A Pattern of Sound Words

In 2 Tim 1:13, Paul asks Timothy to follow the “pattern of sound words” that he has been taught. One possible meaning of this phrase I considered was that Paul had shaped the gospel into some sort of memorable creedal statements, and that Timothy should make use of those same verbal forms. I don’t think that is in fact the best explanation, and this verse probably means that Timothy should consider Paul’s doctrine to be “sound” and should stick to it.

Regardless of what 2 Tim 1:13 means, you can’t help but notice as you work through the Pastoral epistles how many times Paul makes use of what appear to be pre-existing sayings. For example, there are at least five “trustworthy sayings” (1 Tim 1:15; 1 Tim 3:1; 1 Tim 4:9; 2 Tim 2:11-13; Tit 3:8). 1 Tim 3:16 has the feel of a hymn, while the prayers in 1 Tim 1:17 and 1 Tim 6:15-16 are short and memorable doxologies. There are also a number of succinct and carefully crafted gospel summaries (e.g. 2 Tim 2:9-10, Tit 1:1-4, Tit 2:11-14, Tit 3:4-7).

All of this points to the fact that Paul didn’t blurt things out, but thought very carefully about how exactly he wanted to say them. I’m not saying that the church at this point in history was particularly “liturgical”, but it does seem that already Paul had a wealth of material from which he was able to draw.

The charismatic churches I have been part of are typically very suspicious of liturgy. Any form of set words seems like dead formalism, and it is considered far more preferable to address God in your own words wherever possible (except of course in song). Prayers are extemporaneous, there is no formal liturgy surrounding the Lord’s supper or baptism, creeds are rarely if ever recited.

There are strengths to this approach (not least in that there is an authenticity about using your own words rather than someone else’s), but an obvious weakness is that it can be possible for our prayers and the words we use within meetings to lack real depth. Informal liturgies often emerge where the same clichéd phrases are repeated over and over, mainly because we can’t think of anything else to say on the spur of the moment.

Personally I think that church history has given us a rich store of hymns, creeds, prayers and sayings and our “non-liturgical” modern churches impoverish themselves by failing to make use of them. And that is to say nothing of the numerous prayers within Scripture that could be utilised. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination arguing for pre-scripting our services. But I do wonder whether more attention to the pattern of words we use could bring a depth to what we say that is sometimes sadly lacking.

I think both the liturgical and the anti-liturgical camps can find that, for different reasons, the words spoken at their meetings lack real impact. The challenge for the church is to find ways of speaking God’s truth that are fresh, powerful, profound, striking and surprising. Neither predictable liturgy on the one hand, nor unprepared improvisation on the other will be able to achieve this.

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