If there was a DNA study done on Tri-State Fellowship, the researcher doing the analysis would write in the first sentence about discovering a central concept of shared leadership. It was there from Day One! And this heart of leadership is what attracted me to the church in the first place back in 1994, believing it represented the teaching of Scripture upon the matter, with today’s passage in 1 Timothy 3 being one of the central texts.
You really don’t read much about the idea of a big-time pastor dude leading in the New Testament church. Though Timothy was supplying certain oversight, administration, teaching and shepherding, it was more as a representative of the Apostle Paul in these early years of establishing the local church without any historic model. Everywhere in the earliest churches, we get a flavor of corporate leadership teams.
We have all been in varied group situations where we have seen some individual with a driven desire to lead and take charge, often out of motives rather self-serving and questionable in the eyes of all. But an aspiration to lead is not necessarily bad if driven by the proper motivation. And that is what Paul says in this text in verse 1 …
3:1 – Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.
Paul says “you can take it to the bank” that a godly aspiration to serve in leadership is noble. The Greek verb here for “aspiring” has the literal meaning of stretching out, while the “desire” verb speaks of the passionate part. So it is sort of like saying, “You can take it to the bank that those who are stretching themselves to have a passionate desire to lead are striving to attain unto a noble task.”
We might think that this aspiration is only for a rare handful of people who become elders and pastors. And indeed, the actual number serving in this capacity is a fraction of the total body in any congregation. But the constituent elements are core values and skills that all Christians should seek to develop in serving others, whether it is ever recognized or fulfilled in the sort of service we call “the official board.” Here are the elements of such, written in verses 2-7…
2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 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. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
Who does not want to have and aspire to have more of these qualities … holiness as a lifestyle, a good reputation with others, a dignified and controlled personality, a strong family that loves God, the ability to know and communicate the Scriptures, and a moderate lifestyle not driven by materialism? Accomplish that, and you’re living well for the Lord. Everyone should want to stretch themselves to desire and strive for such attainments. And these characteristics should abound in those who serve as the primary spiritual leaders in a church community. The overseers, shepherds, bishops, elders – there are multiple words for the same function – have great responsibilities in a successful local church, being the primary nuts and bolts that hold it together.
The text goes on to speak of an additional, recognized set of leaders called deacons – a word that means servants, even while speaking of leadership …
8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
In any church there is no end to the need for people to serve in a whole variety of ways, often particularly around meeting essential human needs. It seems to me that this passage speaks of a recognized group of men, the qualifications not being terribly different than that for the overseers listed above.
And, I believe this passage (verse 11) speaks of the wives of these deacons. Let me say that many biblical scholars do not agree on this point (some thinking this involves another group called deaconesses), whereas agreement with my view is neither rare. So why would the wives of the second group be mentioned, but not those in the former? I would say it is because the ministry of deacons and their wives is necessarily needful of women (working with women’s needs, providing hospitality, etc.) in a way the spiritual leadership is not so immediately demanding of the same.
So, at TSF, you might be thinking, “I’ve heard a lot about the board of elders/pastors, but not about the deacons. Who are the deacons?” That’s a good question. The founders of the church interpreted the term deacons/servants to be occupied in our context by all of the varied people who serve faithfully in many tiers of leadership and ministry. “But Randy, that’s not what you presented above.” And you’re correct.
My role in coming to this church was not to upset and rearrange it according to my interpretations. I do think that our documents are subject to a criticism of seeing the first group very literally and the second group very generally. There are other churches, including some in the EFCA, who take both groups generally – saying that we are to take away from the early portion a basic principle of responsible and godly leadership. Hence they have leadership councils that include both men and women.
And just as I did not come to Hagerstown to upset the order of things, neither should this writing do that! (Μὴ γένοιτο! … you’ll have to research that one!) I am joyfully and cheerfully here to serve in the order of things established. We have been blessed over the years with good and godly boards of elders and staff, and we have had scores of people who were faithful servants (deaconing) throughout the church on all levels of servant leadership. It works, and we want all of you to be a part of it.
So, have high aspirations of personal discipleship and qualification to serve in high levels of leadership in the church community. That’s a good thing!