For most of my life I have been a student of Paul of Tarsus, the apostle whom God charged to take the gospel to the gentiles in the northern Mediterranean world of modern Turkey and Greece. His intensity, courage, and maturity are so inspirational, even after two thousand years. While starting Christian groups in many cities seems to have been his greatest contribution, his impact on individuals was also very impressive. Some years ago, I scoured the Pauline epistles to find the names of all of “Paul’s Pals,” as I called them. It is an impressive list of people.
Most of the names are difficult to pronounce and not very memorable, but one name stands out that we all remember, and can pronounce, Paul’s spiritual son Timothy. No one was more faithful or trustworthy, and what did he get for it? Probably the most difficult assignment in the first century – pastor the church in the city of Ephesus. What do we know about that city? Read Acts 19 for a chilling account of the dark side. Timothy had the privilege of pastoring in the demon-infested city that was the capital of Diana or Artemis worship, which held thousands in its grip.
Near the end of his life, probably from prison, Paul was still mentoring Timothy through two letters that are in our New Testament. In the fourth chapter of his first letter, Paul gave Pastor Timothy some pastoral advice in the context of false teaching and potential distractions. He told him some things that are timely today.
He told him, “Do not let personal convictions become your theology.” We all have convictions that we ardently believe. Convictions are stronger than mere opinions, and we need to be people who live by convictions. But convictions are not absolute truth. Convictions vary from person to person, but the doctrinal truths about the fundamentals of the faith, our biblical theology, are not up for debate or compromise. Unfortunately, sometimes people raise convictions to the level of doctrinal truth. In the past few months, well-meaning believers have engaged me with very dogmatic arguments about their views of eschatology, nationalism, politics, and global warming. Honestly, what goes through my mind in such conversations is, “I wish this person was as excited about the gospel as …” whatever the issue was.
Another thing Paul told Timothy was, “Do not let your personal disciplines become your priority.” Being a disciplined person is important for effective Christian living, and maintaining spiritual disciplines is especially important. Daily Bible reading and prayer are disciplines that ought to be priorities, but many people have priorities that interfere with their ability to live for God’s priority. What is God’s priority? My life verse states it clearly: Seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). There are many disciplines that are not wrong or bad in themselves, but placed in priority over seeking God’s kingdom, they become wrong. For example, millions of people put their physical health ahead of their spiritual health, as Timothy may have done. Perhaps that is why Paul said to him, Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.
Disciplines and convictions are good; we need them, but as they say, the good can become enemy of the best. Protecting the gospel’s purity, even from your cherished convictions, and disciplines may be an important next step in your spiritual growth.
Dr. David Schroeder recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as president of Pillar College (www.pillar.edu), New Jersey’s only fully-accredited evangelical four-year college.