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Paul's counsel to a discouraged pastor

Cedric Vine

 

Timothy wanted out. He felt helpless. His church was imploding as individuals set themselves up as experts in the law, challenging his authority and ministry. Paul did not respond by relocating Timothy. Instead he urged him to stay: “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus” (1 Tim. 1:3, NRSV). It seems as if Paul had talked to Timothy about this issue before.

A discouraged pastor needing some encouragement? Can any ministers relate? What did Paul write to Timothy? What can we take away from his words for ourselves?

Timothy’s problem

Paul responded to Timothy’s dilemma by instructing the young man to implement the household code for the church: “I urge you . . . to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:3–5, NRSV).

The aim of Paul’s code was the production of “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” Paul starts by confessing his own lack of faith in the past and the Lord’s gracious response in the outpouring of faith and love (1 Tim. 1:12–17). This signals to Timothy that any deficiency he may experience is not unique and can be overcome through the workings of his Lord.

What was Timothy’s problem? This we find hinted at in 1 Timothy 1:18–19: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience” (NRSV).

Paul compliments Timothy on his faith and good conscience, the implication being that, perhaps, he lacks a pure heart. Paul continues by affirming that others, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander, have had problems with their faith and consciences (1 Tim. 1:19; 4:1–3). They rejected their consciences and, as a result, abandoned their faith. Timothy does not have this problem. His desire to leave Ephesus was not a result of turning aside from faith. He simply wanted out of Ephesus—a move away, not from his Lord or the ministry, but from his church.

Paul does not perform public, open-heart surgery on Timothy but instead leaves the problem largely unstated, allowing Timothy the opportunity to question in private the state of his own heart.

Does this mean there are no clues pertaining to the state of Timothy’s heart and his desire to run from his lot in Ephesus? For Paul, the key to being a successful soldier includes maintaining the desire to please the enlisting officer rather than getting entangled in everyday affairs(2 Tim. 2:3, 4). In 1 Timothy 6:6–12 Paul describes the lure of wealth and the destructive effects of the love of money on an individual’s sense of contentment. Paul concludes with an appeal, in the singular, to Timothy, to shun all this (v. 11) and instead to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. In 2 Timothy 2:22, 23 he instructs Timothy away from youthful passions and senseless controversies and instead encourages him to pursue those qualities of a “pure heart”—righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

The authority issue

Paul, though, isn’t through with Timothy. Every household operates according to a code that defines the role and status of each individual family member, whether he or she is the wife, husband, child, parent, servant, or master.1 The head of the household sets these rules. Paul set out the household code for the church in Ephesus in his first letter to Timothy. In so doing, he asserts his headship over the church (1 Tim. 1:5, 18). Paul is the head of the household, and Timothy is its steward. If Timothy is to receive his crown, he needs to compete according to Paul’s code.

What rules does Paul lay down for the Ephesian church? We find two blocks of instructions that Timothy is to implement (2:1–3:13; 5:1–6:2). In 2:1–8 Paul instructs the men to pray, with their hands raised, about everything under the sun. In a situation in which the men are involved in needless disputes, such a practice, if implemented faithfully, offers a route of spiritual praxis out of the conflict. It is harder to throttle your brother if your hands are continually raised to the Lord! The women of the church are instructed regarding right dress and forbidden to speak in teaching situations (1 Tim. 2:9–15). Such an injunction should be interpreted within the context of Timothy’s situation. He did not face a coherent body of thought but rather meaningless chatter that did not require a sustained and developed theological reply (1 Tim. 1:4, 6, 7; 4:1–3, 7; 5:13; 6:3–5). Paul’s response to those women in the church who idly gad about, gossiping and interfering in the affairs of others (5:13), was to forbid them to teach or to have authority.2 He even went one step further and commanded them to silence.

In 3:1–13 Paul laid down the criteria for bishops and deacons. Proficient implementation of rules within their own households is taken as an indication of their willingness to aid Timothy in the implementation of Paul’s house rules within the local household of God (1 Tim. 3:5, 12, 14, 15). Further instructions include the treatment of widows and elders, and the regulation of the slave-master relationship (5:1–6:2).

These rules are clearly tailored to the local situation. We should note the effect on Timothy’s ministry of receiving such rules. They offered Timothy the opportunity to reset the church’s agenda with himself reestablished under the authority of Paul. To resist Timothy in his implementation of the rules is to reject Paul. In a crisis situation, rules are a pastor’s best friend!

Paul’s call for Timothy to compete according to the rules raises two issues. First, that of headship. In a situation in which Timothy wanted out of Ephesus, Paul’s claim to headship might have come as a welcome relief. For Timothy, final responsibility for Ephesus and its problems belonged to another. But what if things had been going well in Ephesus? Paul’s assertion of his headship was not limited to crisis situations as illustrated by his letter to the Ephesians.

Other issues

When things are going well in my own ministry, do I perceive the assertion of headship by, for example, conference leaders as unnecessary interference or as a duty they are called to fulfill?The second issue is that of the rules. In an age of self-reliance and the deconstruction of sources of authority, have I started to rewrite the rules in my own favor? It is not within our nature to follow the rules of another. Paul himself has to charge Timothy twice in the presence of God, Jesus Christ, and the elect angels to keep the rules, and to keep them with impartiality (1 Tim. 5:21; 6:13, 14).

Paul also warned Timothy that the hardworking farmer gets the first share of the crops (2 Tim. 2:6). This warning raises two questions: What was stopping him from working? What was the work he should have been doing?

Paul’s call for renewed effort presupposes that Timothy had eased up in his output. Let us give Timothy the benefit of the doubt and assume that the problem wasn’t simply one of laziness. His dedication to Paul as a companion over the years would argue against this. A possible clue to Timothy’s problem lies in Paul’s reminders to Timothy of the gift he had previously received. The gift was given at the same time prophecies were made: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18, NRSV). At this point in the epistle the nature of these prophecies remains hidden. The source of the prophecies is also unstated. Paul elaborates further by linking the giving of the prophecies with the reception of a gift from God: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders” (1 Tim. 4:14, NRSV).3

Whatever the gift, it was in danger of being neglected. In 2 Timothy 1:6–9, Paul goes one step further from his previous comments by identifying his own hands as the means by which Timothy received his gift.

We should note the close association between the reception of the gift and its transmission through the human agencies of Paul and the elders. The flesh and blood church is the apparatus through which the gifts are conferred, and any desire to bypass such agencies will result in claims to spiritual authority being made solely on the basis of the individual’s own perception of his or her relationship to God. God works through the individual but does not bypass the collective. The difficulty this balance posed for the early church is attested by the strict regulations found in the Didache, an early Christian document, to determine the difference between true and false apostle-prophets.4 Timothy clearly lacked any sense that he had a special gift and, as a result, suffered a crisis of confidence. He was “ashamed of the gospel” and as such neglected his work. Paul’s response was to bypass any feelings Timothy may have had and to affirm that he had a gift on the basis that he, Paul the giver, knew that Timothy had received it. Paul thereby reaffirmed the confidence the wider church had in Timothy despite the local difficulties he was experiencing. Why had Timothy neglected his gift?The answer may lie in Paul’s need to remind Timothy earlier that he is a soldier in danger of being distracted by everyday affairs.

What was the work Timothy was called to do? In answering this question, the two stages of prophetic ministry suggested by G. K. Beale prove useful. The first stage involves prophets delivering their message, “in a rational and sermonic way, exhorting the audience about their sin and reminding them about their past history.”5 Prophets take up different forms of warning when the audience hardens to such an approach. They start to utilize “symbolic action and parable” to capture their audience’s attention.6 The move is from preaching the Word to symbolizing the Word. Yahweh reached this tipping point with Israel when He asked Isaiah to symbolize the result of Israel’s trust in Egypt and Ethiopia by walking naked and barefoot for three years (Isa. 20:1–6). He reached this point with Judah when He requested Jeremiah to trash a new suit in public as a symbol of how He would ruin their pride (Jer. 13:1–11). Ezekiel was called to symbolize Judah’s future punishment by lying on his left side for three hundred and ninety days, followed by forty days on his right side (Ezek. 4:1–8).

At what stage is Timothy in this process? He has yet to reach the first stage as reflected in Paul’s repeated calls for Timothy to teach and preach the Word. Paul calls Timothy to pay close attention to his teaching, to be an “apt teacher . . . correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24, 25, NRSV), to continue in what he has learned from Paul, and to preach, whatever the consequences (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:24, 25, NRSV; 3:10–14; 4:1–3). Timothy is to present himself to God as one approved by Him, “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NRSV). Paul calls him back to basics, to a ministry of preaching and teaching.

Conclusion

Stepping into Timothy’s shoes, I question how I am doing at the most basic work of ministry—that of preaching and teaching. Have I allowed myself to be distracted by other worthy activities? When I teach and preach, do I do it with the confidence that comes from knowing that I have been given gifts from God, gifts affirmed by human agencies? In answering this question, I need to consider the basis of my awareness of these gifts. If this is an individualized perception, resting solely on personal thoughts and feelings, I run the risk of, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, becoming “first an accuser of [my] brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of [myself].”7

No doubt, Timothy, no matter his calling, had some issues to deal with. We all, as ministers, no matter our calling, no doubt have some as well. Let’s take from Paul what we can and apply it to ourselves where needed, and from it learn and grow in our ministry, remembering to always do everything in the “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”

 

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1 P. H. Towner, “Households and Household Codes” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne et al. (Leicester, England: IVP, 1993), 417–9.

2 The judgment whether the Greek construction for “I permit,” in 1 Timothy 2:12, represents a gnomic present, indicating a universal truth, or an iterative or aoristic present, indicating a more local application, is made, according to James Brooks and Carlton Winbery (Syntax of New Testament Greek [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979], 87), on whether the prohibition was widespread or not. On the basis that Paul does not include such a prohibition in his house rules to the Ephesians and Colossians, we can conclude
this prohibition to be of a local nature. It does not represent a gnomic truth.

3 The council of elders represents the early Christian equivalent to the Jewish council of leading priests and scribes. Cf. 3 Macc. 1:8; Jth. 11:14; Luke 22:66; Acts 5:21; 22:5

4 Didache 11:3–13:7; Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 27–33. For an introduction to the phenomenon of the wandering charismatic preacher, see Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977), 8–16.

5 G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 237.

6 Beale, Revelation, 237.

7 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954), 16.

 

 

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