist. The strength of tyrants and bullies in the world can only be stopped by the greater strength of masculine virtue. Men who deny their masculinity and embrace passivity are not capable of protecting others. Evil men will exploit their error.”

  12. See Clary, God’s Good Design, chap. 3 (pp. 57–78).
  13. Dane C. Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, Theologians on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 91.
  14. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Centenary, 1942), 148 (italics original). Cf. Joe Rigney, Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023).
  15. “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.” It’s wrong to take “a biblical virtue that is only a virtue in the appropriate setting” and then seek “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.” Ben C. Dunson, “The Winsomeness Wars,” American Reformer, 11 January 2023.
  16. See Andrew David Naselli, “Training Children for Their Good,” The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.2 (2013): 48–64. Cf. Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 2nd ed. (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd, 1995); Douglas Wilson, Standing on the Promises: A Handbook of Biblical Childrearing (Moscow, ID: Canon, 1997), 105–43; Douglas Wilson, Why Children Matter (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2018), 35–50; John MacArthur, What the Bible Says about Parenting: Biblical Principles for Raising Godly Children (Nashville: Word, 2000), 105–56; John Piper, “Would Jesus Spank a Child?,” Desiring God, 16 February 2009; Kevin DeYoung, “Seven Principles for Angry Parents Disciplining Angry Children,” The Gospel Coalition, 15 September 2016; Sam Crabtree, “Should Parents Spank Their Children?,” Desiring God, 5 September 2020; Tilly Dillehay, “How the Rod Can Point Children to God,” The Gospel Coalition, 2 October 2020.
  17. Cf. Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual (i.e., you who have the Spirit—cf. Galatians 5:16–26; 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:4) should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (πραΰτητος (praütētos); CSB: with a gentle spirit). Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
  18. See James R. Wood, “Sheep, Wolves, and Fools: On the Perils of a Winsome Ministry,” American Reformer, 4 October 2022.
  19. Doug Ponder, “We’re Commanded to Love Our Neighbors, Not to Make Them Feel Loved,” Sola Ecclesia, 5 June 2023.
  20. John Piper, “Rethinking the Governance Structure at Bethlehem Baptist Church: A Biblical Examination of Key Terms,” Desiring God, 27 April 2000, italics added.
  21. “A shepherd must make sure that the flocks (especially sheep) have access to a variety of vegetation, and also be careful not to graze too soon or overgraze an area. A balanced diet may require moving several times in the course of a given day. … The good shepherd must ‘lead with compassion’ (nhl; cf. Gen. 33:14; Ps. 23:3; Isa. 40:11; 49:10), knowing that the pregnant and nursing ewes need more rest and extra nutrition in the winter and spring, as do the lambs and kids. Shepherds have to watch their animals carefully; the right balance of eating, drinking and resting is essential.” Timothy Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 54–55.
  22. Cf. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart, 55–57.
  23. Cf. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart, 21, 247; Kevin DeYoung, “Embracing a Pastoral Approach,” 6 July 2012; Alastair Roberts, “The Fighting Shepherd,” Alastair’s Adversaria, 14 July 2012.
  24. Douglas Wilson, How to Exasperate Your Wife and Other Short Essays for Men (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2015), 33–36.
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Andy Naselli

Andy Naselli is professor of systematic theology and New Testament for Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of The North Church. He and his wife, Jenni, have four daughters. He is a 2023 Cotton Mather Fellow at American Reformer.

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