Today in America we are used to seeing a wide variety of churches and denominations, and an even wider variety of independent ministries. And they all ask for money. But how does one know which ones to support? How can one tell the good from the bad?
The Bible, of course, must be our standard. And in I Timothy (along with II Timothy and Titus, which together make up the “Pastoral Epistles”) Paul lays down specific instructions on how the Christian ministry is to be conducted. He writes to his close friend and associate Timothy, whom he had left in Ephesus to deal with certain problems there. In the process he gives all of us valuable insight into how the ministry is supposed to function and operate.
In chapter 4 Paul begins by warning against false teaching. One would expect that outside of the church one would encounter all sorts of unbiblical thoughts and ideas. Paul tells us that false teaching can crop up inside the church as well. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith . . .” (I Tim. 4:1; NKJV). What Paul says about these false teachers is alarming indeed. They are “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (v. 1). But interestingly, the false teachers themselves don’t really believe what they are saying. They are “speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (v. 2).
The specific error that Paul had in mind seems strange to modern ears. It basically involved a false asceticism (“forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods” – v. 3), and it eventually took shape in an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. Today our natural inclination is to go in the opposite directions – to indulge in all sorts of physical pleasures.
But all of this raises a pertinent question: what exactly is the difference between good doctrine and bad – between true and false theology? A major part of the answer is the effect that it has on its hearers. In chapter 1 Paul had told Timothy not to “give heed to false and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (1:4). In other words, bad theology is speculative in nature and results in pointless arguments. Good theology, on the other hand, results in “godly edification.” Paul goes on to say that “the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith’ (1:5). The Christian preacher or teacher must aim to edify.
Why is this important? Because it is in accord with God’s own wishes and desires. God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (4:10). The Christian ministry is all about fulfilling the Great Commission. God’s aim is to bring salvation to the entire human race. To that end He sent His Son into the world to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for our sin. If we, in turn, have the love of God in our hearts, we will have the same burden to reach lost sinners as God does. Thus Paul could say, “For this end we both labor and suffer reproach . . .” (4:10). The salvation of lost sinners from eternal damnation is worth the personal sacrifices required of the messengers of Christ.
But a minister of the gospel must do more than merely proclaim the message. He must live it as well. It must be a reality in his own life. Only then can he speak convincingly from the heart. Therefore Paul tells Timothy to “exercise yourself rather to godliness: (v. 7). The English translation “godliness” is a little misleading. It tends to put the emphasis on our external conduct. But the underlying Greek word (eusebeia) denotes an attitude of reverence and devotion to someone in a position of authority – especially to God. Godliness, or piety, as it might be translated, has “promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (v. 8). It brings us life, spiritual life, both now and in the age to come. As such it is far more valuable to any earthly joy or pleasure.
Thus the preacher must “walk the talk.” Paul tells Timothy to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (v. 12). It is important that preacher / teacher be honest with himself – to engage in honest self-examination to make sure that the reality is present in himself. “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (v. 16). When a preacher stands up before others to proclaim the word, he is not just to put on a show to entertain the guests. He stands between heaven and earth, as it were, bringing the truth to bear upon the consciences of the lost sinners and struggling saints before him. The eternal destiny of his listeners is at stake, and his life will speak more eloquently than his oratory.
Does this not point to the major weakness of the modern ministry? Most of our pastors receive an academic training, which might give them a theoretical knowledge of the truth, but often fails to prepare them spiritually for the work of the ministry. They can talk about the Bible, but convey very little heartfelt appreciation for the truth. There is little real fear of God, love for Christ, or compassion for lost souls. The truth has failed to touch their own hearts, let alone the hearts of their listeners. What is needed urgently today is revival – an old-fashioned heaven-sent revival, a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that will illumine our minds and quicken our hearts. Then, and only then, will we truly understand the truth.