Overseers

The health of the Ephesian church—like our own—depended on a team of strong and godly leaders. How was Timothy to know who belonged on that team, and who did not? And what’s this mean for us today?

Samuel Harder on November 3, 2019
Overseers
November 3, 2019

Overseers

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Passage: 1 Timothy 3:1-7
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Last Sunday we began to study 1 Timothy chapter 3 and what it tells us about church leadership. The background to this topic is Timothy’s mission in Ephesus to bring that church back to a healthy place. And as he worked to do that, he needed a strong team of leaders. Leaders who could share the load with him and leaders who would make sure that the church stayed healthy long after he was there. And it goes without saying that, with so many false teachers kicking around, he had to make sure that the wrong kind of person never got in to leadership there.

And so last week we talked about the big ideas, like the way Jesus leads His church through His word, and through the operation of the gathered church itself, and through the church’s leaders. We were introduced to the big idea that New Testament churches are to be led not just by one person but by a team of leaders referred to as overseers or elders or pastors. One of those men might be paid to do his thing full-time, like I am blessed to do, but he’s still just one of the team.

This week on our website I posted some material that speaks more about this idea of team leadership and why it’s not just Biblical but also really helpful, both for Timothy back in Ephesus and for us today. And I’d encourage you to go read that if you haven’t already.

Today we zoom in a bit from that big picture and try to answer the question: “How was Timothy supposed to identity leaders? What did he need to look for? And who did he need to avoid?”

I’ve been in churches where the one requirement for being a leader was having a pulse. And even then they sometimes made exceptions. But what about Timothy? Where was he supposed to start?


“Whoever Desires”

Chapter 3 verse 1 just starts with the basics: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).  This is very often where it starts. Someone has a desire to serve in this way. This is where it started for me when I was 18 or so.

We should notice that verse 1 does not say, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer (or elder or pastor), he should sit down and wait for God to call him.” I’ve heard other people give advice like that. But we don’t see that here, and that helps us understand that it’s often through our desires that God directs us and leads us or at least gets us started on the right path.

So if someone aspires to the office of overseer, that’s great. It’s a good work, a noble task, and their desire for it is good.

But it’s also not enough. It’s not enough to just want it. Because this task is so noble, not everybody can or should do this. And so from verse 2 on down to 7, we read about the qualifications or requirements for an overseer. This is who an overseer or a pastor or an elder needs to be before they can even be considered for the role.


Above Reproach

Verse 2 heads off the list by telling us that, because overseeing is such a noble task, “an overseer must be above reproach.” You may have heard this phrase, “above reproach” before and not been sure what it means.

The word “reproach” refers to when people criticize or attack or look down on you because of things that you do or say. And overseers must be the kind of men who live in such a way that nobody looks down on them. There’s nothing that is tarnishing their reputation. There’s no skeletons in their closet, no hidden dirt to dig up on them. They are irreproachable, living according to a set of standards which cannot be criticized.

The reasons for this are obvious, I hope. If a leader is below reproach, if he’s doing or saying things that are earning him a negative reputation, nobody is going to trust him. Nobody is going to follow him.

And he’s going to fail at one of the important aspects of a shepherd’s role, which is, according to 1 Peter 5:3, to be an example to the flock. In many ways the job of a pastor or elder or overseer is to say to the church, “join me as I follow Jesus.” And so their lives need to back that up—not with sinless perfection, but with practical godliness that is looking more and more like Jesus.

And so they need to be above reproach.

But this raises a question, doesn’t it? Won’t there be people who criticize a leader even if he’s doing everything right? I mean, Jesus Himself was criticized and reproached (Luke 7:33-34). It’s impossible to please everybody.

So who gets to define what “above reproach” means? Whose standard are we going by?

And the answer to that question is found in the rest of our passage today. This is something I discovered this week: that when we read this passage, we should understand “above reproach” as really the main requirement for an overseer, and everything comes after that is detailing for us what that actually means. This is our standard for “above reproach.” Everything we read from verse 2 to 7.

I find that so helpful, because we’re not left to the whims of the crowds to figure out what “above reproach” means. We have the gold standard right here in these verses which show us what this means.


Faithful in Marriage

So, being above reproach means, as verse 2 goes on to say, “the husband of one wife.” This is the first explanation of what it means to be above reproach.

The word “husband” reinforces what we heard two weeks ago, that overseers or elders or pastors are expected to be men. And here we’re told they need to be a husband or a man of one woman or wife.

Some people take this to mean that an elder had to be married. But we should remember that Paul himself was single and encouraged others to consider singleness for themselves (1 Corinthians 7). So most scholars understand this phrase to speak of marital faithfulness. If you were married, which most of the Ephesian men likely were, your wife was the only woman for you. You belonged to her and her alone with your body and with your eyes and with your mind.


Sober-Minded

Next we see that being above reproach means being sober-minded. This speaks of thinking clearly and realistically about yourself and about others. Someone who has good judgement and is not easily swayed or brought under the influence of other philosophies or passions.


Self-Controlled

Above reproach means being self-controlled. Nothing tarnishes a reputation like loosing control of yourself, following your passions, doing whatever you feel like doing without reflection, saying whatever comes to your mind with no filters, and needing other people to constantly be correcting you.

An overseer doesn’t need to be baby-sat. They are self-controlled. They know themselves and know their own strengths and weaknesses and they are able to reign themselves in.


Respectable

An overseer must be respectable. This is closely connected with the idea of being above reproach. They must be the kind of person that others are inclined to respect, and listen to, and follow. Their reputation precedes them and their reputation is good.


Hospitable

Next, an overseer must be hospitable. The Greek word for “hospitable” speaks of being open and receptive and loving to all people, even those we don’t know. And this word came to have a specific reference to opening our homes to both to each other and to strangers.

For years I used to think that hospitality was a special “gift” that some people had and some people didn’t. I remember the day I went looking for the “gift of hospitality” in the Bible and found out that it wasn’t there. Instead, I found passages like 1 Peter 4:9 which says that all Christians are to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” And our passage today says that church leaders should be setting the example in this area by being open with their hearts and their homes and their dinner tables and their very lives.


Able to Teach

Verse 2 finishes off by telling us that an overseer needs to be “able to teach.” We saw last week that the overseers or elders or pastors were the ones responsible for teaching the church. And so it goes without saying that an overseer has to have this ability.

This means they need to be familiar with the Scriptures. They need to know what the Bible says, and they need to be able to communicate that truth to others.

Titus 1:9 expands on this idea when it says that an elder “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” (Titus 1:9).

That’s the requirement. And as we say that, it’s important to emphasize that “able to teach” does not mean “able to preach.” We see examples in the book of Acts of teaching happening in big public spaces and also in homes or even one-on-one. Teaching can happen in the pulpit and teaching can happen over a coffee in Tim Horton’s.

What I’m saying here is that not every overseer needs to be a preacher, but they do need to know the Scriptures and be able to effectively communicate what is says to others. They have to be able to teach.


Not a Drunkard

Now let’s just pause for a moment as we get to the end of verse 2. Have you noticed that this verse has given us seven qualifications for an overseer? Or, we could say, one qualification—“above reproach”—and six sub-points that explain it. And they’ve all been positive instruction. An overseer must be this.

When we get to verse 3, we discover is four negative requirements. That is, an overseer must not be these things.

And the first of these is that he can’t be a drunkard. Up in verse 2 we heard about being sober-minded, and here we find out that he needs to be literally sober. He doesn’t use alcohol to escape from reality. He doesn’t get drunk.

Many Christians have decided that it’s best for them to avoid alcohol all together, but the Bible never actually says that drinking alcohol in and of itself is a sin. What is a sin is getting drunk, and an overseer can’t be someone who does that.


Not Violent, but Gentle

Next, he needs to be “not violent but gentle.” This word for “violent” is important, because it can mean physically hurting people, but it also can include bullying and verbal abuse. And isn’t it sadly true that many pastor’s offices or church boardrooms throughout history have been occupied by bullies—men who use their authority not to protect and serve and lead people closer to Christ, but to push people around as a part of their own craving for power?

And overseers can’t be like this. They can’t be violent in body or speech or personality. They can’t explode in rage when they don’t get their own way. Like 1 Peter 5:3 says, they can’t be “domineering over those in [their] charge.” They need to be gentle.

Now being gentle does not mean being a push-over or a marshmallow. A gentle shepherd knows how to fight off a wolf with lethal effectiveness. He also knows how to keep the sheep from wandering off the path and getting lost. But most importantly, he knows that you don’t treat the sheep the same way you treat a wolf.

And so an overseer needs to be known for his reasonableness and evenhandedness and measured approach and his gentleness.


Not Quarrelsome

Third, an overseer can’t be quarrelsome. We’ve all known people who are like this, just itching for a fight, waiting for someone to argue with. Maybe, like me, you’ve been one of those people yourself in the embarrassing years of your youth.

An overseer needs to know how to defend the truth when needed, but this is very different from someone who is always itching for a fight. Quarrelsome people have no place in the leadership of the church.


Not a Lover of Money

Finally, verse 3 concludes by telling us that the overseer can’t be a lover of money. He can’t be greedy.

Yesterday at the Men’s Breakfast we explored this theme—how from Jethro and Moses (Exodus 18:21) to Samuel (1 Samuel 12:1-5) to Timothy, the Bible consistently tells us that a love for money is incompatible with godly leadership. And we’re going to hear a lot more about this in chapter 6, so I won’t say much more at this point.


His Household

So there we have six or seven positive traits of who an overseer must be, and four negative traits, of who he must not be.

And in verses 4-7, we discover three final requirements. But instead of just being a quick words or phrase, these three are spelled out in more detail. There’s reasons given for them. These three invite us to chew on them a bit more.

The first of these final three comes in verse 4, where we read, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5).

Let’s notice a few things here. These verses tell us that fathers have a responsibility to ensure that their children submit to them. This points us away from the idea of a passive pushover of a dad who lets his kids say and do whatever they want.

But he is to keep them submissive “with all dignity.” And this points us away from the idea of a dictator dad who cracks the whip and bullies his kids into a terrified fulfillment all of his personal whims. Because there’s nothing dignified about that.

Instead, this describes a loving father who leads his family like a shepherd. He knows that his children must obey him, and he makes sure that this happens, but his goal is to win their hearts with care and tenderness so that they obey him gladly and willingly.

And if someone can’t manage their household this way, verse 5 asks, how can they care for God’s church? So like we saw last week, this verse is describing a parallel between the father’s role in the family and the overseer’s role in the church. Fathers manage their households, and overseers care for the church, and if they can’t do one, then there’s no way they’ll be able to do the other.

Now we should say, having children is not a requirement for being an overseer, because once again Paul himself didn’t have kids. But I think it is fair to say that if a potential elder or pastor does not have children, there should be some other example of life experience where their ability to lead others and handle authority in a responsible way could be tested and evaluated.


Not a recent Convert

Verse 6 gives us the second in this last group of three qualifications. “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).

Like we saw last week, this requirement points to the spiritual maturity that is assumed by the title of “elder.” He can’t be a new Christian.

This isn’t because being a new Christian is bad. I love new Christians. They are the funnest people in the world to spend time with, and we have a lot to learn from them. But it’s dangerous to push them into leadership positions too soon. Because, like this verse says, they may become puffed up with conceit.

Mature Christians, who have followed the Lord for a longer period of time, are less likely to be puffed up with conceit because they’ve hopefully learned humility. They know what it feels like to fall flat on their face. They have a better sense of their weaknesses and a deeper awareness of how much they need the Lord.

Godly leaders are humble leaders, and humility comes with time. It goes hand-in-hand with maturity—or at least it should.


Good Reputation

Finally, verse 7 says that “he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7).

When we were moving to Nipawin and going through the process of buying our house, we discovered that the leaders of this church had a really good reputation in the community. They were well thought of by those who were outside of this church. And that reinforced for us that we were headed to a good place.

I hope you know that we all have a reputation. And we can’t manipulate our reputation. We can’t tell people what to think of us. We can only live, and our reputation builds itself, one day at a time, as time and truth march hand in hand.

And a good reputation among those who are outside the church is a requirement for those who would lead inside the church. Otherwise, verse 7 says, you could fall into disgrace—you could have everybody talking about you for all of the wrong reasons. And instead of reaching out to the world and making Jesus look great, the opposite would happen.

And Satan would just love that, wouldn’t he? He’d love to use that as a trap, a snare, like verse 7 says. So overseers, pastors, elders, need to be men of solid reputation, which is really just another way of describing that they need to be above reproach. Which brings us back full circle.


Conclusion

So that’s a lot, isn’t it? 14 qualifications for those who would serve in the church. I told someone this week that I had a 14-point sermon to preach this morning. I know that there’s a lot here to think about. And I so want to conclude this morning with a three thoughts that might help us process this big list properly.

1) First, I hope you notice that of these requirements for leadership in the church, only one of them has to do with ability. And that’s the ability to teach at the end of verse 2. Everything else is not about what overseers do but about who they need to be. Their character.

In these verses Paul is obviously not concerned with spelling out every last detail of what elders should do and how they should set up their schedule and conduct their meetings. They can figure that stuff out. And he’s also not concerned that church leaders be ultra-qualified or highly-skilled. As long as they are able to teach, what matter most is who they are. Overseers need to be men of character.

2) Second, overseers need to be men who are open to evaluation. Over the years I’ve met many men who will walk into a church and loudly proclaim their qualifications and why you should trust them and follow them. Men who try to appoint themselves to some ministry or leadership role. And any suggestion that they need to be tested or evaluated is met with harsh residence. “Who are you to question me?

But it doesn’t work that way in the church. Leaders don’t appoint themselves. Leaders are appointed by the church after they’ve been evaluated according to these standards. In other words, Timothy and the church are watching these men to see if they meet these requirements or not. And those men had to be okay with that.

This is just another reminder that our reputation is public property. And the kind of people that God uses as leaders in the church are those who are open and submissive to the evaluation of others.

One of the signs of maturity in our lives is when we are okay with this—and not only okay with this, but actually seek it out. Sometimes people people have come to me and said, “What do you see in me? Where do you think I need to grow?” And I know that they are on the right track.

3) Third and finally, let’s end with this. This list of qualifications, like we’ve seen, is relevant to each one of us, because the leaders who meet these qualifications need to do so precisely because they have to be examples to the rest of the flock.

So none of us get to look at this list and say, “Ya, I’m not really that, but no big deal because I’m never going to be an overseer.” This list is the picture of Christian maturity that each one of us should be striving for.

So how do we get there? How do we become this?

Well, let me give you some homework for this week. Take this list and compare it to the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians chapter 5. Try and match them up and see how much overlap there is. And just a hint: there’s a lot of overlap.

And that’s kind of the point as we close here. We don’t become like this by just trying harder and doing better. We become like this because Jesus Christ died to forgive our sins and has given us His Spirit who is helping us to love Him more and obey His word and kill our sin and trust His promises.

So do you want to look like this? Spend time with God this week. Talk to Him in prayer, listen to Him in His word, and spend time with His people. Come to adult Sunday school and learn how to meet with God in His word. That’s the path to the kind of maturity that we see described here. Let’s pursue that path together this week for the glory of Jesus.

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