Sermon: A Noble Task

[This sermon was originally preached on Sunday, January 10, 2016]

I invite you to open your bibles to 1 Timothy 3:1-7. 1 Timothy is in the New Testament, coming after 1-2 Thessalonians, and before 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews. 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

Last week we began a series on leadership within the church. Last week we studied 1 Corinthians 12,  learning about a guiding image for how we think about the whole church: the body. Verse 27 said, “Now you (all y’all) are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Each of us makes up a very important part of the body of Christ. God has given each one of us gifts for the common good of the church.

Today we focus on one part of the body — the office of elder.

Something to note: throughout our passage you will hear the word “overseer”. The terms “overseer” and “elder” are often interchangeable. “Overseer” can also be translated as “the office of elder”. It’s not just an old person (your elders), but is an actual position within the church.

Before we hear God’s word this morning, please join me in a time of prayer.

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ, our single concern. Amen.

Hear the word of the Lord from the book that we love:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

These are the very words of God. Thanks be to God.

There may be some of you who heard today’s scripture and thought to yourself, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not an elder. I don’t think I could do all of those things.” Others of you may be squirming in your seats thinking, “Should I really even be an elder?” This list of an elder’s characteristics can be a bit overwhelming:

Above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled,

respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard,

gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money,

a good manager of their family, have obedient and respectful kids,

not a recent convert, have a good reputation with outsiders.

Other scripture passages add even more characteristics.

This is a hard task.

Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy, a young man he loves, whom he desires the best for, and in this letter, Paul points Timothy to to the role of the elders in the life of the church, he points him to the kind of people he wants to have around him in leadership, people who would work with him to build up the body of Christ, people with the kind of character and qualifications that Paul lists. People readily respected as elders.

Here is a trustworthy saying: 

Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 

It is a noble task, but it is hard task. The kind of character that Paul describes in the person of an elder is difficult to find. It is difficult, in part because there are so many challenges to our character today. There is so much in our world that spits on the words we just heard.

We live in a world where life is cheap. We live in a world where people don’t respect authority, where being faithful and self-controlled seem to be things of the past. Unexpected children are “taken care of” before they have the chance to enter the world. Quarrels are dealt with through violence, and building fences. The louder we yell, the more cantankerous we are, the more we are heard. The soft, gentle voice is drowned out by angry shouting. It is difficult not to be a lover of money, when the bills stack up and the lottery runs in the hundreds of millions. It is hard to care and guide our families, especially our children. The older they get, the less and less control we seem to have over who influences them, who they hang out with, and the choices they make. We live in a world where people don’t even know the neighbours around them, let alone be hospitable to them. Life is about doing what’s best for yourself, without any consideration for those around you. It’s cheap.

Being the church in a culture like this is hard. The culture of the world we live in tries its best to distract us from the task God has given us. As Paul says elsewhere, it is not primarily about flesh and blood; there are principalities and powers in this world that we struggle against daily. This is why we need leaders within the church. This is why Paul, writing to a young pastor in Ephesus, speaks of the importance of the role of elders. This is why Paul says, Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” 

We need them to guide us, to point us in the right direction, to teach us, and to be an example for us in the way we are to live.

But it is hard, surely harder today than ever before, right?

I’d like to take us back in time for a little while, to a city by the name of Ephesus. It was here that Timothy pastored the church. Ephesus was a city of commerce and trade, a port city with a large harbour. It had over 1,000,000 people at the time Timothy lived there. One of its biggest industries was the slave trade. Known as the slave market of the ancient world, about 10,000 slaves were traded daily in the city. Life was cheap in Ephesus.

Ephesus was also home to one of the 7 Wonders of the ancient world — the Temple of Artemis. All sorts of atrocities and immoral sexual acts were associated with her worship.

In a culture where sexual immorality was much more rampant than today, infant exposure was a common practice. It is estimated that 50-60 thousand babies were left at the city gates of Ephesus to die each year.

It was a city where selfishness and immorality was praised. Life for them, just as today, was cheap.

To have an elder in the church who held to the characteristics described in our passage was extremely counter-cultural. People outside the church were not faithful to their wives, they were far from self-controlled, and drunkenness was a part of life. Wealth was something to be flaunted — they knew the love of money.

The pull of the world was strong. The Temple of Artemis gleamed on the top of the hill. The slave markets poured money into the city. Sex was casual and selfish and the consequences were quickly and easily dealt with – children left outside to die.

The church needed elders strong in the faith to lead them, and to teach them how to live. They needed leaders who would gently teach them the truth of God’s word and His way. They needed elders who would be patient with them in their struggles, but to encourage them to walk as Jesus walked.

Notice Paul doesn’t say it will be easy. Instead, he says,

Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.

A noble task. The office of elder is a calling. It is a task. It takes work.

So far, we have been talking about the difficulty of the task of being an elder, we have heard Paul say that to desire to be an elder is a noble task. But what exactly is that task? What exactly is the kind of character that is expected of an elder?

They are to be above reproach. Their life should be free of sinful habits or behaviors. No one should be able to honestly bring a charge or accusation against them. They are one who is highly esteemed within their community.

They are to be faithful to their wife. They are to be committed to their spouse. Paul emphasizes the importance of fidelity in marriage.

An elder is to be temperate and self-controlled. They shouldn’t be extreme, but rather more even-keel.

They should be respectable — someone who is upright, honest and trustworthy.

They should be hospitable, welcoming the stranger in their midst.

They should be able to teach. Part of the elder’s task is to teach others in the way of Jesus.

An elder should not be given to drunkenness. They shouldn’t drink excessively. This doesn’t mean they have to abstain from alcohol altogether, but they should not make drunkenness a habit.

They should be gentle, rather than violent. They should not be quarrelsome. They shouldn’t be abusive or prone to starting conflict. They should make peace, rather than being argumentative.

They should not be a lover of money. Later in 1 Timothy Paul writes that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

An elder should also manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. What this teaches us is that family should come before ministry. We may do wonderful things for the church, but we should not do so to the neglect of our own families. They are important. Elders (and pastors) gain valuable job experience from raising their own children.

Elders should also not be recent converts. If you are a new Christian you still need time to grow in your faith before you can lead others. Paul writes that there’s a danger they may become conceited or prideful, and therefore fall under judgment.

Lastly, an elder should be someone who has a good reputation with outsiders. They should be respected by those they come into contact with in their day-to-day business.

These are all the characteristics of an elder, but these characteristics should be in all of us.  Paul is addressing the distinguishing marks of those who desire to be church leaders, but it certainly does not diminish the need for all Christians to aspire to the same qualities. Part of what sets the elder apart is that they not only know the truth of God, but they live it out in a way that helps us all see better what it looks like to follow Jesus. The elder is one who knows the truth and lives it, they lead by example. In their lives they show us all the ways of God, and the way we are all to live.

In a few moments we are going to be ordaining and installing new elders and deacons. Each of them has been called to this position, and I believe each one to be a person of character, doing their best to live into these attributes. They, along with all of us, still have ways in which they can grow, and I look forward to seeing that growth.

The position of elder, and of deacon, is not something to be taken lightly. We make serious promises in our ordination. But, we also don’t do this alone. We have one another, but we also have the Holy Spirit. In the ordination of pastors, elders, and deacons there is a moment where we lay hands on the one being ordained, and we ask that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on them, to guide them, and to help them in their walk. It is in this anointing, this pouring out of the Spirit, it is this work of God that gives us confidence to go forth and do the work of elders.

Here is a trustworthy saying: 

Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 

A noble task, a hard task, a task worth doing. And a task that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will help lead this church in faithfulness to God.

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