I preached this sermon on Sunday at Theta Baptist Church. I’m posting the manuscript for anyone in my church who would like to read over it.
Please turn in your Bibles to 1 Timothy 3:1
This is an in house sermon. This is for us, Theta Baptist.
It’s time for us to think about the future of our church here, and so I’m going to be preaching some sermons from 1 Timothy over the next several months to make sure we’re thinking about our future in a Biblical way and this sermon is a very foundational sermon for us. We’re talking about elders in the church, and before we even look at the passage, I want to give you three reasons why this is important to every one of us, not just me and Rick, not just the men who might become elders, but everyone.
First, we’ve been growing in the last year and God has been very kind to us. We’ve had new families join us, and we’ve had a lot of spiritual growth that has happened as well. It’s a blessing, a privilege, and a joy to have had some of the deep spiritual conversations I’ve had with many of you over the last couple years. I’m thankful to have people who are genuinely striving to be Christlike. But one of the dangers it’s easy to fall into is only thinking about what’s happening right now, and dealing with what’s going on right now, and not thinking about what’s coming. We are going to need more elders, more shepherds, more of these men Paul describes in 1 Timothy, if we want to be a healthy church in 3 years, or 5 years, or ten years. We’re not talking about whether it’s possible for two men to shepherd a congregation, yes it’s possible, but we want to make sure we’re talking about what is healthy for our flock here. You don’t want just two elders if you can help it. I like how Mark Dever puts it-
“Decisions involving the church but not requiring the attention of all the members should not fall to the pastor alone, but to the elders as a whole. This is sometimes cumbersome, but it has immense benefits. It rounds out the pastor’s gifts, making up for some of his defects and supplementing his judgment. It creates support in the congregation for decisions, helping unity and leaving leaders less exposed to unjust criticism. It makes leadership more rooted and permanent and allows for more mature continuity.”
So I’ve been here for 3 and a half years now, which is longer than the average pastorate these days. One reason pastors don’t stay much longer than this is now’s the time when you guys are going to start noticing all my faults and weaknesses (if you didn’t start noticing them right away that is!). I’m simply NOT sufficient for the task God has here at Theta, and neither is Rick. I don’t want to leave though, I’m not planning on leaving here, and so what I’d love is for men to be raised up who can, as Mark Dever says, can round out the gifts Rick and I have, and make up for our defects because we’d be the first to tell you we’ve both got them! Most pastors who leave after three years shouldn’t. Instead, what should have happened is that men in the church should have stepped up to fill in where they were lacking. There is only one perfect Shepherd of the church, and no one else comes even close. So that’s first- we need good elders for long term health.
Second, besides the active choice and commitment to make Jesus Christ the center of everything we do as a church, the choice of who our elders are is, hands down, the most important decision we will make. It’s more important than any class or program we might decide to undertake. It is more important than any event we do. We’re saying, as a church, these are the men who we would trust with our souls and our lives, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out. These are the men I want speaking into my life and the fight of faith I’m fighting. They have all these character traits we read about in 1 Timothy 3. These men set the course for where the church is going as they manage the household of God. These men decide when and how to confront sin in our lives. These men pray for us constantly. They are our shepherds here on earth, doing the Lord’s work, and so it is a huge decision we have to make. Who will shepherd us? Churches have been destroyed because they chose a man who wasn’t fit to be an elder as one of their shepherds.
Thirdly, we’re talking about this now, not because we’re going to pick elders next month, or even this year, but because we need men in this church who want this noble task, and are willing to devote themselves to God and his people in this way, and to work towards it. And we need members in this church who are looking for elders, who are encouraging men who have the gifts to be elders, and who are praying for God to give us these men.
I’m absolutely, one hundred percent certain that this is vital for our church to be thinking about now.
So here’s out text this morning:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
Paul starts this out in an interesting way- the saying is trustworthy. In other words, this is the truth. The office of overseer is a noble task. Someone who aspires for it is desiring a good work.
The word there for “aspiring,” it simply means that a person eagerly wants something, they’re striving to get what they want. They’re working towards it. It’s not just something that is handed out for free, it’s something that a man works for, sweats for, lives in a very particular way to get. Paul uses athletic metaphors several times, even here in Timothy. The greatest sports stars almost always are the ones who give their whole lives over to their sport, they’re constantly working. They aspire to be the greatest they can be.
And Paul says that men in the church are aspiring to this office of overseer. It’s a worthy endeavor, it’s noble. Just look at the description of an overseer in the next 6 verses. This is a man who has given his life over to following Jesus and living a holy life. The Bible has three terms it uses interchangeably. Unfortunately, not all churches use these words interchangeably the way the Bible does and so its caused some confusion. The words for overseer, bishop, and elder are all used to talk about the same thing- a pastor, what we here would call an elder in the church. Some pastors are more gifted and focused on the work of preaching and teaching than others, but all pastors, elders, bishops, overseers, are called to the same work of ministering the word. Now,today I want to answer the question: What is an overseer?
Right away, you notice that it is an “office” don’t you? This is a position, a title, a way to recognize, this man has a specific role he undertakes in our community. It’s impossible to escape this reality in the New Testament- there is a clear structure and organization to the churches that met in New Testament days. They had the offices of elders and deacons, they made lists, they organized. It’s become popular in the last few years to move away from structure and organization in our churches, in fact to the point where we start calling churches other names like fellowship to get away from the idea that we’re an organization. People talk about having churches that are just “organic.” They just happen. I would say that while it’s definitely possible to make structure and organization an idol, and have too much of it, if your response is to reject structure, to reject the offices of elders and deacons, to reject the idea that every church ought to be organized along those basic lines, you’re simply rejecting what the New Testament teaches.
Not every man who is old is an elder in the sense Paul uses. There’s a difference in roles, and in responsibilities. James says, not many of you should be teachers brothers. It’s a specific position, and there should be no confusion about who your elders are.
So I want to lay out four things an elder is in the New Testament.
One, an elder is a man absolutely devoted to teaching the Word of God to God’s People. An elder ought to be a man like Ezra was in Ezra 7:10- he sets his heart to study the word, to do the word, and to teach the word to God’s people. He has a unique role in doing that. Paul tells Timothy an elder must be able to teach God’s Word. It’s not enough that he understands the Bible for himself, but he must be able to open up the Bible and show others the truths of God in a way they can understand and apply. And that’s his unique role- a deacon doesn’t have to be able to do that. But an overseer, a pastor, an elder, he must be able to teach others- whether that’s public proclamation through preaching or maybe he’s an elder who thrives in discipleship and smaller settings, he must be able to bring God’s Word clearly into people’s lives.
Think of the apostles in Acts 6. They call the first men who functioned like deacons, caring for the widows. And they said,
4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering
The elders first priority is spiritual, which means their primary tool in leading the church is the Word of God. And the church should want that, should be pleased to have men who give themselves to God’s Word that way, because the church should know they need that desperately. You need men who devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
After all, the power of the church should always and only be the power of God working through his Word. An elder must be a man who wants to get out of his own way and say, don’t look at me, look at the Bible. Let me show the beauty and the riches that are found in its pages.
Now, even in the New Testament, you see that not all elders were the same. Paul tells Timothy about the elders who are especially gifted for teaching, and how they should receive double honor. It makes sense that a church would have one or two elders whose whole life is set aside for the work of teaching and ministering the word, but these churches also had men who were called above and beyond their daily work, who had a love and passion for God’s people that led them to serve the church as leaders, as ministers. We call them lay elders. A church needs these men, and the pastors who have been called to give all their time to the Word also need these men.
Two, an elder must be a man wholove s and shepherds the people in the church because Jesus saved his own soul. In Acts 20, Paul calls the elders of the church in Ephesus to speak to them. Paul’s leaving and he wants to give them some final words- in verse 28, he says,
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
We need elders here at Theta who are shepherds. They’re not bosses, they’re not just decision makers, they’re not just wise men. They’re men who care for the people God has placed in their little flocks. They’re men who understand the church doesn’t belong to them. It was obtained by God through the work of Jesus Christ. The church is about Jesus! But they’re also just men, aren’t they? Paul tells them they have to care for themselves and the flock because, unlike Jesus, an elder is a man fighting sin, who is prone to weakness and temptation, just like the flock he cares for.
So, an elder must love and care for the people in his flock because he’s a man who has been cared for, who has been loved by God through the work of Jesus Christ.
Peter spoke to the elders of churches in 1 Peter 5-
5 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
An elder isn’t meant to domineer, to dictate, to rule his church with an iron fist. An elder is meant to live for God himself, to partake, to rejoice in the change God has done in his own heart, to drink deeply from the wells of Scripture, and then call his people along with him.
An elder must be a man who loves the people, he must love the church. There’s a running joke that pastors say- “I’d love pastoring if it weren’t for all the people!” While there’s a truth revealed in that statement, an elder has to fight against that mindset. He must have the mind of Christ in this, able to see that the church is full of sinners, of weak, anxious, self-centered people who know what they should be doing and hardly ever seem to do it, and the elder must love them because he’s one of them, and somehow, in God’s astounding nature, God has chosen to love us.
Three, An elder must be able to take responsibility for others.
James says, Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
Being an elder in a church is to willingly take responsibility on your shoulders. It’s to look around at the state of God’s people, and says, I am willing to bear the burden of responsibility so that God’s People will be cared for, and fed. In a culture where many men simply look to shed responsibilities, the church needs men who are willing to step forward and take up the work that’s needed.
Hebrews 13:17 is the passage that every conscientious elder keeps before them.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Right now, I just want to point out the second phrase- elders will give an account to God for how they kept watch over the souls of their people.
This is why Paul says it’s a noble task. God cares deeply about how his undershepherds shepherd. Rick and I will stand before God for what we say to you, and how we lead you. There’s a heavy weight of responsibility on the man who does this noble task. That’s why he must have the character Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3. Elders have to make hard decisions, and I don’t mean decisions about when to replace air conditioners and when to build playgrounds. That’s stuff that doesn’t matter. I mean decisions about how to minister to desperate men and women, how to make sure parents are raising their children in a way that glorifies God. I mean, when and how do you confront and rebuke church members, or how do you care for and counsel broken souls? Those are decisions that matter into eternity. Who is really going to care about our building or our playground in twenty five years?
And the church needs more men who are ready to do this work of taking responsibility for the souls of God’s people as undershepherds.
Four, An elder must discern and act Biblically
Paul also wrote another young man about elders. He wrote to Titus, and he told Titus this about men who would be elders-
9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
An elder must be willing to correct, to rebuke, to stand up to people in his own flock who would contradict the truth of Scripture. Again, none of us are Jesus, and so all of us are more than capable of being wrong, and of doing wrong things, and believing wrong things. If you disagree with that, let me go ahead and follow Titus 1:9 and rebuke you now.
We will all need correction from time to time, and elders are called to know God’s word well enough to provide it. Nobody should like confrontation, and you certainly don’t want to call a man to be an elder who takes real pleasure in confronting and rebuking people. If you’re asking an elder candidate what he’s gifted at it, and he gives you grin and says, “I’m great at rebuking people!” You probably want to pass on that guy. AFter all, he shouldn’t be quarrelsome. But you need men who wisely understand that there are times when rebuke is necessary, and they are able to give that rebuke with wisdom, love, and clarity. Elders shepherd a flock. When the sheep start wandering, the shepherd’s crook needs to come out.
So there are four things that are unique to the office of elder, and essential for a man who is going to lead God’s people. Devotion to Teaching God’s Word, A Love For God’s People that’s based on God’s Love for Him, A Willingness to Take Responsibility, and the ability to not only discern, but to act Biblically.
Paul says, a man who aspires to do that work desires a noble task.
This man’s not aspiring to be an elder so he can make decisions for the church. Someone might look, and say, “I need to be on the elder board so I can make sure the right decisions are being made here.” After all, that makes sense. The elders are the ones who manage the household of God, and here at Theta, the elders have the final say on the decisions we make. So a man might think it’s worthwhile just to have that ability to be a decision maker. But, as we just saw, the elders work is far more than making business decisions. And in fact, this is why here at Theta, we have in our constitution that the elders must engage with the congregation on certain business decisions, and Rick and I have made it a practice to seek counsel from people in the church on things that they may have more wisdom than we do. Because being an elder is not just being a decision maker, it’s being a shepherd of souls. You may have a man who is great at business, and great at making decisions, but he may not have the attitude of a caring shepherd.
Being an elder isn’t the epitome of Biblical manhood either. There aren’t many men who are called to be elders. Don’t think that if you’re going to be the greatest man you can be, you should be an elder.
And it’s not about status either. Paul’s idea of nobility is the same as Jesus’. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. An elder is a man who is a servant to all. He sees Jesus washing the disciples feet.
Being an elder is about humbly, diligently, faithfully, loving God’s people because we’ve been loved by God, and bringing the Word of God to the people through teaching, guidance, and correction.
And our church needs men who can and will do this with Rick and myself.
I want to close with three short applications.
First, here’s the real deal for us at Theta- we want to create men who are like this, don’t we? We want to be a church that encourages men to aspire, willingly and eagerly, as Peter said, to this kind of Biblical work.
Hebrews 13:17 says that you ought to submit to your elders, and let your elders do their work with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
This all starts with your faithful, joyful love for Jesus and God’s Word. That’s always the foundation.
The writer of Hebrews is saying it hurts the church when the church members aren’t even trying to live for God. When they’re apathetic, when they force the elders to constantly have to goad them, plead with them, push them, just to get them to do the most basic and elementary things of the Christian life, it exhausts everyone, doesn’t it? It’s like the parent whose child is always making everything ten times harder than it has to be, and you just wish the child would see that and stop dragging their feet to do what they’re supposed to. It’s another reason why most pastors quit the ministry within the first five years, and many of the remaining burn out by the ten year mark. It’s exhausting when the average Christian in the pew seems dead set on living their life for the world and their own comfort.
Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews have a different vision- where churches create men who are willing and eager to lead because these are churches full of people willing and eager to be fed and taught so they can follow Christ in their lives. Jesus has changed our hearts, we believe there is forgiveness for our sins, and that we can be children of God, don’t we? Let’s eagerly live that out together!
We want to encourage that eagerness. We may have young people in our church who will want to give their lives to serving God’s people because they grew up seeing your eagerness to live for God. Let’s make it easy here for some men to want to be overseers of the church by putting Jesus first in our lives.
Second, start praying and watching. At some point, we’re going to ask the church for nominations for men to be elders. With the four points I gave you today in mind, are there men here at Theta you would nominate to be elders? We don’t choose elders because they’re good people, they’ve been here a long time, they’re really nice. We choose them based on God’s Word. Everyone, please, start watching and praying. Perhaps, there are men here you see who have the potential to be an elder in a few years. If you see that, pray for them, even encourage them. Let Rick and I know you see it. This is a united effort.
It’s absolutely to your benefit to pour into the ones who shepherd this church. And if there are men who are going to be shepherds here in the future, it’s absolutely to all of our benefit to pour into them before they take on that role. We have plans to have a training and equipping course to help prepare the men who would become elders here.
Third and finally, men, could this be you? Our church needs elders. Rick and I need fellow workers. But, we don’t need them so badly that we’re going to settle for a man who’s not biblically qualified, or that we would demand a man who’s got no desire for the work must do it. We trust God enough to know that he will work and provide.
What I’m praying though, is that God is working in the hearts of one, two, three of our men, putting that desire to serve him in this way in your mind. Most of you heard my four points and thought, I would never want to do that. But I’m praying that some of you are crazy enough to have heard what a shepherd of the flock does, and think, “Yes, that. I want to do that. That sounds like a noble work.” A healthy church isn’t just going to have a pastor like me, who is devoted full time to the work of the ministry, it’s going to have a group of men, not just one, who give their gifts, their abilities, their wisdom above and beyond what they already do for a living. And that group of men will work together, filling in where the others are lacking, to lead a church faithfully. That’s biblical.
If you’re thinking about it, please talk to me. Don’t assume that Rick and I are just going to know you feel that way. We probably don’t. Maybe you’re not sure what it would look like, maybe you’re not sure you’re ready or it’s even possible for you, but want to go deeper in thinking and praying about it. Talk to me. Maybe you think we already know the men I’m really talking to right now, but that’s not true. I genuinely want to know if God is putting this desire in any of our men’s heart. I’ve got plans for doing a training and equipping course for the men who might possibly become elders. There will be help and guidance as to what that is. Also, by talking to me, you’re not committing to anything at all. I would love it if some of our men saw the need we have here, and spent time praying and asking God whether they should aspire to it.
I’ve got these booklets and I can get a lot more of them so feel free to take one, whether you’re a church member wanting to know more or a man thinking about whether God is calling you.
So to close, I want our church to be on the same page going forward. This is going to be a decision we have to make, and we need to prepare ourselves now to make it.