“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV).
As a parent and a youth pastor, I realize this is one of the most overused verses in the Bible. I have heard many youth pastors use this verse as a bat to beat their congregation over the head. They yell at their congregation saying, “Don’t look down on the youth of this church!” Youth pastors mean well, and they wish congregations would not ignore or disparage the teenagers in their midst, muttering about kids' baggy pants and unusual hairdos.
Yet, this isn’t what this verse was meant to accomplish. It wasn’t a bat used on Timothy’s congregation. This verse was meant to challenge and encourage a young man to live out his faith convictions. This verse was written by Paul to Timothy, a young pastor. Paul advises Timothy not to allow people to look down on him. Paul doesn’t just suggest this; it is a command.
How’s Timothy supposed to do that? He can’t control how other people think of him. So, Paul shows Timothy how he might influence others. Timothy can “set an example for the believers.” If Timothy leads the way for his congregation, setting an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity for his flock, then they will respect rather than look down on him. They will overlook the age difference and see Christ working in his life. How can they look down on someone whose life looks like Christ?
What does this verse mean for us as parents? It means we have a responsibility to raise our children in a way that no one will “look down on” them. We seek to disciple our children in a way that allows them to set an example for other believers in the way they talk, behave, care for others, express their faith, and seek purity. This is the high calling of a Christian parent.
Actually accomplishing this goal is of course the hard part, so I want to talk about one “big picture” idea. If we want to raise our children to be examples to believers, we must not underestimate them ourselves. We “look down on” our own children when we set low expectations for them regarding their walk with the Lord. All too often parents are willing to challenge their children when it comes to school and sports, but when it comes to the Christian life, the challenge is thin.
Our children desire to be challenged, not in a way that defeats them, but challenged nonetheless. When we challenge them in every area of life except their faith, they begin believing this aspect of their life isn’t as important as the other activities where they are challenged. Or, they begin believing they they are close enough and don’t need to grow in their faith. Either belief is unhelpful in the discipleship process.
Give your children a vision for their walk with the Lord. Share your walk--struggles and successes--so they see faith in action. I strongly believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you challenge and encourage your children in their faith. You will watch them rise to the occasion, again and again. They’re hungry for it! Encourage and challenge your children to begin some sort of daily Bible reading. Encourage your children to begin memorizing scripture. Encourage your children to begin praying (out loud!) for their family members, classmates, and church. Challenge them to have their behavior reflect their faith conviction. Encourage your children to grow in a knowledge and love of the Lord. This is what it looks like to be a Christian parents. This is what it looks like to make disciples!
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra