Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 08/27/2000
We live in a strange and curious period in the history of the Church. While the Evangelical movement is growing, its grasp of the Gospel and foundational Christian teaching is shrinking. We have never had more numbers, more wealth, more resources, and less impact on the culture around us. This trend surely raises a concern for what kind of faith we will bequeath to the next generation. The Apostle Paul faced a similar situation near the end of his life. The Apostolic generation was dying off, and leadership of the Church would pass to a new generation which would no longer have the living Apostolic voice to guide it. Would mere writings be enough to guard the Church's integrity, even inspired and infallible ones? No. A new generation of leaders would also need to be prepared who could entrust what they had learned to faithful men who would in turn be able to teach others also. Timothy, Paul's disciple, pastor of Ephesus, would be one of that generation of leaders, and we are his successors, the Timothies of the 21st Century.
What did Paul feel a need to impart to Timothy in such a situation? First a clear vision of his role: to teach others to the point that they too could teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). Second, a clear vision of what the Church must be when thus taught: the pillar and support of the Truth (1 Tim. 3:15). What then were the emphases Paul had as he delineated this job description? They were twofold: Right Doctrine, first, and then Right Living, seen as the inevitable outcome of right doctrine when it is indeed taught rightly.
The emphasis on the centrality and importance of right doctrine is inescapable in these letters, and it comes across in three ways. First, there are the Exhortations for Timothy to diligently pursue and teach sound doctrine (! Tim. 1:3, 4:6-7, 4:11, 4:13, 5:17, 2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:2, 2:15, 2:23, etc.). The emphasis is clearer in Greek, for the words doctrine, teaching, and teach are all from the same root, the root from which we get our English word "didactic." Many of our Bible College students from Toccoa Falls College feel that they are getting all the teaching they can absorb in the classroom, where they must all take 30 hours of Bible; the last thing they want on Sunday morning is another heavy teaching session. (And many others, not naturally studious, see no reason why thy should subject themselves to such instruction at any time!). This feeling is understandable--but it is also unbiblical, not only because of Paul's emphasis on the teaching of doctrine but because what we get in the classroom is not really the same. Preaching is more than teaching, but it is not less; it is teaching plus application and exhortation, not exhortation without any substance to apply. When preaching is allowed to become less than teaching, rather than more, the Church suffers spiritual anemia.
The second way Paul emphasized the central importance of doctrine is by the "faithful sayings" or "trustworthy words" (depending on your translation) that are a distinctive feature of these letters. Not only does Paul exhort Timothy to teach sound doctrine, he also fills these letters with hardcore touchstones of sound doctrine, such as 1 Tim. 1:15. "It is a trustworthy statement, worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am chief." There is no sound doctrine that does not reckon with the centrality of the Cross as an answer to the problem of sin, and which does not recognize the teacher as one of the sinners. Yet increasingly the testimonies I hear from Believers are not focused on that at all, but rather on how Jesus gives meaning to their lives or helps them cope. All of which he does--but "Jesus came into the world to help you cope with life" is not the Gospel. We are taking the fringe benefits of salvation and making them the center, and the end of this process is that the Gospel will be lost completely. Other "faithful sayings" include 1 Tim. 3:1, 3:16, 4:9, and 2 Tim. 2:11.
A third way Paul emphasized the central importance of sound doctrine was by the warnings about the consequences of neglecting it, including 1 Tim. 1:19, 4:1, 6:3-4, and 2 Tim. 2:16-18, 2:23, 3:1ff, and 4:2-3.
The Second Emphasis is one I almost hesitate to call a second emphasis, for it is really just the first one completed, or fully understood. That is an emphasis on Right Living as the fruit of Right Doctrine. 1 Tim. 1:5 says that the goal of our instruction (= teaching, = doctrine) is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Who would have ever thought we could get love from studying theology! But what Paul says is that, rightly understood, that is the only place you can get it. As the old Puritan pastors put it, no doctrine of Scripture has been rightly taught until its right use has been taught as well. So we could define right living as right doctrine with shoeleather under it.
Or, as poet, translator, and literary critic John Ciardi put it, "An idea is always something with a skin around it." Without necessarily buying into the nominalist philosophy behind that definition, we can take it as being on one level a good working description of discipleship. A Christian is the Gospel with skin around it; a disciple is sound doctrine with skin around it. For Christians, the Truth is not just a set of ideas, however correct; it is a personal dynamic that flows from the Person of Christ and sets us free, changes everything about who we are and how we live. In 1st Timothy, it affects how we pray, how women relate to their husbands and to the Church, how they dress, the qualifications of deacons and elders, steewardship, how we take care of widows, the Church's responsibility to its pastors, the relations of servants and masters, how we relate to material things, just for starters--all seen as related to what it means to be a man or woman of God--to be Christan doctrine with skin around it.
Ultimately, the purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is to make disciples, that is, to put skin around Christian doctrine. It does this not so we can become walking systematic theology texts, but so that the Truth of the Gospel in all its radiant and glorious splendor, in all its life-transforming implications, in all its delightful and fulfilling detail, in all its divine power, might come alive in us to the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ his son. What individual, having once seen that vision of the Church and the Christian life, could ever again be satisfied with anything less? To that great task I now publicly dedicate myself and my ministry among you. And I ask you to consecrate yourselves and commit yourselves to it as well, as we reconfirm our commitment to Christ once again by receiving these emblems of his Body and his Blood. As they represent the Gospel, and as we take them into our bodies, we become symbols as well--we picture the very process of becoming the Gospel with skin around it. May the Holy Spirit confirm in us the reality of what we now symbolically portray.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams