Command These Things

Command these things

1 Timothy 4:11: “Command and teach these things.”

1 Timothy 5:7: “Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach.”

1 Timothy 6:3: “Teach and urge these duties.”

      Perhaps they fear legalism and perhaps they fear they will abuse their authority, but some teachers hate to tell people what to do. Pure commands rarely pass their lips. They observe that one decision is wise or that God blesses a way of life. They say we should “think about” a problem or see that we “can” do something about it, but they hesitate to say, “You must.” I admit that I have failed on this score. Because my doctoral studies centered on the family, local churches occasionally asked me to teach about marriage and parenting when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven and childless. Plunging into the task, I dispensed counsel and commands with élan. But when my wife became pregnant, I began to waver, thinking, “I don’t even have one child; how can I instruct people with three? What if my children are wild and put the lie to all that I say?” In time, self-doubt silenced me, and I refused requests to speak on the subject for several years. I also hesitate to command when speaking to sophisticated audiences in which most everyone knows the rules for discipleship.

      On the other hand, Paul repeatedly instructs Timothy to “Command and teach these things” as he leads his church. In 1 Timothy. these things include the need to avoid silly myths, to pursue holiness, to trust the Savior, to care for “widows who are true widows” and to respect masters. These remain points where a command could help the church.

      The need to command is clear; why then do pastors hesitate to command? First, we want to avoid authoritarianism - and rightly so. Second, we hesitate to command when we know we fall short. Teachers should do what they say. Who trusts a scabrous dermatologist, a divorced family therapist, or an obese nutritionist? Yet caution can fall into misguided silence. No human perfectly follows his or her own counsel, but that does not give preachers permission to lapse into silence. The Lord charges his watchmen to proclaim the whole truth and let the hearers decide if they will listen (Ezek. 3:16–19; 33:1–20; Matt. 13:9; Rev. 2:7-17).

      Let’s repeat: Jesus does want leaders to practice what they preach (Matt. 23:1-4). Jesus opened his “woes” for the scribes and Pharisees by pointing the chasm between their counsel and their practice. He said: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (23:2-3). He critiqued their counsel, but he also named their inaction: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (23:4). It is reasonable, therefore, to be slow to command.

      On the other hand, the value of the proclamation finally rests on the message and the Spirit, not the messenger. Therefore, when we teach, we state God’s will, even if we fall short. To say it differently, teachers need both boldness and humility. Boldness overcomes reluctance to speak and humility makes us tender.

When we do state commands, we should press beyond vague generalizations about love and service. We should be concrete when we can. Lazy men need to hear that they should wash floors and dishes and insular women can be instructed to welcome outsiders and awkward people. Or take private devotions. While the Bible often shows the righteous at prayer, it never outlines a program for private worship. We may also believe our prayer and meditation is shallow. But that doesn’t justify silence on the topic, for it is clear that believers should pray daily and it is certain that many do not. We see Abraham, Moses, Nehemiah, Stephen, and Jesus fervent in prayer. Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10), David cried out morning and evening (Ps. 55:17), and many Scriptures urge continual prayer (1 Chron. 16:11; Luke 18:7 Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17).  If prayer comes up, pastors must not fall silent, thinking, “My devotional life is hardly exemplary; how can I tell others what to do?” Your people may want to know what to do, and they look to you to guide them. So gather your courage and suggest a plan, even if it is as simple as saying “Find a time and a place to read the Bible and pray every day. Parents, God expects you to train your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and family prayer and Bible reading is an excellent start.” Then we might mention resources or humbly label our habit. For example, “My family has family devotions most days, but not every day. We have them after dinner whenever possible, but we may wait until bedtime. We switch formats occasionally, since variety help our children. After weeks with a devotional guide, we will read a book or two in the Bible and entertain any questions that come up.” By presenting rules (“Read and pray daily”), options, and a personal word, we can offer directions without becoming legalistic.

      So yes, let us avoid legalism and let us watch ourselves lest we preach one thing and practice. But let us not add sin to sin by falling silent when the Lord says: “Command and teach these things.”

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.


Dan Doriani