Elders

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We are looking at Paul's first letter to Timothy. Our subject this evening is ELDERS. So perhaps you would like to turn to 1 Timothy 5.17-25.

Too often when you open the newspaper, you will read about a clergy scandal. And it does huge damage to the cause of Christ. That is why Paul says to Timothy in verse 21 of our passage:

"I charge you in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions."

This is Paul's way of underlining what he is saying in red ink. It also reminds Timothy (and us) that the church is not some club like Newcastle United Football club. Newcastle United is simply under the control of the chairman, shareholders and manager. The church, however, - this church, any church, the church catholic or universal - is ultimately not under the oversight of men but of God and Jesus Christ and the elect (not "fallen") angels. Oh! yes, the Bible believes in angels who will act as witnesses to what goes on in the church on earth.

And in our passage Paul underlines that in this church (with divine oversight) one thing is absolutely essential for its health - namely that there are good men in the eldership (or leadership) of the church. Well, enough by way of introduction. You will see from the outline that I have three headings. First, THE CHURCH; secondly, ITS LEADERSHIP; and, thirdly, THE CHALLENGE.

First, THE CHURCH

The reality is that the Church is not perfect. As Charles Spurgeon once said:

"don't wait until you find the perfect church before you join one. For even if you found it, if you joined, it would cease to be perfect."

One problem, Jesus said, is that not all who seem to be believers are true believers or right with God. In his Sermon on the Mount he said (and it was black and white):

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Mat 7:21-23).

Now, let's get this straight. Jesus is not saying that you are right with God because of the good deeds you do on this earth. No! You are saved by grace alone. No amount of effort or goodness or morality will save you. The debt created by your sin or disobedience (your ignoring God) can only be paid by Christ. And he paid that debt in full, in your place, on the Cross of Calvary. That was his supreme mission. And you receive that cancellation of you sins (however big or small) by "faith". You simply say:

"Thank you, Lord, for dying for me. Help me now by your Holy Spirit to live for you."

Who needs to start believing like that tonight and to thank God for his love for us in Christ? And faith or belief is so simple. But biblical faith is not just head knowledge. The devils, the Bible said, could believe that like. No! Biblical faith involves the heart and the will, as well as the mind. It is a "trust" in Christ. It is a state of total dependence on him.

I've just had a hip replacement operation and am still recovering - hence my sitting on this stool to preach. I hope this will be my one and only reference to it. But let me tell you that a surgeon performed the operation who I was told was one of the best in the region. I believed that before the operation. For me, however, that belief led on one Tuesday morning in June to my trusting myself to him and his team. Basically, as I understand it, he then sawed huge chunks of bone out of my leg; wrenched my leg in all sorts of directions; and then put in a Titanium substitute. One of the physicians on the ward said it had the same shock value as being run over by a bus! You see, I had trust as well as believe. There was a commitment - or a willingness to let other people do things to me.

This is an inadequate analogy. But trust in Christ is more like that, than the cold knowledge that my surgeon was one of the best in the region. So true faith in Christ has consequences. There will be evidences - Jesus called this "fruit". And that fruit is obeying the will of his Father in the way that his Father really wills. Yes, this side of heaven it is imperfect obedience. But there is some obedience and a willingness to try to obey. You are not saved by that obedience. Rather that obedience, however limited, is the fruit of trusting Christ and asking him to give you new life by his Holy Spirit.

And that is why the church is not perfect. On the one hand it contains some people who have never yet truly trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord - for all their talk. And, on the other, those who do trust Christ, this side of heaven are still not perfect.

It was just like this in the Church at Ephesus, where Timothy was the senior leader, a young senior leader at that. The church was not perfect. And in chapter five and our passage for this evening, Paul tells us that there could be good and bad leaders in the church. That brings me to my second and main heading.

Secondly, ITS LEADERSHIP

Paul is particularly concerned with the Church's leadership. In any organization leadership is key. In 1 Timothy chapter 3 Paul gave us the qualifications for being a leader in the church. Here, in chapter 5, he has more to teach us. And there are eight things he has to say. I shall go through them fairly quickly.

One, verses 17 and 18:

"The elders who direct the affairs of the church well [so we are talking about leaders in the church - these elders ... ] are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages'."

Note, Paul here is referring only to good leaders - "the elders who direct the affairs of the church well" - the implication is that there are some that direct those affairs badly.

Note, too, that this leadership is not meant to be a one-man-band form of leadership. Paul makes distinctions within the leadership. He seems to distinguished leaders who have, from those who have not, responsibility for preaching and teaching. He says the leaders who are especially to have "double honour" are "those whose work is preaching and teaching."

Then note that while the Church needs "those whose work is preaching and teaching", it needs men who not only preach and teach but also "direct the affairs of the church" - they are leaders as well as teachers. I talk to people in training for the ministry. I say, "what do you want to be doing?" They say, "I want to preach and teach the bible." I say, "that's absolutely fine and absolutely necessary. But you also need to learn how to 'direct the affairs of the church' - you need to learn to be a leader."

But what does Paul mean by being "worthy of double honour"? Well, Paul knew that a number of people in leadership in the church can get very discouraged. He knew they needed encouraging. He knew they could lose heart.

I am tempted to lose heart when I hear the anti-biblical rubbish - pernicious rubbish talked publicly by some clergy; and when the government is enacting laws that clearly defy God's higher law - see the Coloured Supplement this month; and when the media distorts Christian truth. However, I am only "tempted" to lose heart, for I receive great encouragement from this church. I will not talk further about my operation (as I promised). But there were so many letters and cards that I received of encouragement (in hospital and since) and other practical tokens of encouragement and signs of appreciation. I genuinely do want to thank you all. And I get huge encouragement from others in leadership here, both those on the staff and lay-leaders.

But others are not so fortunate as I am. In other churches I know a number of clergy who are "losing heart". Well, if and when you move, remember that church leaders need encouragement - and Paul is referring to "good" leaders. The devil seems to attack some in Christian leadership with double doses of discouragement. That is why they need double honour.

What precisely is "double honour"? Yes, it will include adequate remuneration. That is clear from the verses that follow. But Paul is probably not only referring to pay, let alone requiring the payment of "a double stipend", as some translate it. If he meant that, was he referring to double the money of a registered widow, or of elders who didn't direct the affairs of the church well, or double what someone had been receiving before? One commentator says:

"It is more likely that "double" alludes to the double meaning of timë [that is a Greek word that can be translated as both "honour" and "pay" - he goes on ...] Conscientious elders should receive both respect and remuneration, both honour and an honorarium."

So the first thing Paul is saying here is that good leaders should be encouraged and adequately paid - "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain" and "The worker deserves his wages."

Two, Paul says in verse 19:

"Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses."

This is very important. For godly church leaders will often be slandered and maligned. Particularly today, if you are standing up for the Bible (and the current issue is Biblical morality), you will be viciously attacked and false claims will be made against you. I am a Trustee of the Christian Institute. On one occasion we were publicly accused of being hugely funded by groups in America. Oh, that we were! But that was a complete lie. And in smaller ways there can be false gossip in churches. So Paul spells out a fundamental biblical principle:

"Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses."

And it's got to be a serious issue. As we have seen, no Christian this side of heaven is perfect. So there has to be a level of mutual toleration over minor issues. Don't be what is called "a custard Christian". They are the ones "who get upset over trifles". And note, Paul says that you need two or three witnesses not before an accusation is sustained, but before it is even entertained.

But, three, Paul says in verse 20:

"Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning."

Yes, sadly there are church leaders who sin - and it is proven. And when there is no repentance but they "persist in sin" (the verb here is a present tense in the original - "those who are sinning"), they need to be rebuked publicly. Recently evangelical clergy and lay leaders in the Oxford diocese, in so far as they could, publicly rebuked Canon Jeffrey John and the Bishop of Oxford who wanted to make him the suffragan Bishop of Reading. Why? Because, John is false teacher. He persists in teaching the acceptability of homosexual intercourse which the Bible clearly forbids. Nor will he repent.

Then, four, Paul says in the second half of verse 21:

"keep these instructions without partiality, and do nothing out of favouritism."

Paul says that Timothy should be unscrupulously fair and not jump to conclusions in the treatment of people. And he should "do nothing out of favouritism". "Favouritism" on the part of leaders in the church is totally out of place - and that includes favouritism in small groups, for example, in home groups, in youth groups and children's groups.

Five, Paul says, in the first part of verse 22:

"Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others."

In the New Testament times when people were commissioned or set apart for specific Christian work, those "ordaining" them (to use the modern word) prayed for them and laid hands on them. Look at Acts 6 when you get home.

It is so important to get the right people and only the right people into senior leadership in the church. So their appointment mustn't be done in a hurry. Sometimes people say to me, "why haven't you made this or that staff appointment we need?" Yes, I am sure we should all pray more. But one reason is that I and the others in the leadership in this church take this verse very seriously. We "do not want to be hasty in the laying on of hands" - or the equivalent - in terms of appointments at JPC. You see, if you appoint the wrong person, you are responsible for the consequences. So Paul tells Timothy, "do not share in the sins of others".

Six, Paul says to Timothy in the last part of verse 22,

"keep yourself pure."

It is very easy to be critical of other people. Yes, it is right to be critical of some of the views and actions of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of this diocese when he publicly supports Jeffrey John and votes with the pro-homosexual lobby in the House of Lords. But Paul would say to me - and to you - "keep yourself pure" - literally, "keep yourself holy". That includes sexual holiness but also a whole lot more. It means being more and more like Christ in every way.

Seven, Paul also says, "keep yourself healthy". Look at verse 23:

"Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses."

Leaders do have to look after their bodies. Having just come out of hospital - I know I'm not the best to be talking. But I am trying to follow instructions (of my wife who is a doctor - and others) and take things easier over this period of convalescence. And note that while Paul advocates drinking wine, he says it should be a "little" wine. This is no excuse for drunkenness or heavy drinking.

Eight, Paul says, verses 24-25:

"The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden."

Timothy needs to take time over appointments because while some people are obviously non-starters (their "sins .... are obvious"), there are others who seem OK, but how bad they are only surfaces later (their "sins ... trail behind them"). On the other side, there are some obviously good people. Yet there are others who at first you don't realize how good they are. It takes time for their "good deeds ... that are ... hidden" to be seen. And they might be better than someone whose "good deeds are obvious" straight away. How Timothy needs discernment. And we all should pray for that gift, especially today.

So there we are - leaders are crucial to the church, "especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." They need to be encouraged and adequately supported. There should be no careless accusations made against them. But when there is serious wrong doing, there should be a public rebuking. Leaders should be impartial and never exhibit favouritism. And you must not appoint leaders too hastily. If you are a leader, you must keep yourself pure; look after your health; and be discerning.

So finally, what is THE CHALLENGE for us?

We need to understand how important all this is. Why? It relates to heaven and hell. There are only two destinies. And they face everyone - life and eternity with God, or life and eternity apart from God. Just before Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about the people who say, "Lord, Lord" but are spiritually nowhere, he said this:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mat 7.13-14).

And do you know how he goes on in the next verse (Matthew 7.15)? Listen:

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves."

False prophets, leaders who preach and teach what is false, cause people to stay on that broad road that leads to destruction. So Paul wants Timothy (and he would want us) to pray and work for leaders in the church who will help people, through their preaching and teaching and through their leadership and living, to find that "narrow ... road that leads to life."

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