A Question of Priorities

Carl Trueman Articles
Editors' Note: The following is Dr. Carl Trueman's charge given to the final graduating class of Westminster Theological Seminary in Dallas on May 21, 2012
What are the priorities of preachers and teachers of God's word to be? Given that we are today celebrating the graduation of a class of students, many of whom will be moving into pastoral ministry, it seems apposite to spend just a few moments reflecting on Paul's priorities for ministers.  Of course, we can scarcely do that in any comprehensive manner in the time we have and so I will focus on just one verse from Paul's first letter to Timothy: 1 Tim. 4:16:
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.
Here, Paul instructs his young protégé that he is to be ever-vigilant, both in terms of his own practical Christian life and in terms of the teaching, that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ with which he has been entrusted as a minister. He is to keep a close watch on his life and on what he teaches. This is emphatic. Timothy is not to keep a casual eye on these things or to think about them every now and then; he is to subject them to careful, constant, critical scrutiny.  And Paul's reason for emphasizing this is that such vigilance will pay dividends not only for Timothy but also for those whom he teaches in the Ephesian church. Timothy is a teacher, a minister: how he behaves and what he teaches will impact those under his pastoral care. In other words, Timothy needs to be vigilant not only for the sake of his own soul but also for those entrusted to his care.

Much emphasis is put today on adopting the idioms of the world around in order to build bridges to the wider, increasingly secular culture. If one looks at some of the more prominent conservative evangelical organizations and websites, one might be forgiven for concluding that cultural savvy and an interest in the arts are among the key priorities for the Christian ministry. Now, the motivation for such is often a praiseworthy one: a desire to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world that is perishing. Yet, however virtuous the intention may be, this project has, I believe, eclipsed the painfully obvious and vitally important priorities of the biblical vision of the Christian life in general and the ministry in particular. Have you noticed how the term 'godliness' appears so rarely in discussions of what is important for ministry today? How the words 'piety' and 'pious' have come to be used almost always in a pejorative sense? How 'heavenly mindedness' has come to be seen by some as the real problem in the church, rather than worldliness and the aping of the secular culture? It is a strange church culture indeed where such things are now commonplace.

Paul, of course, lived in a world where there was more biblical illiteracy and more ignorance and hostility towards the gospel than ever there is in the United States or even western Europe today. His solution to this problem of the alien nature of the church and its message to the surrounding culture was not assimilation or the abandonment of distinct standards of Christian behaviour.  In fact, it was quite the opposite. Take, for example, his concerns about women's dress in 1 Timothy. These surely rise not out of a desire to make women dress in a drab, downtrodden way. It is not the issue of sartorial aesthetics in themselves that is causing him concern. It is that the fashions of the new Roman woman -- ambitious, independent and sexually promiscuous -- are infiltrating the church and sending signals to those outside that Christian women have the same set of values as their secular counterparts. Paul's remedy is simple: tell the women to make it clear, through their clothing and behaviour, that they do not conform to trendy Roman social mores but take their cue from God's word and God's standards.

That principle which Paul applies to women applies just as surely to ministers: watch your life closely. That emphatically does not mean that you are to take care to learn the idioms of the world around you. It means you are to be different, obviously different. Your lives are to be regulated by the standards of God's word, not some Christianised equivalent of the fashion pages of GQ or the advice columns of Cosmopolitan. You are not to pursue the approval of the world, nor to be particularly surprised or upset when the world consequently withholds such approval. You are called to pursue godliness; and you are to pursue it not simply for your own sake but also for the sake of those entrusted to your care. Monkey see, monkey do: if you talk and behave in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from the world around, you can expect your people, the people who look to you as an example, to do much the same; indeed, if history is anything by which to judge, you can generally expect them to do worse. Loutish, slovenly and brash ministers will produce loutish, slovenly and brash congregants.

Further, Paul instructs Timothy to watch his doctrine. You are today graduating from seminary; I trust that you have found your time at seminary to have been not only challenging but also to have been a time of personal growth and of forging friendships which will last you through a lifetime of ministry; but I also hope that you do not see this as the end of the learning process or as the last moment of spiritual, doctrinal struggle which you will experience. The minister must always be learning, always reading, always pressing on with his studies. Seminary provides time to develop good study skills and to lay a foundation of good theology; but it does not give all the answers to the questions you will be asked in subsequent years. Thus, my comment on Paul's imperative here is: be constant in your studies and judicious with your use of study time. Life is surely too short to prioritise reading of the second best book on any given subject. Make sure that you keep reading and studying the best material that you can lay your hands on.  

Furthermore, make sure your reading reflects biblical priorities. Strange to tell, you can preach the gospel without ever having watched a movie, let alone offered a Christian response to one. And, believe it or not, your people can get to heaven in blissful ignorance of the latest Great American Novel or the op-ed columns of The Village Voice. That is not to say that knowledge of these things is necessarily wrong; but these are not to be priorities for the time which the minister of the gospel has for study, nor are they priorities for the time that he spends in the pulpit.  Watching our lives and doctrine is a vital part of our ministerial calling; watching movies and TV shows should be no more than a part of our leisure time, a bit of diversionary fun after a hard day in the study.

Of course, one of the areas where ministers are particularly vulnerable is that of preaching.  The Christian congregant has the advantage of sitting under the preaching of the word week by week. That word which comes from outside, to use Martin Luther's phrase, comes as a rebuke, a corrective, an encouragement.  But for the minister, there is no regular sitting under the word, no word that regularly comes to him from outside, because he is responsible to preach the word to others on the Lord's Day. Thus, you need to be especially diligent to make sure you take every opportunity you can, few as they may be, to sit under the word, and to do so with a humble, prayerful and receptive spirit. And you should also take care to cultivate friendships with men who will hold you accountable. As Luther had Johannes Bugenhagen to act as his confessor, and to speak the word to him one-on-one when necessary, so you should find that person who can do the same to you. The problem with trying to watch our doctrine individually is that our own hearts will always be prone to lead us astray. The word that comes from outside, even if coming in private from a friend, is no respecter of the sinful hermeneutical tendencies of our hearts. Make sure that you choose your friends wisely, keeping clear of yes-men and sycophants as you would the plague, and, having done so, make sure that you listen to what your friends have to say to you.

There is inevitably much more in this short verse from Paul than I can address in this brief charge.  May I close by moving from the rather stark warnings I have given and finish with some words of encouragement? The gospel is the power of God to salvation. Christ's great work is quite sufficient not only to make salvation possible but also to make it actual in the lives of individuals. As you pay close attention to your lives and to your doctrine, be confident that the Lord who bought you with his blood will also give all things to those who ask him and will bring to perfection that work which he has begun in them. Pay close attention to your life and doctrine; and rejoice that the power of the gospel you are to take forth from this place does not reside in you but in the One who rules above all things.