I can’t remember when I first heard the idea that Christian ministry is a relay race, but it’s a powerful metaphor: each generation passes the baton on to the next, and here we sit at the end of a line of faithful witnesses, passing it on yet again.
It’s powerful – but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not right, in one critical aspect.
The idea seems to come from 2 Timothy 2:1-2: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.
But look more closely.
There’s a big back story here: the grace that is in Christ Jesus is a seven-word encapsulation of the entire gospel. So Timothy will not be passing on Christianity-lite.
And here’s a close relationship: Paul calls Timothy my son. One of the motifs of this letter is a sense of family and generations passing on the gospel, and just as Timothy has heard truth from his actual mother and grandmother (1:5), so too he has heard it from his spiritual father (1:6) and behind him an entire spiritual family tree (1:3).
There’s also a long relationship: Timothy has heard this message in the presence of many witnesses, so there are other people who can confirm it, and it has been drummed into Timothy. What’s more, in a letter concerned about faithfulness and suffering, the word witness might carry the overtone of martyrdom here, too.
And finally here’s an optimistic relationship. I won’t go into this now, but we fundamentally misread 2 Timothy if we think of an aged and dying Paul, with the light closing in, passing on an enormous task to a young kid who is trembling at the task. Timothy’s been with Paul for years, and I can’t imagine that Paul enjoyed being surrounded by lightweights. And at the end of the letter he also gathers Mark and Luke (4:11) – this is an experienced, trained and trusted mission planning team preparing for the post-Paul era.
But notice the plurals: entrust (this message) to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. Timothy doesn’t have to find just one faithful person, and then he can lay the burden down. He has to find lots, who are both able and reliable, and so each one of them will train lots more.
This is a move towards massive multiplication of gospel ministry. And yes, this time Paul does mean people – the Greek word here is not the one for ‘males’; not this time.
What remains from the metaphor is the powerful idea that we are on the receiving end of generations of faithful ministry, and our task in our day is to be as faithful as they were. But forget the idea of a pastor at the end of his working life, seeking out one young person to take over so that he can retire, at last, exhausted.
No, multiply this ministry. Pass it on, again and again, to people who will multiply it, again and again.
If you’d like to read more of my thinking on 2 Timothy,
Finishing the Race is now available at a discount from 10ofthose.com
Aussies – Koorong has it here.