Father, we know that your church needs godly leaders. So as we look at this passage, please teach us how to foster godly church leadership in our church family. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Public attitudes to church leadership in the UK have changed dramatically in recent years. In the past, church leaders were respected. Church leadership was a recognised profession. The local church minister was looked up to as the voice of moral authority in the local community. But now, the lie of the land is very different. Church leadership has lost respect in the public's eyes, as church leaders have fallen into various scandals. The local church minister in 2016 is a bit like a local milkman – keeping alive a tradition which is soon to be overtaken by the advance of the modern world. And as Christians we may not quite believe these things ourselves, yet the constant bombardment of this kind of message dampens our enthusiasm for the future leadership of the church. Well, friends, if that's where we are in our thinking, 1 Timothy 3 is where we must go to get God's vision for church leadership. So please turn there now, if you would. It's page 992 in the church Bibles. Paul's purpose in writing to Timothy is in 1 Timothy 3.14-15:
"I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."
We'll see today that for God's church to behave as it should, God's church needs godly leaders. Now I'm going to use the phrase 'church leadership' throughout this talk – but please don't think I'm just talking about church staff. It's true that 1 Timothy 3 is about the ordained teachers and leaders of the church and the deacons who support their work practically. But the principles of this passage apply to all of us who are – or will be – in teaching or leading roles in small groups, youth work, children's work and so on. And they also apply to all of us who are – or will be – in the many other roles necessary to the life of our church – from being a sidesman or on the welcome team, or in the music group or serving tea and coffee. My first point is:
1. Church Leadership Is An Honourable Task
In the church Timothy served, some of the ordained leaders were teaching incorrectly and behaving badly. And in response, Paul writes this to Timothy (v1):
"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task."
The point is that even if some bring church leadership into disrepute, the task itself is noble. Overseeing God's church is a great privilege. And Paul wants Timothy to encourage other men to aspire to it. On our church website, www.jpc.org.uk, here's our vision for the next generation:
"Our prayer is that, in a generation from now, 5000 people will belong to a large multi-site church that incorporates and grows out of JPC, and another 5000 will be in churches that we have planted in this region and potentially around the country and the world."
To make that happen, we will need more men to step up to oversee more and more congregations. If you think that might be you, please talk to me or one of the other church staff and we'll explore that with you. Church leadership is an honourable task. Secondly:
2. God's Church Needs Godly Leaders
Now in chapter 3 you'll notice two different groups of leaders: 'overseers' and 'deacons'. What are they both? What's the difference between the two? In a football club, you have a chairman and a manager. Both have distinct leadership positions within the club, but work with a common goal. It's similar with overseers and deacons. Very briefly, both are involved in church leadership. The distinction between the two is that while the overseer (called elsewhere elder, or presbyter) serves by teaching and leading, the deacons serve in practical ways which support and protect the teaching and leadership work of the overseers. We'll start by looking at overseers and how they must live. As we do this, I think it's right to see these qualities as both qualifications for the those who aspire to the role of overseer and expectations for those who are already in the role of overseer. And, as I said at the start, the principles here apply to hundreds of us who are – or will be – in ministry roles here.
So, four qualities we need to see in overseers. Firstly:
a) Overseers Must Be Morally Above Reproach
"Therefore an overseer must be above reproach" (v2)
Now 'above reproach' means 'irreproachable observable conduct' – there's nothing obvious in their outward behaviour which is open to attack or criticism. Shortly after my daughter Isabella was born, we had a check up from the health visitor and she said:
"I'm going to write in here: no major concerns."
That's what's being talked about here. If people look at the life of an overseer, they shouldn't expect perfection, but they should rightly expect to see nothing majorly out of control… and the following list are mini-tests for this.
- So, the overseer must be the husband of one wife. The overseer might not necessarily be married, but if he is married, he must be a one-woman man. If he's not married, he must be sexually holy. This is a critical issue. So many scandals in the church would disappear if church leadership put this into practice. Church leaders must relate in a godly way to women, with absolute purity.
- Let's speed up now. The overseer must be: sober-minded. Clear on the Gospel. Not distracted by the latest doctrinal fad.
- He must be self-controlled. Christian ministry is often relatively unsupervised. Self-discipline and self-control are important.
- He must be respectable, someone others can look up to as an example.
- He must be hospitable. He must not be someone who keeps his distance from the church family he cares for, but one who opens his home to them.
- He must be able to teach. The overseer needs two particular gifts that are not required of the deacon. The first gifting requirement is the ability of leadership (to oversee). And he must also be able to teach the Bible.
- He must not be a drunkard. That sounds obvious, but I was on holiday a couple of years ago in the Channel Islands and I heard a church leader joking about drinking too much at a party while he led the church meeting. Bang out of order.
- He must be not violent but gentle. One pastor wrote this comment:
"His patience may be sorely tried by demanding and aggravating people, but like his Master he will seek to be gentle, never crushing a bruised reed or snuffing out a wick which is burning low."
- He must not be quarrelsome. He must not be prone to get caught up in silly theological squabbles.
- He must not be a lover of money. How could this be a danger for a church leader on a low-ish salary? There's the danger of making ministry decisions motivated by money. For example, how many pastors apply to serve the rich, well-paying evangelical church – and how many apply to serve in the poorer evangelical church? This is a pertinent word for us on the church staff. It's important to cultivate contentment with our financial support, which whilst generous and sufficient for our needs, is lower than contemporaries in the professions.
So the first quality is to be morally above reproach. The second quality is that:
b) Overseers Must Manage Their Family Life Well
And for many church leaders, this is perhaps the most searching test (vv4-5):
"He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?"
Here Paul draws a parallel between the household of the overseer (his immediate family) and the household of God (in verse 15 we see that this a metaphor for God's church). The overseer must manage his household well, care for it well, dedicate time and invest in it and see to it that his children obey him, because how the overseer takes care of and disciplines his own household shows clearly whether or not he is fit to take care and discipline over the house of God.
I don't know what your dream job would be, but for some of you I'm sure it would be to become the Head Gardener at the National Trust property of Cragside! And one day, would you believe it, there's an advert in the Chronicle and you apply. And you are called for interview. But the interviewer is a smart woman. She requests to meet you at your house for the interview. She arrives, knocks on the door and says:
"It's such a nice day, I don't suppose we could conduct this interview outside?"
So she walks round the back and, there! She has seen all she needs to see! Weeds! Ivy! Nettles! Broken flowerpots! Brambles! Overhanging hedge! And she says:
"Interview over. No way would I ever let you have the job! If you can't control your own garden, how can you possibly manage the gardens of Cragside?"
Friends, how much more so in family life and church life, where people's eternal futures are at stake. There's a real temptation for church leaders to see family life as something that can be sacrificed to ministry, or even a distraction from Gospel ministry. But this is dangerous thinking. As we serve the Lord in ministry and make sacrifices, let's make sure we don't neglect our families. The third quality is:
c) Overseers Must Not Be Recently Converted
"He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil." (v6)
Christian leadership faces particular spiritual attack. One easy way for the devil to discredit the Gospel is to cause young church leaders to become proud – and then fall. The fourth quality is:
d) Overseers Must Be Respected By Those Outside The Church
"Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil." (v7)
So the overseer must have a good reputation with outsiders. That doesn't mean that they will always speak well of him (think about Jesus and Paul), but it does mean that people outside the church can't hold anything against his godly character. Again, the devil knows this and he sets a trap. If only he can get a careless minister to fall into disgrace, then non-Christians will think: "Christians live no differently from anyone else, so why should I listen to their message?" I've seen this with my father. He is not a believer. Once he knew a local vicar who got a single lady in his Parish pregnant. And he was (rightly) morally outraged with this. Disgraceful behaviour by church leaders puts unbelievers off the Gospel. But a godly church minister in the church will have the reverse effect. Thankfully, since then, my father has also seen the life of a godly evangelical minster whom he has come to respect – and he speaks highly of him.
If you're here and wouldn't call yourself a Christian, I wonder if this is a real issue for you, as it is for my father? You're fed up with the church scandals you read about, maybe you've had a bad experience personally with church leaders. Can I issue a gentle appeal to you? Friend, if you've seen hypocritical Christians and Christian leaders, can I appeal to you to judge Christianity by its best, not the worst? Just as the existence of fake diamonds doesn't mean that real diamonds are extinct, so hypocrites in the Christian church don't make Christianity untrue. And I pray very much that if you'll persevere in visiting us, you will see something of real Christianity (although it won't be perfect!) and you'll want to know more about the real Jesus.
A quick word on deacons now. There's much overlap between the qualities for overseers and deacons, so I'll just make three brief additional comments about deacons. First:
a) Deacons Must Be Doctrinally Sound
"They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience." (v9)
Practical or support ministry requires no less gospel-conviction and godliness. We don't 'settle for less' in members of the music group or the mothers and toddlers team, for example. Secondly:
b) Deacons Must Be Tested First
"And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless." (v10)
Deacons need to first have a probationary period. For example, in JPC Internationals here, even though international students are sometimes only here for a year – and I want them to serve, I want to be confident I've seen enough of them before I encourage them to take on significant responsibility.
c) Deacon's Wives Also Must Be Self-Controlled
Thirdly, deacon's wives also must be self-controlled. The Greek word translated 'wives' can mean 'women' or 'wives'. It's mostly likely talking about the wives of the deacons. Verse 11:
"Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things."
For example, one church leader I know wouldn't invite a particular man I knew for small group leadership, not because of him, but because his wife was known to be a gossip. Positively husbands and wives can have a great ministry serving together in home group leading, hospitality and pastoral care.
OK. Let's pause now and apply the lessons of verses 2-12.
- A Word To Those In Church Leadership
When I was being interviewed to join the staff team here, at the end of one of the interviews (you know when people ask you if you have questions at the end of interview), I asked:
"Are the church leaders godly?"
I was told: "Yes". And that is what I have observed. Leaders, when we meet the Lord Jesus Christ at his return, we will be judged more strictly.
"an overseer must be above reproach" (v2)
Is there any area of your life which is out of control? Which unbelieving family members could hold against the gospel? Address it. Not just for our own sakes – but for those whom we lead too. And then:
- A Word For All The Church Family
Choose your church leaders carefully, whether you're moving to a new city and looking for a church to join – or involved in interviewing new staff members. God's church needs leaders – but godly leaders! Chapter 3 is written for you so that you know what kinds of questions to ask of potential leaders. In the lead up to the appointment of one vicar I know, he was asked lots of good robust questions from 1 Timothy and Titus. That's great! Good on that church family! And hold your leaders accountable! Remember they are not perfect – bear with them, forgive them – they are also works in progress. If there are areas of genuine concern, these need to be raised – it doesn't matter how popular, influential or successful the minister has been.
And please pray for church leaders to be a good example. Pray this not just for their own sake, but for the example they then set to the church family and to the watching world.
God's church needs godly leaders. My final point is this:
3. Godly Church Leaders Will Be Honoured
Much of 1 Timothy is very challenging for those of us involved in leadership in the church family. Who is sufficient for these things? Who does not fall short? Remember, friends, not perfection, but progress – that's what the Lord expects. And the tone at the end of this section is encouraging (v13):
"For those who serve well as deacons [literally those having served well] gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus."
Church leaders who serve well gain good standing, (I think that's appreciation and respect from the church family) – and they also increase in confidence in the Gospel as they see the power of the Gospel regularly proven in ministry – as people believe in Jesus and Christians grow in faith. So as we consider the future of the church in this country and our vision at JPC, remember: Church leadership is an honourable task. God's church needs godly leaders. Godly church leaders will be honoured. Let me pray.
Father, please provide us with gifted leaders for this church – and please help them to be godly. In Jesus' name, Amen.