Pastoral Discipleship: The Urgent Need, the Biblical Mandate, and One Timothy’s Plea
THE DEARTH OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP
The most dangerous attacks on the people of God often come from within our city walls.
This has happened before. Church history speaks to this fact. Not too many decades ago, the church wrestled with humanist modernity, cloaked as progressive scholarship, that attacked the most precious tenets of the faith. The effects were manifold. Many fell away, seminaries went liberal, and the churches fell into twentieth-century malaise. Nowadays, the situation has changed. The opposition is more subtle but just as dangerous. Today, it is soft religion that wars with the church, loosely held religious commitment that is no commitment at all. Pastors, entrusted with the church’s care, dumb down biblical doctrine, take their cues from secular business practices, and evangelize based on earthly benefits, not spiritual responsibilities. Divorce is rampant among the pastoral corps, pornography a common vice, and the culture pities the church as much as it sneers at it. From the high post of fidelity, the church has slid into a puddle of malfeasance. Sadly, its shepherds are leading the way.
In their wake follows a young generation of men raised on doctrinal sugar water. They lack the theological, ecclesiological, and missiological beliefs necessary to faithfully lead the church of tomorrow. Their lack of biblical training will work its effect in time. Ours is not a modern-day Troy yet. But the enemy has entered the city.
This sad situation is not without remedy. Change can come. The men who hold the keys to the city, the pastors of this day, can rescue the church of God by responsibly and passionately training young men for the ministry. All over the world, pastors of churches of all sizes and situations can commit to shaping young men for the survival and success of the church. Hope has not left us. Change is before us. Who will commit to this end?
This column is intended to give an overview of the need for, shape of, and result of pastoral discipleship of young men in the church. I write to humbly persuade pastors of the great value of this task and to share a number of ideas about how to start and conduct the work of discipleship. My primary message is this: pastors should regard the training of young men for the ministry as one of their primary duties, right alongside preaching, teaching, and evangelism.
THE BIBLICAL MODEL OF A PASTOR DISCIPLESHIP
There is a plethora of biblical material that we could examine at this point to make a case for pastoral discipleship. This, however, is not the place for such an extensive justification. To scratch the surface and get our biblical bearings, let’s look at two individuals who trained up young men for the work of the ministry. The first, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, was the God-man, and the founder of the local church, though not a pastor of one. The second, Paul of Tarsus, was an apostle, and thus entrusted with the planting and oversight of churches. Despite the fact that they had different roles and contexts than pastors today, we may gain insight from their example into the importance and shape of pastoral discipleship.
When the time came and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, Christ struck out on his mission of salvation. He then immediately called a band of men to himself. In his gospel, the apostle John records just how Jesus drew these followers; he simply approached them and called them! John 1 provides just such a picture. “The next day he purposed to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me’”(43). It was a simple process for Christ. Once he had gathered his band of apostles, he set about training them. The classroom? Everywhere Jesus went. The curriculum? Everything Jesus said. The experience was holistic. Using John’s gospel as a lens once more, the apostles joined Jesus as he cleansed the temple (3:13-25), healed multiple people (4:46-54; 5:1-17), fed the five thousand (6:1-14), resurrected Lazarus (11), and much, much more. All throughout the experience were countless conversations (see 12:20-36), rebukes (18:11), and encouragements (15). Christ’s extensive engagement in the lives of his apostles laid the foundation for the future building of local churches.
The model of Christ is as transferable as it is transformational. Christ took men by his side and brought them everywhere he went. He taught them doctrine, modeled the Christian life perfectly for them, and personally molded each man for the work his Father had for him. This is not a difficult mission to understand. Christ had a drive to disciple, and he applied that drive to his everyday association with the disciples. He had strong motivation to do so. He knew that the success of the church He bought with his blood depended on the leadership of the next generation. For this reason, he gave his time, energy, and teaching to them. His example is both moving and challenging for the pastors today. Pastor, you say you are faithfully preaching and teaching—that is excellent. But are you training men as he did? The work of pastoral discipleship is the responsibility of all pastors. Do not think because you have a smaller church that you are either exempt or disqualified from this calling. It is the duty of all the pastors of God’s churches to train the next generation. Seminaries can and do provide excellent theological instruction, but they are at best a supplement, albeit a significant one, to the training young men should receive in a local church.
The life of Paul provides a further example of sound biblical discipleship. Well into his ministry, Paul took Silas by his side on his missionary journeys following a conflict with his former partner, Barnabas. Soon after setting out with Silas, Paul met Timothy, the namesake of this column, who became one of Paul’s primary disciples. Timothy was “well spoken of by the brethren” (Acts 16:2), meaning that he was identified by his churchmen as a man worthy of investment. Paul then “took him and circumcised him” (16:3) and set out with him. Timothy joined Silas as one of two disciples of Paul at the time. For many months, Timothy and Silas were with Paul on and off in his future endeavors. For example, Silas was imprisoned with Paul in Philippi and thus observed Paul’s extraordinary bravery and evangelistic initiative. Silas therefore saw firsthand what faithful evangelical ministry looks like. In Acts 19:22, Paul sent Timothy to Macedonia to lead the church there. Paul was sure that Timothy was ready to leave his side and so he sent him off. Later, Timothy would pastor the church in Ephesus. While Timothy was ministering there, Paul wrote him letters filled with instruction and guidance about matters of doctrine, how to handle false teachers, and how to care for different groups in the flock. In this and many other instances, Paul provided Timothy and Silas with teaching, modeling, and preparation for the ministry.
In the ministry of Paul, then, we find investment in two young men for the betterment of the body. There are many more we might mention and study, but it should be clear that Paul, like Christ, gave himself to the training of future pastors and leaders of God’s church. Pastoral discipleship was not just a pleasant idea, a bullet point buried in a ministerial wish-list. It was a constant responsibility, an essential task, and it ensured the health of the next generation of the church. If anyone would have been justified in focusing only on teaching, preaching, or other tasks, it would have been these men. And yet they exerted themselves to raise up a second generation of shepherds. We must do the same.
MY EXPERIENCE AS A TIMOTHY
There are currently many “Timothy’s” in need of pastoral discipleship who are not receiving it. They are scattered throughout America’s churches. They are contemplating ministry, spending time evangelizing, and quietly yearning for their pastor to invest in them. How do I know that such a group exists? I have been one. My yearning to be a Timothy began as a newly converted college freshman; I longed to grow and wanted to be discipled by a godly man. I was a sponge, desperate to soak up knowledge and experience. It was not long before the Lord began pouring sound doctrine and godly instruction into my life.
My last three years of college were almost idyllic in a congregational sense. One of a few young people in an otherwise aging church, I witnessed time and again the deep, sincere love of a gathered body of Christians. Such care left a mark on my soul. A young Christian, I discovered new depths of Christlike kindness and generosity as the pastoral staff, the deacons, and the whole flock reached out to my college friends and me. During this period, I received informal help and guidance from the church’s pastors and deacons. They gave me opportunities to teach, talked with me about my future, and showed me great kindness. These men provided a model of pastoral faithfulness. Strong in character and devoted to the Word, they demonstrated week in and week out the work of a godly shepherd. My experience at the church gave me a love for the pastorate and a deep grounding in congregational life. The Lord had given me a foundation for ministry.
At my next church, providence built upon this foundation, providing me with opportunities to meet regularly with a pastor, receive doctrinal training from him, and generally soak up his knowledge and godliness. My college church whetted my pastoral thirst. At Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, I drank from the fire hose. CHBC gave me intentional, rigorous training in the work of the pastorate, the kind every young would-be shepherd needs. This was one of the happiest occasions of my life. I remember meeting Mark Dever and knowing almost instantly that I had found a shepherd who would doggedly challenge and shape me. He would teach me ecclesiology, rebuke me for my sins, and provide a model of pastoral leadership that I could draw on for the rest of my life. Those were exhilarating days. You never saw a happier sponge, I assure you.
My experience at CHBC fulfilled all my expectations. I learned what a pastor did, thought through matters of church history and theology, and gained much feedback about my character and calling. I experienced the incredible joy of being discipled by a godly man who loved me and wanted God’s best for me. My time at CHBC left me changed forever. With discipleship and strong preaching, I grew a great deal. The blessings accrued from that internship have not faded from memory, and they will not. A Timothy today is a Timothy for life.
I have since had two other opportunities to be discipled. Both were very profitable. In the first, I gained much ministry experience in a difficult setting, and discovered anew the joys of learning from a faithful shepherd and an honorable man. In the second, I have had the opportunity to be mentored by a man of strong character, exhaustive theological knowledge, and genuine kindness. My time has profoundly shaped me and left me grateful to God for such a rich experience. Brothers, as a Timothy several times over, I cannot tell you what grace comes the way of Timothy when you assume the role of Paul to him. Even if you have little time, taxed energy, and no experience, you will win the love and affection of every young man you disciple. You will change his life and ministry. More than this, far more than this, the Lord God Almighty will reward you for your service. Consider this, brothers. Think on what a sweet mix of fruit is grown from such a simple investment.
A FINAL PLEA FROM A GRATEFUL TIMOTHY
The promise of reward will, I pray, drive us to recognize anew the great burden we have to train future shepherds. To use an analogy, we would not expect young soldiers to survive, much less succeed, if their basic training consisted of a weekly handshake, some occasional small talk, a few lunch meetings, and a book recommendation or two. “Check out this book on survival—and hey, hope it turns out well for ya!” We would be sending our young soldiers to an almost certain death, would we not? Yet all over this world, young men are facing an even greater battle without adequate preparation. They are nearing entrance into the great battle for the souls of men, and they are going out with handshake-and-a-smile training. Brothers, this is shameful, and we all share in this shame. Take a look at the battlefield. It is a terrible conflict, and it is claiming many unsuspecting and untrained young men. We must change this sad situation.
We can change it. If the shepherds of today will agree to disciple the shepherds of tomorrow, great blessing will come. The tide will turn. It will come not through massive programs or budget overhauls, but through one-by-one discipleship of the future pastors of God’s church. You do not need a large church, a strong group of elders, or a degree from a seminary. You simply need to transfer your pastoral wisdom, theological understanding, and love for people to a young man. Forget programs and titles. Simply select a young man from your congregation who could be a pastor in the future and commit to discipling him.
In months to come, we will explore more of what this discipleship looks like. I will supply you with plenty of ideas to enhance your training of young men. But for now, I want to reiterate that I believe that pastors should regard the training of young men for the ministry as one of their primary duties, right alongside preaching, teaching, and evangelism. Even a cursory glance at the ministry of Christ and Paul shows that both of these men considered discipleship of future leaders an essential undertaking. Many in the evangelical church do not see this, and their inactivity unknowingly initiates disastrous consequences. Faithful pastors should see this situation and respond to it, correct it, and work to prevent another attack on the city of God from within. Much is at stake—the health of the church, the reputation of Christ, and the witness to the world. The conflict between light and dark is with us to the end of the age, and souls are in the balance. Pastor, will you give the next generation the gift of your training?
The city of God awaits your answer.