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Passive, Aggressive, or Assertive? What does Christian love look like in our verbal interactions?

Passive, Aggressive, or Assertive? What does Christian love look like in our verbal interactions?

By Bruce Atkinson Ph.D.
March 21, 2019

According to the typical definitions, aggressive people attack others' opinions in favor of their own and try to control others. Passive people don't state their opinions at all or quickly back down in the face of possible conflict. Passive-aggressive people ignore others' opinions and just do their own thing. Assertive people state their opinions while still being respectful of others.

As the book by Larry Crabb The Silence of Adam points out, part of Adam's sin (especially toward Eve) was his passivity and silence when he knew better. He was there and should have warned her strongly, perhaps even rebuked her for taking the serpent seriously. But no, like a cowardly king, he allowed Eve to be his food taster, to try the forbidden fruit first and see what happened. When nothing appeared to happen, he tried it too. So ever since, men have not been all that good at being proper leaders, being either too passive or too aggressive. Or passive-aggressive. And women were never designed to be leaders of men at all, but rather were always good at being helping partners--and at least equally important.

For Christians dealing with each other and dealing with non-Christians, it must be asked, "Are we supposed to be aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, or assertive?" I think that the NT says that it depends on the situation. It is not always easy to tell which situation is which.

Although Jesus was occasionally aggressive, rarely do the scriptures encourage aggression. I do believe that sometimes I am called to speak or write with authority (that which comes only from God the Holy Spirit within me). But generally I am called to humility and to speak to others at least as an equal. Sometimes I overstep my bounds and must apologize.

The scriptures help us in this task:. "... the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:15b-16, NIV)

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile with unbelievers (Matthew 5:39-41), but also to carry a sword (Luke 22:36) -- meaning to be prepared to do battle if necessary.

Note the "fruit of the Spirit" listed in Galatians 5:22-23; they include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. No aggressiveness mentioned. No taking charge, no coerciveness. Note especially peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us what agape love looks like: "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Paul encourages us to "put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience..."(Colossians 3:12).

On the other hand, the Apostle Paul also tells us that the Bible is an offensive weapon, that is, "the sword of the spirit which is the word of God." We are to use it sometimes to reprove, correct, and even rebuke our brothers (2 Tim 3:16, compare the ESV and NIV English translations). I like the way the NLT puts it: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right." It is the Word of God which rebukes, not we ourselves. And yet Peter tells the disciples to speak as if our words were coming straight from God (1 Peter 4:11).

And while Jesus told His disciples to love each other as He had loved them (John 13:34, 15:12), we must ask, how exactly did Jesus love them? How does He love us? He died for us all. He loves sacrificially. But Jesus was not shy about rebuking His disciples, and He was judgmental and downright rude to the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23). This too was love. He was gentle with the ordinary people of the street and countryside, but He was very tough with those in authority. I recommend the classic eye-opening collection by F.F. Bruce, "The Hard Sayings of Jesus." Jesus was not always so gentle, and at times He forced His listeners into an all-or-nothing position.

Out of love, we are to attempt to do what is likely to lead to the best outcome for all concerned. Sometimes that response is gentle and even seemingly passive in its expression, and sometimes it is "tough love," perhaps a rebuke and/or a moving on and away. For example, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." (Matt 15:13-14, cf. Romans 16:17, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, Galatians 1:6-9).

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 , Paul directs the church at Corinth to kick out ('excommunicate', if you will) a man from the church for sexual immorality. In 2 Cor 5:11, Paul says, "I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler -- not even to eat with such a one." Also, in 2 John 1:10-11, the writer advises believers that "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works."

These are strong words. We are NOT to be nice to everyone, and sometimes God calls us to schism. https://www.virtueonline.org/schism-and-sword-spirit-bruce-atkinson

So I remind our listeners that we must behave with circumspection. We are to examine and prayerfully discern which strategy the Lord is calling us to do in each situation. There is a wide range of options and the scriptures will help us decide. "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to the dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

The inspired words of Peter can help us find that difficult balance: "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies--in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church in Douglasville, Georgia.

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