While the pastoral qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 mainly focus on character, one speaks to a particular ability: the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:9).1 This should come as no surprise to us because at the heart of our faith is the life-changing message of the gospel that must be heralded and taught, announced and explained, defended and applied.
Of course, every Christian is called to make disciples by “teaching” (Matt. 28:18–20), but pastoral leaders and planters must have particular skills in teaching. Paul’s words to Titus give us more specifics as to what this means: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Notice three ideas here.
- Pastors must have a thorough knowledge of sound doctrine. They need to be equipped theologically and be committed to their orthodox biblical convictions.
- Pastors must have the ability to instruct the church in sound doctrine, exhorting them to respond appropriately to it. Faithful teachers take their craft seriously and are constantly trying to grow in the important work of biblical exposition.
- Pastors must have the ability to rebuke those who teach contrary to sound doctrine—in order to protect the church, and hopefully even to see the false teachers come to the knowledge of the truth.
In 1 Timothy 4:11–16, Paul gives some important exhortations that help provide a comprehensive vision of the teaching ministry. After critiquing the false teacher’s message (4:1–5), and after calling Timothy to train for godliness (4:6–10), Paul continues his challenge, saying, “Command and teach these things” (4:11). Here, he is referring to Timothy’s task of passing on apostolic doctrine. Paul then highlights various aspects of a faithful teacher’s task and his lifestyle. In doing so, he underscores the fact that faithful ministers lead with the Word and by example.
Exemplify Your Teaching Personally
Paul urges Timothy to have his life shaped by the gospel, saying, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). As many church planters are young, this verse is especially important. People were apparently critical of Timothy’s youthfulness—he was probably in his thirties.2
It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of challenges Timothy would have faced. People could have been jealous of his being promoted to leadership at a young age. They could have doubted his competency. They could have disrespected him. And it’s not hard to imagine how Timothy would have wanted to respond if operating in the flesh: argumentatively, harshly, impatiently. (All these ways would have been the opposite of what Paul tells him to do in 2 Timothy 2:24–25.)
This is an important word for pastors, especially younger ones. How do you respond to criticism as a young minister? You don’t respond by hitting the social media sites and blasting away, nor by aggressive behavior, nor by fight or flight. You respond by doing something altogether different: by setting the believers an example with your life. People will be less likely to despise your youth if they admire your example (1 Pet. 5:3).3 The way you overcome the challenge of being criticized for your age is by Christlikeness, which includes speech and behavior graces (1 Tim. 4:12). So guard your tongue (“speech”). Watch your habits (“conduct”). Care for all the sheep (“love”). Show the church what trusting God looks like (“faith”). And pursue holiness (“in purity”). Embody your doctrine. Apply your teaching to your own life.
Expound the Scriptures Publicly
This is an important verse on many levels: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). You will show what you believe about the Bible by how you use the Bible, not merely what you say about it. If you want people to be convinced of the Scripture’s authority, sufficiency, and Christocentricity, then expound the Bible faithfully and point them to Jesus consistently.
Interestingly, Paul follows up his word about Timothy’s age with the exhortation to read, preach, and teach Scripture. Our authority as ministers doesn’t come from our age or experience but from God’s Word.
Notice also the biblical pattern of the public reading of Scripture and the exposition of the passage that was just read (Neh. 8, Luke 4:16–30; Acts 13:13–52). Paul clearly has this pattern in mind here. Pastors carry on this great tradition. We have the responsibility and the privilege of explaining what God has said in his Word, declaring what God has done in his Son, and applying this message to the hearts of people.4
Exercise Your Gift Passionately
Paul goes on to urge Timothy to use his gifts and immerse himself in the work of teaching: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:14–15). Notice that the teaching ministry is both about God-given ability (“the gift”) and skill development (“progress”).
Use Your Gifts
Paul doesn’t state what Timothy’s gift is exactly, but from the context, it seems to be related to the ministry of teaching in the church. God gifts people for the ministry to which he calls them (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:7–12; 1 Pet. 4:10–11). Like other spiritual gifts, they are for the good of the church, and so we must use them to build up the body (Rom. 12:6; 1 Pet. 4:10). Don’t neglect your gift.
Paul mentions some kind of prophetic message that was apparently uttered about Timothy, as well as the elders laying their hands on him (1 Tim. 4:14). This seems to be similar to Paul and Barnabas being singled out in Acts 13:1–3, where the laying on of hands is also mentioned. These elders confirmed God’s gifting and calling on Timothy. Likewise, aspiring pastors should be commended by pastors who assess their lifestyle and gifting.
As church planters and pastors, we need to always “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Tim. 1:6) and never neglect what God has given us. Aspiring pastors should seek to discern their giftings, then cultivate their gifts, and eventually use them in leadership with passion.5
Let Them See Your Progress
Timothy is urged to be all in: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them” (1 Tim. 4:15). It’s an excellent charge for us to be wholly devoted to our ministry, avoiding laziness and distraction. Rest? Yes, by all means. But when it’s time to do the work, get after it.
One thing that should happen the longer you teach is that people should “see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). I’m glad this verse is in Scripture because it implies we can improve! People should see progress in our leadership (as we become more tender, better listeners, bolder, wiser, and more winsome). They should see our growth in knowledge and that we are excited about what we’re learning. And they should see progress in our preaching and teaching. We should work to be as clear and as concise as possible. We should grow in our ability both to apply the text and to address the hearts and idols of people. We need to show our progress in our ability to preach Christ from the Old Testament.
“While the ability to teach is a gift from God, it is also a skill that pastors should seek to develop.”—Tony Merida
While this text is an encouragement to pastors (as it implies we can improve), it’s also an important word to the congregation. They need to be reminded that pastoral leaders are still growing. They need to set realistic expectations and be patient.
I remember talking with a very well-known pastor about a paper I was writing, which focused on giving a detailed analysis of his sermons. When I told him about my project, he said, “Please take recent sermons!” I appreciated that. Even the best can improve.
Examine Your Life and Teaching Persistently
Paul concludes this important passage with a sober exhortation: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). This is a summary verse for the preceding points and the entire work of pastoring.
Paul gave this same word to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28). Watching our life involves watching our affections, for we live and speak out of the overflow of our heart (Prov. 4:23). The way we watch ourselves is by not allowing our passion for Jesus to cool. It involves drinking deeply from the wells of the gospel.
As a pastor, I must take care of my heart. I do this by doing things that nourish my soul, like reading good books, being in community, cultivating a vibrant prayer life, exercising, and resting well. Since church planting and pastoral ministry are demanding, you must be very disciplined not to be so absorbed in the work that you neglect your own spiritual life.
Watch the Teaching
Every pastor is to be able to teach and keep this ministry as a top priority. We must ensure our teaching is accurate, clear, and centered on Christ. While not every elder will have the same degree of gifting, all should be able to explain and apply the text to others in a variety of contexts (such as in classes, counseling, or small groups).
Aspiring church planters might consider preparing about four to six months of sermons before launching the church. I set this idea before planters because one of the challenges, in the early days especially, will be fighting for sermon preparation time. While they won’t have each one 100% finished, they can do the bulk of the interpretive work and prepare fairly detailed notes. Once the church is planted, they can add the specific application needed for their context. One might consider preparing a series through a small epistle like Philippians, Ephesians, or Colossians.
Persist in This
This aspect of Paul’s exhortation is easily overlooked. Still, it’s vitally important because many pastoral leaders who have fallen out of ministry have done so because they failed to give adequate attention to this part of the verse. At one time, they were watching their life and their teaching. But slowly, for various reasons, they stopped practicing regular self-examination. And the results are tragic.
What’s at stake in this persistent self-examination? Paul says, “You will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). We know we cannot save ourselves, for Jesus alone must do that, but Paul is speaking here of Christian endurance. It’s the kind of thing he says to the Philippians: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Many people talk about the emotion of conversion, but the New Testament places a greater emphasis on preserving in the faith than it does on the initial emotion of conversion.6 By perseverance in godliness and by teaching sound doctrine faithfully, Timothy will save his hearers from the dangers of false teaching, which can cause people to make a shipwreck of the faith.
Faithful, Christ-exalting exposition of Scripture is central to the health and vitality of the church. God has given pastoral leaders a unique ability to teach so that they may instruct, bless, exhort, and protect God’s people. While the ability to teach is a gift from God, it is also a skill that pastors should seek to develop. A faithful shepherd seeks to exemplify his teaching personally, expound the Scriptures publicly, exercise his gift passionately, and examine his life and teaching persistently.
- The majority of this article is taken from my book The Faithful Church Planter. ↩
- George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 205. ↩
- John Stott, Guard the Truth, p. 120. ↩
- Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor (Nashville: B&H, 2016), p. 16. ↩
- John Stott, Guard the Truth, p. 123. ↩
- Ibid., p. 124. ↩