The Minister’s Example

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11-16)

An older man recently referred to me and my wife as “kids.” He did not intend this to be derogatory or condescending, but it reflected the way he perceived us due to the age difference, just as I might call someone much younger than me the same thing. Although I have been teaching people of his age since I was sixteen, after so many years the difference remains large enough that someone of his age would still think of me as a kid. Timothy was not a child or a teenager. He could have been older than me, but he was still considered young in the context of his culture and relative to some of the people in his congregation, so that perhaps they found it difficult to take direction from him or to accept his authority. We cannot know if Timothy in fact faced this problem, but the apostle considered it a possibility.

Paul’s comments are instructive, and suggest applications that are useful beyond the immediate context. When he says earlier that a church leader should not be a new convert, this has no necessary relationship with the age of a person. An old man can be a new convert, and it is possible for a relatively young person to be a seasoned believer. Before other considerations, however legitimate or needful, it is the truth that counts. He does not tell Timothy to speak through an older person, or through someone that the community naturally looks up to due to age, education, wealth, or some such thing, but to take it upon himself to “command and teach these things.” As for the resistance or suspicion that might arise because of his youth, this is not to be overcome solely by a stern rebuke against prejudice, although a church leader certainly could challenge cultural assumptions that hinder ministry. Rather, Paul tells Timothy to prove himself by setting an example in conduct and by devoting himself to doctrine.

The Bible’s insistence that a minister must “set an example” should not be reduced to another cliché. It does not resonate with the stupid slogan that “actions speak louder than words.” If actions speak louder than words, then I want the person who believes this to shut his mouth and, without words, say it to me by his actions instead. If actions speak louder than words, then tell me this claim by actions, not by words. This saves him from being a hypocrite, and also allows me to ignore him in peace and quiet. In any case, even if he were to punch me in the face, without uttering a word of explanation, I would not derive from his action the proposition that actions speak louder than words. Those who are loudest about the loudness of actions often have no notable actions to show for it. They just assume that this is what they should say. The popularity of this slogan, in fact, illustrates the need for sound doctrine, since it is due to careless thinking that such an unbiblical statement has been accepted as proper Christian teaching.

Both actions and words are important, but greater precision is needed so that we can grasp how they are important. Contrary to the slogan, actions do not speak at all in the way that words do, so that actions can never speak “louder” than words as if they can be compared on the same scale. It is true that actions can “speak” in a purely figurative sense, but the speaking is in fact not done until the points that the actions are supposed to make are put into words. Nevertheless, these statements would be interpretations of the actions. They are not the actions themselves, nor are they statements that necessarily arise from the actions. Whether true or false, valid or invalid, they are verbal interpretations of things that in themselves do not speak and that do not convey any information.

True words are true even if the speaker’s actions do not correspond. True words impose moral obligations upon the hearers to assent and to obey even if the person who speaks these words is a hypocrite. It is common for preachers to warn us that if we do not walk in love or live a holy life, then “no one” will believe our gospel, and some even say that no one should. This is the world’s wisdom, and the Bible is directly against it. Jesus told his own disciples that they should do what the Pharisees said when they spoke in line with Moses, but should not follow their example, since they were hypocrites (Matthew 23:1-3). The truth itself carries the power to compel assent and the authority to impose obligation. It is rather pretentious of people to suppose that this power and authority rest on their conduct.

Still, our actions are important, only that they are not important for the communication of information, and they are not necessary for persuasion. Rather, first, it is important that our conduct is consistent with our doctrine because this is our moral obligation. The gospel is true whether or not we conform to it, but if we are true disciples of Jesus Christ, then we will also strive to follow his commands and teachings. Second, although our actions do nothing to convey truth, they provide illustrations to the truth that we convey by our words, although since actions cannot speak, these illustrations themselves must be pointed out and explained by our words. Third, when our conduct is consistent with our doctrine, this serves as authentication to the genuineness of our own faith and ministry. It is not necessary to authenticate the faith of Jesus Christ, which is true no matter what we do, but it serves to authenticate us as his disciples.

Fourth, although our conduct has no necessary relationship to the truth of the Christian faith, there are many people who would make such a connection in their minds, and so when our conduct is consistent with our doctrine, it helps to convince the irrational. Again, it is a gross exaggeration to say that “no one” would believe our doctrine when our conduct does not match, since the Spirit of God is not impotent, and the gospel – not our holy conduct – is the power of God for salvation. By the grace of God at work in the minds of his chosen ones, not everyone is stupid. Why would the inconsistencies of Christians prevent me from believing in the gospel? The Bible itself teaches that believers are not perfect. I saw this even as I read the Bible as an infant. It is not some complicated and hidden truth. And why would I stumble because of some scandal in the church, or because some famous minister commits fraud or adultery? It is entirely consistent with what the Bible predicts, so what is there to stumble over? Why would I doubt the Christian faith when what it tells me would happen, actually happens? But some people are stupid, and it is our obligation to make sure that we do not allow our actions to become stumbling blocks to them, however irrational it is for them to perceive them as such.

Meanwhile, we must not tolerate this illegitimate connection between conduct and truth. If we allow it to perpetuate, we implicitly grant people permission to disbelieve or abandon the gospel on the basis of our failures. Instead, we must echo Jesus’ policy, that is, hypocrites are condemnable, but truth is truth even when it comes from their mouths, and the moral obligation imposed by truth remains in full force. In our preaching and teaching, we must expose the false connection. As long as Jesus Christ is not a hypocrite, the gospel is true, and is to be believed and obeyed. And if you stumble because of another person’s failure, not only are you stupid, but you remain culpable for violating the truth of the gospel.

Although our conduct says nothing about the truth of our doctrine, it says something about us, and about our own commitment to the doctrine we espouse. And although even a hypocrite, if he speaks the truth, must be heeded, as a hypocrite he is not qualified to lead the church. Paul says that if Timothy seems to be young to some of the people, then he should show himself to be mature, and capable of leading God’s people and giving them authoritative direction. There is no problem with the idea of a young minister, but whether young or old, a person who assumes the position must show that he has been taught and transformed by the Ancient of Days.

We have focused our attention on conduct, but only to correct a common misunderstanding about its relation to doctrine and to ministry. The apostle also instructs his son in the faith to closely watch his doctrine and to diligently develop his gift for ministry. Again, if there is a tendency in some people to look down on the minister because of his youth, he is to prove himself by his maturity in character, his dedication and competence in the ministry of the word, and his continual progress. The work of the Spirit in a man is God’s own testimony that the minister is legitimate, and this work of God is evidenced by conduct, doctrine, and spiritual endowment.

He says that the gift was given to him through a prophetic message when some elders laid their hands on him. Many Christians no longer permit the prophetic, although they have no biblical warrant for this. The dread of deception should not be relieved by denying spiritual manifestations, but by testing all claims to their occurrences. The Bible is sufficient to do this. A lack of emphasis on spiritual gifts, which is really a lack of dependence on God’s Spirit, explains the powerlessness in most ministers and churches. Ordination is an empty gesture, a formality that signals mere human recognition with no divine power to accompany it. A total destruction of all charismatic tendencies would, of course, eliminate all false claims of supernatural power, but it does not demonstrate a faithfulness to Scripture. Paul commands us to covet spiritual gifts, the powerful manifestations and endowments of God’s Spirit. Nowadays many Christians seem to think that it is carnal to desire spiritual gifts, as if the Bible itself teaches this. How far have we fallen! I covet spiritual power, because the Bible commands it, and because I recognize that I am entirely inadequate in myself. I need the power of the Holy Spirit, and I want people’s faith to rest in God’s power instead of my natural talents.

God is merciful and generous. Although some of us are hardened by tradition and unbelief, he still give gifts to his church, if not by prophetic utterances or the laying on of hands, then by the direct action of the Spirit, so that his word may be spread abroad and his people edified. If God wants to do something, and if he wants to do it a certain way, then all our traditions cannot stop it. The church cannot stop it. Scholars cannot stop it. Denominational leaders cannot stop it. False creeds, traditions, and theologies cannot stop it. He will do what he wants to do. Yet people ought to take care lest they find themselves fighting against God for the sake of their traditions, and in order to hide their insecurities, jealousies, and deficiencies.

There is a wider application to all of this. That is, when someone looks down on you because of your age, race, appearance, level of formal education, social or economic background, or some other thing that should have no necessary relevance to your competence as a minister of the gospel, the biblical answer is to prove yourself by exhibiting godly character and conduct. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Throw yourself entirely into improvement in these things, and into the work of preaching and teaching.

You may be tempted to threaten people into giving you superficial respect, but if you are satisfied with that, then you are indeed the spiritual and moral loser that they think you are, and it just proves that their prejudice against you is after all justified. Perhaps they harbor their prejudice because of people like you. You might threaten them into silence, but not appreciation and acceptance. You cannot fool all of them. They will know that you just want to silence them without admitting faults and without making improvements, and they will despise you even more in their hearts. It is time to stop complaining and making excuses. If their prejudice is unfounded, then admonish them, but also contradict them by exhibiting excellence in your conduct, attitude, and doctrine.