I am a young pastor. I graduated from seminary at age 24 and launched immediately into full-time ministry, which means I have no adult experience separate from my preparation for and participation in ministry. I was ordained by my sending church at age 26, so at least some would consider that I hold the office of pastor (if such a thing exists, if ordination has any place in the church, etc.). I am now 32, so I think I still qualify as a young pastor in the eyes of many in my congregation—and indeed in my own eyes.
There are some peculiar challenges facing young pastors though—challenges I have lived, which have left me feeling battered and bruised occasionally, and which at other times have left me battering and bruising others.
Foremost among them is the tension between age and calling. If the terms pastor and elder are interchangeable—as most scholars agree (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5)—then what does it mean to be an “elder” (in terms of office) when one isn’t an “elder” (in terms of age)? The office gives authority that our age and inexperience doesn’t win in the hearts of many we are called to serve.
God foresaw these challenges, and, in his gracious providence, included three letters written to young pastors in his Word. How do we navigate these tempestuous waters? How do we demonstrate humility appropriate for our age and exercise authority appropriate for our office? How do we submit to and respect our elders and still command and correct as needed? Paul encourages his young charges in these very areas. Here are a few brief comments about his advice to Timothy and Titus; they are intended to be suggestive, not exhaustive.
- A young pastor has the responsibility to command and correct those who would lead the flock astray (1 Timothy 1:3-7; Titus 2:1-15). Paul encouraged Timothy to stay in Ephesus “so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (v 3, NIV, emphasis added). There is no discussion here of age or experience or influence. Part of what it means to shepherd a flock is protecting it from wolves; one cannot claim to be a pastor and not do whatever it takes to see the church safe from false teaching that would destroy it. Those whom God calls to pastoral ministry he equips for the work, which should include a profound understanding of the gospel and the Word of God. (If a pastor doesn’t have this, it begs the question if he was really called to the ministry.) For this reason especially even a young pastor needs to command and correct when it comes to false teaching. Those who are older may have strong opinions borne of experience, but if it is in contradiction to Scripture, it should be refuted: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (v 7, emphasis added). To give one example about which I have written recently, an older Christian may confidently affirm a pragmatic approach to ministry completely at odds with a scriptural approach. A young pastor should feel free to correct this error even though he is younger. Paul puts it in strong terms when addressing Titus: “Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (2:15).
- A young pastor should nevertheless correct humbly and gently (1 Timothy 5:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 4:1-5). Some young pastors—those with my brash personality, for example—relish the opportunity to correct their “elders” (in terms of age), and may do so arrogantly. But God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and so I know to which group I would rather belong! Paul says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Timothy 5:1, emphasis added). The man in my hypothetical example, espousing ministerial pragmatism, is not my enemy; he is a member of my family, for whom Christ’s blood was shed, and who is as much an heir of the gracious gift of life as I. That should color my response to him. My words would be seasoned with grace, to say the least—and if they are not, no matter my depth of knowledge and insight, I have sinned in treating him thus. As Paul reminds Timothy in another letter, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Some of us err on the side of correction and rebuke without patience and care; others on the side of patience and care without correction and rebuke. In God’s estimation, though, grace and truth are always wedded.
- A young pastor has much to command and teach people of every age and gender (1 Timothy 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-8). Paul encourages Titus to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This includes teaching the older men (v 2) and older women (v 3) and young men (v 6). Those whom God has called and equipped should exercise their gifts faithfully for the sake of the congregation. Pointing out sound doctrine and practice is the mark of a “good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6). So Paul exhorts us, “Command and teach these things” (v 11). But Paul is no fool: he knows that some will refuse to listen because of our age and inexperience. So he continues, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (v 12). Timothy had a hard time ministering in Ephesus, and was apparently dismissed and disparaged because of his age—an experience many young pastors, including myself, have shared. So Paul transfers his full authority to Timothy via this letter. Beyond that, though, he encourages Timothy to follow Jesus so single-mindedly that it becomes impossible to disparage him. Like Paul, we must be those in whom “Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1:16). Everyone should be able to see our progress, our growth in grace (4:15). Of course, this comes not only through our righteous character, but through our teaching and preaching as well (vv 13-14). Mere scriptural knowledge does not a pastor make, but it is still a sine qua non of biblical leadership!
- A young pastor, as a vocational minister, seems to have some authority over the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-9). I tremble to write these words, and present them to you as the seeds of the beginnings of thoughts on the subject. I will write more tomorrow on the relationship between pastors and elders, but it does seem that those who have been given to the church as pastors (Ephesians 4:11) have a clear role to play in the selection of elders. Paul tells Titus specifically to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (1:5), before listing the qualifications of an elder. The list of qualifications appears in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 too, raising the question of why Paul includes the qualifications in two letters to young pastors only. The answer, it seems, is that these young pastors selected or helped selected the elders. In addition, they probably helped train the men of the congregation, playing a significant role in their development as leaders (cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-2). Moreover, Paul encourages Timothy to give “double honor” to the elders directing the affairs of the church, “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 3:17). How precisely should Timothy accomplish this? I haven’t the faintest idea, but it includes evaluation of their ministries at the very least. Finally, and most poignantly perhaps, Paul tells Timothy, “But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning” (v 20). The ministry of evaluation extends to public rebuke as necessary. I will not press on whither angels fear to tread, but these verses challenge many of my cherished beliefs and practices. (If you have any thoughts or reflections, please comment below!)
“But you, man of God,” young pastor that you are,
pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:11-16)