“Here is a trustworthy saying.” In our first sermon from 1 Timothy we looked at two of the trustworthy sayings in circulation around the Early Church which the apostle Paul says are worthy of full acceptance. Both of those concerned salvation. With each Paul said, This is a true saying, to be completely accepted and believed. (Good News Bible) There is no doubt about this at all, and Christians should remember it. (J.B. Phillips) You can count on this. Take it to heart. (Message)
This morning we move on to consider the third trustworthy saying Paul reminds Timothy about. What would you imagine it will be about? A saying about the righteousness and faithfulness of God perhaps? Or about the resurrection of Jesus? Or about the call to holy living or to love one another? Paul majors on all of these themes in many other places. But no. Instead, the third trustworthy saying he quotes in 1 Timothy is quite unexpected – although its theme is surely an important reason why the pastoral letters are included in the Canon of Scripture.
Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.
Paul is talking about leadership in the church.
He begins by talking about an Overseer, an episcopos. The King James Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translate that title as Bishop. The Good News Translation and the New Living Translation say “church leader”. The Contemporary English Version says “church officials.” Different denominations understand that office in different ways but most churches would agree that “Overseers” probably refers to people who are set apart to serve the church in some way. Baptists and free churches would think it applies to Ministers and Pastors.
In verse 8 Paul goes on to talk about Deacons. The Good News Translation says “Church Helpers” and other versions go with the more literal “Servants in the Church.” These people seem to be other leaders who work in the church alongside the Overseers and they give us the biblical pattern for Deacons in Baptist churches. The fact is that we don’t really know very much about the difference between the jobs Overseers and Deacons did in the Early Church. Different denominations interpret the roles to fit in with the patterns of leadership they have in their churches today. The Bible says relatively little about the skills required to be an Overseer or a Deacon. What the Bible makes very clear is that leadership isn’t about skills. Leadership is all about character. Paul says that being an overseer is a noble task. And then he says,
2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
They must be “above reproach,” without fault, blameless, “such a good man that no one can rightly criticize him”. They must be faithful in marriage. Sexual purity is essential. They must be temperate, self-controlled, respectable and honest. They should be hospitable and they should be able to teach. Here is the only skill which is required of Overseers and is not mentioned for Deacons. They must be good teachers. We will come back to the issue of teaching in a few minutes.
An Overseer must be 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
Drunkenness disqualifies a person from Christian leadership. So does violence or being argumentative. A patient and gentle temperament is essential. And they must not be “a lover of money.” As we saw last week, greed and pursuit of financial gain was warning signs of a false teacher.
The family life of an Overseer sets an important example to the church and to the world.
4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
What Paul says next is important, in a world which often makes the mistake of giving people responsibility before they are ready for it.
6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.
And again Paul points out that church leaders are often the public face of the church.
7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
The great fourth century preacher John Chrysostom said this. “The minister’s shortcoming simply cannot be concealed. Even the most trivial soon get known…However trifling their offenses, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offense, but by the standing of the sinner.”
For Overseers, Ministers and Pastors, it’s all about character! I once wrote an article which was published in the Baptist Times and in it I said, “There are no other jobs where skills, training and experience count for so little and character counts for everything. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote to a new minister: “In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.””
Prince Charles once described his duties as Prince of Wales like this. “More than anything else, it is a way of life. It’s more than a job. It’s a complete, 24-hour-a-day business, really.” And the same would be true of the work being a Minister.
Paul’s qualifications for Overseers are all about character. And he goes on to say much the same about Deacons, other people who hold positions of leadership in the church.
8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.
Again, not pursuing dishonest gain. I am sad to see too many celebrity preachers and evangelists who disqualify themselves from any leadership in the church by their pursuit of money.
The primary responsibility of teaching and standing up to false teaching and false teachers rests with the Overseers. But Deacons are also expected to stand firm for the true faith.
9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.
The same standards of purity are also expected of Deacons.
12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
It is for the church to discern whether a person is fit to serve the church as a leader.
10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
Whether as Overseers, Ministers, or as Deacons, what matters above all is character. Paul says exactly the same things in Titus chapter 1. And here in 1 Timothy Paul twice calls on Timothy himself to set a good example to other leaders and to the whole church.
1 Timothy 4 12 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 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
In the sixth century Gregory the Great said this. “He who is required by the necessity of his position to speak the highest things is compelled by the same necessity to exemplify the highest things.”
You may well point out that everything we are saying this morning about Christ-like character should surely apply to every Christian. None of us can use the excuse that God only sets those standards for leaders and they don’t matter for the rest of the church. Every Christian ought to demonstrate those qualities of character, but they should be especially evident in the lives of Christian leaders.
When a church is appointing Deacons, and especially when a church is calling a minister, character is what counts! That vital truth often gets lost when people are going through the process of applying to be trained as a minister. It is often neglected in the processes of ministerial formation and it is also overlooked in the patterns of Continuing Ministerial Development which are required of all new Baptist ministers nowadays. Too often churches only look for the skills and forget about Christlike character. A popular tool for reviewing the effectiveness of ministry lists the following 14, yes 14 skills, which Baptist ministers are expected to exercise. Preaching; Working ecumenically; Information Technology skills; Training others; Written communication; Research; Evangelism; Church planting; Developing plans and policies; Working alone; Leading a team; Working as a team member; Pastoral care; Mediation. And all of this must be worked out in the brave new world of charity law, health and safety legislation, child protection and equality regulations. With so many and varied skills required, so many different and demanding activities expected, leading a church often seems to be much more like running a small business than being a Christian minister as pastors and priests used to be for the first 19 centuries of the life of the church.
In fact the Bible only lays one principal responsibility on Overseers and that is they must be good teachers and guard the gospel against false teaching and false teachers.
As we saw in Titus 1 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
Titus 1 actually uses another title for leaders in the church. Titus 1 5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless,
We read in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas had appointed Elders to lead the churches they had planted in cities like Lystra and Iconium. Elder is the title given to the leaders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20.
Acts 20 17 From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him.
But in his speech to those Elders, Paul says this.
Acts 20 28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
So Paul uses the titles Elder and Overseer pretty much interchangeably for the positions which we would call Ministers or Pastors. And 1 Peter makes the same link between being an Elder and exercising oversight.
1 Peter 5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
Paul uses the title of Elder in 1 Timothy 5 and he says one further significant thing about about them.
1 Timothy 5 17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’
We shouldn’t necessarily interpret these verses to mean that Elders were all full-time employees of churches. But Paul did expect that preachers and teachers were entitled to some financial reward.
The pattern of a priesthood which was set apart to serve God full-time and was supported by the people of God comes from the Levites in the Old Testament. But there were certainly some leaders in the Early Church who were entirely supported by the church, particularly those dedicated to preaching and teaching. We see that pattern in the apostles in Jerusalem. In Acts 6 they delegated the task of distributing food to the Christian widows to seven people who were known to be full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. Some people see that as the pattern we have for Deacons leading Baptist churches. The apostles said, Acts 6:3 “… We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
We find the principle that teachers should receive some support in other places too.
Galatians 6 6 … the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
1 Corinthians 9 13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
Paul is keen to point out that he himself never exercised his rights to material and financial support from the Corinthians. But the principle is there in a number of places including,
1 Timothy 5 17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
We will come back to look at what being a minister and leading the church at Ephesus meant for Timothy next week. Summing up from today, Christian leadership is all about character. The only task particularly associated with Overseers or Elders is to teach the Word of God and to stand up to false teaching and false teachers. And my understanding from the Bible is that it is perfectly acceptable for teachers and preachers to be supported by other Christians in order to exercise their ministries. But then, after 35 years as a minister, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
1 Timothy 3:1 Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.