A Pauline lesson for pastors on the importance of professionalism

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“The books, and above all the parchments”: A Pauline lesson for pastors on the importance of professionalism

July 25, 2023 -

An example of an ancient parchment. © By AIGen/stock.adobe.com

An example of an ancient parchment. © By AIGen/stock.adobe.com

An example of an ancient parchment. © By AIGen/stock.adobe.com

I will always remember my first visit to the Mamertine prison in Rome. According to early tradition, Paul was held here at the end of his life. It was here that he wrote 2 Timothy, his last letter to his “son in the faith.” And it was from this place that he was taken to be beheaded.

The dungeon is dark and dank. A post still stands to which Paul would have been chained; an open hole would have been his sanitation. Paul knew that the end of his earthly life was near; in fact, he told Timothy that “the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6).

The cave is so dark and cold that Paul asked his young disciple, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas” (v. 13a). But note what comes next: “also the books, and above all the parchments” (v. 13b).

“Books” (biblion in Greek) refers to documents or scrolls, most likely made of papyrus. “Parchments” (membrana) would designate more durable scrolls made of animal skins. Some scholars think the two terms are synonymous, translating the phrase, “the books, that is, the parchments.” Others (including the ESV translators) think they refer to two different types of scrolls. Papyrus, being more brittle and impermanent, could refer to letters and other more temporal correspondence, while parchments, being more permanent, could refer to what we think of as books, perhaps the books of Scripture.

We cannot be sure which documents Paul meant, but he knew Timothy would have no such confusion. It is also notable that Paul made this request even in his final days.

Taken together, these facts bring to light a principle worth considering by all pastors today.

Do our people see us as professionals?

Early in my pastoral career, I was talking with a CEO in our church when the thought occurred to me: he doesn’t consider me to be as much a professional as he sees himself.

I realized that this business executive had no idea what I did during the week and could not imagine that it took a full week to prepare to preach a single sermon (which is his entire exposure to my work). Even if he took into consideration my pastoral ministry responsibilities such as visiting the homebound and counseling those in need, he didn’t see these duties as requiring a significant level of professional expertise. In his mind, he could do my job, but I could never do his.

Over the years, I have often encountered this bias on the part of church professionals toward myself and other professional ministers. Some of this is understandable; people are often “down on what they’re not up on,” as they say. Church members don’t know what they don’t know.

But this sentiment can also be deserved by ministry professionals who are less than professional in their work, which leads me to my point today.

Do we see ourselves as professionals?

As you know, Saul of Tarsus was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the leading rabbinic scholar of his day and a man “held in honor by all the people” (Acts 5:34). Gamaliel was so revered that the Mishna (an early compilation of oral rabbinic teachings) said of him, “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died.”

As a result, Paul could testify that he was educated “according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). His academic credentials were literally second to none in his culture, something like having doctoral degrees from Harvard or Princeton today.

In addition, Paul was a recipient of divine revelation so advanced that he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4). Peter could say of him that he “wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters” (2 Peter 3:15–16a) and could include Paul’s writings among “the other Scriptures” (v. 16b).

And yet, despite educational and spiritual credentials unsurpassed in his world, Paul still wanted “the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). He still wanted to study, to learn, to improve his mind and thus his ability to serve his Lord.

Physicians, attorneys, educators, business executives, and other professionals would agree. They must be lifelong learners to be excellent in their fields of expertise. In my work as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Healthcare, I am often impressed by the passion of our medical staff for continued study so as to serve their patients as effectively as possible.

Let the same be said of us.

“The pain of discipline and the pain of disappointment”

When I graduated from college, the benefactor who provided my academic scholarship asked me about my plans. I told him I would be attending seminary. He asked if I would pursue a PhD. I told him I had not thought that far down the road.

I will never forget his response: he looked me in the eye and said, “Young man, the Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.”

Paul could quote the Hebrew Bible in synagogues and Greek philosophers to Greek philosophers because he had a “trained mind.” To “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22) required a lifetime of academic and cultural study and discipline.

What is your plan to utilize “the books, and above all the parchments” across the remainder of your summer? How will you love God “with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) and thus enable the Holy Spirit to use you in ways he could not otherwise?

None of us are in the Mamertine prison today. But all of us, myself included, can learn from the example Paul set there.

Legendary football coach Nick Saban noted: “There is the pain of discipline and the pain of disappointment. If you can handle the pain of discipline, then you’ll never have to deal with the pain of disappointment.”

Which will you choose today?

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