Why character surpasses professionalism (1 Timothy 3)

(Note – This is a post that was supposed to have been put up on 5/18, but did not get sent. We are putting it out there to have in our collection of devotionals and themes in our library of such.)

What makes a great leader?  It’s probably tempting to think of a leader in terms of their accomplishments or their skill set.  It’s about metrics; it’s about performance.  But it’s not the case for everyone.

Some years ago Jim Collins published a famous book on leadership called Good to Great.  He found that the CEO’s and great leaders of the business world were rarely great visionary leaders. Usually they were quiet, humble men who found something they were good at—and kept on doing it.

In a way, it’s not terribly different for Christian leadership.  Paul, writing to the young pastor Timothy, clarifies that leadership isn’t driven by performance, but by character.  He does this by listing the qualifications for elders as well as deacons.

THE QUALIFICATIONS FOR ELDERS

First, Paul addresses the “office of overseer,” which we might broadly see as referring to the shepherds of the Church—the “elder-level” positions we looked at earlier including elders, pastors, and bishops.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

When we look through this list, we don’t find a lengthy set of job skills.  What we find is an ethical portrait of a leader.  God’s leaders are not meant to be “professional;” they are meant to be Godly.  So this list has more to do with a leader’s heart than what a leader achieves.  The only actual skill listed, in fact, is the ability to teach (v. 2), but even that might look different in, say, children’s ministry versus high school youth group versus a Sunday sermon.

THE QUALIFICATIONS FOR DEACONS

Paul lists a similar set of moral characteristics for those serving in the church more broadly—that is, the deacons:

8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Now, at Tri-State Fellowship we don’t have men and women who bear the title of “deacon.”  But we have many people who serve in lay leadership as high school youth leaders, children’s ministry volunteers, serving in our hospitality team, musicians for our Sunday service, not to mention the wide variety of volunteers for outreach projects, etc.  We might see different levels of expectations for such diverse positions, but it’s our greater hope that we see all leaders of the church reflect the character of the Son.

WHY CHARACTER STILL COUNTS

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.  Every year we ask the members of Tri-State Fellowship to “affirm” our elders.  This is not a performance review.  What we do is we hand out a ballot with a list of our elders on it.  Members may either vote “yes” or “no” as to whether they affirm our elder board.  Why might you vote “no?”  Well, again, it’s tempting to evaluate Christian leaders based on their accomplishments.  But as we’ve just seen, God is more interested in Godliness than professionalism. If you knew that one of our elders was involved in something shady—an affair, an addiction, any sort of unrepentant sin—then this would be a reason to vote “no.”  In other cases, we might vote “no” if we see elders whose households and families are in disarray—and we recognize their greater responsibility toward their own household.

One of the hardest things about this is understanding how we can evaluate people as being “blameless” as Paul says in verse 10.  Who among us is blameless?  The answer, of course, is no one.  The gospel isn’t about being perfect, but it’s about allowing ourselves to be shaped as we continue our journey of faith.  Being “blameless” isn’t about perfection—though it is about maturity.

This is a helpful remedy for those who have been the recipients (or even victims) of unhealthy, ungodly leadership.  Moral character is necessary not because we’re raising an organization of professionals, but because the church, the body of Christ, is a living breathing organism.  The health of the body depends on the health of all its members.  Where sin exists, dis-order flourishes.

All of this means that one of the greatest ways to honor and serve church leaders—not just pastors, but everyone who serves the church—is through prayer.  And I don’t mean praying for shorter sermons, but praying that our leaders would lean into the grace of God rather than their own understanding, that they measure themselves not by the opinion of those they serve (which can be damaging), but according to the grace of God alone.

 

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The Downward Trend Line – 2 Timothy 3:1-17

It was during the hippie, free-love, war protesting era of American history that I was a boy growing up in church. Weekly, the pastor would speak of the vile elements of the culture of that day, preaching about how surely the times were so evil that certainly the return of the Lord had to come at any moment. I recall thinking that I would never get to graduate from high school or be an adult, because the world was simply not going to last that long. It seemed to me to be more of a negative message than it was a positive one of the hope to be found in Christ.

Now, about 45 years later, I’m the older pastor in a church; and I’m feeling much the same way as did Pastor Robison back in the 1960s. I’m not one to say much about the sure and certainly soon return of Christ (though I believe it could happen at any moment), but my view of the surrounding world is just about as negative. So, is it just that as we age we tend to see the world more negatively? Do we just become more depressed as we accumulate the observations and experiences of life’s sorrows? Or is the world actually worse and indeed more evil and vile?

I believe the final of these questions does get answered with a definite “yes” and that this proposition is supported by the text of our reading today. Paul says to Timothy …

3:1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

Most of these descriptors could rightly be used to characterize our modern world and the systems of belief in this age. Endemic to it all and serving as a common denominator is a self-centered focus. And there are loud voices in our culture who champion this indulgence as appropriate, as even the educated choice … so Paul continues …

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.

Clearly this errant focus has no future … it never has, and never will. But Paul offers an alternative to the recurrent, self-centered, errant teachings that have most often predominated the surrounding culture in the last times (all of the years since this was written in the first century). The appropriate viewpoint is to know the truth from Scripture, along with the model and testimony of lives who have lived it before us, and to pass that down for the success of others who follow …

10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Paul references his own sufferings in living for Christ – the persecutions he faced in various places such as he lists here, and about which we studied just this summer in our journey through the book of Acts. True to Paul’s teaching in multiple locations, persecutions and opposition are par for the course for the Christian in this fallen and troubled world. It is not going to get better.

But the good news is that there is a remedy. Paul reminds Timothy to draw upon it by remembering the truth of the teachings of Scripture he had received – in Timothy’s particular case, from his earliest years. This teaching would be sufficient to provide a perspective on the world, equipping him and the others whom he instructed with the wisdom and skills to navigate the crazy culture. The Scriptures provide parameters and the guardrails to live successfully in every sort of situation.

But the remedy must be taught to all people, and most especially to the youth and children. Even as the world has a natural descent and drift toward evil, so the church and Christian community needs an ascending line of biblical instruction and practical understanding. We have to not just receive it, but we have to pass it on. This is the stuff of cross-generational ministry, and it is our duty to not just learn it and apply it for ourselves, but to help others who are just beginning to walk in the Christian faith – equipping them for every good work by being models of that good work in the way we live and serve.