Paul has been writing to Timothy with instructions about some of the things he was to do and teach in the church in Ephesus. In chapter 1, Paul instructed Timothy to command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer. It seems there were some false teachers in Ephesus who were focussing on the law and on the things we must do, whereas the focus of the church must always be on the gospel and on what God has done for us by his Son to save us from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life. And so, Paul instructed Timothy to command those false teachers not to teach their false ideas any longer so that the church in Ephesus would remain gospel-based.
And then, in chapter 2, Paul instructed Timothy about public worship and about men and women. When we meet for worship, we’re to pray for all kinds of people and especially for those in authority over us so that we might be able to live quiet and peaceful lives. And when the church gathers for worship, the men should worship together without anger and without quarrelling; and the women should dress appropriately for worship and adorn themselves with good deeds. Moreover Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — said that he does not permit a woman to teach a man or to have authority over a man. And so, he made clear that the office of the elder — because the elders are the ones who rule and teach in the church — should be restricted to men only.
And that takes us into chapter 3 where Paul talks about elders and deacons. He doesn’t use the word ‘elder’ in this chapter. Instead he uses the word ‘overseer’. But the Bible uses the words ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ to refer to the same leadership role in the church. An elder is an overseer and an overseer is an elder. And in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, we say that the members of the Congregational Committee discharge the work of the deacons. And so, in chapter 3, Paul is writing about the elders and about the Congregational Committee.
And the first thing Paul says about the work of the overseer, or the work of the elder, is that it’s a noble task. Do you see that in verse 1? It’s a noble task or — we might say — a good work. And it’s a noble task, or a good work, because the work of the elder is to oversee God’s people. And what better task is there than that? Think of a shepherd who minds his sheep and ensures the sheep are well-fed and watered; and he ensures the sheep are kept safe from dangerous animals; and he prevents the sheep from going astray and getting lost. Well, overseers or elders are like shepherds, because God has appointed them to mind his people, and to ensure that his people are well-fed on God’s word. And he has appointed the elders to keep his people safe from false doctrines and to prevent his people from going astray. What better task is there than that?
And since it’s such a good and important work, then we need to be careful that the right people are chosen for this noble task. There may be many people who set their heart on being an overseer. There may be many people who would love to be an elder. However, not everyone who wants to be an elder is suitable to be an elder. And so, Paul gives us a list of requirements to help us to discern who should be an elder and who should not be an elder. And, interestingly, the important thing, according to Paul, is not so much what a candidate for the eldership can do, but what he’s like as a person. The focus is not so much on gifts and abilities and education, which is perhaps what employers tend to focus on, but it’s on character and behaviour.
So, first of all, Paul tells us that elders must be above reproach. To reproach someone means to accuse them of something. It means to criticise someone. And so, the person who is above reproach is the person about whom no criticism or accusation can be made.
Now, we need to remember, of course, that we’re all sinners who sin continually in thought and word and deed. None of us — not even the best of us — will ever be perfect in this life. And so, every one can be accused of something. And so, when Paul refers to being above reproach, he means that elders should be free from public scandal so that no one can point a finger at an elder and say of him: ‘Let me tell you what he did. You won’t believe it!’ So, we’re not talking about sinlessness here. We’re talking about those who — since their conversion — have lived a good and upright life which is free from scandal. And really, this first requirement encompasses and summarises all the others, because the person who meets all the other requirements will be someone who is above reproach.
The next thing Paul mentions is that elders should be the husband of but one wife. Now, this doesn’t forbid single men from being elders. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul commends singleness; and he commends singleness because single people are free from family obligations and they can therefore spend more time in serving the Lord’s people. In other words, rather than being a barrier to serving the Lord, singleness can actually be an advantage. So, this requirement does not disqualify single men from serving as an elder. What Paul means when he says an elder should be the husband of but one wife is that those elders who are married should be faithful to their wives. You see, there was so much immorality in the ancient world just as there is today. And when Paul wrote these words, men thought nothing about having many sexual partners through adultery and divorce. And homosexuality was commonplace as well. So, people used to do all kinds of things and think nothing of it. And it’s much the same today. But the Lord’s people are to be different. God expects all of his people to live lives of purity and faithfulness. And since God expects all of his people to live lives of purity and faithfulness, then it’s absolutely necessary for the leaders in the church to live lives of purity and faithfulness. The leaders of the church must set an example of faithfulness.
Then the elders must be temperate, self-controlled and respectable. The first two words relate to how the elders work together as a Kirk Session. You see, the temperate man is sober-minded which means he is clear-headed and even-tempered. That what an elder needs to be. And he also needs to be self-controlled. You see, the elders have lots of things to discuss and debate when they meet together. They have to decide lots of things. And many of these things are serious and important matters about the work of the church and about the people who worship here. And, when debating these serious and important matters, we don’t want men who will lose their temper or who will not be able to discuss things in an even-tempered manner. And we’ve all met people who have no self-control and they fly off the handle easily. Or they say things in the heat of the moment which are unwise and unkind. Or they’re too quick to make decisions which they have not really thought through. Such people do not make good elders. Instead, elders should be able to think things over in a sensible, even-tempered, calm way. And they should be able to control themselves when faced with those who disagree with them. So the elders need to be temperate and self-controlled. They must also be respectable which means well-behaved and well-mannered which is also necessary when there’s a long agenda and lots of business to go through.
And then, Paul says that the elder must be hospitable. Hospitable people are ready to welcome people into the church and into their own home. They’re good at making people feel welcome. And this means elders should love people. It doesn’t mean they must be extroverts and really out-going. But it’s about being welcoming others and loving them and making them feel at home.
And elders must be able to teach. Now, this is perhaps the only gift or ability which Paul mentions. Everything else he lists is about the elder’s character and what he’s like as a person. But this is about something the elder must be able to do. He must be able to teach. Now, in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul distinguishes between those elders who direct the affairs of the church and those elders who preach and teach. Some elders rule and others teach. And so, in the Presbyterian Church, we distinguish between Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. Ministers are Teaching Elders because we’re ordained to teach and preach, while the other elders are Ruling Elders. So, not every elder is called to teach and to preach. However, every elder must be able to teach in the sense that they must know their Bibles and they’re familiar with our church’s Confession of Faith and its Catechisms so that they have a firm grasp of the faith and are able to spot error and defend and explain the faith to other people.
We come now to verse 3 which contains four negatives. First, elders should be not be given to drunkenness. We don’t want elders who get drunk because that would bring shame upon themselves and upon the church. Second, elders should not be violent but gentle. In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul refers to the meekness and gentleness of Christ. And the Lord himself invited the weary and heavy-burdened to come to him for rest, because he is gentle and humble in heart. That’s what the Lord is like: he’s gentle. And the Lord’s elders should also be known for being gentle. They’re not to bully the Lord’s sheep. They’re not to be rough with his little lambs. They’re to be gentle with them. Third, elders should not be quarrelsome. We’ve all met people who like to argue and wherever they go they manage to quarrel with others. But our elders should be the kind of people who try to end arguments and not to start them. Their aim should be to keep the peace and not to stir up trouble. And fourth, elders should not be lovers of money. Those who love money are only thinking of themselves. They’re thinking about what they can get for themselves. But instead of loving money, elders should love the Lord and his people. And they should spend their time and energy on ways to serve the Lord and his people.
Verses 4 and 5
Now we come to verses 4 and 5, where Paul refers to the elder and his relationship to his family. The elder must manage his own family well. Now, the word translated ‘manage’ means to rule or to lead, but it also means to be devoted to something or to give assistance to someone. It can mean ‘care for’. In fact, Paul goes on in verse 5 to say that an elder who doesn’t know how to manage his own family will not know how to take care of God’s church. And the word translated ‘to take care of’ in verse 5 was used of the Good Samaritan who took care of the injured man on the side of the road. So, an elder should be the kind of person who manages his family well by taking care of it. Instead of living selfishly, he’s prepared to give himself to caring for his family. And a man who is used to doing that, and who serves his family, will be ready to serve the church.
Paul also says that he must see to it that his children obey him with proper respect. The words ‘with proper respect’ probably refer to the elder, not to the children. That is, the elder is to be dignified in the way he deals with his children. One person can make his children obey him by using violence or by threatening them with violence. He bullies them into submission. But that’s not right. It’s not the way a father should treat his children and it’s not the way an elder should treat God’s people.
Verses 6 and 7
And so, we come to verses 6 and 7 and to the last two requirements. An elder must not be a recent convert, because a recent convert to the faith might become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the Devil. A newly converted person may be full of enthusiasm and zeal. And you may think those are essential qualities for an elder. However, a new convert may not have learned humility. You see, someone who has been a Christian for a while knows his own sins and weaknesses and all the ways he has fallen short of doing God’s will. And because of this awareness of his own sinfulness, he’s also aware of the Lord’s grace and mercy towards him. Such a person will be humble and not proud. And if he doesn’t live his life in humble dependence on the Lord, then he’s likely to fall into serious sin and into the same judgment of the Devil. So, elders should be experienced believers who have learned to be humble and to live in dependence on the Lord.
And having mentioned the devil in verse 6, Paul mention the devil again in verse 7. But this time he’s not thinking of judgment on the devil, but he’s thinking of the traps the devil sets for elders. You see, the Christian life is a battlefield. It’s a battlefield, because all of us have to stand firm against the Devil, who comes at us with his wicked schemes and who tries to lead us astray. And so, the Devil attacks every believer. And what a victory he will enjoy if he can cause an elder in the church, a leader in the church, to fall into some kind of scandalous sin. What a triumph for him if he can bring shame on the church by luring an elder into public sin. We all know of occasions when ministers and other churches leaders have been publicly exposed and it becomes clear that for years and years they’ve been living a secret, sinful life. And it brings shame, not just on the leader and his family, but on the whole church.
And so, given that danger, elders need to be the kind of person who already has a good reputation with those outside the church. They have already been tested and they have withstood the attacks of the Devil and they already know how to stand up to the Devil’s temptations. That’s what an elder should be. Not someone who is inexperienced, but someone who has been fighting the good fight for many years; and, with the Lord’s help, has learnt how to be faithful.
There’s no time today to go over what Paul said about the deacons. But let me finish with a few brief points. And the first is to say that, really, all of us are to be like this. All of us should be above reproach. All of us who are married should be faithful to our spouse. All of us should be temperate and self-controlled and respectable. All of us should be hospitable so that we love other people. All of us should know what we believe and be able to explain it. None of us should be given to drunkenness. None of us should be violent and all of should display the lamblike gentleness of the Saviour. None of us should be quarrelsome. None of us should be a lover of money. All of us with a family should take care of it. All of us should avoid conceit and we must live in such a way that we have a good reputation with those who don’t believe. All of us should be like that. And our elders, our leaders, should lead the way in being like this and they should set us a good example to follow.
However, all of us are sinners who fall short of being what we should be. Not even the best of us are like this all of the time. And that’s why we need to be reminded continually of the good news of the gospel and how God the Son became one of us in order to pay for our sins and shortcomings with his life and to cleanse us from our guilt with his blood. Through faith in him, the only Saviour of the world, we are pardoned by God for all the ways we have fallen short and we have peace with him. And though we deserve to be sent out of his presence for ever, he promises to bring us into his presence in the life to come where we will be with him for ever. And so, today, as we take the bread, which speaks of his broken body, and as we take the cup, which speaks of his blood shed for us, we should give thanks to God for his grace and mercy and his willingness to pardon and accept us for Christ’s sake.
And we should live our lives in dependence on him. All of us must live in dependence on God, but our elders must especially live in dependence on him. They should be the most prayerful members of the congregation, because they know how much they need God’s help day by day to fulfil their calling to be faithful overseers of God’s people in this place. By nature we’re sinners who are inclined to do evil; and so we need the help of the Holy Spirit to overcome our natural inclination to sin and to sanctify us so that we’re renewed throughout in God’s image and become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth. And so, all of us, and especially our elders, need to look to the Lord every day and rely on him for the help we need to live according to our calling. And the God who pardons us for the sake of Christ promises to give the Spirit to all who ask so that we might put to death our sinful deeds and live for God’s glory more and more.
And the final thing to say in conclusion is that God has given us elders for our good. In Acts 20 we read of the time when Paul was leaving the city of Ephesus to go on to Jerusalem. And before he left, he met with the elders one last time to give them some final instructions. And this is part of what he said to them:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
The Holy Spirit appointed the elders as overseers so that they would watch over God’s people the way a shepherd watches over the sheep. Sheep need food to strengthen their bodies and to keep them fit and healthy; and believers need to hear God’s word to strengthen our faith and to keep us spiritually fit and healthy. Sheep need to be protected from danger; and believers need to be protected from false doctrines and from the attacks of the Evil One. Sheep need to be guided along the right paths; and believers need someone to guide them along the right path. And while we may be tempted to think we don’t need any help, and we can manage fine on our own, the Lord knows us better than we know ourselves and he has appointed elders to oversee us. He has given us elders to feed us on God’s word. He has given us elders to guard us from danger. He has given us elders to keep us on the narrow way that leads to life. Just as sheep need shepherds just as children need parents, so God’s people need elders. We should therefore give thanks to God for them. And we should pray for them that they will do their work well. And we should honour them for doing their work well, as Paul will go on to say in chapter 5. And we should follow their lead, because this is God’s will for us and for them.