In 1865, renowned British pastor Charles Spurgeon began publishing the monthly magazine titled The Sword and the Trowel. He derived the publication’s name from Nehemiah 4:17–18 which recorded how God’s people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem while enduring verbal and physical opposition. Spurgeon summarized his goal for the magazine by stating,
We shall supply interesting reading upon general topics, but our chief aim will be to arouse believers to action, and to suggest to them plans by which the Kingdom of Jesus may be extended. . . . We would sound the trumpet, and lead our comrades to the fight. We would ply the Trowel with untiring hand for the building up of Jerusalem’s dilapidated walls, and wield the Sword with vigour and valour against the enemies of the truth.1
As illustrated by Spurgeon’s mention of the constructive trowel and the combative sword, the work of church leaders inherently resides in the two tasks of formatively teaching the truth and militantly exposing error.2 Because pastors serve the church in these critical roles, we must exhibit appropriate characteristics and skills in key areas.3 One of the skills necessary for a pastor is that he must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2),4 which Paul describes more fully as “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). This verse provides great insight into the predominant work of pastors to teach the truth and refute error.
Pastors, we can never say that our work is done in this age because there is always more truth to teach and obey both personally and in the church.
All of the verbs in this verse are in the present tense, indicating continual action throughout a pastor’s ministry. We can never say that our work is done in this age because there is always more truth to teach and obey both personally and in the church, there will always be errors creeping in that need gentle correction (2 Timothy 4:3–4; cf. Galatians 6:1), and there will always be false teachers who need to be refuted. The corresponding tasks of teaching and refuting are both responsibilities of all elders. Certain of us may favor teaching more than refuting or refuting more than teaching, and surely God has given each of us certain passions and degrees of skill in these areas. But God expects that all pastors be competent and confident to perform both activities when it becomes necessary and appropriate.
Devoted to the Word of God
In order to teach and refute, we must know the Scripture intimately ourselves. Paul says elders must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching.” This indicates a firm personal devotion to the Word of God from an ardent desire and proven ability to study and learn from Scripture. Pastors must be able to converse theologically, using biblical terminology to view and interpret life through the lens of God’s Word. We must exercise the attention of the Israelites to the Word of God, when the Lord says, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Be like Ezra, who “had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). We should emulate the unique loyalty to God’s Word as found in the attitude of the disciples when they said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Pastors must be able to converse theologically, using biblical terminology to view and interpret life through the lens of God’s Word.
Many things might influence pastors to neglect the Word of God. Certainly the full schedule of pastoring while also leading and caring for our own families may tempt us to neglect the meditation on and study of the Scripture. Perhaps we do not appreciate the urgent need to be filled with the Word of God in order to faithfully deliver it to others. Maybe we are just being lazy or complacent, or we want to pursue other ministry strategies that we think will “really” make a difference in our churches. Perhaps we have a low regard for the Bible as God’s sufficient and authoritative revelation for our age, and we prefer rather to pay attention to what are hailed as more “relevant” voices. Perhaps confined by the fear of man, we are embarrassed to hold fast to Scripture in the midst of a perverse and God-denying generation. Whatever the reason, as John MacArthur states, “If you’re not holding on to the faithful Word, then you’re in no position to be teaching it. No one can teach or preach effectively without strong, personal, compassionate commitment to the truth.”5
What is this “faithful word” that pastors are to hold fast? This phrase “faithful word” or variations of it appear numerous times in the New Testament to emphasize the true and reliable nature of God’s Word.6 The Bible was inspired by God and delivered through his apostles and prophets, is inerrant and infallible in its teachings, and is sufficient in its effectual work.7 God’s Word stands in contrast to man’s word which varies in reliability, truth, and effectiveness. Scripture comes from “God, who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2), and was not “made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).
Paul further states that “the faithful word” pastors are to hold fast must be “in accordance with the teaching.” This refers to the content of what has been taught by the apostles and prophets from Moses to John, from Genesis to Revelation (cf. Ephesians 2:20). As the early church in Jerusalem devoted “themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), so too should pastors measure their teaching against the standard of the Bible (cf. 2 Peter 3:15–16).
If our teaching is not inherently obvious from the text, we must either show how we derived our ideas from the text or abandon that line of thought.
Our teaching should elucidate the text, and our people should be able to clearly derive our teaching from the text. If our teaching is not inherently obvious from the text, we must either show how we derived our ideas from the text or abandon that line of thought. We should be reticent to present a new idea that we may see in a text but that we cannot corroborate from other students of the Bible throughout history. Pastors should not seek to be innovative with our teaching. As shepherds under the authority of Christ, we must follow Jesus’ own example when he said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16). Our authority in teaching and leading the church comes through the Scripture. We may not accrue to ourselves authority beyond our station as a teacher of the Word of God. (cf. Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). Paul instructs Timothy, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3–4). We must take great care that our teaching comes from and is according to the Scripture.
The Apostle Paul says that the purpose and necessary result of a pastor’s devotion to the Word of God is “that he will be able” to teach the truth and refute error. Since we should wish to increase in these specific skills, we ought to redouble our efforts to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” us (Colossians 3:16). Even eloquent teachers can grow in understanding and skill to teach the Word of God more faithfully (cf. Acts 18:24–26). While God gives certain levels of giftedness and effectiveness to certain pastors, all pastors have the responsibility to serve the church with the truth.
Teach the Truth
Pastors, teach the truth of God’s Word. The word translated here as exhort has the sense of making an urgent appeal, indicating the imperative nature of the teaching. Paul says similarly to Timothy that he should “teach and preach [i.e., exhort or urgently appeal to our hearers to follow] these principles” (1 Timothy 6:2), and to “preach [i.e., proclaim or herald] the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Pastors, we should not teach merely to impart knowledge but also to change lives, as Paul says to the Thessalonian church, “We request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1; cf. 2:11–12).
Pastors, don’t teach merely to impart knowledge but also to change lives.
Elders are “to exhort in sound doctrine,” giving correct and accurate teaching to the church. This “healthy” or life-giving doctrine especially contrasts with the sickly, diseased, and unprofitable doctrine of the false teachers (1 Timothy 4:1–3; 2 Timothy 2:17, 3:1–9). While the word sound can refer to physical health (e.g., Luke 5:31; 3 John 2), Paul uses this word repeatedly throughout his letters to Timothy and Titus to refer figuratively to “healthy” or life-giving doctrine.8 Pastors, we must teach with a view toward the maturity of the church. This maturity can be measured by increased knowledge and greater discernment, as well as character and conduct that is appropriate to sound doctrine (Ephesians 4:1ff.; Titus 2:1ff.). Thankfully, God’s Word is powerfully able to effect change in the lives of those who humbly follow its teachings, “that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Following Paul’s example, pastors are to proclaim Jesus Christ, “admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
In addition to teaching sound words, pastors are “to refute those who contradict” sound doctrine. This means we must discern error and show false teaching to be contrary to Scripture. This is more than merely a rebuke or verbal reprimand, but is to be a thorough debunking of contradictory teachers. One commentator says that to refute someone “signifies a presentation of evidence so that the arguments of the opponents are beaten down and proved to be baseless.”9
This is more than merely a rebuke or verbal reprimand, but is to be a thorough debunking of contradictory teachers.
Given the stunningly characteristic reprobation of the Cretan peoples, it is quite noteworthy that Paul exhorts Titus to go and rebuke them “so that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Paul believes in the redemptive and transforming capacity of the gospel, even so that it can overcome centuries’ worth of ingrained wickedness. He communicates a similar idea to Timothy regarding errant believers:
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy2:24–26)
While we would normally expect genuine believers to respond favorably to sound teaching as an indication of the Spirit of truth indwelling them, some professing believers have “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). False teachers continually afflict the church with error,10 and some gullible, professing Christians will be deceived and fall away from the faith to follow these deceitful teachings.11 Teachers may be tempted to adapt their message to seek “the favor of men” rather than the favor of God (Galatians 1:10), and people “wanting to have their ears tickled . . . will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). We are fascinated with new or otherwise “secret” knowledge from the Scripture (1 Timothy 1:3–4; Titus 3:9), and we sometimes fail to interpret the Scriptures correctly to discern the truth (2 Timothy 2:15). We also can tend toward “selfish ambition or vain conceit” that prevents us from “being of the same mind” (Philippians 2:2–3), resulting in doctrinal division.12 For these and other reasons, elders must be vigilant to teach the truth and refute error (Acts 20:28).
A diligent pastor must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able to both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” We must stand on the clear Word of God as if our lives depended on it: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). In all our teaching and refuting, we must be careful to love God and compassionately care for others, being valiant for the truth and aggressive in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15; Jude 20–23; Revelation 2:2–4). Remember that as a teacher of God’s holy Word, we “will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Elders must faithfully shepherd of the church of God, and may the Lord give us fruitful labor in his name.
Liberty Bible Church, which meets in Williamstown, Kentucky.has served Christ and his church in various capacities of pastoral ministry since 1996. Having served congregations in Michigan, Israel, and Texas, he currently pastors