“But you . . .”—A Call to Be Different
Reverend Vaughan Roberts serves as rector of St. Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, England.
Søren Kierkegaard’s sad words too often ring true: “Whereas Christ turned water into wine the church has succeeded in doing something more difficult; it has turned wine into water.” The Church is meant to be God’s counter-culture, shining His light into a dark world, yet frequently we just reflect the darkness around us. It is, above all, pastors who bear the greatest responsibility. A counter-cultural church demands a counter-cultural pastorate.
Paul’s second letter to Timothy comes from a time of crisis. Many are abandoning the true faith and adopting a form of religion that is more acceptable to the world. As the apostle nears the end of his life, he exhorts his young disciple to stand firm. On three occasions at the heart of the letter, he repeats two words which, although variously translated in our English versions, simply mean “but you.” They still contain a powerful challenge to pastors today. In a morally decaying world and a frequently corrupted Church, God calls us to stand out and be different: “but you…”
1. But you—be a godly minister (2 Tim. 3:10)
Paul confronts us with a harsh reality: “There will be terrible times in the last days” (3:1). We should certainly grieve when we see God’s standards flouted, but we should not be surprised. In every generation there will be those, even in the Church’s leadership, who “oppose the truth” (3:8). The advocacy of homosexual unions by many leaders within Western Protestantism is but one case in point. It is a symptom of a cavalier attitude to Scripture and tradition which has been used to justify all manner of heretical opinions and ungodly behaviors. There is no doubt that we should respond with a strong affirmation of the truth of God’s Word, but that is not where the apostle begins. His first appeal is to holiness: “You, however, [But you] know all about my teaching, my way of life” (3:10).
A distinguished preacher once told me, “There is not a sin in the book that I could not commit.” Do we recognize that reality about ourselves? Before we rail against the evil in the world and in other sections of the Church, have we looked within? Have the seeds of the very sins we condemn in others been allowed to grow in the privacy of our own hearts? And do we recognize the subtle new temptations that come once we seek to defend God’s truth against those who reject it? At times, Paul must have longed to respond in kind to some of the vitriol he received from his enemies, but he remained godly even under great pressure. He was a man of “faith, patience, [and] love” (3:10). We are called to follow his example. It is not enough for us to preach a faithful message; we must also live faithful lives. Why should anyone listen to us otherwise?
2. But you—be a gospel minister (2 Tim. 3:14)
Paul’s next appeal concerns what Timothy is to believe and proclaim: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (3:14). He is to stick with the gospel which is expounded in the Scriptures and focuses on Christ’s salvation (3:15). He is given a clear charge: “Preach the Word” (4:2).
We are right to reject a pietistic ministry that only addresses the faithful and restricts its message to the private world of home and church. Our God is the creator of all people and all things. As ministers of His word we are called, not simply to be pastors in the sanctuary, but also evangelists and prophets in the market place, media, and political arena. But as we address the world, let us make sure that we do not let it mold our message. It is not just those who compromise on truth so as to scratch people where they itch (4:3) who are in danger here. If we are simply reactive, only ever speaking when we have some outrage to condemn, we will present a distorted message. Faithfulness demands that we do speak out against evils such as abortion, sexual immorality, and injustice, but we dare not be simply moral campaigners. We must do all we can to point to the one true God, the Creator and Judge of all, and to the Lord Jesus Christ who died to save us.
3. But you—be a gutsy minister (2 Tim. 4:5)
Paul makes no attempt to hide the fact that faithful ministry in the last days will involve great suffering. Some will buckle under the pressure and adapt the message so as to cause less offence, but Paul pleads with Timothy and with us: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship” (4:5).
Over the last few decades Western culture has been gradually rejecting its Christian foundations. Beliefs and standards that were once part of the bedrock of society are increasingly seen as heretical by the standards of the new secular orthodoxy. Reports of a pastor being prosecuted in Australia for proclaiming that Islam is not the way to God and in Sweden for condemning homosexual practice are surely signs of greater trouble to come. Gospel ministry in the twenty-first century will demand guts.
King Henry the Eighth was once infuriated by a sermon preached by Hugh Latimer, the bishop of Worcester. He summoned the bishop to return the following day and ordered him to deliver a more acceptable message. Latimer responded by repeating his sermon, word for word. That took courage. He did not know that the king would applaud him for his persistence rather than have him beheaded. We will need that same spirit if we are to be faithful pastors today. We will be tempted to compromise and drift along with the crowd, but Christ calls us to be different: “But you . . .”