One of the great privileges and responsibilities of pastoral ministry is mentoring godly young men for their future in ministry. This is a subset of the overall mission Jesus gave to the church to “make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey every I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). While all converts to Christ need to be discipled into mature obedience in the faith, there is a special need for pastors to train up the next generation of spiritual leaders.
But what happens when the men you are training up to be pastors and elders begin to develop differing theological opinions? How should a pastor approach these disagreements?
Pattern of Sound Words
The apostle Paul describes the process of training up other suitable men like this: “[W]hat you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). So what had Timothy “heard from” Paul in the presence of many witnesses? 2 Timothy 1:13 speaks of a “pattern of sound words,” which Paul commanded Timothy to “hold” or “keep” (guard against all attacks). The word “pattern” comes from the word used for striking coins in the ancient world. The tupos (pattern) would be engraved on the extremely hard metal of the die, and then the die would transfer that pattern to the soft silver or gold of the coin. The image imprinted on the coin would be the same time and time again.
This word implies that the Lord desires no doctrinal innovation from the next generation of disciples, but rather conformity to the apostolic standard of teaching. At the moment of striking the coin, the softer metal must be the one that “smooshes” (yields) to the unchangeable standard. In this way, Paul commanded Timothy to pass on the “sound words” of orthodox doctrine to future generations of leaders. This vital principle of spiritual multiplication (four generations in 2 Timothy 2:2) is God’s wise provision for the growth of the church over all of redemptive history.
But because of the power of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, the transfer of “sound words” is not always perfect. Though God by his Spirit protected the apostles from error as they wrote the New Testament, disciples from the start have misunderstood aspects of the doctrinal pattern. Our sinful hearts tend to twist certain aspects of the doctrinal pattern, and the image is marred. This is true both in the pastoral mentor and also the disciple he is seeking to train. So what should a pastor do when he and his disciple disagree?
Here are six points to guide us when doctrinal disagreements occur:
First, it is essential for the pastor to teach the concepts I have already mentioned in this brief article. There is a perfect doctrinal standard that demands our conformity. That is the goal of discipleship. Since there are no disagreements among the Trinity or in heaven, any doctrinal disagreement on earth is evidence of the fall and of Romans 7—indwelling sin. We should strive against it and pray against it, seeking the goal of perfect unity. Neither pastor nor disciple should ultimately be satisfied with the fact that they disagree.
Second, both most embrace the standard for all doctrine: the perfect and unchanging Word of God, the Bible. From the moment God wrote his letters in the stone of Moses’ tablets, God demonstrated the power of an unchanging and timeless word for his chosen people. Both pastor and disciple must take everything back to the Bible with absolute confidence that “all things that pertain to life and godliness” are found in the words of Scripture (2 Peter 1:3). Jesus said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Disagreement has arisen because one or both of them has in some way been ignorant of what God has clearly spoken in the Bible. And both parties should come at the issues with renewed vigor in study by the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than acting as though the answers could never be found in the Bible. If the Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, the answers are in there. Look again.
Third, both should approach the issues with humility. Romans 7 makes plain how powerfully indwelling sin corrupts the mind of every Christian. When there is a significant disagreement, both should humble themselves before God and ask for him to reveal within their own hearts how they may have strayed from right understanding. Psalm 119:169 gives a great and humble prayer for both: “Let my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word!” The student may actually be right, and the pastor can set a great example of humility by being willing to listen carefully to the arguments and assess them. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). God wills the growth of both the pastor and also the disciple through the process. A humble teacher continues to learn for his whole lifetime and churns out a generation of humble teachers in the same pattern. But a prideful mentor will churn out arrogant disciples.
Fourth, the disciple should respect the greater experience of the pastor in life and in the Word. I have been careful to say that the errors may be on both sides and have encouraged the pastor to look humbly to see if he may be wrong. But a disciple who is not teachable is a contradiction in terms. Essential to the role of a disciple is humility before his teacher. As Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). If the disciple is fractious and consistently arguing with his mentor, it would be wise for the mentor (after some efforts to address the pride in the student) to sever the relationship. “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2).
Fifth, the mentor should understand that not all Scriptural issues are equally clear or weighty, and it is wrong to divert a great deal of time to arguing over minutiae. Though we believe ardently in the doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). There are most certainly some passages that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16), and they require extra study to arrive at a satisfactory answer. The pastor should lead the disciple in understanding the history of debate over a well-known controversial issue and show where godly brothers and sisters have disagreed and where to find the boundaries of orthodoxy so they can disagree and stay within the realm of historical Christianity. The pastor should also teach the concept of adiaphora—issues not worth dividing fellowship over. As Jesus said, it is wrong to “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” There are “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Sixth, the pastor should demonstrate the maturity Paul commanded in 2 Timothy 2:22-26:
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
One evidence of “youthful passion” is the desire to win in “foolish, ignorant controversies.” The tendency to quarrel is immature, and the pastor should rise above that temptation. Inherent in this passage is fervent prayer (already encouraged in my first and third answers above). The pastor should bathe the disagreement in prayer, not only for greater understanding in the mind of the disciple but also for turning his heart and freedom away from the attacks of the Devil. It is spiritual warfare, and prevailing prayer to God who alone can bring the individual to his senses is essential to discipleship.
May the Lord grant the richness of blessing on all pastors and their disciples, that he may raise up a generation of godly, humble, wise, fully instructed leaders who will then pass on these same traits to yet another generation for the glory of God.