The Church’s Servants
1 Timothy 3:1-13, 5:17-25
At the age of 23, Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes was in charge of 40 marines during an intense battle in the Vietnam War. He had moved his men into the jungle as they waited for U.S. jets to bomb a hill that North Vietnamese soldiers had overtaken. Unfortunately, the jets came and dropped their bombs on the wrong hill. So when Marlantes led his men out of the jungle, they were instantly under fire from untouched machine-gun positions. Marlantes knew it would only take a few minutes before the enemy rockets and mortars found his troops. The entire mission ground to a halt as the U.S. soldiers ducked behind downed trees and huddled in shell holes.
Marlantes knew what he had to do next. He writes:
If I didn’t get up and lead, we’d get wiped out …. I did a lot of things that day … but the one I’m most proud of is that I simply stood up, in the middle of that flying metal, and started up the hill …. I simply ran forward up the steep hill, zigzagging for the bunker, all by myself, hoping [my own soldiers] wouldn’t hit me in the back. It’s hard to zigzag while running uphill loaded down with ammunition and grenades.
But then in the midst of his solo charge up the hill to take out the enemy, Marlantes suddenly saw some movement in his peripheral vision:
It was a marine! He was about 15 meters below me, zigzagging, falling, up and running again. Immediately behind him a long ragged line of Marines came moving and weaving up the hill behind me. Behind the line were spots of crumpled bodies, lying where they’d been hit. They’d all come with me …. Everyone was intermingled, weaving, rushing and covering, taking on each hole and bunker one at a time in groups …. We, the group, just rushed forward all at once. We couldn’t be stopped. Just individuals among us were stopped … but we couldn’t be …. I was we, no longer me.[i]
I don’t know what’s more surprising here – that a second lieutenant decided to get up and charge up the hill to start taking the bunkers, or whether a group of battle hardened Marines actually followed him.
Leadership. We live in a world where leadership is synonymous with power and control. But in the Kingdom of God, which takes this world’s way of doing things, a way that is fallen, sinful, and broken, and turns it on its head, leadership isn’t at all about power and control. In the Kingdom of God, and thus in the church, the people of God in the world, leadership isn’t about power and control, it’s about empowering others and influence.
Our fall sermon series is called “We ARE the church,” and in this series we’re looking at the importance of the church, not the building or the organization, but the people of God in the world. We’re looking at the importance of the church to our lives with Christ. Many today, even those who call themselves Christian, who say they follow Christ, downplay the importance of the church. If we do that, we do so to our peril and the peril of our faith. God designed us as social creatures, and in the body of Christ, we are connected to one another in and by Christ. Today, we’re talking about the church’s servants. We’re talking about those who in some way, in some form, lead others in the body of Christ. Not just pastors, but other leaders as well. Turn with me to 1 Timothy 3:1-13.
Now, there’s something we really need to understand here. Timothy was a much younger friend of St. Paul’s. In a very real sense, Paul was his mentor. And certainly as an apostle, Paul was also sort of his boss. And Timothy was pastoring the collection of house churches in the city of Ephesus at this point in his journey. So Paul writes to him to encourage and instruct his young pastor friend. So here Paul instructs Timothy in the characteristics that qualify someone for leadership in the church, the body of Christ, the people of God in the world. These are things that to some extent Paul has already identified in Timothy, because he is already mentoring Timothy as a young leader in the church, and they’re things that Timothy now needs to continue to cultivate in himself, as well as identify in those around him who he will identify as leaders in the church as well. This isn’t a job description of a church leader, an elder, a deacon, or a pastor. It’s a character description of the kind of person to look for to hold these kinds of roles in the church.
We also need to realize that Paul isn’t advocating for any one kind of ultimate, biblical church authority structure. There are three basic types of church structure, or polity, and proponents of all of them find evidence for them in this passage, so if Paul was trying to outline one ultimate church structure he didn’t do a very good job of being clear.
Paul also isn’t arguing for different classes of leaders like elders, deacons, and teachers. The requirements for all three are remarkably similar. The word translated as “overseer” here is often translated as bishop, someone who oversees a group of churches, but it has also been used as an elder or overseer within a congregation. And we often think of deacons, if we use that term, as those who arrange for the administration of the church and the care of church members in needs. This comes from Acts, when the apostles designated deacons to oversee the distribution of food to the poor and handle disagreements there so that they could focus on teaching and prayer.
But two of those first deacons were well-known for being teachers as well. A deacon named Philip was called Philip the Evangelist, and Stephen was a powerful preacher and teacher. One of his sermons is recorded in the book of Acts. He preached it right before he was stoned to death as the first Christian martyr. So there’s a lot of overlap here between overseers, deacons, and teachers, or pastors. Not only is Paul not prescribing a specific form of church government, he also is not prescribing specific titles or roles for leaders in the church. What he IS doing is describing the heart, the character, of those who should be put into positions of leadership.
These characteristics are also not gender-based. In V. 11, Paul talks about women. He uses the phrase “their wives,” so we tend to assume he’s talking about the wives of male deacons, right? But then why would Paul single out the wives of deacons and not mention the wives of overseers at all? That doesn’t make much sense. Others say he’s talking about women in general. But why would he single out women who aren’t leaders in the middle of a section that’s all about leadership? That doesn’t make any sense either, assuming Paul is capable of maintaining a train of thought. So what’s going on here? Paul is talking about women as leaders too. And we know that there were women leaders in the church. In Romans 16, Paul says “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (V. 1). The word translated as “servant” here is translated “deaconess” or “deacon” In 1 Timothy.
And then Paul says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (V. 3). He calls these two his fellow workers, places them on equal footing with himself, and they’re a couple, husband and wife. And which one does he mention first? Prisca. The wife. Mentioning the wife before the husband in a completely patriarchal society in which men could divorce their wives but women could NOT divorce their husbands was unheard of!! Paul is being extremely intentional about his word choice and word order here.
So if Paul ISN’T prescribing a certain gender, or title and job description, or structure for church leadership, what IS he doing? He’s focusing on the character of the leader. Tim Irwin, in his great book “Impact – Great Leadership Changes Everything, says, “In working with thousands of leaders over many years, I have observed that they rarely fail because of lack of competence. Clearly competence is necessary, but it is not sufficient to be a great leader. We must also have a strong core. The word “core” has become a major idea in the physical development of athletes and others interested in fitness. Core includes all of the muscles of the midsection. The core muscles stabilize the entire body and are prime contributors to strength and coordinated movement. Athletes in just about every sport focus on developing their core muscles because it has proven to make them so much better at whatever sport they play.
When our core is intact and congruent, others experience us as authentic, humble, and trustworthy. When our core is compromised or conflicted, others experience us as arrogant, self-serving, and insecure. No matter how artful their style or competent their actions, every failed leader I have studied had a malfunctioning core – it had been broken in some significant way.”[ii]
And the first trait Paul mentions, interestingly enough because this is the CHURCH, is ambition. Drive. Aspiration. The desire to take a leadership role in the church. “If anyone ASPIRES to the office of overseer …” Aren’t we supposed to be all about humility? Absolutely. Well isn’t ambition the opposite of humility? Well, that depends. Humility must be found in a leader, but it must be found in the heart of someone who aspires to, desires, the work of leadership in the church. Leadership in the church is a NOBLE TASK. Yes, it is work, it is a task. But it is a NOBLE one and one worth desiring, for the right reasons. Not for power and control, but to build up the body of Christ, to use your gifts, to serve Christ in this way. It’s something that is worth making a sacrifice to do because it is a noble task.
The second trait is faithfulness. The ability to stick with relationships when they get tough. Someone who can stick with their spouse through thick and thin, in good times and in bad, as the typical wedding vows read, is someone who doesn’t quit easily. This is someone who has shown that they can stick with a commitment, a responsibility, when the going gets tough. And in church leadership, it will. They are faithful, committed to something of value, even when keeping the commitment is hard, because leadership in the church is a noble task.
Healthy leaders are also controlled. They are able to control their tongues. They are able to control their behavior. They are able to control their emotions. They don’t make rash decisions. They aren’t given to excess of any kind. They don’t overdo it. They also don’t underdo it. When Paul says, “not a drunkard,” he isn’t saying they don’t consume alcohol. He’s saying they don’t do so to excess. They understand moderation. They have the ability to enjoy something in moderation. The only thing in control of them is Christ. It isn’t a drug, or alcohol, or spending money, or gambling. This is a picture of someone who is clearly under the lordship of Christ. They are level-headed, not given to extremes.
Healthy leaders have a solid reputation in the community. Look at V. 7. Why does this matter? Paul places more emphasis on the public opinion of the church than we might be comfortable with. And this doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes counter our culture. If the Kingdom of God takes this world and basically stands it on its head, that’s going to happen. Paul was run out of a city by a mob of angry businessmen because his ministry was hurting their sales of false idols. But it isn’t done with malice or arrogance. We don’t counter our culture with an “up-yours” approach. And we don’t insist that those outside the church follow our way of life. We simply live differently, with a different set of priorities and values. And it’s obvious. So if someone is a candidate for church leadership, and we go talk to their boss and coworkers and such, we want to hear that they’re respected and well-liked. If you’re going to lead in the church, your public and private life should reflect what the church is about.
They’re experienced. They have some experience in living life and some experience walking with Christ. They aren’t brand new Christians, and they have lived a little bit of life. The Bible calls them “elders” for a reason. With age comes experience, and with experience, in some people, comes wisdom. And that wisdom that comes with age is vital to the health of the church. This doesn’t mean younger people can’t serve as leaders in the church, but they do need to have some experience in life, both in walking with Christ and in life in general.
And they’re responsible, with some administrative skill. This isn’t a requirement that the leaders’ kids’ must be perfect or that their home lives must be without fault. But they need to show the ability to be disciplined themselves and to discipline others, and to manage expenses and income relatively well.
Leaders aren’t perfect. Sometimes when we preach from this passage we leave people with the sense that leaders in the church must have everything completely together all the time, and that isn’t so. In fact, it isn’t possible. Saying that just means people will hide their skeletons in the closet. In fact, a healthy leader might just be appropriately open about their struggles and the skeletons in their closets. Turn over to chapter 5: 17-25.
The last characteristic of a healthy leader is they are open to correction. In fact, they may seek it out. One person being upset with a leader isn’t something we automatically act on. But when another is added, and especially if the number gets to three or more, we have an issue we might need to confront in a leader, and it needs to be done appropriately. Depending on the nature of the problem, they may need to step out of leadership for a time while they are pastored and deal with whatever is going on in their lives, whether it be sin, or brokenness of some kind, a skill that needs to be learned. This doesn’t mean they’re disqualified from leadership forever. The body of Christ doesn’t work that way. NO failure is a death sentence to leadership, in a pastor or an elder or any other leader. But it might be the death sentence for that particular position for a while. Someone might need to step down or resign, and if they won’t, be fired or removed. But that doesn’t mean they’re done forever. No failure is final. That’s the whole message of the gospel. That’s the message of grace, and we are to be a people of grace.
Good leaders for a church, those, like me, who are ordained and paid, as well as those who are volunteer, the elders and the deacons are carefully and deliberately chosen, and they are people who are have some life and faith experience, are faithful and have some administrative and leadership skill. They are level-headed, not given to extremes. They have a solid reputation not just in the church, but in the community. If they own a business or operate a professional practice of some kind, they are known for being ethical and fair and responsible. If they are employees, they are known for being faithful and responsible and hard-working. And they’re correctable. And they aspire to lead. Not in an arrogant way. But they have a unique mix of humility and the desire to work hard on behalf of Christ and his body, the church. It IS, after all, a noble task. Let us pray.
[i] Karl Marlantes, “The Truth About Being a Hero,” The Wall Street Journal (8-20-11)
[ii] Tim Irwin, Impact: Great Leadership Changes Everything (Tyndale, 2014), page 13