1 Timothy 4:13
Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. (NRSV)
In this letter to Timothy, a protege of Paul, instructions are given for how to sustain the church for the long haul. Paul founded this congregation in Ephesus some years before this letter was written, (in the early 50s AD probably), but as Paul does, he had moved on to spread the good news of Jesus’s teachings in other places. Whether this letter was actually written by Paul or, as many scholars suspect, written by one of Paul’s other protege’s after Paul could no longer write (presumably because he had been executed in Rome already), the fact remains that this is good advice for a fledgling church. It is likewise good advice for an aging church.
Many in our day are discouraged about the dwindling attendance numbers across all denominations of Christianity in America and Western Europe. The demise of the church as we know it has been predicted with mixed reviews. Some anticipate the demise Christianity with glee and others with dismay, but rest assured, faith in Christ will not be diminished. The church’s place of influence in the halls of power may well diminish. Frankly, I think Jesus would be totally OK with that. The halls of power have never been the protectors of faith, only of their own power. That was the complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees. Religion was the tool used by those in the halls of power to protect their own place and influence. It hasn’t changed over the years. And to be fair, yes, there have been sincere people in every age who followed Jesus’s teaching of love for neighbor, self-sacrifice for the cause of peace, and a commitment to good will for all. But there have been way too many who were willing to proof-text Jesus’s message away and use the scriptures—or mis-use the scriptures—to further their own agenda and call it doing God’s will.
That is why the advice written in 1 Timothy is so important. The public reading of scripture was the Torah, the psalms and the writings of the prophets. Keeping the teachings of those who have gone before helps the faithful keep their focus. I expect they knew which scriptures were the favorites of Jesus, and they gave them more value than any others. We know which ones the gospel writers record Jesus quoting. That is our only record of Jesus’s favorite passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, but they give us a pretty good overview. Those themes are repeated over and over again, in the gospels, in the letters of Paul and the other writings of the New Testament. The public reading of the lectionary texts of the Old and New Testament in the church today keeps us honest, helps us read the bulk of the scriptures over the course of its three year rotation, resisting the temptation to just preach our favorite passages over and over, propelling us to wrestle with the hard texts.
Then there is exhorting. It is a very old fashioned word that is mostly only used in the church these days. Most people outside of the church have probably never even heard of the word and might be able to tell what it means from the context, but maybe not. And I suspect even many people INSIDE the church don’t really know what it means either. An informal poll, given this verse by itself, shows people guess it has something to do with sorting (as in the good people from the bad) or with throwing people out of the church (because the first ‘ex’ word they thought of in the context of scripture reading/preaching was excommunication). Neither could be further from the truth. Exhorting means encouraging or advising people who are struggling. This is a very tenderhearted word. There is nothing harsh or judgmental about it.
Finally there is teaching. This is a little easier. We understand teaching. It is about those who are further along the road of life or faith guiding those who are coming after them. Teaching is about passing on the knowledge and the wisdom gained from experience. We do that in worship through preaching on the scriptures that have been read, the lyrics of the hymns and songs, the repetition of the liturgy and the creeds. All of those are teaching moments. We catch faith from those around us, learning what they have learned, gaining from their experience, building hope and community together from our study and worship together.
The more people of faith meet together to study the scriptures, encourage one another in daily life and teach each other from our experience of living out our faith how to apply it in daily life, the stronger the body of Christ will be. That cannot be done in a vacuum. We cannot help one another grow unless we meet together, get to know one another, be real with each other and serve alongside one another. Worship is important, but our life together between worship services is also important… but we’ll get to that. For now, we must pay attention to the way we worship: Does it draw us closer to God through the Word? If so glory halleluia. If not, then what do we need to change so it does?
Think about this: Does your worship service allow you to be completely separate from others? Or does it promote you talking to one another about your life and its challenges and opportunities? Or is it somewhere in between? It might be worth pondering what we could change to incorporate a little more opportunity for exhortation into our services. It might be worth hearing from other members of the congregation besides the pastor from time to time, because other people have experience and faith they could teach from as well.
When the people of God heed the advice in 1 Timothy; passing their faith and their experiences of living by faith to one another, the church will be strong and vital. The Spirit will see to that. I can’t say what that will mean for the institution of The Church, but I am not as concerned about that as some. God is in the body of Christ. The people of faith are in good hands. There is nothing to be afraid of when we are in Christ… so be faithful, and be encouraged.
Blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.