In our Bible reading this week, we will come to 1 Timothy 3, the text along with Titus 1 that paints the Biblical portrait of the elder. The eldership is so important that Clay and I decided that we needed to devote both sermons today to the subject. However, neither one of us is going to preach on what are commonly called the qualifications of the elder. If you want to know my thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the bulletin article!
Instead, we’re going to focus on the day-to-day interaction between the congregation and the eldership. Though understanding what makes a man fit to be an elder is vital when appointing elders, it doesn’t come up a whole lot otherwise. However, we continually need to know how we should treat them, and they continually need to know how they should treat us.
The former is my responsibility this morning, and our responsibility toward elders can be summed up in one word: submission. Americans tend to believe in what we might call “contingent submission”. They will submit to an authority so long as they agree with it, but not otherwise. Is that really what God expects of His people, though? Let’s explore this as we consider the Biblical witness about submitting to elders.
There are three passages that speak to this topic, and the first tells us to RECOGNIZE AND REGARD our elders. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. This passage doesn’t use the word “elder”, of course, but when it talks about those who lead us in the Lord, it’s very clearly talking about elders, and it describes two kinds of appropriate treatment.
The first is to give them recognition. This isn’t about greeting them when we pass them in the hallway before services, though that’s a good thing to do! It’s about recognizing them for having taken on the work and burdens of the eldership. I know lots of current and former elders, but I’ve never heard any of them say that being an elder is easy.
Indeed, the opposite is true. I suspect that most members of this congregation never will know even 10 percent of what the elders go through for us. We’re not supposed to know it, and if we knew it, we wouldn’t want to know it. However, because that other 90 percent is there, we should show them honor for dealing with it.
Second, we are to regard them highly in love. Sometimes, this can be very difficult. How can we respect the elders when we believe they’re making a mistake? How can we respect them when they’ve hurt or offended us?
The key, I think, is to recognize that if we only had to respect elders when we naturally wanted to respect them, God wouldn’t have had to command us to do it. Even when we don’t want to, we still are responsible for respecting the office if not the man. They took on significant burdens on our behalf, and even when they fail, as anyone would sooner or later, we should show them honor and grace.
Second, we must BE RECIPROCALLY HUMBLE. Consider 1 Peter 5:5. There’s a lot in this text about how elders should behave, and Clay is going to tackle that for us this evening. However, the responsibility of everyone else in this text is twofold: be subject and be humble.
“Be subject” is where we find the core idea of this sermon: to be in submission. No one puts elders over us. Instead, we put ourselves under them. In spiritual matters, we follow their example and judgment.
I fear that in the American church these days, “submit” has taken on the meaning of “coincidentally go along with until I disagree”. However, if all we really are doing is submitting to an eldership until they ask us to do something we don’t want to, who really is our authority? Is it them, or is it us? Now, elders don’t have the right to add new sections to the Bible or to demand that we follow their think-so’s, but we should hold ourselves responsible for doing what they ask.
It helps when we approach our relationship with the elders from the perspective of humility. As the subject heading for this section implies, everybody, sheep and shepherds alike, has the responsibility to deal with others in a humble way.
However, shepherds can’t make sheep be humble, and sheep can’t make shepherds be humble. All we can do is make sure that we have a humble spirit within our own hearts.
Humility means a number of things. It means listening patiently to others to show them that they are heard and understood. It means not immediately insisting on our own way. It means not dogmatically assuming that we are right and the other is wrong. All of these things are part of the humility that we owe our elders. When we don’t lose our cool, insist, or assume, we too glorify God!
Finally, we must BEHAVE PROFITABLY. Here, let’s read from Hebrews 13:17. There are some things here that are familiar. We once again see the instruction to submit to, this time combined with a command to obey. Both of these amount to the same thing in practice.
However, there are some new elements here, and the first is the Hebrew writer’s justification for being submissive and obedient. We are to do this because they watch over us as those who will have to give an account. I tell you, brethren, that the latter part of that weighs heavily on the conscience of every elder I’ve ever worked with! They make their decisions about the flock with the knowledge that someday, they’re going to have to explain themselves to the King of kings.
This motivates them to keep careful watch over the flock because they know their souls are on the line. As a result, our elders are a precious spiritual resource to us. They are as interested in our lives as we are, but they have something we don’t—an outside perspective on our lives, viewed with the judgment and experience of an elder.
That matters a lot! Have you ever noticed how blind people are to their spiritual problems? It’s as plain as day what the issue is and what they ought to do about it, but they just won’t!
Well, I’ve got some news for you, brethren. It’s not just other people who have trouble seeing their lives clearly. It’s every one of us. All of us need a trusted outside perspective—like elders—to see ourselves clearly.
This explains the last part too. They watch over us, they help us make good spiritual decisions, and they beat themselves up over it when we don’t. Sure, we can make them suffer, but we do so at the cost of our own souls. That isn’t exactly profitable!
It’s profitable for us, then, to do our best to make our elders’ lives as joyful as possible and as grief-free as possible. When we’re making some spiritual decision, we should ask, “How would the elders feel about this?” I feel this way not only about the commandments of Scripture, but about the personal requests that our elders make of us. If they ask us to do something, and it’s an area in which we have liberty, why not make the choice that makes their lives easier? This too finds favor with God.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and its companion text in Titus 1:5-9 described as “the qualifications of the elder”. With the best of intentions, brethren have combined the two lists and turned them into a checklist. If a check mark is missing, a man isn’t qualified.
Not coincidentally, this has led to a focus on the qualifications that appear most objective and binary. Is the prospective elder the husband of one wife? Does he have faithful children? Is he able to teach (by preaching sermons or teaching adult Bible classes)? The man with a wedding ring, dunked kids on a pew someplace, and a spot on the teaching roster is presumptively qualified. We say much less about whether a man is sensible or not quarrelsome.
As straightforward as this approach sounds, it isn’t what the Scriptures call for. This is evident from the fact that the 1 Timothy list and the Titus list aren’t identical, yet Paul wants both Timothy and Titus to appoint elders according to the lists they’ve got.
Most notably, “faithful children” (THE qualification in the eyes of the American church) does not appear on Timothy’s list. Its counterpart in 1 Timothy applies only to the control of children who are still under a man’s roof. Thus, Timothy would have appointed elders in Ephesus without considering at all the qualification we consider most important.
Either the Holy Spirit missed something vital, or we are missing something vital.
It is far better to read these passages not as a list of qualifications but as two portraits of what an elder should look like. They are not identical, but they paint a picture of the same kind of man—a man who is above reproach. “Above reproach” isn’t an initial qualification in these texts; it’s a subject heading. Paul is giving us some things to ponder as we consider whether a man lives up to God’s standard for an elder.
This approach accomplishes two things. First, it introduces spiritual content into every item on the list. The mere fact of being married proves nothing about a man’s irreproachability. However, when we consider his devotion and his commitment to his wife (the literal Greek here is “the man of one woman”), that does speak to whether he is above reproach or not.
Second, it requires us to confront the judgment-call nature of many of Paul’s criteria, which in turn points us to the holistic judgment call that he wants us to make. Consider the “hospitable” criterion (which, unlike “faithful children”, appears in both lists). Obviously, a man who isn’t hospitable at all shouldn’t be considered. However, some elder candidates are moderately hospitable, while others are spectacularly hospitable. As we are evaluating our men, “How much?” is an even more important question than “Whether?”
This allows us to take into account both strengths and weaknesses in our elder-assessment process. No man is going to be perfect in everything, but his sparkling conduct in one area may compensate for a less impressive performance in another. Maybe he doesn’t set the world on fire as a Bible-class teacher, but most Christians in the congregation are so used to being in his home that they come in without knocking. All in all, he still measures up to the “above reproach” standard.
Portrait versus checklist is a big change in mindset for many brethren, but it’s a change we need to make to follow the Lord’s intent more closely. When so many congregations suffer under the “leadership” of men’s meetings (which aren’t in the Bible at all), it’s a shame when we reject men whom the Holy Spirit would consider elder material. However, when we apply the Scriptures rightly, as many congregations as possible will have the oversight God desires.
There is nothing in the Bible about masks or vaccines. However, the Bible does discuss submission to the government and liberty of conscience, and both of these principles lead to some straightforward mask-and-vaccine applications. If the government tells us to do something, we do it (unless it asks us to disobey God’s commandment). Similarly, we respect others’ judgments about masks and vaccines, especially when we don’t agree with those judgments.
By contrast, the interaction between conscience and government is harder to sort out. What if I am conscientiously opposed to masks/vaccines, but the government requires me to mask and/or vaccinate? Does submission to the government come first, or does my conscience?
Many brethren have adopted the latter position. They point to Scriptures such as Romans 14:23, which reads in part, “Everything that is not from faith is sin.” Because they feel like masking/vaccinating would be sinful for them, they must not do either, even if the government requires it.
I presume that these Christians are reasoning in good faith, but they don’t take into account the context of Romans 14:23. Romans 14 isn’t a passage about how to handle God’s law; it’s a passage about the role of the individual conscience in areas where God has given us liberty.
We are at liberty to eat meat. However, if we think it’s wrong to eat meat but eat meat anyway, we sin against our conscience. In areas of liberty, what is not from faith is sin. When we move outside the realm of liberty, though, we also move outside the realm of Romans 14 and apply Romans 14:23 where Paul does not.
This is a fraught step. Once we start using our conscientious conviction to override one of God’s laws (His commandment to submit to the government), we open the door to others overriding God’s other laws because of their conscientious convictions.
Consider, for instance, the feminist who believes in absolute equality between the sexes and thinks it would be morally wrong for her to submit to her husband when she strongly disagrees with him. Such women certainly exist. We come to her with Ephesians 5:22, but she replies, “I can’t submit to my husband because my conscience won’t allow it.”
If we refuse to submit to the government because of our conscience, how can we tell her that she must submit to her husband despite her conscience?
Through this open door, anything can and will come. There are people who feel morally bound to set the words of an earthly religious leader as equal to the word of God. There are others who are utterly convinced that it is right for them to marry and have relations with someone of the same sex. All of these people will argue against keeping divine commandments because of conscience.
If we disobey divine commandments because of our conscience, what do we have to say to any of them?
Defying the government because of our conscientious convictions sounds very noble, but it really amounts to defying the law of God. It is nothing more than the old rule of Judges 21:25 beneath a veneer of American individualism. Once we start doing what is right in our own eyes, we must grant others the license to do what is right in their eyes too.
As the elders here have requested, every year Clay and I preach at least one sermon on the process for withdrawing from a Christian who is living an ungodly life. Obviously, neither one of us has any problem with doing so. It’s part of the whole counsel of God, and our job as preachers is to declare it along with the rest.
However, I worry that across the brotherhood, sound teaching on withdrawal can lead us to unsound conclusions. We can infer first that God’s solution to the problem of unrighteousness in the church is withdrawal, and second that going to such Christians is the elders’ business and not ours.
Both of these conclusions are wrong. God does not want to see those brethren withdrawn from; He wants to see them repent and be restored. Second, He wants to see every single one of us involved in that restorative work.
Sad to say, it is all too rare for Christians to go to a brother who needs help. We don’t want to get involved in a messy situation, and we’re afraid of having a difficult conversation. Nonetheless, these things are part of our responsibility before God. To help us carry out this responsibility, let’s consider the example of the apostle Paul in approaching a Christian in sin.
As we analyze this issue, we’re going to be looking at 2 Corinthians 13:1-10. We almost never study this text, but it shows us clearly what Paul’s strategy is for dealing with sin in the Corinthian church. The first thing we learn from him here is to ADDRESS THE PROBLEM DIRECTLY. This appears in 2 Corinthians 13:1-4.
The first thing that we see Paul doing is seeking a face-to-face conversation. Letters haven’t gotten the job done, so he is going to go to Corinth in person to resolve things. I think that modern-day American Christians struggle with doing this for two main reasons: our society is averse to direct conflict, and we prefer electronic communication to in-person communication.
Consequently, we are much more likely to talk about a straying Christian (which is gossip) than we are to talk to them. If we do talk to them, we’re much more likely to use a text or a Facebook message than we are to have a sit-down conversation.
The first is obviously evil, but the second is a mistake. I’m here to tell you: I spend more time on social media than almost anybody, and writing is the thing that I do best in all the wide world, but trying to persuade somebody in writing on social media is a waste of time. No matter how good a writer you are, writing can’t contain the non-verbal cues that are a vital expression of love and goodwill. There is no substitute for looking somebody in the eye and telling them lovingly that they need to repent!
Second, we must be willing to speak with authority. Notice that Paul warns the Corinthians that he is going to be coming to them in the power of God. When he shows up, nobody is going to be able to disregard him!
Obviously, none of us are apostles, but we still can speak with the authority of God. We do that when we use the word to convict the sinner. Again, this is not our natural tendency. Even if we’re having that face-to-face conversation, we’re inclined to dance around the problem and not say the hard truths that need to be said. This might seem kind, but in reality it is deadly because it allows the straying Christian to continue in the delusion that they are not in danger. If somebody is in sin, we need to show them their sin, citing book, chapter, and verse if necessary. Our speech must be gracious and loving, but it also must be clear and plain.
The second part of Paul’s strategy is to ENCOURAGE SELF-EXAMINATION. This is exactly what we see going on in 2 Corinthians 13:5-6. Frankly, I think this highlights a way in which brotherhood culture is much too debate-centric. In a debate, there’s a winner and a loser as judged by a third party. If you win, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve convinced your opponent or not. You’ve still won.
I believe that there’s still a place for debate today. My brother and friend Bruce Reeves is a skilled debater, and he does valuable work for the kingdom. However, I think that place is much narrower than we often think it is. In our preaching and teaching, it’s awfully tempting to get up and own the denominations or get up and own the liberals, and at the end we congratulate ourselves because we won the debate against somebody who wasn’t even in attendance.
So too, I’ve seen Christians try to correct those in error by winning the debate against them. “I’ve proven A, B, and C, so you’re a sinner. Boom! Done!” To be honest, I’ve been that Christian. However, that behavior reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the restoration process.
We don’t win by winning the debate, at least according to us. We only win when we convict the sinner. We win when they listen to what we’re saying, internalize it, use it to indict themselves, and say, “You know, you’re right. I need to change.” That’s what a win looks like.
In striving for this goal, we should use the lightest touch possible. Much of the time, the straying brother or sister has 99 percent indicted themselves already, and they just need a little nudge to get them back on the right track. On multiple occasions, I’ve persuaded a Christian who hasn’t been assembling to come back simply by asking them via Facebook message what they’ve been up to recently. They know. They have a good heart. They just need a little help.
Third, we must SEEK THE OTHER’S GOOD. Paul exemplifies this in 2 Corinthians 13:7-10. He makes clear that his concern isn’t his position or his reputation. It’s the souls of the people he loves.
Let’s put ourselves into this passage for a moment. Imagine that you are driving by a liquor store in town, and you happen to notice a sister’s minivan parked there. The next time you drive by, you see the minivan again. Third time, you see the same thing.
You decide you need to talk to Sister Irma. After services one Sunday, you ask her, “I’ve been seeing your car parked at Buzz’s Liquors an awful lot. What’s going on?” In response, Sister Irma explains that she’s been baking a lot of bread recently, and the kind of yeast that she prefers is only available in the brewing-supplies section at Buzz’s Liquors.
How do you feel? Embarrassed that you brought it up? Angry that you look like a fool? Disbelieving that yeast is all that Sister Irma is buying? Or, instead, are you relieved that she hasn’t become an alcoholic?
Paul’s perspective is clear. He tells the Corinthians that he would rather show up and prove to be wrong about them than show up and be right about their sins. He doesn’t care about being right himself. Instead, he cares about the Corinthians being right with God. He prefers to be wrong because then the Corinthians don’t have to repent! The soul of the other Christian should be our priority, and if it is, that will be evident in everything we say.
In 1 Timothy 1:3-7, Paul distinguishes between bad teaching and good teaching. The former category is much larger than we might expect. It includes false doctrine, but it also involves empty speculation, fruitless discussion, and opinionated ignorance. As a rule, brethren are alive to the dangers of the first of these, but we often don’t pay as much attention as we should to the problems that come with the other three.
As Paul describes it, empty speculation arises from paying attention to myths and endless genealogies. In essence, this is spiritual reasoning without a solid Scriptural foundation. It is speculative because it relates tangentially at best to the word of God, and it is empty because it does not help the hearers inherit eternal life.
Such speculation is rife across the religious spectrum. It arises from progressives who want to overturn divine commandments based on what they think they know about life in the first century as well as from conservatives who want to speak clearly where the Bible does not. We may find its conclusions congenial, but it represents a trap for those who wish to follow Christ.
Second, we come to fruitless discussion. Such discussion is fruitless because it does not achieve the good goals Paul sets out in v. 5. It does not produce love from a pure heart, a good conscience, or a sincere faith.
To put things another way, it does not transform our hearts to be like God’s heart, it does not instruct us in God’s commandments and how to obey them, and it does not show us that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. These discussions often arise from nonbiblical sources (beware of studies on marriage and the family that do not cite Scripture!) or take the Bible and turn it irrelevant. A discussion of the minutiae of ancient life 2000 years ago without any connection to anything is not spiritually beneficial!
Finally, we come to opinionated ignorance. In this case, the problem isn’t the topic. It’s the teacher. He’s talking about a worthwhile subject, but he’s not doing so in a worthwhile way. He doesn’t understand the word properly, but that doesn’t keep him from insisting on his conclusions obstinately.
As teachers, we solve this problem not by avoiding the area of study entirely, but by making sure that our understanding of it is good. We must know both what we believe and why we believe it. For instance, it’s not enough to cite 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 as an explicit authorization of a weekly collection for the continuing needs of the church. It isn’t. Instead, we must know how to use 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, along with passages such as Acts 4:34-35, 1 Corinthians 9:14 and Hebrews 10:25, to reach the conclusion that a continuing collection is authorized. If we can’t work through the reasoning necessary to arrive at a conclusion, we shouldn’t be teaching the conclusion.
All of this makes preaching and teaching sound like a challenging work, and it is. If we want to be useful in the kingdom, there are many pitfalls we must avoid. Nonetheless, sound preaching and teaching is vital to the spiritual health of the Lord’s people, and if we carry out this great work with care and diligence, we will gain an everlasting reward.