The motto of Christian Challenge , the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Colorado, is “changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” One of the key ways in which our ministry seeks to embody and live out this truth is by developing a network of mentoring relationships. Every student who becomes active in Challenge is usually paired up with a staff member, to meet on a regular basis for spiritual counseling, encouragement, and fellowship. Many students who are being mentored also take on the role of mentoring a younger individual in the ministry. To understand the value and need for mentoring relationships, it’s helpful to examine the etymology of the word, as well as explore the Biblical paradigm for such roles. “Mentor” is a Greek word that means “wise advisor”. But “Mentor” was actually first a person, a character in Homer’s Odyssey. In the narrative, Mentor is a wise, older man, whom Odysseus asks to look after his son Telemachus, and keep watch over his palace while he is absent fighting in the Trojan War.
Turning to Scripture, we find numerous support for the importance of mentoring relationships. Proverbs 27:17 states—“as iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Indeed throughout the entire book of Proverbs, Solomon envisions himself in a mentoring role to his readers. The opening verses of the book reveal his intention—“To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion”. There are many other specific mentoring relationships illustrated in the Bible as well. We can think of Elisha, following the prophet Elijah in the Book of Kings, and learning alongside him until that day when he literally takes up his mantle, after Elijah has ascended into heaven, and continues his work. Or earlier, we might reflect on how Joshua learns from Moses, before inhering the leadership of the Children of Israel, and taking them into the Promised Land. In the New Testament, Christ of course fulfills a central mentoring role for His disciples, and then as the early church spreads, such relationships continue to develop amongst the new Christians. Perhaps the richest example of Biblical mentoring however would be the friendship between Paul and Timothy. For the great Apostle, Timothy is his “beloved son” (2 Tim. 1:2), a companion on many missionary journeys, and a young man whom Paul takes great pride in instructing and guiding in Christ-like growth.
We can learn much about the way to approach Christian mentoring by studying Paul and Timothy’s relationship in a little more detail. First we note that Paul respects the faith foundations Timothy already possesses, and does not purport to be the only influence or source of spiritual guidance in his life. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul refers to Timothy’s spiritual heritage—“I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also.” And then in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 he urges—“But as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures”. Controlling or prideful mentors may try to convince their students that they are the only real source of truth, or minimize the role that earlier teachers have played. But the Christ-like mentor, following Paul’s example, always recognizes that they are merely adding to a foundation, whose cornerstone of course is Jesus, and the revealed wisdom of the Holy Spirit, as well as the wise counsel that parents, relatives, and other teachers have contributed to.
Paul also recognizes the need for Timothy to begin discipling others, in the same way as he has received spiritual coaching and counsel from Paul In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul calls for this process of multiplication through discipleship to continue, as Timothy finds other people to pour truth, encouragement, and spiritual insight into-“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Throughout the book of 1 Timothy, Paul outlines specific charges for his pupil, including instruction on church governance, selection of leaders, church discipline, and warnings against false doctrine. Paul is in effect reminding Timothy of the central points of all the doctrine he has tried to instill in him. In 1 Timothy 4:6, he asserts—“If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed.” As a good mentor, Paul also instills confidence in the young Timothy, encouraging him to exercise Christian leadership. 1 Timothy 4:12—“Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” Paul’s technique here relates to a textbook psychological principle known as the “Pygmalion effect.” Basically this is the idea that the higher the expectations are placed on someone, the better they perform. Paul can hold high expectations for Timothy, because he has taken his mentoring role seriously. As he concludes 1 Timothy, he offers an exhortation to his dear friend to stay committed to the Gospel truth which he has been entrusted with—“O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.” Because Paul has been a conscientious and Godly mentor, he can call attention to his own example without being immodest. Paul’s example points back to Jesus, as 1 Corinthians 1:11 shows—“Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” This is another great lesson we learn from Paul about Christian mentoring—it’s not about us. Paul’s successful role as a mentor is ultimately attributable to his ability to remove the focus from himself, and repeatedly turn Timothy’s eyes back to Christ.
Hebrews 13:7-8 also reflects upon how Christian mentors can leave lasting legacy for their students. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” When their identity is constant, and rooted in the unchanging nature of Christ, mentors can then be confident that their success will not depend on their personality, level of education, charisma, or eloquence. If a mentoring relationship is too driven by the individual preferences and agenda of the mentor, they leave their student at risk of eventually being spiritually stunted, and disconnected from the true source of Christian growth, which is the imitation of Christ. Even in large churches this phenomenon sometimes observable, whereby a successful pastor creates a cult of personality, and leaves his congregants vulnerable because they have looked to the pastoral office, rather than ultimately to Scripture and the person of Christ for spiritual structure and counsel. That is perhaps one reason why James 3:1 warns—“My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Paul equally admonishes Timothy to take his own teaching and mentoring roles very seriously, exercising Christian gentleness, tempered with the responsibility of proclaiming Gospel truth—“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:24-25) Across Scripture, and particularly in the dynamic partnership between Timothy and Paul, we can witness the lasting value of Christ-centered mentoring relationships. In the next installment of my blog, I will discuss some of the specific mentors that have blessed me, as well as reflect upon the current mentoring opportunities I have through the ministry of Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder!