Let your gentleness be apparent to all. The Lord is near. (Phil 4:5)
The context of this command is essential here. Two women in the church of Philippi had been in conflict, and Paul is advocating to them both to be gentle and gracious and move forward without harming one another or the fellowship of the church.
It is a low point in the fellowship of any church when people begin accusing one another of saying improper words or having bad motives – while ignoring their own words and motives – and when different sides insist that they are 100% right and the others are 100% wrong. Ordinarily the issues themselves are inconsequential and people are using these matters selfishly just to promote themselves and to harm others. It is as James said, that where there is jealousy and selfish ambition “there is disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16).
The word translated “gentleness” in Philippians 4:5 – epieikes in Greek – was used of Christ in 2 Corinthians 10:1, and it sets the tone of that entire passage: “Now by the mildness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you,” and he went on to assure them that the Christian’s authority, as he is surrendered to the Spirit, extends to the capacity to “tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The mind or the heart must be willingly obedient to Christ. The goal in Christian fellowship should first be to win the person, and not to win the argument.
These two passages, Philippians 4:4-7 and 2 Corinthians 10:1-11, are parallel in their concerns. The Pulpit Commentary points out that this word epieikes, “In the Aristotelian’ Ethics’ … stands for the temper which contents itself with less than its due, and shrinks from insisting on its strict rights.” It is the gentleness demonstrated by Christ who understood the human heart and knew that though a strong rebuke may have been justified in theory, that in actual circumstances it could be counter-productive to the purposes of God. Christ demonstrated this gentleness in dealing with the woman caught in adultery.
If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her … Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. (John 8:7-11)
Though John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles all exercised bold confrontation in many instances, it was toward the hardened religious leaders and insiders, or sinful public leaders. To the common man or woman, even those very sinful, gentleness and graciousness was the tactic.
In both the Philippians 4 and the 2 Corinthians 10 passages the emphasis is on correction and restoration, not on accusation and punishment. The sinner is always rebuked that he might repent and be restored, not that he may be destroyed. And Paul said in the 2 Corinthians passage:
I may seem to be boasting too much about the authority given to us by the Lord. But our authority builds you up; it doesn’t tear you down. So I will not be ashamed of using my authority. (2 Cor. 10:8 NLT)
God looks for the teachable heart, and we should also. Someone may be entirely wrong along a certain line, but if there remains an openness in him to the Holy Spirit, then we should be gentle and nurture this openness. Otherwise, while being right in principle we may be entirely wrong in practice, we may make the punishment worse than the sin. So the Spirit commands here an attitude that graciously and gently deals with one another. It is much better to redeem a brother (or sister) than to destroy one.
The soon coming of the Lord, who is also among us already by His Spirit, is added motivation to be gentle with each other. He will judge properly and graciously. We do not need to get personally involved in every mishap or weakness of every Christian that we happen to know. We should be gentle with one another, just as we would want others to be gentle with us.
Gentleness does not mean to ignore wrong-doing, not at all. Gentleness is using the appropriate level of confrontation and rebuke, as we are led by the Spirit of Christ. Sometimes that level is zero, because God is not telling us to get involved in the matter at all. “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Prov 26:17). Other times, as the Spirit leads us, we should get involved to graciously and patiently help someone get right with God. But as God warns us:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness (meekness). But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)
A different word was used in Galatians 6:1, praotes, sometimes translated “meekness” but also “gentleness” or “kindness.” It describes an action toward others that comes from an attitude about oneself. Humility, properly possessed, leads us to be gentle. The “Helps Word Studies” translate the concept in these words: “The necessary balance of exercising power and avoiding harshness.” The point is always to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).