One of the aspects of biblical revelation that has received quit a bit of attention in the Reformed church during the last Century and a half is that of God’s use of human personalities, languages and contexts in the inspiration of Scripture.1 There is, in this human element, a beautiful diversity found within the unity of the Divine revelation of the whole of the Scripture. While much has been written on this (and I’m certain that more will be written) one of the truths about personality that has not often been emphasized is the fact that God uses different personalities in the church today–even as He did in the apostolic days. In his Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, Herman Bavinck made the following important observation about human personality and the saving work of Christ:
Regeneration does not erase individuality, personality or character, but sanctifies it and puts it at the service of God’s name. The community of believers is the new humanity that bears within itself a wide range of variety and distinction and manifests the richest diversity in unity.1
Before entering in on the subject of personality it will be helpful for us to note that there are two fundamental errors in how believers view one another in the church in regard to personality. The first has to do with having an expectation that all believers must fit a certain personality caricature. This may come in the form of an expectation that all believers should have a soft spoken, reserved personality; or, it may reside in a stereotype of an outspoken and socially fearless person. A second error with which we are confronted has to do with being dismissive about the nature of sin in the personality. Just as effortlessly imposing a personality expectation on others, we can as equally write off sinful characteristics as being merely part of a personality–thereby nullifying Bavinck’s observation that God takes a human personality, “sanctifies it and puts it to the service” of His name. Because this is a subject of enormous breadth, it will help us to limit our consideration to the biblical data regarding the personality of the Savior and the Apostles. By so doing, we will be better suited to navigate through this difficult yet important subject.
It is right for us to start with a consideration of the Son of God for the mere fact that Jesus was the only man who lived a perfect life to the end. His personality, while uniquely crafted to Himself, was nevertheless a personality untainted by sin. Jesus appeared at times to be introverted and at other times to be extroverted. He manifested the characteristics of wisdom outlined in the Proverbs in each and every situation in which He found Himself. His words and His actions always came with perfect wisdom and uprightness. He was not a man who vented all His feelings (Prov. 29:11); neither was He a man who “hid hatred” (Prov. 10:18). He was seen to be the wise man who “spared his words” and who was “of a calm spirit” (Prov. 17:27-28) as well as the wise man who “opened his mouth in the gate” (Prov. 24:7). He was never impulsive so as to “exult folly” (Prov. 14:29); but He never “isolated himself” and so sought His own desire (Prov. 18:1). There were times when Jesus was so warm and affectionate that His own disciples felt comfortable enough to lean back on His breast (John 13:25; 21:20); while at other times Jesus was driving the money changers out of the Temple with a whip of chords (John 2:15) in righteous anger. He always knew when to speak a soft word (Prov. 14:1), and always knew when it was time for hard words (Prov. 27:5). He perfectly embodied the best characteristics of an introvert and an extrovert. There were times when he was boldly engaging the multitudes and times when He was pulling away and hiding Himself. It seems to me that Jesus had the most balanced personality of anyone born from the fall of Adam to the consummation. There is a great need for this subject to be explored more deeply. Three of the richest studies on aspects of the subject of the inner life of Christ are B.B. Warfield’s “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” William Blaikie’s Glimpses of the Inner Life of our Lord and Robert Law’s The Emotions of Jesus.
When we move from Jesus to those He chose to minister side by side with Him, we discover that Jesus appears to have paired the disciples up according to their personality types. Whether it was putting Simon the zealot with the doubtful Thomas, or outspoken Peter with warm and affectionate John, Jesus paired strengths and weaknesses to bring balance to the band of disciples. Peter needed John, even though there were times when he was jealous of John’s affectionate personality in relation to Jesus (John 21:21).
Of course, when we start thinking about the personality of the disciples recorded in the Gospels, our minds are almost involuntarily drawn back to Peter. There was absolutely nothing mysterious about the personality of the one who functioned as a “chief-among-equals” in the Apostolic band. We see all the flaws of a Simon Peter, but we also stand amazed at his boldness and readiness of mind to confess, follow and lay down his life for the sake of Christ. In the introductory section of his volume on Simon Peter, Hugh Martin cited August Neander’s History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles in which Neander made the following statement about Peter’s personality and how it was sanctified for use in God’s kingdom:
What Peter became by the power of the divine life was in a measure determined by his natural peculiarities. A capacity for action, rapid in its movements, seizing with a firm grasp on its object, and carrying on his designs with ardor, was his leading characteristic, by which he effected so much in the service of the Gospel. But the fire of his powerful nature needed first to be transformed by the flame of divine love, and to be refined from the impurities of selfishness, to render him undaunted in the publication of the Gospel. By the natural constitution of his mind, he was indeed disposed to surrender himself at the moment entirely to the impression which seized him, without being turned aside by those considerations which would hold back more timorous spirits, and to express with energy what would move many minds; but he was easily misled by a rash self-confidence to say more, and to venture more, than he could accomplish; and though he quickly and ardently seized on an object, he allowed himself too easily to relinquish it, by yielding-to the force of another sudden and powerful impression.2
The Lord used Peter’s personality for the unique purposes that he had for him. Peter–and not John–was the one who led the way in bringing the Gospel to the Jews in the early years of the New Covenant church (as is seen in the first half of the book of Acts). In part, Peter’s personality made him a more suitable choice–though that personality had to be greatly sanctified by the Holy Spirit. It was the same Peter who had cowardly denied Jesus outside of the High Priest’s courtyard, who–after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit–boldly professed Him within the palace where the Savior had been tried.
The other leading figure in the evangelization of the world had an equally bold personality. The apostle Paul was a type-A personality, driven to succeed and uncompromising in his principles. It was this personality that–prior to his conversion–had led him to zealously persecute the church of God, and yet, which–after his conversion–was employed in the greatest church planting movement the world has ever seen. Paul was aware of his own personality and how it was used both against and for the Kingdom of God. Geerhardus Vos gave us a glimpse into the mind of the apostle Paul and the admiration he had for Isaiah’s sanctified personality. Vos explained:
Paul seems to have felt something of the congeniality of Isaiah’s mind to his own. He quotes from him often and not seldom with that fine spiritual insight which penetrates beyond the surface meaning of a passage into the innermost mind of the author and divines the subtle shade of his momentary thought and feeling. “Isaiah is very bold” (Rom. 10:20), he exclaims with evident appreciation of a noble trait exemplified to a high degree in his own character.
Paul also had a tenderness about him. Derek Thomas made the following astute observation about Paul’s tears before the elders in Ephesus:
I don’t often associate Paul with outward emotions. He’s type-A; he’s always right; he has an opinion about everything; and woe betide you if you cross him as John Mark learned; but there’s a tenderness about the Apostle Paul; there’s an affection about him; there’s a sense in which there is a very real, tangible bond here between a minister and his elders. I think that it would be safe to say, that in our Presbyterian polity, few things are as important as our relationship with our elders.
Whatever else we may say about personalities in the church, the following seem to be in accord with the clear teaching of the Apostles:
1. We must embrace who God made us and pray that God will sanctify and use us according the strengths of our individual personalities.
While Peter and Paul had bold, type-A personalities, Barnabas–by way of contrast–was more even-keeled. Barnabas does seem to have had a conflict-loving personality. His desire to make peace may have been part of his natural disposition that–once sanctified further by the Gospel and the Spirit of God–was instrumental in introducing the newly converted Paul to the fledgling church. It is certainly that which led him to settle in to second place as the son of Encouragement. Everyone needed a Barnabas, but not everyone had the uniquely crafted personality of Barnabas. If Barnabas had Peter or Paul’s personality he certainly would have been leading the way on the evangelistic frontier of the world. In the words of Sinclair Ferguson, Barnabas was a man who learned “Played Second Fiddle Well.”
2. We must guard against sinful abuses of our personalities. This is where the Proverbs are so helpful. Each of us has uniquely crafter personalities. Generally our greatest personal strengths will also be our greatest weaknesses because of sin. Whether we are an extrovert who dominates conversations, or an introvert who keeps quite when we ought to open our mouths, all of us need to diligently search the Scriptures, carefully examine our personalities and prayerfully ask God to sanctify and mature us in the Gospel.
3. We must seek to benefit others in the church through our God-given, Gospel-sanctified personalities. Finding our place in the church is one of the most important things we could do. There is nothing worse or more damaging than someone trying to fill a role that they have neither been called or equipped to fill. If God has given you a more retreating personality, church planting is probably not the best fit for you. If God has given you a more type-A, Alpha-male personality being a number 2 or 3 guy on staff at a church is probably not the place where you should be. There may be value in moving from the broad categories of introvert/extrovert and type-A/type-B to the more careful delineations of such personality tests as the “Myers-Briggs” type indicator (In which I fall closest to the ENTJ description) or the Kolbe index to help you think through these things. Knowing who we are and where we should be used is extremely valuable to greater fruitful service in the church.
4. We must embrace the fact that we need others in the church. Our Lord Jesus knit us together into a body of believers with all the strengths and weaknesses of different personalities. While Christ had a personality perfectly sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in His life and ministry, we–by way of contrast–will always have imbalanced and sin-tainted personalities. We need to learn to bear with one another and pray for one another. I am sure that Simon Peter probably got some eye rolls from members of the church, but when he was arrested “constant prayer was made for him by the church.” The church needs extroverts and introverts, those who have a sort of natural boldness and those with a natural gentleness–all sanctified by the word and Spirit of God. It is far to easy to like people who are like us and to grow frustrated with those whose personalities are different than ours.
1. Several of the more helpful works on this subject are E.J. Young’s “The Human Writers of the Scripture” from Thy Word is Truth, B.B. Warfield, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” in Selected Shorter Writings,2:546 and Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (London, 1959); Paul Wells “The Doctrine of Scripture: Only A Human Problem” in