Not many use the term pugnacious today. Looking at just the word itself, if I didn’t know any better, I’d guess it referred to possessing a tenacious love for the dog breed pug (pug + tenacious = pugnacious).
Apart from my own nonsense, pugnacious is indeed a biblical term. “Pugnacious” is the NASB’s translation of plēktēs in 1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7. Other translations use the adjective “violent” (ESV, NET Bible, NKJV, NIV) or go for a noun, “a bully” (HCSB) or “striker” (KJV). When plēktēs is taken as a noun, it refers to “a person who is pugnacious and demanding.”1 Plēktēs stems from the verb plēssō, meaning “to strike with force”2 and could refer to both verbal and physical abuse.3
Whatever the translation, it is a negative character trait that must not be true of a pastor, let alone be the title for someone so described by this trait (“a bully”). In fact, as a pastor must be an example for all (1 Pet 5:3), no one should be pugnacious, especially Christians who are called to love all people and certainly one another (John 13:34–35).
So, what should we be instead?
A character trait that comes immediately after “pugnacious” in 1 Timothy 3:3 indicates what we should be instead: gentle. The word behind “gentle” is epieikēs and is introduced with the strong adversative “but” (alla), showing a direct contrast pugnacious and gentle.4 Other instances of epieikēs are translated “gentle” and are contrasted with being “unjust” (1 Pet 2:18) or “quarrelsome” (Titus 3:2), the latter of which immediately follows “gentle” in 1 Tim 3:3. A contrast may be intended here as well.5 Being “gentle” is an expression of godly wisdom alongside being “peaceable… open to reason, fully of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). Rather than being pugnacious, we should be gentle instead.
It’s one thing to be gentle and not demand our way. But what if someone else pushes first? How can we be gentle, even in conflict?
Perhaps we could learn from how the apostle Paul handled pugnaciousness in 2 Corinthians 10–13. Paul upheld his apostolic ministry against the “super-apostles” who were criticizing him and pugnaciously pushing the Corinthians around (cf. 2 Cor 11:5, 13; 12:11–12). Paul rebuked the Corinthians for putting up with this pushy behavior, thinking pugnaciousness was good: “For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face” (2 Cor 11:20). To this, Paul sarcastically replied, “To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!” (2 Cor 11:21).
This whole section of 2 Corinthians 10–13, rebuke included, was to “entreat” the Corinthians “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1). “Gentleness” here is epieikeia, a relative of epieikēs, the word translated “gentle” in our discussion above. Paul could speak strongly and even sarcastically to grip their attention, but only to deal with sin and uphold the truth. Ultimately, his strong rebuke (which included no violence) was so he could be gentle when they saw each other again (2 Cor 13:8–10). Even when we are opposed, we can speak truth firmly but lovingly to others.
Are you pugnacious? Christ calls us to a better way. Speak firmly as you are convinced of the truth, and be meek and gentle like our Lord.
- Louw and Nida, s.v., “πλήκτης.”
- BDAG, s.v., “πλήσσω.”
- John F. MacArthur, Jr. Titus (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 38–39.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid.; George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1992), 160.