Part 3: The Importance of the Local Church
by Pastor Paul M. Sadler
If we were to choose a model of leadership from the Old Testament, the honor would probably go to Nehemiah, who was the cupbearer of the Persian King Artaxerxes. The cupbearer essentially tasted all the food and drink before it was served to the king to ensure it wasn’t laced with poison. It was one of those high-risk positions that came with hazardous pay. The concept was: carry out the cupbearer in a basket dead, but “long live the king.”
Cupbearer was a prestigious position that was only given to those who were highly respected by the king. Since leadership is best defined as influence, a leader must first earn the respect of others. Artaxerxes held Nehemiah in such high esteem that he didn’t hesitate to grant his servant’s request to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall of the city. He even gave him the building materials to complete the project (Neh. 2:5-8).
Another characteristic of effective leadership is action. Leaders are people who get things done while others are pondering all the obstacles. When Nehemiah learned that his countrymen were suffering afflictions at Jerusalem, the walls of the city lay in ruin, and the gates burned, he immediately sought the Lord in prayer. He humbly confessed the sins of his nation, in which he included himself, and reminded the Lord of His promise to Moses that if the nation turned back to God, He would restore them (Neh. 1:5-11). Although the problem seemed to be insurmountable, Nehemiah faced the crisis head-on. This is the mark of a good leader. Rather than run for cover or dwell on the problem, he sought to find a solution to the crisis (Neh. 2:11-18). Usually the Lord’s people are quick to point out trouble, but when the volleys begin to cross the bow of a conflict, they are usually nowhere to be found when the smoke clears. Consequently leaders often find themselves standing alone!
According to the law of physics, anytime something moves it causes friction. This is also true in the things of the Lord; not everyone is going to agree with a leader’s decisions. No sooner had Nehemiah announced his plan to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem when opposition arose to the project in the form of personal attacks and death threats (Neh. 2:19; 4:1,7-11). Discouragement is often the weapon of choice for those who oppose the will of the Lord. Leaders are those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and become personally involved. They lead by example, yet at the same time they know how to delegate authority to others to ease the burden. Essentially, Nehemiah had a hammer in one hand and a sword in the other (Neh. 4:6,17,18,21-23).
LEADERSHIP IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
“This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” (I Tim. 3:1).
Godly leadership in the local church is essential to the spiritual life of the assembly. Those who hold these positions are given the moral and spiritual oversight of the church, which is something that should never be taken lightly. In regard to the appointment of elders, the Lord strikes a balance between the human side and the divine side. Humanly speaking, a man must desire the office of an overseer. On the divine side, Paul states to the Ephesian elders: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Note that God the Holy Spirit “made” or “appointed” the Ephesian elders as overseers to give guidance to the assembly. Here then we have two sides of the same coin—human and divine. Both are necessary in the calling of an elder.
“If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless….Likewise must the deacons be grave….For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree” (I Tim. 3:1,2,8,13).
Before we consider the authority structure which God has ordained for the local church, we must first define our terms and address an unwarranted tradition. The term “bishop” is the Greek word episkopos, which has the idea of overseer. Its corresponding part presbuteros or elder is defined as one who is older and more mature. These two terms are often used interchangeably and refer to the same individual. For example:
“For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders (presbuteros) in every city, as I had appointed thee….For a bishop (episkopos) must be blameless” (Titus 1:5,7).
While some denominations point to Paul’s usage of “the office of a bishop” to establish a hierarchy over their churches, we fail to see any such teaching in his epistles. Denominationalists essentially believe that a bishop presides over other ministers and has a superior rank in the administrative affairs of their assemblies. However, as we have seen, the terms “bishop” and “elder” are synonymous; therefore, the office simply refers to the function of overseeing. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers [bishops], to feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Notice that the Holy Spirit refers to the bishops (plural) as ones who were collectively working together to govern the assembly at Ephesus. The responsibility of those who hold the office, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine, is to feed the church of God (I Tim. 5:17).
The bishop/elder then is an overseer who provides spiritual leadership for the assembly. In addition to faithfully teaching the Word of God he is to manage, maintain order, investigate grievances, and generally watch over the things of the Lord.
The other office to which Paul makes reference in his epistles is deacon. “Likewise must the deacons [Gr. diakonos] be grave…” (I Tim. 3:8). The deacons are those leaders who attend to the physical needs of the local assembly. Thayer describes those who hold this office as “one who executes the commands of another…a servant, or attendant. One who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use.” Under the direction of the elders, the deacons are responsible to attend to the offerings, distributions to the needy, building and grounds, etc. They, too, are to be spiritually minded as they carry out the duties of their office to the glory of God (Acts 6:1-7 cf. I Tim. 3:9,13).
Administratively, the positions of elder/overseer and deacon are the only two offices found in the special revelation given to Paul (Phil. 1:1).
As we noted earlier, the term “elder” implies age. Those chosen to hold this position in the local church should be seasoned and well-grounded in the faith. But what is the age requirement, if any, taught in Paul’s epistles? Although a specific age is never given, there does seem to be a hint in the prophetic Scriptures as to what God deemed to be the age of maturity. Under the law the priests, who were the ministers of God, were not permitted to serve in the tabernacle until they turned thirty years old (Num. 4:3). We also know that our Lord didn’t begin His earthly ministry until He turned thirty, which was apparently classified adulthood in Israel (Luke 3:21-23). I can speak from personal experience that after I passed over this threshold I began to look at things more objectively. It amazed me how insightful my father and grandfather became almost overnight.
In some cases, a younger man may be more mature than a man many years his senior; therefore, the leadership of the local church must exercise due diligence in the selection process.
Interestingly, there is always plurality of leadership in the local assembly. According to the Scriptures, there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” As Paul and Barnabas retraced their footsteps on Paul’s first apostolic journey, Luke records: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23). There are two classifications of the position of elder—the teaching elder and the ruling elder. Paul wrote to Timothy regarding this matter accordingly:
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the Word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17).
The teaching elder is the pastor or primary Bible teacher of the local assembly who opens the Scriptures for all to partake of the riches of God’s grace. The ruling elders on the other hand are those who serve with the pastor to provide spiritual direction for the assembly. While the main responsibility of the ruling elders is to govern they, too, must be prepared to minister the Word, if called upon (I Tim. 3:2). Like the cream that rises to the top, the teaching elder will surface from among the governing elders to serve as the pastor of the assembly. This is why they are counted worthy of receiving double honor. Thus they are the point of the sword and as President Truman once quipped: “The buck stops here!”
The practical application of the above is seen in the ministries of Paul’s companions. Titus was instructed by the apostle to remain at Crete to ordain elders (ruling) and set in order the things that were wanting (Titus 1:4,5). But it was Titus that served as their teaching elder who was challenged by Paul to “rebuke them [Cretians] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). He was the one who was to “put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Titus 3:1). Another example is Timothy, who headed up the work at Ephesus. We know there were ruling elders ministering on behalf of the saints there, but Paul admonishes Timothy who served as their pastor in this manner: “I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thoumightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (I Tim. 1:3 cf. Acts 20:28). We also know the above to be true today experientially in our churches.
The question is often raised as to whether the spiritual leadership of the assembly or the congregation should appoint an elder to the office. A fairly strong case could be made for either position, but the Scriptures seem to emphasize the spiritual leadership making the selection. They, of course, are the most qualified to make the decision on behalf of the assembly. Note the emphasis placed upon the leadership appointing elders for the churches:
“And when they [Paul and Barnabas] had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23).
“For this cause left I thee [Titus] in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5).
Regarding the appointment of elders, during the years I conducted my ministry in the local church I recommended that the board of elders nominate two candidates, both of whom were qualified to fill the position. At our annual meeting we would have the congregation cast their vote for one of the two nominees. This procedure allowed everyone to be involved in the process. It also gave me the consolation that the Holy Spirit could speak through the congregation to appoint the man of His own choosing (II Cor. 8:16-24). But what if no one is qualified to hold the office according to the guidelines outlined in I Timothy 3? Our counsel would be to leave the position vacant until there is a suitable candidate.
A plurality of leadership is the key to a ministry that honors and glorifies God. We’ve always been leery of a leader who refuses to have others serving with him. Paul himself was accountable to the leaders at Antioch who had sent him out on his apostolic journeys. A group of elders provide a check and balance in the ministry, thus insuring that the best interest of the Lord’s people is always in view.
QUALIFICATIONS OF AN ELDER
Paul writes to Timothy, “This is a true saying,” that is, it is trustworthy, reliable, credible, “if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” But how does a young man determine whether his desire to be a pastor is of the flesh or truly a longing to be used of the Lord? We believe there are two prerequisites that must be met to make this determination.
First, does his Christian experience align itself closely with the qualifications to fill this office? (I Tim. 3:1-7). Second, is he willing to enter into a rigorous training program to prepare for full-time ministry? (II Tim. 2:2). This may take the form of a “Paul, Timothy” type of training program where a senior Grace Pastor takes a pastoral candidate under his wing to prepare him for the Lord’s service. Of course, the other option is to attend a Bible School specifically established for training workers for the ministry. Whichever path is chosen the key word is discipline. If a man is unwilling to endure the discipline of three or four years of training, it is highly unlikely he will remain in the ministry very long.
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2).
The long list of qualifications set forth here by the Spirit is the measuring stick for those who have a desire to be an elder. God has set the standard so high that there are few, if any, who have attained to such a lofty goal. This is the ideal; therefore, we are to choose those who are earnestly striving to fulfill the standard. A good rule of thumb is to look for men who measure up to the standard, not to shape the standard to fit the man!
Although the portion before us is primarily addressed to the leadership of the local church, Paul’s words are far-reaching. This is a very practical section that is beneficial for every believer in Christ. If this is the divine standard for the spiritual leadership of the church, should we not all strive to meet this goal? How do you measure up?
Blameless: The conduct of the one considered for this office must be above reproach, lest the name of Christ be brought into disrepute. Not sinless, but unimpeachable! Expositors says: “It is not enough for him to not be a criminal; he must be one against whom it is impossible to bring any charge of wrongdoing such as could stand an impartial examination.” We believe this statement is true of both those within and without the household of faith. It is our firm conviction that an elder must abstain from even the appearance of evil.
The husband of one wife: Those who hold this position must be standing on the moral high ground. An elder must not be a womanizer! He is to be the husband of one wife and she is to be the apple of his eye. Paul’s statement here has raised the question: should only a married man hold this office? While it is preferable, we do not believe it is a prerequisite. As far as we know, Paul was unmarried during the entirety of his apostolic ministry (I Cor. 7:7,8). It also appears that both Timothy and Titus were single, yet both were greatly used of the Lord.
Having said this, we believe a wife adds a woman’s point of view to the ministry which can be very beneficial to her husband. Most men function best when they are dealing with one issue at a time. Some would say we are focused, which basically means we’re oblivious to other things going on around us! On more than one occasion my wife has made an observation during a time of crisis that sailed right by me. Her insights over the years have been invaluable. A pastor’s wife brings a whole new dimension to the ministry, a dimension that greatly enhances the Lord’s work.
Men can be rough around the edges at times, but a wife is God’s perfect tool to chip away at our imperfections, not to mention to keep us humble! Dr. & Mrs. Ironside were having a spirited discussion after holding a number of meetings one Sunday when Dr. Ironside reminded his wife he had spoken five times that day. “I’m tired!” Mrs. Ironside replied, “Yes, dear! But please don’t forget that I was the one who had to listen to you five times today!” I wonder if Dr. Ironside enjoyed his slice of humble pie?!