What's the Difference Between Meekness and Passivity?

According to Genesis 3, male passivity always leads to trouble for men and for women. When discussing biblical manhood, therefore, we often emphasize the need for men to shun their tendency toward passivity and embrace their God-given calling to pursue courageous intentionality in their homes, churches, places of work, and greater communities. For some guys, however, it is difficult to distinguish between meekness–an admirable and Christlike quality–and passivity.

Two Definitions
Let’s start with definitions. A few Sundays ago I preached a two-part series on biblical manhood. In the first sermon I defined passivity as the neglect to exercise God-given leadership in the face of clear and present responsibilities. For “meekness,” Merriam-Webster gives us three possibilities: (1) enduring injury with patience and without resentment; mild; (2) deficient in spirit and courage; submissive; (3) not violent or strong; moderate.

Out of all of these, the first option best comports with the biblical witness. As with any word in our Bibles, translators have chosen English words that most accurately render the meaning of the original. As we can see in the above definition, meekness has taken on some negative connotations in the contemporary linguistic milieu. But if we define “meekness” in relation to Jesus Christ, we must reject options (2) and (3), for Jesus was never deficient in courage or strength. The Greek word translated “meek” in Matthew 5:5–“Blessed are the meek”–is the same word Jesus uses to describe himself in Matthew 11:28:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (ESV).

Meekness, then, should be defined in terms of gentleness and a willingness to yield to the needs of others. In relation to discussions on manhood, I would say that meekness is the demeanor with which men should carry out their active leadership.

Active Meekness
In other words, an intentional, courageous, proactive, forward-thinking man who plans for the good of others will not be harsh, or boss others around, or push his weight around, or revel in his authority. He will be willing to yield to the preferences of those he leads, so long as those preferences are not sinful or threaten to take them off a God-glorifying path.

He will also be patient and gentle with those who struggle–not easily annoyed or unkind. And, although he is meek, he will be courageous and willing to face difficult decisions, take the blame when he is wrong, speak the truth with love, and take the initiative to lead where it is appropriate in his sphere of influence and responsibility. Like Jesus, he is gentle with people but fiercely intentional in working and planning for the good of others.

In his book When Sinners Say ‘I Do’ Dave Harvey provides a helpful definition of meekness and its relation to passivity.

 Meekness has nothing to do with being weak or passive. Meekness is power harnessed by love. It is an expression of humility that will not bristle or defend when challenged about motives. In fact, a meek person realizes that he could have selfish motives and must evaluate himself. This fruit of the Spirit helps us govern our anger, restrain our tongue, and maintain our peace. A. W. Tozer said, “The meek man . . . will have attained a place of soul rest. As he walks on in meekness he will be happy to let God defend him. The old struggle to defend himself is over. He has found the peace which meekness brings (130).

Meekness, then, is the guiding affection by which a man will fulfill his God-given role as leader. He will be strong, decisive, courageous, and intentional. But he will see himself primarily as a servant, laboring for the good of others, never prone to defend himself, willing to bear slander and abuse, and ready to defer to the preferences of those he leads.

2 thoughts on “What's the Difference Between Meekness and Passivity?”

  1. Thanks for the insights expressed herein on contrasting passivity and meekness! This is, in my opinion a common misunderstanding among churches I have been associated with and it was good to have some clarity in regards to the differences between the two words. The last sentence “…and ready to defer to the preferences of those he leads”, however, seemed almost incongruent with the attributes used to describe a leader: “strong, decisive, courageous and intentional”. Earlier in the article the idea that a leader should yield to the interests of others, so long as those interests are not sinful, etc. is also articulated. Therein lies the conundrum – “yielding” appears to be the antithesis of “decisive”, as well as “courageous”, especially when courageous has an implicit meaning of standing up against something deemed to be wrong. I would like to hear your thoughts in a subsequent blog about the apparent dichotomy of these terms as used in the blog article. Thanks for taking the time to publish your thoughts!

  2. Jim,

    Thank you for your comments. I chose my words carefully because I recognize there could be some confusion with claiming that a man can be decisive while also yielding. The operative word is “preferences.” A strong, active, godly leader who is exercising meekness will be happy to die to his own preferences while leading his people in a biblical direction. Let me offer you an example of how I try to work this out at home. Let’s say my boys want to sit on their beds instead of on the floor during nightly devotions. I would rather be on the floor, but bed it is! I have yielded to their preference. But let’s say they tell me they no longer want to have nightly devotions. That’s not an option. While their complaint may nudge me to consider how we are conducting our night-time routine of Bible, prayer, and singing (is it boring, too long, not engaging, etc.?), I will not yield to their desire to halt our devotional time. When understood in this way, I don’t believe there is any incongruity in saying that a godly man can yield to others while also exercising courageous leadership.

    Derek

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