Exemplary Speech

How Good Pastors Wield Words

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech. (1 Timothy 4:12)

My brother pastor, you don’t have to wait until your latter years to have the gravitas of a saint. Your personal moral authority can exceed your years. Right now, in the church where you are serving, you can cut a wide swathe of deserved, unforced influence — not by your position, or your charisma, or your cool, but by your exemplary conduct.

The power of personal example is what gives any pastor true stature in the people’s eyes. And you can be that inspiration even at your present age. No one can keep you from it. Indeed, the more some people might disparage you, the greater your opportunity for Christlike magnificence. Paul’s charge in 1 Timothy 4:12 opens that door to every young pastor.

The power of setting a mature example in your church has long-term inevitability built into it. People who ignore what you say might well be won by who you are. Your calm courage, your gentle restraint, your steady faithfulness, your cheerful resilience, your selfless love, and so forth — it becomes harder and harder to resist pastoral beauty, especially over time. In the movie The Intern, Jules, the boss, says to Ben, the intern, “How is it you always manage to say the right thing, do the right thing, be the right thing? It’s uncanny.” And when the younger man is that grownup in the room, it’s especially uncanny — and convincing. Yes, your preaching matters. And when the people listening to your sermon admire your life beyond the pulpit, your preaching will matter even more. Far more.

Set an Example in Speech

Let’s think through together the first mark of exemplary pastoral conduct in 1 Timothy 4:12. What does it look like to “set the believers an example in speech”?

For that matter, what does any seasoned, profound Christian man look and sound like? The Bible paints the picture: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled” (Titus 2:2). So let’s connect Titus 2:2 with 1 Timothy 4:12 and see what happens. An exemplary pastor’s speech will sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.

Sober-Minded Speech

Sober-minded describes a mentality, a mindset — literally, sober as opposed to drunk. There is a real difference. In our times of crazy extremism, with even pastors building their “platforms” by making outlandish claims or enlarging their following through grandiose denunciations, the exemplary pastor soberly refuses. He has no stomach for the intoxicating euphoria of being oh-so-right on all the issues.

“When this pastor speaks, it can feel like Jesus is in the room.”

The mature pastor, however young, is distinguished by moderation. He is calmly restrained in his speech. He builds unity because he isn’t drawing people’s attention to his “brand”; he is honestly serving the Lord, gathering people to the only Savior (Luke 11:23). He is not self-referential. He does not vent. He avoids words with sharp edges, words that cut and injure. He has the self-awareness to pray before he opens his mouth, “Lord, may my every word, without a single exception, be of you.” And it shows. When this pastor speaks, it can feel like Jesus is in the room.

The mature pastor’s sober-minded speech isn’t about this or that particular issue. His whole mentality sets him apart as Christlike. Sadly, in some churches, that will be the pastor’s crime. Some churches do not want Jesus, his ways, his humility. Until our Lord returns, there will be church people who dig in against the presence of Christlikeness. Despite, or even because of, the exemplary conduct of the pastor, a church might reject him, casting him out. But they will know — eventually, they will surely know — that a man of God was in their midst.

God will vindicate his true-hearted servant, who speaks with the mind of Christ. And the younger that pastor is, the more years he will have to enjoy the smile of God upon his ministry. Our Lord is faithful to his pastors who, setting their whole souls on following him, keep their speech exemplary.

Dignified Speech

I love this word dignified. It describes the kind of man I want to be. The word is talking about gravitas. It suggests nobility and honor, like a chivalrous knight of old.

Dignified speech is the opposite of glib, shallow, and silly. Are there humorous moments in a healthy church? Yes. The Lord himself makes sure that our ridiculousness shows through now and then. Truly hilarious things can happen, and the saints throw their heads back and roar with the most wonderful laughter. Such grace!

“Dignified speech is the opposite of glib, shallow, and silly.”

And of course, an exemplary pastor will never be pompous or tedious, dragging people down with fakey seriousness. He is too human and too real for that. But he understands what Neil Postman explained in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other” (92). And a pastor truly called by God knows he is not in the entertainment business. So his words carry weight. His dignified words stand out with especially sacred gravitas at Holy Communion, at weddings and funerals, at prayer meetings, and when he counsels brokenhearted people.

How precious, in this world of giggly cuteness saturating the media 24/7, are profound pastoral words gently offered to sinners and sufferers! When a young man shows that he is sensitive to the dignity the moment calls for, his people will revere him as exemplary.

Self-Controlled Speech

With the word self-control, we’re thinking of the qualities of reason, judgment, taste — just plain old solid thinking and good sense. Not impulsive or erratic, but careful and judicious. Not barfing out whatever comes to mind at the moment, but pausing and thinking and showing discernment.

For example, in a difficult congregational meeting, an exemplary pastor guards himself from speaking out of his own frustration and calls silently upon the Lord for the grace to speak out of the fullness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God is not raw energy. He is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel . . . the Spirit of knowledge” (Isaiah 11:2). An inspiring pastor knows to slow down, inhale, and think — until he has something to say that can make the moment better for everyone. That pastor, even if young, will be taken seriously by church members of all ages.

God-Given Words

Here is a wonderful promise from God for every pastor who longs to grow as an example to his people of speech that is sober-minded, dignified, and self-controlled:

If you call out for insight,
     and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek for it like silver
     and search for it as for hidden treasures . . .
wisdom will come into your heart,
     and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. (Proverbs 2:3–4, 10)

The wisdom all of us pastors need is not a script we can follow. It is deeper. It is a God-given intuition, a new instinct that comes into our hearts by his grace. And it sure comes in handy when we’re deciding on the fly what to say and how to say it. Why not ask God for it? He loves to give us his best.

Finally, if you want to follow up with a next step, here are two resources of rich historical depth. One is The Westminster Larger Catechism on the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Questions 143–145 of the Catechism explain that commandment with amazing insight, helping us use our words not to injure but to bless one another. The other resource is “A Sermon against Contention and Brawling” in The First Book of Homilies, the old treasure chest of sermons from Reformation England.

In our age of words doing great harm, both on social media and face to face, this old Presbyterian wisdom in the Catechism, with this old Anglican wisdom in the Homily, can equip and strengthen all of us today. Maybe your church’s leadership team would benefit from reading and discussing these wonderful resources. I promise you will enjoy them.