All of us, I presume, change our minds from time to time. We know that we err, and we know that we grow in grace. At least part of that growth happens when we no longer believe the errors we once believed. Sometimes we add new information to what we believe. Sometimes we jettison old information. And sometimes we do both. For instance, decades ago I used to believe that the universe is many millions of years old. I now believe that it is less than ten thousand years old. That is progress.
Paul commands that elders be sober-minded. I suspect that many of us give precious little thought to this command. Too many of us dismiss all of Paul’s qualifications. However, even if we try to apply them we often slide right over this one. We may assume “sober-minded” means the same thing as “not given to much wine.” We may assume that we don’t want elders who are given to whoopee cushions, joy buzzers and oversized clown shoes.
To be sober-minded, however, is to treat truth seriously and to have a healthy doubt as to our own understanding of truth. It is all too easy to get confused here. Many churches have their fair share of “theology wonks.” These are usually young men who have a passion for theology. They read substantial books, and they engage in substantial conversations. You’ll usually find them at the church picnic smoking a pipe with a small cadre of acolytes sitting around them as they share their wisdom. They are contemplating the tug and pull of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. They are wondering out loud if maybe the hyper-preterists have it right, that Jesus may not be coming back again. They are expositing the proper procedure for stoning rebellious children.
A sober-minded person should think through the challenges of the incarnation. A sober-minded person should know the claims of all sorts of heretics, including hyper-preterists. A sober-minded person ought to contemplate the law of God. But there are two things a sober-minded person doesn’t do. He doesn’t practice experimental theology right in front of people, and he certainly doesn’t veer from this bedrock position to that one, dragging his sheep behind him. Indeed if he finds himself questioning some fundamentals, a sober-minded man will grow frightened rather than excited, will grow more careful rather than more reckless, and will encourage the faithful to look away, not to draw near. If a man, for instance, suddenly “gets” covenant theology and now believes in baptizing covenant children, he does not now take up this holy cause with the same zeal with which he defended the Baptist view just weeks before. When he gives in to the biblical weight of Calvinism, a sober-minded man doesn’t crusade for it just as he once crusaded against it. A sober-minded man instead thinks—“Wow. I once was so passionate about what I now know is error. Perhaps I ought not to lay hands on myself and become webmaster of www.don’t-listen-to-old-me-listen-to-new-me.com.”
One need not be the theology wonk to fail here. Neither does one need to be or aspire to be an elder to heed the call to sobriety of mind. Those who follow theology wonks are likewise not sober-minded. They are instead drinking a dangerous brew. If you are following someone who gives you intellectual whiplash, you would be wise to get off that bus. If your local guru is telling you about all the exciting things he saw on the other side of the Tiber, walk away. He leads sheep to slaughter, not to green pastures. It makes no difference whether it be sensual or intellectual delights. Only fools heed the call of the seductress. Her paths lead to death. Wisdom, on the other hand, is sober and steady. Heed her.