It has been a while since we were discussing together some aspects of Paul’s teaching in his letter to Timothy. The summer months interrupted our correspondence somewhat; and we were temporarily distracted by our discussion on questions of the meaning of the inspiration of Scripture.
But now the opportunity is again present to return to this discussion. You will recall perhaps that we were talking about what Paul writes in chapter 4, vss. 7 & 8, and, more particularly, about what is meant when Paul admonishes Timothy to exercise himself unto godliness. We talked about that in a general sort of way; now the time has come to get down to some specifics.
While the things about which I intend to write to you in this connection are not specifically referred to in the text, nevertheless, they belong to the exercise of godliness in a very concrete way. And they are important enough to discuss at some length. The list of subjects which I intend to discuss is by no means exhaustive. Hence, if there are other aspects to this question which you would like to discuss, be sure to let me know.
When we were talking together about this matter of exercising one’s self unto godliness, we talked also briefly about the fact that the minister must be a good example to the congregation. Paul specifically mentions this in vs. 12: “. . . but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” It is this matter of example in various areas of life that needs to be discussed. The particular aspects of the question which I will be writing to you about come to mind only because they seem to me to be pressing problems of unusual urgency in the days in which we live.
I suppose if one were to look for one unifying idea which binds together all the various ideas we will be discussing, it would be this: the pastor who wishes to be a good example to his congregation must learn to give up many things which in themselves would not be wrong for him to have or to do—for the sake of being such an example.
In a way there is a principle of human nature here. The child always goes slightly beyond his parent in the imitation of his conduct. The student always carries a bit further the lessons he learned from his teacher. If a parent occasionally is guilty of criticizing his pastor in the presence of his children, the children will make this a regular practice. If a teacher once in a while engages in wicked gossip the student will make it a pattern of life. There are two reasons for this. One is that we all enjoy sin because we have yet a nature that delights in sin. And in committing sin we always look for excuses to justify our sin. The easiest and most convenient way to justify sin is to blame someone else for what we do wrong. It happens then that we find it very easy to point to the example of those who are to be good examples to us and justify our conduct by pointing to what those whom God has placed over us do. But it is exactly this urge to justify our own conduct which leads us to carry an occasional sin to the extreme of making it a pattern for our lives. “My pastor does it” is a most convenient excuse to cover our own sins. The second reason is that principle of the second commandment that God visits .the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him. God also visits the iniquities of teachers upon their pupils and the sins of pastors upon their congregations. While this does not obliterate individual responsibility, it is nevertheless an inviolable rule of God’s organic dealings with men. This “visiting of iniquity” means a multiplication of sin. Israel’s relatively isolated sin of worshipping the golden calf at Sinai was after all a sin that developed in Israel’s history until it became full-blown idolatry after the pattern of all the abominations of the heathen.
So there is this important matter of example.
Perhaps the place to start is in the matter of Christian liberty. I start here because it seems to me that the principles are clearest here.
It is not my purpose to discuss at length the whole concept of Christian liberty. This is a rather involved subject, worthy perhaps of extended discussion, but not especially relevant to what we are now talking about. I only want to talk about this area in a general way to illustrate the point I am trying to make.
You know that Christian liberty covers a broad range of Christian conduct. Through the marvelous grace of God in Christ we are set free from the bondage of the law. The Christian may not have his life controlled by a series of dos and don’ts. Paul speaks, in the first verses of this chapter, of the fact that every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. The Christian’s life may not be curtailed by law upon law and precept upon precept.
As Paul points out in I Cor. 8 and other passages, within the area of Christian liberty there are actions which are violations of the conscience for one child of God, while these same actions are no violations of the conscience for another saint. Thus, what may be wrong for one is not necessarily wrong for another. One person sins when he eats meat sacrificed to idols; another may eat that same meat and not sin at all.
Now what particularly concerns me here is the fact that a pastor who is determined to exercise himself unto godliness and who is a good example to the flock will also, of necessity, curtail his own Christian liberty. There may be any number of things which he may do in good conscience before God and therefore without sin, but which he will not do for the sake of the flock for which he is responsible. He will do this willingly and eagerly out of love for the sheep over which God has placed him. He will do this without grumbling and complaining, for his concern for his sheep is very great.
I hesitate to use specific illustrations because it is so easy to be misunderstood. But perhaps the risk is worth taking.
I am not saying that he curtails his own Christian liberty because he might be an offense to his weaker brother. Paul certainly lays down this principle as a fundamental principle of Christian conduct in I Cor. 8. “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” This is certainly always the calling of every Christian; and he who ignores it imperils his own soul. The pastor must also adhere to this principle.
But this very principle implies a bit more because of the position which a minister of the gospel occupies. It is involved in being a good example.
There is one area which deeply concerns me. There are in the Church of Christ (perhaps because of the affluence of our modern age) many who drink too much liquor. I am not saying necessarily that they are alcoholics—although in my judgment anyone who has to have his drink every day comes perilously close to being an alcoholic. But I am convinced that among some of us there is a tendency to drink too much. The excuse which is often offered for this is that this belongs to the area of Christian liberty. It does indeed. But what is so often forgotten is that Paul (in Gal. 5:13) warns against using liberty as an occasion, for the flesh. A minister, aware of this danger in the congregation, will have to curtail his own Christian liberty in this respect in order to set a good example. Even if an appeal by an alcoholic to the minister’s conduct is unjustified—because the minister has only an occasional drink—yet the minister ought to be careful that no such appeal can ever be made. When Nathan confronts David with his sin of adultery and murder, he speaks of the fact that David, by his sin, had given occasion for the enemies of God to blaspheme. The key word is “occasion.” He must never even be the occasion for anyone to justify his conduct by an appeal to the conduct of the minister. In writing concerning the qualifications of an elder Paul says, in I Timothy 3, that he must “Have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” A pastor’s life must be exemplary in every respect even if he must curtail his own Christian liberty to attain that.
The same thing is true of Sabbath observance. It is impossible and wrong to lay down laws for Sabbath observance. The principles of Scripture are clear enough. But if a minister should treat the Sabbath as any other day and flaunt openly his Christian liberty in this respect, he does evil to the congregation, promotes the sins of those who are ready and eager to violate the Sabbath, and harms irreparably his own ministry.
Yet the point is that the minister must not only negatively refrain from certain acts which he could in fact in good conscience do; he must be a positive example to the flock. I suppose this is really the reason why most of our ministers do not possess a TV set. It is not that our ministers believe that TV is wrong in itself. But the misuses of TV are many and great. Each man must, ultimately, answer to his own conscience before God what he watches on TV. But a minister does well when he sets a good example. And the best way, on the whole, to do that is to keep the thing out of his house. And, positively, he must show by good example, the proper use of time.
And so we could go on.
The objections which will be raised can, in some measure, be anticipated. For one thing, someone will object that no one may infringe on my Christian liberty and curtail it by objections which are groundless. Someone, e.g., may not force me to part my hair on the right because he happens to be offended when I part it on the left. Someone may not refuse me the right to have a drink now and then because he uses this to blame me for his excessive use of alcohol. All this is true beyond doubt. But it ought to be remembered on the one hand that I may voluntarily curtail my own liberty out of a sense of obligation to the flock over which the Lord has placed me. And, on the other hand, more is demanded of him who occupies a position of responsibility in the Church (or, for that matter, in the home, the school, the state or shop) than of others who are under authority.
Another may object that it is better to teach Christian liberty by practicing it and receiving all God’s gifts with thankfulness and use them in moderation. There is force to this argument. If the congregation over which the Lord has placed you is strong enough to grow by this type of instruction, by all means use it. But be sure that this is true.
Well, the time has come to close this letter. I am sure that these comments arouse questions in your mind. Let me hear from you.