A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 1/07/2001

1 Timothy 3:1-13

Qualities of God's Servants

Last November, before we interrupted these studies to look at the coming of Christ for Advent, we saw that the Bible views all believers as servants called by God to minister to one another as priests--the "universal priesthood of believers" (1 Pet. 2:5). And we saw how the Call to a particular ministry or office works: one who is following the general call is given the desire (3:1) to pursue a given ministry; the qualifications for doing so are recognized by the person and the Church; and finally the Church recognizes and confirms those gifts and that calling. This week we will look more closely at the qualifications for office themselves.

First, some preliminary considerations. The doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers means that most of these qualities are relevant to all of God's servants, not just ministerial candidates. Just try reading the list reversing the values: no believer should be addicted to wine, pugnacious, a polygamist, a slave to money, one who mismanages his household or is reproachable, etc. Even the exceptions to this principle of universal applicability are only limited exceptions. While not everyone has the gift of teaching, we are all teachers informally of someone, for our lives are on display. While all of us must be new converts at some point, we aren't supposed to stay that way. This means that those who are called to be leaders should manifest in an outstanding or exemplary fashion those attributes which all believers should aspire to and should be growing in. And this makes sense, because the leader's job is precisely to help them in that growing.

Requirements or ideals?

Are these requirements absolutes or ideals? There are problems either way. If we think of them as ideals, we may fear the slippery slope syndrome. Once we start compromising, where does it end? On the other hand, missionaries who have assumed that they are absolutes have run into equally intractable problems. What do you do with the requirement "husband of one wife" with a new church plant in a polygamous culture? Too often we have either broken up families, or excluded natives from leadership, creating an unhealthy dependence on the foreign missionary, a habit which is easier to form than to break.

Fortunately, the New Testament gives us a couple of hints toward a solution. One is the nature of the qualifications themselves. Most of them are not either/or type phenomena. "Apt to teach," for example. How apt is apt? On the scale from utter incompetence to brilliance as a teacher, where exactly does "apt" begin? "Not a new convert," Paul says, but how much time does it take for the newness to wear off? No figure is given because none is giveable. And there is another hint when we compare this passage to the similar instructions given to Titus in Titus 1:5-9. Titus is told to appoint elders in the Cretan churches, and he is given a very similar set of qualifications to go by. The one that is missing is "not a new convert. "Why?" Because the Church of Ephesus, of which Timothy was now pastor, had been planted on Paul's Second Missionary Journey; The Church of Crete was planted on the Third. Titus was not told to avoid new converts because he did not have that luxury; that was the only kind of convert he had. But instead of running Crete as a one-man show, Titus was supposed to pick the most promising candidates he had and do the best he could.

In other words, these qualifications are not rigid absolutes but important guidelines designed to function in a real and therefore messy world. I say this with real trepidation, knowing the human tendency to turn a given inch into a taken mile, knowing that many churches have simply rendered the requirements meaningless. But the abuse of a principle does not change the principle, and I must explain the teaching as Paul himself seems to have applied it. Neither the loose liberal nor the hard-line conservative does so, as far as I can see.

The Qualifications

Most of the qualifications themselves are reasonably self-explanatory, but a few need a little comment. One is certainly "husband of one wife." This has been taken to mean that a pastor whose wife dies cannot remarry; that pastors must be married (it doesn't say "zero" wives, now does it?); that they can not be polygamous; that they cannot be (or ever have been) divorced; that if they were divorced before they were saved they cannot remarry; or that they cannot remarry unless their divorce was on biblical grounds. I see problems with all of these options. Scripture explictly says that death ends the marriage covenant, and that then we are free to remarry in the Lord. Why should pastors be an exception? If they have to be married, it seems rather strange that Paul himself (not to mention Jesus!) would by that criterion be disqualified for church leadership. Surely polygamy is ruled out, but if that's what it primarily means, it seems strange because polygamy was not an issue in any of the first-century churches. If there are biblical grounds for divorce (and there are--adultery and desertion at least), then such a divorce, being recognized as valid by God, would not bring a person into violation of the "one wife" criterion whether he remarried or not. But if the criterion is really that complex, why did Paul state it so simply?

Part of the problem arises from that old tendency to assume that these are--because everything in the Bible must be--rigid absolutes to be interpreted legalistically. What Paul actually says is that the elder should literally be a "one-woman man." That is, he should not be one to divide his loyalties; if he has a wife, he should be faithful to her, should not be a person with "wandering" tendencies. It says nothing about his past; there is no justification here for the approach that disqualifies anyone who has ever been divorced for any reason whatever. It is focused on whether this is his consistently demonstrated character now that he is saved and has become part of the Church.

"Hospitable" is the Greek philoxenon, literally a lover of strangers. This was needed in the NT world because inns were notoriously bad, usually dens of theives, and lots of Christians were on the move, were displaced persons because of persecution or travelling evangelists. So this is not just having some friends over for popcorn after the evening service. It is a willingness to minister in one's home to strangers in real and practical need, on the most down-to-earth level imaginable.

One other that interests me is v. 9, "holding the faith with a good conscience." This is said of deacons, not of the elders who are the ones who must be apt to teach. This tells us that doctrine is not just an intellectual matter for intellectuals but affects the whole Christian life. It is just as important for those who wait tables as for those who teach or preach formally.

Let us stop reading this passage as being only about ministerial candidates (though it is of course relevant to whom we choose for those positions). They must manifest in an exemplary manner these qualities which all of us must aspire to and should be growing in. May God make it so in our lives to the glory of his Son.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams