Pettiness comes from the French word petit, which means “small.” We use the word petty as an adjective to indicate matters of lesser importance, such as a petty crime or petty details. Pettiness, however, is an attitude that leads to bad behavior. It is an undue concern for trivial matters resulting in arguments or spiteful behavior. The word petty did not originate as a disparaging word, but it has evolved to become associated with small-mindedness and “making a mountain out of a molehill.” For example: “We had a petty argument about paint colors.”
Everyone has been petty at some point, but people who continually exhibit pettiness are overly sensitive, opinionated, or prideful. Pettiness usually arises from a perceived need to be right about everything. When someone else disagrees with our opinion, we have a choice. We can be persuaded by a different opinion, agree to disagree, or force the point, which can lead to pettiness. Titus 3:9 warns us to “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.” In other words, avoid petty arguments, especially about spiritual matters. In 2 Timothy 2:14, Paul instructs Timothy to “keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”
Pettiness is a divider. It creates unnecessary walls and rifts within the family of God. Many places in Scripture instruct believers to set aside differences in order to work together for the sake of the gospel (e.g., 2 Timothy 2:23; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:18; Philippians 1:27). When we allow pettiness to separate us from other believers, we allow a foothold for the enemy (2 Corinthians 2:10–11).
Some key points of doctrine are worth debating. When someone holds a position that contradicts Scripture, harms someone else, or will lead down a dangerous path, love motivates us to challenge that (Romans 12:9). But when we over-spiritualize our opinions or make every issue a key point of doctrine, it leads to pettiness. For example, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is worthy to defend, and we should hold fast to it, but insisting on a particular Bible translation is pettiness. A wise person learns to differentiate between petty arguments and worthy debates (Proverbs 10:19; 11:12; 17:27). If most of our arguments are because we are prideful, opinionated, or overly sensitive, we may have a problem with pettiness. Recognizing our tendency to demand our own way is the first step in overcoming pettiness (James 1:19).