Are You Principled or Just a Contentious Jerk?


The apostle Paul says “an overseer must be . . . not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:2–3). Yet in my experience, quarrelsome people often hide behind the excuse, “I’m just principled” or “I’m standing up for the truth when no one else will.”

It’s not a completely unreasonable point. Many people seem to confuse having an opinion with being quarrelsome, hostile, and aggressive. But that’s not right.

So how do you know if you’re principled or just a contentious jerk?

My old Webster’s Dictionary defines quarrelsome as “apt or disposed to find fault; contentious.” Paul described how to not be contentious this way: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31).

In other words, if you’re prone to debate, to sow discord, or to cause strife, then you are a contentious, quarrelsome person. If you are hungry for a good online fight or more committed to winning an argument than winning over an opponent, then you are a quarrelsome person.

To be sure, you might be principled, too. Being principled doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the possibility of being quarrelsome. A principled person can indeed be quarrelsome in a way that disqualifies him from the office of elder.

If that’s you, you need to repent today.


Paul makes this perfectly clear as he details the six sins that must be violently killed if you claim to be a follower of Jesus. These six sins create a quarrelsome person.

1. Take off all bitterness.

A bitter person is sour, crabby, disagreeable, and often trying to find wrong in others. He lives with a suspicious eye, never taking anyone at face value. He is resentful and seldom happy with anyone (except himself).

If you find yourself consumed with how others have offended you, then you are a bitter person. If you’ve got a pristine Record of Wrongs Done Against Me and you use it to fight every debate you’re in, then you are a bitter person.

Friend, this is not good. Dig out the bitterness and throw it in the ditch where it belongs.

2. Take off all wrath.

Paul uses the word “wrath” here to describe those explosions of anger when you lose control, when you find yourself boiling over with rage. There’s never an excuse for this kind of behavior in a Christian. It’s never acceptable. It’s always a sin. It must be mortified, not mollified.

3. Take off all anger.

Unlike “wrath,” the anger the Apostle is talking about here is that settled internal disposition or state of mind where a person is just mad about everything and everyone. If you find yourself thinking no one can do right in your eyes, then you are not only arrogant, you’re an angry man. Put it to death, brother!

4. Take off all clamor.

We do not use the word clamor a lot, but think of it as an ALL CAPS screed on your socials. Clamor is basically uncontrolled screaming at another person, whether that other person is a spouse in your home or a political foe on the street corner. Did Jesus scream at his enemies? No, and neither should we.

5. Take off all slander.

There are many accusations of slander floating around the blogosphere, but foundationally the word means speaking evil of another. When you use words—spoken or typed—to tear down another, to call them names, to mock them (Prov. 17:5), or to damage their reputation, then you have slandered. In doing so, you have identified much more closely with Satan than any Christian ever should.

6. Take off malice.

Ever found yourself walking away from a difficult conversation imagining all the things you could have said, or all the things you will say if the opportunity presents itself again? That is called malice. It involves making wicked and evil plans or plotting cruel revenge. Such scheming, too, must stop. Kill this sin or it will kill you.

When you put these six nouns together, you get a detailed description of a contentious person. This person lives with an internal state of mind on high alert for the next scuffle they can start or jump in to.

If a person is bitter and angry, if he is plotting the takedown of other believers, if he is constantly shouting in person or through his keyboard, then he is quarrelsome. It doesn’t matter if the content of what he says is right. It doesn’t matter if he’s a pastor. You can be right, but malicious. You can say true things while slandering someone. Malice, slander, clamor, anger, wrath, and bitterness are sins. And no matter what or who you’re fighting against, such sins have no place in the Christian life. Zero.

You must remove these behaviors entirely.

Did you see the word “all” in Ephesians 4:31? “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

All of it! Not some of it! Not, most of it! All of it. There is no room for them. Not in your church. Not in you.

In fact, these particular sins grieve God the Holy Spirit. Consider the previous verse: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30).

The Holy Spirit loves you, Christian, and the Holy Spirit loves your brother, too. When you are contentious with your brother, you wound the heart of God: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:15–16).

O Contentious Man, you are of the flesh! You are living for yourself!


There’s a way to say the right thing in the wrong way—to be principled and quarrelsome. Just as there’s a way to say the wrong thing in the right way. I am calling on you to say the right things in the right way. To set your sights on honest unity instead of bludgeoned conformity.

As Peter writes, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

One of the Dutch versions translated this, “All of you, be friendly with one another…”

They might have been on to something.

Paul Martin

Paul Martin is a pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario.

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