Having just turned over the leadership of The Gathering, I am reading Paul’s letters to Timothy with a new interest and perspective. What does the older man say to the younger that is helpful but not micromanaging? What are the few things the younger man needs to hear and what will be useless until he has been in the job for a few years? What is wisdom gained from experience and what is meddling? What is the difference between waiting to give advice when it is wanted and jumping in with it? Paul and I are probably different in our approach but we have the same desire – to help make the next person succeed.
How does he begin? Not just his credentials but with the relationship. Timothy and Paul are like father and son – not just founder and successor. They have been through the wars together for 17 years. While we often think of Timothy as shy and even weak based on a couple of references to his youth, weak stomach, and kind disposition, Paul sent him on the tough assignments. He was sent to Corinth to correct a corrupt, immoral and split church. He was sent to Thessalonika to encourage and support a church split and unsettled by false teaching about the second coming of Christ. He is sent to Philippi because, in Paul’s words, “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” No one is more trusted by Paul. It’s not simply favoritism but Timothy has proved himself to be one of the anchors of the early church.
He is a son in the faith. We will see Paul use that word in several different ways in the book. They are not contradictory even though they mean different things.
Faith is saving faith. “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
Faith is a word used for a set of doctrines and beliefs. “The faith”
Faith is faithfulness and being trustworthy. One of the fruits of the spirit.
Timothy was a son in all three kinds of faith – sharing the grace Paul experienced, sharing the same beliefs about Christ, and sharing in Paul’s trust.
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith.”
This is just another tough assignment for Timothy. He is used to arriving, putting out fires, and then rejoining Paul. This is different. Paul is telling him to stay put in Ephesus and not to move on. This is a permanent assignment for someone used to moving around. It will change his life – and Paul knows that from his own experience in Ephesus. I taught on Paul’s fears in Ephesus a while back:
This final fear and perhaps his worst was, I think, getting stuck among people with whom he could not communicate in a place he would have to stay and not preach then move on. He would have to become more than a debater and preacher. He would have to be more than an apostle. He would, over time, become a pastor. He would learn to submerse himself in the tedium and the frustration of working with lives of people that are broken, flawed, selfish and out of control. At the same time, it was only by staying in one place that he would make some of the greatest relationships of his life – like Priscilla and Aquila. Being a pastor is not being a CEO.
As you know, I love Eugene Peterson and in his book, “The Pastor” he says, “There’s a lot of talk about leadership in the Christian church today: how to be a strong leader. I think a lot of that talk is misguided, taking its cues from the worlds of sports and big business. In those areas, a leader is someone who comes in and gets things done. That’s appropriate in almost every other area of life—but not for pastors in the church. As pastors, we’re not trying to get something done. We’re not looking at people and thinking about what we can convince them to do. That’s not the goal. As pastors, we’re trying to pay attention to what’s going on now, right here—right now. We’re trying to pay attention to what God is doing. And we’re trying to share that in the community. If we get that idea turned around and focus on getting things accomplished, then we turn ourselves into congregations that have bought into this sports-business model. That’s why so many pastors are depressed so much of the time. They try and try—and keep trying—to become these business-style leaders and they can’t make it work in the church.”
The time in Ephesus would change Paul into something he never imagined himself doing. He became a pastor to people.
He recognizes the same will be necessary for Timothy if he is to grow. He cannot just refute false teaching and move on. Some false teaching takes root and becomes so much a part of the church that people take it for granted that it is part of the faith unless they are reminded over and over again that it is not the Gospel. Some soils are naturally suitable for heresy. Ours is one today.
Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic and columnist for the New York Times wrote the book “Bad Religion” several years ago and his message is a good one.
Most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. . . .
Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties. Both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement. . . .
Timothy’s assignment is ours – to combat the false teaching of a Christian message that is so in touch with the times that it becomes nothing more than a reflection of what we want to believe. Our Christian faith does not shape our beliefs but merely endorses what we already believe about politics, economics, church, and morals.
While the phrase here “command certain men not to teach false doctrines” is very appealing to those of us who are always looking to tell people what to do and believe and to always be looking for the flaws in their perspective, the word does not mean what we normally think of as “command.” It does not mean shout down or attack or hold in contempt. It is used rarely in the New Testament but it can also be translated as “urge, implore, request” and that is a totally different way of commanding people. It is not finger-pointing as much as drawing them into a defused conversation. It is not compromise but civility. It is understanding what is likely to change their minds and then their teaching.
We know from brain science that people who hold strong opinions about something that is not true will not be changed by being presented with a set of facts to the contrary. All they do is double down on what they already believe and dig in. Facts don’t change their minds. They do just the opposite. They make them believe their notions even stronger. It’s called “cognitive bias” and the worst thing you can do with someone like that is try to command them to change their thinking. They will turn on you. George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .” In his book, “Love Your Enemies”, the conservative Arthur Brooks, writes that it is not anger that is killing us but contempt for those who disagree.
Complaints about our angry electorate notwithstanding, anger isn’t ruining our politics because anger doesn’t foreclose the possibility of dialogue and a relationship. Contempt—the dismissive attitude that those with whom one disagrees don’t deserve to be taken seriously because they are liars or idiots or both—is the bigger danger.
I think he is right. Ironically, getting angry at the false teachers in our time may be healthier than holding them in contempt and dismissing them completely. At least it is true in my life. I want to reduce them to caricatures and fools and totally beyond redemption. That’s not what Paul is telling Timothy to do. He is not to treat them as vermin that should be exterminated. Instead, he is to never stop imploring them to stop teaching what is harmful to the church. They are not to be treated as hopeless and only fit for destruction. If only Paul would have given us permission to do that! I could cleanse the temple and justify it.
So, while these teachers are engaged in speculation, meaningless talk, and chatter, what is Timothy to focus on?
God’s work – and the word here is “oikonomia” which means stewardship. From it we get the word economics. It means the danger of speculation, controversy, and meaningless talk is it distracts us from the real work of establishing the church. It is a combination of practical organization and faith. This is not saving faith but faith that is closer to faithfulness – or what we have called “a long obedience in the same direction.” While the false teachers are always exploring every new trend that comes along, the real teachers are those who are teaching the things that have been settled and been proven to lead people toward maturity.
What are the marks of maturity? They are the marks of faith but also the tools by which maturity is achieved. It is not about church growth but church maturity.
First, is a pure heart. That doesn’t mean without flaw. It means the heart of a person with no hidden agenda or self-serving motives that distort their life. It is the quality of Timothy that Paul describes in Philippians: Someone who looks out not for his own interests but for those of others and Christ.
Second, is a good conscience. This is not the same as the overactive conscience of someone who is plagued with doubts and fears and is immobilized by them. It is a person with a healthy conscience that is a guide but not a taskmaster. Their conscience is not dead and useless by years of excusing themselves but it is able to put up guardrails keeping us from running off the road. It is the person who needs few rules because they have an internal gyroscope that keeps them on course.
Third, is sincere faith. Paul uses the word for hypocrite here to describe someone who pretends to be something they are not. They wear a mask to conceal themselves from others. Sincerity can be dangerous. Some people are sincere about all kinds of foolish beliefs. But Paul is describing someone whose faith is unmixed with all kinds of other additives. It is faith that has learned to trust even when there are no easy answers. It is a faith that is settled but not stodgy or stopped growing.
Finally, he wraps up with the goal of all this. It is not knowledge or being a majority. It is not about power or dominance or being a player. It is just this: The goal of everything is love – to love one another. That is the one command Jesus leaves with us and, frankly, it is the most challenging because we are to love people who are difficult to like much less to love. The command is not to love the world but to love fellow Christians. Yes, we are to pray for all men but I am not commanded to love billions or even millions or thousands. We are commanded to love one another – the people close to me. For you and I to do that will be such a miracle that the world will not be able to explain it in any way other than recognizing that God’s love is supernatural and for that reason he came into the world.
Carol and I love watching British mysteries, especially one series titled “George Gentley.” In it, he repeatedly tells his Sergeant, John Bacchus, to “follow the evidence and the clues.” God has left evidence in the world. Paul says the creation itself is evidence. As well, we are evidence when we follow the commandment to love. We are a clue that God has left in the world about his existence and his desire that all men would be saved. If the world will follow the evidence that is scattered around they will find him.