“Now, if Timothy comes, see that he is with you without cause to be afraid; for he is doing the Lord’s work, as I also am. Let no one therefore despise him. But send him on his way in peace, so that he may come to me; for I expect him with the brethren.” (I Corinthians 16:10-ll)
Few people are more vulnerable in the ministry that a beginning and very young pastor. He marches forth into the work of the Lord with all the essentials, he thinks–a love for Jesus, a great testimony of His salvation, a confidence in the Word (the part he knows), and convictions about the gospel.
What he does not know–and is about to learn–is that lurking just ahead in the various churches will be people of good intention and equally strong convictions who are poised to reject him because of what he does not have: age, experience, a polished style, and a treasury of wisdom on what to do in various situations. His voice sounds unsure. His mannerisms are not steady. He uses leftover expressions from his teen years that grate on the ears of the older generation.
This is going to require patience from everyone. The young preacher must be patient with the people who are slow to accept him. The congregation must be patient because their pastor has a world of growing to do. They can help each other. But to pull that off, each will have to give the Lord their frustrations and hopes. They will have to decide whether they believe in Jesus Christ or not.
Some will not measure up, sad to say.
The fact that time will take care of everything people are finding objectionable about the young minister matters little to his critics. Many will reject him out of hand and turn a deaf ear to him simply because he is younger than their youngest grandchild and lacks experience.
Unless someone helps this young shepherd, he’s not going to make it.
Now to our text.
What was going on with Timothy? Why should he fear to preach to the Corinthians? What would cause God’s people–good Christian people, presumably–to “despise” him, to “look down on him,” as some translations put it?
Aren’t the men and women in the pews the best people on earth? Aren’t they redeemed of the Lord, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and commanded to love “even as I have loved you”? Haven’t they been instructed to “obey those who have the rule over you in the Lord”? (That’s Hebrews 13:17)
True enough. But there’s one more thing going on here which the young pastor must not miss: The people in the pews are still very human. And they didn’t quit being human after the Lord saved them. In fact, for some of them, their “humanity” just got stronger than it ever was. (That can be bad or good.)
Everyone in the Lord’s congregations–and in the pulpit too, we might add–is a blend of the carnal and the spiritual. If after reading Paul’s discussion of carnal and spiritual people in I Corinthians chapter 2, you got the impression that the demarcation between the two is clear and deep and distinct, you would be wrong. Often, someone is spiritual today and carnal (“in the flesh”) tomorrow. The best evidence of that is yourself.
You and I are that way, and it’s a safe bet that everyone else in the congregation is too.
The young Timothys among us are going to need some advocates. They will need someone who can address the bullies in the church who are in danger of ruining this young ministry’s usefulness in the Kingdom and can also pull the young preacher aside and talk straight to him.
In the First Epistle of Timothy, Paul tells him, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.” (I Tim. 4:12) Paul is telling Timothy, “You’re going to have to work not to give these people something to criticize. Work on your speech, your behavior, the way you love them, your faith in Christ, and your personal purity. Do this and you will be making yourself a role model for everyone in the church, including the bullies.” Timothy must silence the critics by his godly conduct.
The wonderful British commentator William Barclay writes, “The Church has always regarded youth with a certain suspicion, and under that suspicion Timothy would inevitably fall.”
Then, in his second epistle, Paul tells Timothy, “God did not give us the spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (II Tim. 1:7). We come away thinking this young pastor has a problem with shyness.
Paul adds, “You therefore my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” (II Timothy 2:1)
Clearly, Timothy–like all young pastors–needs a mentor, someone who will stand up for him before others, counsel him in private, and pray for him without ceasing. He needs an advocate, but one who will speak to Timothy as well as for him.
He had such a friend in Paul. How blessed he was.
This is not just about youth. Every pastor of every age and level of experience needs a friend or two or three who will speak truth to them, in love and courage.
The kind of friend I’m talking about is one who can tell you the following…
–”That sermon was terrible. It’s clear you had not really thought through the concepts you were trying to convey.”
–”You eat like a slob. I suggest you get your wife or some good friend to help you with this. And I don’t mean next week.”
–”Your nose hairs need clipping. They are embarrassingly long. I cannot believe your barber hasn’t told you this.” (Or, your ear hairs.)
–”Your choice in clothing works well…for a 15-year-old. But you’re an adult and ought to dress like it.” (Variations: “The way you dress is right out of GQ–the 1955 issue. Spend a few dollars and get some current clothing.” “Get someone to show you how to dress. You really need help.”)
–”Pastor Bob, why are you so angry in your preaching?”
This is what a friend does, if it needs doing.
A lesser friend would remain silent because he/she does not occupy a position of such complete trust in your mind/heart as to get by with that.
Proof: Let a new friend say any of the above to you and you are shocked, then offended, then humiliated. Even if you went immediately and acted on their counsel–and benefited from it–you would still hold that individual at arm’s length and dread future contact with him. “Clearly,” you would say to yourself, “that guy thinks God has sent him to straighten out the world.”
And, this is why most of us keep our mouths shut when we see a colleague in the ministry–someone we like and respect–violate some decent standards and know that we could be of help to them. We don’t do it because it would be presumptuous, we would offend them, and the hurt we might cause would not be worth the good we would accomplish.
That’s precisely why I kept my mouth shut when my friend’s nasal hairs and another friend’s sloppy eating habits were all I could see during our visit.
Proverbs 27 contains a number of helpful insights about the kind of deep friendship we in the ministry need to receive and to give….
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (27:6)
Such a friend will tell the truth even when it hurts. And because he/she is your friend, you take it, benefit from it, and the relationship grows. In time, you may be able to return the favor (for “favor” is what it is).
“Oil and perfume make the heart glad, so a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend.” (27:9)
A true friend will not limit his comments to the negative. He/she will want to encourage you in the areas where you are doing well.
“He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be reckoned a curse to him.” (27:14)
There is a time for everything, for praise as well as for criticism. Choose your time well, friend.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (27:17)
There is a good reason why you and I need a friend or two or three, the kind who can tell us our sermon stinks, we are slobs, need to take care of personal hygiene, and are dressing like a teeny-bopper: “to make us sharp in the best sense of that word.”
Life has a way of taking the edge off everything, including our finest sermons and most profound insights. Going up against a good friend in a friendly sparring match–which is precisely what happens when longtime buddies get together–can prod us to introspection, prayer, and study.
We can’t leave Proverbs 27:17 without noting the obvious: “When iron sharpens iron, the process will be accompanied by friction, noise, and flying sparks.”
One of my pastor friends recalls vividly the day his best friend walked out of church in the middle of his sermon. Thinking his buddy was ill, the pastor called him that afternoon. “Hey, are you all right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine. I just couldn’t take it any more.”
“Take what? What are you talking about?”
The friend said, “Listen, you did not say a thing I disagree with in your sermon. But you say it with such anger. Who are you mad at? I’m just tired of listening to you harangue the people as though they’re all convicted criminals!”
That stung. The pastor didn’t sleep a wink that night. And the next morning, as he prayed over the matter, still reeling from the pain his friend had inflicted, the Holy Spirit suggested he listen to a tape of his sermon. That’s when he heard for himself the hostility he was inflicting upon his people.
It changed forever the way he preaches.
At the age of 27, Milton became a minister of music and worship leader for one of the greatest churches in his state. He stayed over two decades, building a powerful ministry involving hundreds of people. I was surprised to learn that when he was a college student, a church fired him for being too young and too inexperienced.
It was a small church, but Milton loved leading the worship there and directing the choir. But for some reason, an old gentleman in the church seemed to detest him. Joe, for that was indeed his name, never missed an opportunity to let Milton know he was a failure as a leader and simply did not have the personality or ability to do what he was attempting.
The man’s criticisms hung like a dead weight on the young minister. Finally, able to bear the pain no longer, Milton resigned or was fired, I forget which.
Some years later, when a minister friend was bringing his senior adults to the city where Milton was serving, they made arrangements for a visit to this great church. In fact, Milton invited the entire group–two busloads–to his home for breakfast. That morning, as the buses arrived, Milton walked into his front yard and stood there ready to greet everyone.
The first man to step off either bus was his old nemesis Joe. The old fellow had a smile as big as Montana on his face, threw out his arms for an embrace for Milton, and said, “I always knew you had what it took, my friend!”
Milton was speechless. And completely baffled. The old man seemed not to have a clue the pain he had inflicted on his young minister friend.
There’s a moral in there somewhere, young Timothys. Most of the older critics in your church are oblivious to the pain they are causing and the harm they are inflicting on your ministry. If you can love them anyway, and if the Lord will give you a sheltering older friend to speak up for you and get you over the hump, in time they will get past this.
Until they do, keep the faith.