God’s good order for leadership in the church: Part 1

1 Timothy 3:1-7

God’s good order for leadership in the church: Part 1


All week I have feared that this sermon feels more like a classroom lecture than “preaching”. However, what I have reminded myself of this week, and hopefully this has been the work of the Spirit as opposed to a self-convincing job, is that preaching is not just passionate talking with some points of action but it is also teaching. I’m a teacher. I teach. There are times in the bible when we need to do some survey work. This week is one of them. If a teacher leaves information on the table that will help a student to succeed, that teacher fails. How much more so when the one I’m worshiping now in word will judge me more strictly due to what I say and even what I don’t say.


All that to say: I’m not apologizing for the “feel” of this sermon. This sermon will be exhaustive. I don’t want to fail to teach when it comes to the leadership of Christ’s bride, the church.


I grew up in Baptist churches with congregational/democratic governance structures and never really thought about it until I got to seminary, and even there it wasn’t because it was taught, but because I started reading my Bible and asking critical questions I hadn’t asked before.  I think sometimes in our Baptist tribe we have a blind spot of being Americans first and superimposing American and democratic ideas onto the church rather than first asking what does the text say and how do we model that.[1]

I have read more on church leadership and the biblical roles of pastor/elder/overseer in the past 2 years than I ever dreamed I would read. I have read at least 5 books and countless journals and blog posts from theologians I trust and agree with and even some I don’t agree with just to check our thinking.


Disclaimer: The words of this sermon are all ripped off to some degree, I’m certain, because I’m simply summarizing the content of the bible passages that mention the roles of pastor/elder/overseer. I’ve done exhaustive Scripture searches on the words overseer, elder, pastor etc., so there are multitudes Scripture references in this sermon, and to be truthful, most people’s articles and books revolve around these same texts, therefore, what I have here and what you can read outside of here are just different organizations and summaries of the same biblical material coming to the same conclusions if they are honest in their assessments. There is nothing new and nothing unique here, but I’ve tried to footnote what is directly borrowed from others as best I can.

(Gospel Centered Leadership, Steve Timmis; Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch; The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch; Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders; Eldership, John MacArthur; Biblical Eldership, John Piper)


When TRCC was but in the conceptual stages we knew, due to having been exposed to church government gone wrong for most, if not all, of our Christian experience and having read some on the subject, that we wanted to pursue a system of government that resembled what we read in Scriptures. We did that as best we could. As the Father led part of our team away we had the need to add help for the sake of sheer need and for the sake of stewarding the work.


I wish I could tell you there was a well thought out plan to raise up more men, but the truth[2] is that Father had already been at work preparing men due to the discipleship that was taking place in the preaching of the word and relationships formed so that when the time was right men would rise to the invitation of 1 Timothy 3:1. As we prayed, fasted, asked men we were led to, and then observed Holy Spirit work, we saw him (Holy Spirit) cause all of this to happen.


I’d like to walk you through the background to this wonderfully noble and yet difficult role of shepherding before we exegete the actual verses of 1 Timothy 3:1-7.


Paul begins 1 Timothy 3 by introducing some language that was not uncommon to the hearers of Ephesus but is quite uncommon for us apart from, perhaps, our denominational upbringing. Paul uses the title “overseer”, and in Titus 1:5 & 7 Paul equates the titles of “elder” and “overseer” helping the reader of the New Testament see that these titles are synonymous.


So, we want to preface our exposition of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with a survey of these titles, and we’ll discover next week what the character and skill qualifications are for this noble and challenging task.


We will use the title “elder” in this sermon because it’s the most common word used.


1. Lets start with the title “Elder” in the Old Testament[3]

From the very beginning leadership of a people has been accomplished through some sort of elder system in which the older, wiser and experienced men led and trained other men to lead. According to Genesis 50:7 there were “elders of Egypt” and according to Numbers 22:7 there were elders of Moab and Midian. So there is nothing unique or unusual about having elders in positions of authority.


The church in the New Testament was made mostly of Jews. King Jesus was an ethnic Jew. Therefore it is understandable that the church, as it grew out of Judaism, would pattern its life and structure on the life and structure of God’s people in the Old Testament.


The “elders of Israel” are referred to in the Old Testament from the beginnings of the nation in Egypt (see Exodus 12:21) down to the period of the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian exile (see Ezra 6:7).


In Ezekiel 7:26 they are grouped together with prophets and priests, each group having its own special function, “They seek a vision from the prophet, while the law perishes from the priest and counsel from the elders.”


In Leviticus 4:15 the elders serve the ministry of worship. In Numbers 11:16 they are described as “officers over the people”.


While its clear that the role changed over time we do know elders were the older men of the community who, because of their wisdom in counsel and the honor that would be given to them (Leviticus 19:32), became the official leaders of the people of God.


In Jesus’ day the elders of Israel were still leading. The most frequent use of the word “elder” in the New Testament refers to the Jewish elders who opposed Jesus during his ministry. May that never be the pastors/elders/overseers of TRCC!


Within the gospels and Acts “elders” are most often viewed as forming an alliance with the “chief priests.” We read about “the chief priests and elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23; 26:3, 47; 27:1, etc.). More than likely the term “elder” included groups like these.


This familiar role in Jewish society was no doubt where the early church got the title “elder.”


Whatever this role of “elder” was, the Christian function of “elder” carried over into the church can only be determined by studying the New Testament texts.


“It would be wrong to assume that the Jewish concept was taken over with no modifications, because the church is not simply a carbon copy of Judaism or of Old Testament Israel.”[4]


2. Elders in the Church at Jerusalem (dealing with Luke’s writing)


The elders of the early church appear in three places in the Book of Acts.


1. Acts 11:30. The disciples of Antioch had decided to send an offering to help the famine ravaged church in Jerusalem “and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” No mention is made of deacons or apostles here. The elders are apparently the men responsible for the general welfare of the church. We know nothing about how they became elders, and we can only deduce that the reason they were elders is because of the order already set carrying over from Judaism into practice in the church at Jerusalem made of mostly Jews.


2. Acts 15 (Jerusalem Council). Elders are mentioned five times—verses 2, 4, 6, 22 and 23. Some Jewish Christians had gone to Antioch preaching that you had to be circumcised in order to be saved (15:1). Acts 15:2 says, “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”


When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem “they were welcomed by the church, and the apostles and the elders” (15:4). After they were welcomed the apostles and elders went to work on the theological challenge of adding circumcision to salvation by faith in Christ alone.


In the debate that follows, Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James speak in favor of not requiring circumcision. This theological discussion is limited to the apostles and the body of elders.


Verse 28 adds that it also seemed good to the Holy Spirit that circumcision shouldn’t be required. When the letter was delivered in Acts 16:4, Luke comments that the decision about circumcision had been reached by the apostles and elders. This confirms 15:6 that says, “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter.”


3. Acts 21:18. The third situation in Acts where the elders appear is Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem. Paul goes to James (Jesus’ brother) and with all the elders present he tells all that the Lord had been doing in his ministry to the gentiles. The elders encourage Paul not to give offense to the Jewish Christians, so Paul accepts their advice and follows the instructions of the law.


Here the function of the elders is to receive the distinguished apostle and hear his report. They take pains to see that there is a good rapport between Paul and the whole church. This is what we seek to do when we have our team in from the field and hope to accomplish when we host PAN this year.


We know nothing about how the elders of Jerusalem were chosen unless we equate the seven of Acts 6:3 with the elders. I believe that is clearly not the case and should not be done. We may conclude they emerged naturally in the community because they were taken for granted in Jewish society.[5]


Learning Point:

These elders were apparently responsible for the welfare of the church (11:30); and with the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (15:28) they made decisions about doctrine and the moral/ethical lives of people in the church (15:6; 16:4).


3. Elders in the Churches of Paul


Paul only used the title “elder” three times (1 Timothy 5:17, 19 and Titus 1:5). Its lack of use should NOT be thought of as a lack of importance. Rather, it indicates a level of understanding Paul knew his audiences possessed.


Even though Paul does not use the title regularly, other writers of the New Testament used the title in relation to churches Paul was instrumental in. This fact implies that Paul had established this order and these inspired writers of Scripture are recording what was done. Although Paul does not use the title much he was obviously establishing the order of elder/overseer/pastor.


Let’s look at elders in Acts in the churches of Paul.


There are two references in Acts to elders in the churches of Paul. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.


1. Acts 14:21

Here Paul starts back toward Antioch of Syria, retracing the steps of the first missionary journey to the churches of south Galatia. While visiting the churches Paul had recently founded he was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (14:22). Then Luke tells us in 14:23 about Paul and Barnabas’ work, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”


We don’t know if Paul called the leaders “elders”. These are Luke’s words. “Elder” is Luke’s word for a church leader appointed by Paul in the churches planted by Paul. But whether Paul called them elders or not, Luke saw them filling the same function as what he knew as elders, therefore, calling them “elders”.


Learning Point:

In these churches they appointed several elders; we don’t know how many. Just note that the title is plural.


Learning Point:

The elder’s installation was by appointment, not election, a feature we will find true to elders/overseers/pastors throughout the entire New Testament.


Learning Point:

By appointing elders for the church and through prayer and fasting committing them to the Lord, Paul is committing the people to the Lord through the elders he has appointed. This is significant for the elder and the people. The Lord rules through his appointed elders and the people submit to the Lord through Spirit led leadership. This kind of stuff makes independent Americans who want democracy over actual leadership very nervous.


Finally regarding Acts 14:21; a missionary observation is in order. These “elders” must have been relatively new Christians, since the churches had just been founded. This shows that the principle given in 1 Timothy 3:6 (no new convert as overseer) is not an absolute in the missionary context. This is why we trust the Spirit with his Church. When a church is well established it makes sense to have no new converts because there ought to be some mature believers to lead, but when the church is brand new among a people group and the organizing of the church is necessary, elders still need to be appointed.


Nothing at all is said here about the function of the elders. Luke apparently assumed that in his day the office was so common that it needed no explanation.


2. Acts 20:17

Paul is now on his way to Jerusalem at the end of the third missionary journey. He stops off at Miletus, just south of Ephesus, and calls the elders of Ephesus to come and meet with him.


In verse 28, Paul 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.”


Paul does not call these men elders, but rather “overseers” (v. 28). The Greek word is (episkopous) which means literally “overseer” and is sometimes translated “bishop.” So, the elder/overseer is entrusted the task of spiritual oversight. This task has immediate relevance because the next verse warns of wolves that will come, not sparing the flock.


Learning Point:

It is clear that for Paul the term “overseer” is synonymous with “shepherd,” since the congregation is pictured as a flock (thereby equating the word “pastor” with overseer and elder). Paul also does this in Ephesians 4:11 when he does not use the title “elder” but “pastor/teacher” for that oversight role.


Here the responsibility of the elder/overseer/pastor is to “feed the church,” no doubt in the sense in which Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” (John 21:17). In context, the food is “the word of his grace, which is able to build you up” (20:32), or “the whole counsel of God” (20:27). In other words, preaching the Scripture and leading from the Scripture is how the elder/pastor/overseer leads.


Learning Point:

The elders/overseers are ministers of the word and responsible for feeding the people with the preaching and ADMINISTERING of the Scriptures.


Learning Point:

The Holy Spirit appoints the elders/pastors/overseers and this appointment becomes clear through prayer, fasting, worship and adherence to the Scriptures (see Acts 13:1-3).


Learning Point:

In this same text, Acts 20:25; there were a larger number of elders/pastors/overseers. It’s these kinds of numbers that allowed for the expansion of the church. As the Spirit appoints men, the purpose is not stock piling, rather continuing the advance of the church of Jesus Christ in sending out new churches.


This fills out the picture somewhat when we add to it the fact that Paul appointed elders in all the churches. Paul’s appointment of elders/pastors/overseers no doubt occurred after the manner of his own appointment by the prophets and teachers in Acts 13:1-3. Through prayer and fasting the Holy Spirit makes plain who should be appointed, and then the leaders lay hands on them and appoint or install them. Paul’s appointments were not capricious or merely a reflection of his own desires.”[6]


The same can be said of the men at TRCC.




4. How About Elders in Paul’s actual writings?


“In Paul’s writings the title “elder,” for a church leader, occurs only three times. These three occurrences are 1 Timothy 5:17, 19 and Titus 1:5. Keep in mind the nature of the Pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus): they are the last letters Paul wrote and reflect a situation many years after the first missionary journey. Unlike all his other letters they are addressed to individual men and spell out some of their duties.”[7]


Let’s look at these passages.


1. Titus 1:5-9

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 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.”


One of the first things we notice is that Paul here uses the terms elder and overseer to reference to the same people. We have seen this already. The function of the elders is summed up as oversight just as it was in Acts 20:17, 28.


Also, as in Acts, the emphasis falls on the ministry of the word: the elder/overseer should be well grounded in doctrine (verse 9) and able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (verse 9). Beyond this nothing is said about the task of the elders.


Learning Point:

The pastor/elder/overseer must be well grounded in Christian doctrine and be able to give instruction in that doctrine and even be able to correct those who go contrary to that doctrine. This is a lifetime pursuit.  We must be continually growing in our understanding of Scripture and the implications of what is there as well as the attacks against God’s good order and be able to recognize those attacks and repel them.


Verses 6-8 give the requirements one should meet in order to be an elder/overseer/pastor. In his public life he should be above reproach (blame); his marriage and family should be exemplary. His own personal character should be one of spiritual maturity.


Note again that the elders are appointed.


2. 1 Timothy 5:17 and 19 (we’ll take them together). In 5:3-16, Paul describes the procedures to follow in caring for widows in the church. “Real widows,” that is, godly, older women who have no relatives to care for them, are to be supported by the church (5:3, 9, 16). That is how the widows are honored. Then in verses 17 and 18 Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ (Deuteronomy 25:4) and, “The laborer deserves his wages.’ (Luke 10:7)”. This is a carry over from the Levitical ministry. Levites received no inheritance from the land and were to be supported by the tithes so they could live and function in serving the people as Father’s representatives.


A little side note here, Paul is quoting Luke 10:7 indicating that Luke was already in circulation here in the early 60’s AD meaning the Gospels were written earlier than the late part of the century placing the writings closer to the actual historical events therefore making them more accurate. This refutes the claim that the New Testament was a late first century or early second century document that was edited to validate the claims of the Apostles. Luke’s writing was in circulation before AD 70. History always destroys liberal theology. The text destroys liberal theology!


Learning Point:

The appointment to elder/overseer/pastor was an installation to a sacred calling that was performed by the laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:22; cf. Acts 13:3).


The end of appointing of elders in 1 Timothy 5:17 and 19 is the obvious ceremony of installation in the laying on of hands to demonstrate one’s calling to and their reception of the task.


Learning Point:

The pastor/elder/overseer should not labor without receiving some reward from their labor.


4. What About Elders in the Non-Pauline Churches?


There are a number of uses of the title “elder” outside of Paul’s writings. In the Book of Revelation the term occurs twelve times with reference to the twenty-four elders in heaven. There is not much written on the identity of who these dudes are except they are some sort of angelic host. Does that make pastors angel beasts? I don’t think so. That would be kind of cool though.


2 and 3 John begin with the designation, “The elder to…” It is believed the author is John and he is so well-known that he is known simply by his title, “The elder.”


Let’s quickly take a look at these passages.


1. James 5:13-15:

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”


Learning Point:

Elders have a practical ministry of prayer for those who are sick to see if the gift of faith may be given that one may be healed through the prayer and even that sins be uncovered and repented of.


2. 1 Peter 5:1-4:

“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: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”


Peter calls himself an elder although he is also an apostle. This does not mean there is no distinction between elders and apostles. For this unique period of time the apostolic office overlapped with that of elder. Peter refers to this elder status to illustrate the very point he is making, namely, he does not want to “lord it over the elders” but by example and exhortation to help them fulfill their calling.


The main point of these verses is to instruct the elders how to exercise their authority. What does Peter say about how elders are to exercise their oversight?


Learning Point:

1 Peter 5:2a “not under compulsion”: The pastors/elders/overseers are to make sure they are not being forced to act but rather are acting in desire.


Learning Point:

1 Peter 5:2c “not for shameful gain”: The pastors/elders/overseers are not doing what they do because they are getting rich. Rather they are doing this work eagerly. The eager nature of the pastor/elder/overseer is because they are joining with Christ in doing his shepherding work of guiding through teaching/leading/and managing his people not because they are gaining socioeconomic advantage.


Learning Point:

1 Peter 5:3a “not domineering over those in your charge”: The pastors/elders/overseers are to set an example in hopes that the Chief Shepherd would move his people to follow the example of the under shepherds.


Learning Point:

The promise to these pastors/elders/overseers is that they will receive glory (crown of glory) from the Chief Shepherd when he returns. Not exactly sure what that glory is other than in the Kingdom they will be given charge of is “much” if they have been faithful with little and the weighty nature of being in charge of “much” will be the reward of faithfully discharging their duty while waiting for the Chief Shepherd to return.


Learning Point:

Jesus is the pattern for the elders/overseers/pastors. This is seen clearly not only from the allusion to his earthly teaching in 5:3, but also from 1 Peter 2:25. In these passages Peter says, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Christ is the “chief shepherd” as 5:4 says, but he is also the “chief overseer” (2:25) and he is the “the chief elder”.


This is the highest statement that can be made of the role of elder in the church. It is a summons from Christ (by his Spirit) to do his work under him in his likeness and for his sake.


1. How good of God to give us such good order


2. How good of God to give us his leading of us as the example of how we are to lead his people


3. How good of God to give us a record of his instructions so we would know what to do


4. How good of God to have rewarded the faithful administration of his word with an abundance of pastors/elders/overseers


5. Conclusion: How do we respond?


1. Obedience by seeking a biblical model rather than a pragmatic model derived from the corporate world or one derived from one’s experience of suffering at the hands of others (Baptist model).


2. Observe what the Spirit has done and learn to receive his “how” regarding the biblical model.

1. We can’t manipulate his processes of putting desires in right hearts

2. We can do things his way and trust his ways and timing


3. As men, we will be prepared for a rising of Spirit given desire to do this most noble and difficult task in the advance of the Kingdom in planting churches as the Lord would lead (see Acts 13).


In the church at Antioch they had an abundance of teachers, so the Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul and sent them to plant. When the Lord has given us an abundance of teachers it will be time to plant. Men, be prepared for this.


This was the Lord’s promise to us in December of 2001: Ezekiel 36:37-38 “Thus says the Lord God: This also I will let the house of Israel as me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. Like the flocks for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. They will know that I am the Lord.”


This is part of the stated DNA function of this church. We talk about it in membership class. We are only going to do this, however, as the Spirit leads by raising up men. He has been doing that, and we will obey him.


4. We will worship the Lord for his glorious activity among us to raise up leaders and to fulfill his word to us.

[1] Emmett Long, Sermon: Elders and Elder Structure, October 2013.

[2] This was a statement made to me by Brad Poston while thinking on the men who will lead our fellowship

[3] The outline/order of this sermon is taken from Piper’s article in 1976 from a work done while teaching at Bethel University and Seminary.

[4] Piper

[5] Elders, MacArthur

[6] John MacArthur, Elders

[7] Piper, Elders

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