I Timothy 3:1-7 “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”
Some people who find it hard to believe that this chapter in Paul’s first letter to Timothy was the most earnestly scrutinised portion of the New Testament about thirty years ago. The reformation of the church was the great theme of that hour. It was linked to the spread of the doctrines of grace and to our concern that God should awaken his sleeping church. Were there areas of our understanding and obedience where we were lacking, and so grieving the Holy Spirit? Then we must deal with them. If the Lord Christ desired his church to be governed in a certain way then we have to comply. If there was to be true New Testament ‘renewal’ then it had to include this area too, because the Saviour said that the church was his, and he would build it as he saw fit. Most of us believed that the office of elder had become neglected in our congregations.
To reject the New Testament pattern of the two offices of elders and deacons would be either to go on accepting that world of archbishops, diocesan bishops, archdeacons, deans, prebendaries, canons, minor canons, chancellors, curates, vicars-general, parish councils, commissaries, surrogates, proctors, clerks in holy orders and the like with its antiquarian image of Trollop and “Barchester Towers”; or to fall into that other world of worship leaders, song leaders, youth leaders, group leaders, team ministers, counsellors and the like, with its image of ‘doing things.’ In contrast to all of that Christ’s church has a marvellous simplicity, of just two offices, and they are described in this chapter, the elder (or overseer) and the deacon.
I say things hummed thirty years ago about eldership, but perhaps today, while not giving up any of the convictions we learned then, things need to hum about the biblical concept of ‘the people of God.’ There is an equality between the people and the ‘clergy’ (I use that word in inverted commas because I am sure that for all of us ‘clergy’ is an abhorrent word, which Baptists and Presbyterians should never use). But it serves my purpose for the moment. Let me approach the subject like this. All of us in the congregation, in these egalitarian days, are on first name terms. The elders too are ‘Geoff’, ‘Ieuan,’ and ‘Michael.’ We make no attempt to call the elders ‘clergy.’ We are individuals with names before anything else. We are sinners saved by the grace of God before being men who hold a certain office.
What happened was this, that as the Christian church went into decline way back in the second century, the emphasis within the professing church moved away from the evangelical faith to a participation in the sacraments. People were saved by the sacraments, and these sacraments grew in number and use becoming absolutely central in the activities of the church. As a result, the men who dispensed and administered them (whatever that may mean – it is not a Christian concept) were considered special, and at last were deemed to be priests. It even became a dogma that the sacrament they ‘offered’ was a sacrifice, and if people did not believe that they were actually burned alive. So there was this movement away from the office of a pastor-preacher to that of a sacrificing priest, with a special skill that enabled him even to offer again the sacrifice of Christ to God and to the congregation.
In the Bible the phrase ‘the people of God’ – the laity of God (the word comes from the Greek ‘laos’) – is a great phrase. It is a privilege to belong to those of whom the covenant-making God says, “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” We elders are first of all laity. You are laity. We are all laity, and it is a glorious privilege to be the people of God. We are not saying that in the Christian church there is no priesthood. There certainly is the costly intercessory priesthood of Christ, and there is also the priesthood of all believers. Every single man and woman who trusts in Christ is a priest. Not just the minister and elders and officers, but the whole church is a laity of priests. They can go into the presence of God and offer themselves and their gifts to Jehovah. Regeneration makes everyone a priest. The new birth brings us into the laity: minister, elders, deacons and congregation are all the people of God. That equality has to be seen to be truly believed by the congregation.
1 The Place of the Eldership.
The apostle turns to this theme of eldership at this juncture because he has been telling Timothy that no woman may exercise the office of ruling and teaching in Christ’s church. Here he deals with what people may be eligible. Isn’t the subject of as much importance today as it was thirty years ago, or 1900 years ago when Paul writes this letter? The subject is the godly leadership of Christ’s church, and is not this one of the greatest blessings God may give a congregation?
The importance of the matter of the leadership of the church is indicated by the prominence it is given in the New Testament. Notice that in our text the subject is introduced by the words, “Here is a trustworthy saying,” in other words, this is one of those half a dozen aphorisms quoted by the apostle Paul in the Pastoral Epistles as especially worth remembering. The previous one affirmed no less a theme than that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:15), and in the next breath Paul repeats a current saying of the early church that a man who is setting his heart on being an overseer is desiring a noble task. The godly rule of the church is up there amongst the “trustworthy sayings.”
Let’s cast our net a little further: when Paul and Barnabas when on their first missionary journey in every single church they helped establish they “appointed elders” (Acts 14:23). They never left a church without a structure of authority. It could not be constituted as a congregation without leadership. The churches who accepted elders were simply recognising that these men were the gifts of the ascended Christ (Eph.4:11). In fact their existence was the result of a Trinitarian donation: Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). When Paul left Titus in Crete is was to “appoint elders in every town” (Tit.1:5), while Timothy is being told in this passage of the qualities which mark out the leaders of the Ephesian congregation. So a New Testament church without the leaders Christ gives is unthinkable, and the leaders he provides are precisely the men described in our passage.
To widen our net a little longer, before returning our focus to this particular passage, we must add that in the New Testament the two titles ‘bishop’ and ‘elder’ refer to the same office. We can appeal to an Anglican like John Stott, who would be without bias on this matter, who gives us four reasons to support this. He says, “In New Testament times it is all but certain that ‘episkopos’ (‘overseer’, ‘bishop’) and ‘presbyteros’ (‘presbyter’, ‘elder’) were two titles for the same office. The evidence is compelling. First, Paul sent for the ‘elders’ of the Ephesian church, but in addressing them called them ‘bishops’ (Acts 20: 17&28). Secondly, in the same way Peter appealed to the ‘elders’ among his readers to serve as ‘bishops’ of God’s flock (I Peter 5:1&2). Thirdly, Paul wrote to the Philippian church ‘together with the bishops and deacons’ (Phils. 1:1 NIV mg.); he must have omitted to mention the ‘elders’ – only because they were the ‘bishops’. Fourthly, Paul instructed Titus to appoint ‘elders,’ adding that a ‘bishop’ [NIV mg.] … must be blameless’ (Tit. 1:5-7) (John Stott, “The Message of Timothy and Titus,” IVP, 1996, p.90).
Why then are there two titles for one office? One is Jewish in its origin, that is the word ‘presbyter’ or ‘elder’, and such officials were found in every synagogue. The other word ‘overseer’ is Greek in its origin. Municipal officials in Greek towns, and supervisors of cities had the title ‘overseer.’ The title ‘overseer’ denotes the function of the leader. The title ‘elder’ refers to the dignity of the office – a mature older man. The bishop or overseer reminds us of his function of supervision. That title never belongs to one particular man, it always belongs to a body of elders. The elders have to exercise oversight over the flock of the Lord Jesus Christ. That oversight is in a general sense, but also with a careful eye to detail. An elder is someone in the church who notices things, whose ear is attentive to needs and particular cases, who gives an eye for those who are feeble-minded, and back-slidden, and unable to attend the services. So, we elders are to have a general comprehensive oversight of the church, but with an eye for detail. Individuals with specific problems in the congregation must be known of by the elders. For example, in the last officers’ meeting, we went right through the list of members of the congregation for an hour, and discussed the needs of the church, trying to ascertain whether there was anyone slipping through the net of the ministry of the church. It was a helpful exercise.
2. Churches are to be Governed by Elders.
I suppose the most basic fact about the office of the elder is that it is a permanent office. The office of apostle and prophet were foundation offices for the church and so they are no more repeated than a building needs layer after layer after layer of mighty foundations. One foundation for the entire building is all that is needed. There can be no apostolic succession whether an episcopal or a charismatic succession. The relevance of that office was, of course, permanent. It supplies the base and the structure of what we are to believe and how we are to live in every age and generation. The apostolic office, like that of the prophets, was a thoroughly supernatural office. We are still enjoying the ministry of the apostles, not in terms of their personal physical presence or their spoken words but through the Scriptures of the New Testament which they wrote for our sake. God has preserved their writings with this new millennium in mind as much as for the last two millennia. The office of the apostle was temporary and foundational, but the office of the elder was permanent and to be evidenced in every church all through the ages.
The elder was literally to be older man. The word is in fact translated ‘old men’ in Peter’s speech at Pentecost when he quotes Joel speaking about “your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). There we have the same word ‘presbyteros’ – ‘old man.’ That is why Paul says that the elder “must not be a recent convert” (v.6). He is not necessarily to be an aged man, but he must be a mature man, with some experience, whose life people have observed, and who has become venerated for those particular reasons. That is the primary Biblical designation of this office. He rules with the wisdom of the mature man. He restrains with the grace of a man who has experienced common Christian problems. He has thus acquired a fund of common sense, biblical prudence and practical sagacity. That is the fundamental designation and the basic requirements for office: insight into human nature: understanding of human behaviour: experience of human deviation. Such things, as well as compassion and sympathy, can only come with maturity – this is what an elder must have.
One understands that it is very rare for a preacher to enter the ministry via the eldership. A preacher is taking another route to becoming a herald and a teacher of the World of God. He is on a rapid learning curve, and part of the intense theological training that he gets is to prepare him to work with elders, benefit from their insights, to sift their counsels, and not be intimidated by them. Almost all preachers are elders, but few elders are preachers. In fact the elder whom the preacher will inevitably find most difficulty working with is the failed preacher or the ‘wannabe’ preacher. The elder will not normally be labouring in the word and teaching. He will not be devoting himself “to preaching and to teaching” as Paul exhorted Timothy (4:13). That will always be the special calling of the preacher. So even when he is a young man in his twenties he will usually be found preaching, called and supported by a congregation. Some of his great sermons may be those he delivered in his first years when he began his ministry. It may even be that that was the time in his entire ministry when he saw most people converted. The congregation freed him from other occupations to give himself to that work. They did not say, “Wait until we appoint you as an elder.” He had to be busy preaching: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” he cries with the apostle (I Cor. 9:16).
Where do we find this distinction between being an elder and a preacher? I believe it to be a biblical distinction, part of the development of church government found within the New Testament. In this letter itself one reads, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (I Tim.5:17). There are those whose calling is to rule well, and those also whose vocation is preaching and teaching. It is on that distinction that most churches except the Plymouth Brethren see a special office for a pastor-preacher.
Then something must be added about the equality of the preacher and the elders. We are saying that there is a distinction between the functions of the preacher and the elders. But so far as morality, authority, and leadership (as well as the direction of the church is concerned) there is equality between all the elders, of which the minister is just one. This passage of God’s word, in all its ethical stringency, must be applied to the preacher as a matter of primary requirement, but also to the elders. If they are not to dominate the flock then every consideration must be paid to the demands of this chapter. That is one reason this section and Titus 1 verse 5 and following are in the New Testament. It is clear from such passages that the elder has no inherent right to have his every command obeyed. The minister too has no authority to expect his every behest fulfilled. If the congregation votes against something that he or the elders would desire then that is not to be elevated to a resignation issue or threatened to be made such. It means they go back to the drawing board and the throne of grace!
The minister chairs members’ meetings and does that not mean that he has no vote except a casting vote in the rarity of a deadlock? Does that not mean that he does not vote for the appointing of church officers? The elders and deacons have the same voting rights and numerical value as any church member. Their opinions would be listened to very carefully and it would be rare for their counsels to be rejected, but ultimately there is an equality which every single Christian has.
There is also an equality which every minister has with every other minister. Often older men say that they feel as they did twenty years earlier, and ministers (whom as a class we know the best) frequently make that admission. Yet the behaviour of many older ministers in the presence of younger preachers often speaks to the contrary. They display their rank. They entertain questions, but they seldom ask the younger preachers what are their encouragements, what book of the Bible are they preaching on and what are they finding helpful and so on. We may not be in an episcopal denomination, and we boast that we have no area superintendents as our overseers, and certainly no holy father – the whole concept is indeed abhorrent to us. Yet do ministers give a recognition and warm affection for every single gospel preacher? Do I show by my genuine interest, that I can learn from a younger man, and I am eagerly sitting at his feet – though I might have been years longer in the ministry than himself?
Elders, bishops (or overseers) and preachers in the New Testament are absolutely identical morally, and in terms of their authority in the congregation. They will be judged by the same royal law outlined here. They are men of the same status and eminence. The standard here is the one God sets for every single Christians. There are no double standards in the kingdom of God. If a man who was an elder in another church should come to live in our town there is no automatic process which elevates him immediately to the eldership in this congregation. He was exactly the leader that that previous church needed, but he may never be appointed an elder in this congregation. Yet his counsels will be sought and respect will be given to him because of the office he held elsewhere. One church calls a man to become its pastor while he is turned down by another church. That is no slight. Churches and their pastors vary like Christian husbands and their wives.
In any human gathering there may be certain men who because of their force of character, strength, intelligence, eloquence, experience, or what have you, may emerge into positions of leadership, and their wisdom is tapped on a national or even an international scale. That may be accidental, and it is not always a good thing, but it seems to be inevitable, and grace will be given to all to handle that too. Be that as it may, there is no such office as the senior elder, or the ruling elder, or the ‘pastor at large.’ He is either pastor or he is at large. He cannot be both!
3. The Qualifications for the Eldership.
What strikes you immediately in reading this chapter is that Paul tells his readers what elders and deacons are, not what they do. Their own character and godliness is far more important to him than the various tasks they perform. Mary Slessor was the Scottish lass, a factory girl in Dundee, who went out as a missionary to Nigeria. After many years there a young woman joined them from Britain and she quickly felt out of her depth because everyone had a full schedule and were working away busily. This girl was having difficulty adjusting, and she couldn’t see anything she could do. She went with her lament to Mary Slessor, “What will I do?” she cried. “Lassie, you’re not here to do. You’re here to be.” Elders are firstly to be the sort of men described here in the New Testament.
Then let me turn this fact in another direction. There is a notable contrast in the description of the men in this chapter with the lives of the false teachers – “hypocritical liars” Paul calls them (I Tim.4:2). If those men are renegade former elders then here is an additional reason why in his description of true elders the apostle emphasises the holy lives they should be living. What struck you first about this deacon or this elder? Many of you would answer that you saw him in church and liked his appearance and manner, that there was something different about him – long before he ever spoke to you
The apostle tells us that it is important for a man to ‘set his heart’ of being an elder. The office is not something to be dodged as an extra burden, an encroachment upon his ‘space’, but a duty faithfully discharged to the head of the church who has entrusted him with a gift for this purpose. A man should long to be a preacher. That is one of the marks of a divine call. He gains the most educated understanding that he can of what the work will consist, and then he should know a sustained desire to attain that goal of teaching and leading the church. The line between vice and virtue is always a razor’s edge, and so it is regarding this desire. A man can want to be a leader for many wrong motives. God resists the proud. A man must have a great view of the glory of the Lord, loving Christ’s church and longing to see it strong, holy, caring and faithful to the word. A man with that vision must set his heart on being an overseer because appointed to it he could do more to bring about these graces in a congregation. It is a noble task to be in leadership in the kingdom of God. During times of persecution it has a special nobility, but whenever it is, those who serve must always bear in mind that it is God alone they are serving. The aspirant after eldership should be characterised by humble eagerness.
What does characterise the noble task of church overseer? The apostle highlights a number of relationships and exhorts him not to be weak in any of them.
I] The Overseer’s Relationship with the Church.
The elder is to ‘manage’ or ‘take care’ of the church (v.5). For us there is a great gulf between the manager of an organisation and the caretaker. The latter is a mere janitor, while the manager runs the whole enterprise. He has an allocated space in the car park, while the caretaker has to hustle for a spot like everyone else. But in the Christian church the greatest person is the man who serves. The manager of the church is the one who takes care of the congregation, that is, he pastors them.
Think of that great description of the shepherd in Psalm 23. That man sees that his flock lack for nothing. He leads them to green pastures and still waters, that is, he makes sure that they are fed with the pure milk of the word of God. Then there are times when they get dejected, despondent and begin to wander away. He takes care of them and restores their souls. Then there are desolating experiences that they pass through, even walking through the valley of the shadow of death. They are in different species of anguish or in mental and spiritual agony. At those times he is always there with the members of the flock. The church has a vital ministry of consolation because it always has broken-hearted people. The minister especially takes care of them at those times. He also takes care of the lambs of the flock. “He will gather the lambs in his bosom and lead gently those who are with young”. A pastor has a specific deliberate concern for children, that they be taught and encouraged to trust God. When John talks about the Good Shepherd he tells us that he is prepared to give his life for the sheep. What price taking care of the church? What cost managing the congregation? We are being searched as to totality of our own commitment. What am I prepared to endure, and deny myself for in order to fulfil this particular ministry? Will we suffer for the good of a church, to ensure that it is central in our lives? We organise our lives, consecrating our time and talent for the sake of the flock of God.
How then should we live in relationship with the church? Paul’s list of necessary qualities is remarkably comprehensive, containing six positive virtues and five negative attitudes.
i] “above reproach”: that is where the apostle begins, that he has a blameless reputation, quite irreproachable in his observable conduct. Whatever he may have in terms of management skills and success in his business, or, if he is a preacher, whatever the number of history of redemption insights he may have, and skill in using illustrations, or rhetorical eloquence – if his church has grounds to reproach him in any way for how he lives he is a tinkling bell or a noisy cymbal.
ii] “temperate”: he is a sober and clear-headed, characterised by a certain restraint. A man who has a hyena laugh, or who spends hours upon the golf-course, or spends a million on a second home is disqualified from being an elder.
iii] “self-controlled”: he is a sensible man, modest in his lifestyle and in the ambitions he creates in his children. After grace the greatest gift a man can have is common sense.
iv] “respectable”: that is a poor translation. It suggests that the elder must belong to the bourgeoisie. Men like John the Baptist, John Knox, Billy Bray and W.P.Nicholson could hardly be described as ‘respectable’ men. The term means working to a consistent Christian pattern. He is an orderly man, though extraordinarily creative and spontaneous in the faith.
v] “hospitable:” one can knock on his door and he has time for you: people are more important to him than books: he is an open and loving man. He seeks out strangers in the congregation and goes up to them and welcomes them. Better to have a reputation for a ‘soft touch’ than of being a cold fish.
vi] “able to teach:” every elder accepts the Confession of Faith of the church. He must be able to explain it. He must know the truth confessing it as well as defending it. He must be able to convince the modernist, Arminian, Pentecostal, and any gainsayer. It is more important that he be able to resolve the theological and spiritual dif ficulties of any members of the congregation who come to him with such questions. That is an important part of leadership in the church.
This comprehensive list of great expectations is followed by another list of prohibitions:-
i] “not given to drunkenness”: he is not required to be a teetotaller, though there is much that commends that, especially amongst young people. He is required to hate drunkenness as he would hate the AIDS virus. No elder can afford to gain a reputation as a drinker. How could a driker ever think straight? His faculties of judgment would be blunted. He would be bringing shame upon the temple of the Holy Spirit, which temple is every elder.
ii] “not violent but gentle”: he is not a bully – nor his wife! He may never lay a finger on anyone but if his manner is threatening, or if he picks on sections of the congregation from the safety of the pulpit in a quarrelsome way he is guilty of homiletical thuggery. The pulpit is no place for a bully.
iii] “not quarrelsome”: the point is important enough for him to return to it. There are some church leaders whose only interest seems to be in the doctrines that men fight over. Let every church leader mortify that attitude. “Be gentle!” cries Paul. He appeals to the Corinthians “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cors.10:1). Though he will often be provoked, like his Master he would never crush bruised reeds or snuff out a smoking flax.
iv] “not a lover of money”: students fresh out of seminary are generally free from this sin because they have little money to love. Let them prosper and receive their inheritance and soon all the give-aways of this iniquitous spirit show themselves, the tax dodges, the tours to the holy land, the cultivation of the friendship of the richer members of the congregation, the hinted needs of the Manse or of the family, the abuse of skilled workmen in the congregation. All such and many other attitudes speak of a love of money.
v] “not conceited” (v.6): once a man gains a reputation for being a preacher’s preacher then he ceases to attend ministers’ conferences simply to listen and learn. He only attends conferences as the invited speaker. “I can teach you,” he is saying, “but you have nothing to give to me.” The conceited man is always ‘busy.’ So if any of his flock call him with a query they always feel they must begin with an apology for interrupting his important activities. Where have they learned this from but the leader himself? Conceit has been the ruin of too many fine Christian preachers of our age, and only a membrane separates it from violence or sensual sin. They have actually believed the effusive thanks of those helped by their sermons.
II] The Overseer’s Relationship with his Family. (vv.4&5)
The apostle hints at the importance of this at the beginning of the section when he says that an overseer must be, “the husband of but one wife” (v.2). Then he amplifies that adding, “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (vv.4-5). The apostle begins by excluding all those guilty of married unfaithfulness. He is promoting the conviction in the congregation that leaders in the church must be men of unquestioned morality, entirely true and faithful to their wives. If he has been converted after a divorce, so that he and his present wife both confess Christ, then he is to remain in the state he was in when Christ saved him. He is not disqualified from Christian work because of marriage in an unconverted state. If a pastor’s wife has deserted him and neither he nor his elders could persuade her to return, he is not disqualified from being a blessed gospel minister because of her rejection of Christ. If he remarry, let him be the husband of one wife. If he has been converted in a polygamous marriage, let him walk humbly and quietly and teach his children the Christian view of monogamous marriage. He may have his own personal ministry in the church but he may not become an overseer with a number of wives.
Paul then speaks of an overseer ‘managing’ a family. It may not be obvious why this theme is introduced. There is a variety of New Testament teaching that compares the people of God to a family. The theme of family relationships is particularly prominent throughout this letter. Paul invokes the analogy of a family in order to enable Timothy better to understand the appropriate order and responsibilities within the Christian church. Dr. Vern Poythress points out that “Paul calls Timothy his ‘son’, expressing both his affection and the discipling relationship between them (I Timothy 1:2,18). He advises Timothy to treat an older man ‘as if her were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters’ (I Timothy 5:1-2). If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should look after her (I Timothy 5:4). But if the immediate family is lacking, the larger Christian family should take care of her (I Timothy 5:5, 16). The overseers or elders ought to be respectable family men” (Vern Poythress, “The Church as a Family”, Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, P.O.Box 1173, Wheaton, IL 60189).
The principles of good family management apply also to the management of God’s church, but the affections that characterise a happy Christian family spill over and are displayed in a congregation. Elders will have wives, children and grandchildren in the congregation. The love which is shown to members of one’s own family overflow to the parents and grandparents of one’s friends. The dynamics of a gospel congregation are family dynamics. No one can trace the boundary between male leadership in the home and within the church. The two are closely related, each inspiring and feeding upon the other. There is a natural unimposed authority structure within the church which echoes the loving headship of husband, and of parents over children in the home. The mobility of the labour market in our own day along with the few job opportunities have taken so many of our elders’ and deacons’ children away from our small town and the church fellowship has been impoverished as a result. But wherever a man does not have that affectionate respect and authority from his family, so that his children are loners and strangers to the life of the church – because they are alienated to his God, then such a man cannot take care of God’s church (v.5).
III] The Overseer’s Relationship with the Watching World. (v.7)
“He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” These overseers also have social skills; they get on with people; they are interested in people; they are communicative. How tremendously important that is, and yet it is something we commonly depreciate. It is a skill in which some religious people are conspicuously lacking. But the apostle says that it is important that an elder is highly regarded by non-Christians. There is a certain popularity and respect in their places of work – an affability and social ease. They are not like John the Baptist who was stern and forbidding, but who has been set up as a model for religious men, as though we ought to be recluses, living lives apart and isolated from others, quite oblivious to the impression we make upon the world. There are churches all over the land with individuals who know the faith, men discerning in the truth, and yet in some ways they are intimidating people, difficult awkward men, almost cranks, intolerant, forbidding and bigoted. It must not be. That spirit totally disqualifies a man from being an elder because an overseer must have a good reputation with outsiders. Such badly behaved men have fallen into the devil’s trap and discredited the gospel.
Of course, there may come times when the world turns on the church, and the kindling wood will be carried to the stake and the instruments of torture will be taken out of the cupboards and the prisons and concentration camps will know an influx of Christians. They are despised and loathed, but that will not be because they have been deficient in humanity and courtesy and good manners, in social graces and kindnesses. They had a good reputation, but they were also faithful to their Master, and they named sin what he first called first. They treaded upon the prejudices of men, exposing and condemning their behaviour, as John the Baptist did, and at that point having a good reputation could not secure them immunity from the barbarians.
Peter exhorts his readers that if men are ill-treating the church then let Christians be sure that it is not because they are being boorish or discourteous or crude or unthinking and unfeeling (I Peter 3:17-20). Let us make sure that an overseer is being persecuted because of righteousness’ sake. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this; “Make every effort to live in peace with all men, and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebs.12:14). In other words, be on the best possible terms with your fellow men with this limiting condition – “don’t neglect holiness.” Do not follow peace beyond the interests of holiness. Do not cultivate the favour of the outsider beyond the point where it compromises you in the estimation of God.
To conclude, these are the basic qualifications God requires for those who would lead his church. So very often it is appointment to the office, and involvement in the work, that matures a man beyond his years and our expectations. Personal difficulty, struggle, loss and sorrow all have their place in preparing a man for gospel leadership. Our frequent lament is that there are not the leaders in the next generation to take our place. Every generation has said the same. One old Scottish minister was taking part in the ordination of elders, and as he looked at the group of men on whom he was about to lay his hands he clearly disdained the lot of them. He said outrageously, “Solomon built the Temple with gold and precious stones, but we are building today with the sods of clay and earth God has given us.” Yes, we must build with the provisions that God donates to us now. There is nothing else. Latimer, Bunyan, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones no longer walk the lanes of ‘England’s green and pleasant land.’ But we who are called by God to lead his church must seek with all our strength to be the kind of men God would have us be. We owe it to the church and we owe it to him. Then he may entrust greater blessings to us.
21 November 1999 Geoff Thomas