Elders: Taking Care of God’s Church
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Elders: Taking Care of God’s Church

1 Timothy 3:1–7  (ID: 1963)

A church will not progress beyond the spiritual maturity of its leaders. The appointment of qualified elders is therefore of vital importance. Alistair Begg reminds us that when it comes to leadership, the Bible places greater emphasis on character than on giftedness. Christian leaders must pursue godly character because when a Christian leader falls into sin, many others are hurt.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Timothy, Volume 1

God’s Household of Faith 1 Timothy 1:1–4:16 Series ID: 15401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Now I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to 1 Timothy and chapter 3. But I’d like you to take a Bible, if you would, because I’d like us to read this Scripture passage in unison this morning. We’re reading from the NIV. If you happen to have another translation, then you can either try it or sort of concur with the majority as we read from this portion of Scripture. We’re going to read from verse 1 through to the end of verse 7. One Timothy 3:1.

Let’s read together:

“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”


Now, we continue our studies here in this letter of Paul to Timothy within the context as stated in the fifteenth verse of this third chapter: instruction provided so that people will know how to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is nothing other than the church of the living God. And we have seen that these instructions on practical matters are of primary importance, and certainly as we come to this matter of leadership within the context of the local church.

The Vital Importance of Leadership

All of us, I’m sure, understand the vital importance of leadership. It’s virtually impossible to live life without being aware of the fact that strength in leadership is a vital aspect of the way in which we conduct our day-to-day affairs. And therefore, it would be a surprising thing if the same were not to be true within the context of the church. Indeed, it is vitally so. The church of Jesus Christ does not progress beyond the spiritual progress of its leaders. And that is why the New Testament has a tremendous amount to say about the vital nature of leadership within the church. And it describes the role or the function of leadership, the authority which attaches itself to leadership—which is a derived authority from the risen Christ mediated through the Scriptures—and then the characteristics which are to be represented in the lives of those who are entrusted with the responsibility of leadership.

And the unfolding pattern of the Acts of the Apostles is that as the apostles proclaimed the good news of the gospel and people came to faith in Christ, then they congregated in fellowships of God’s people, devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer,[1] as we’ve been seeing in these Sunday-evening studies, and the apostles in turn returned to these fellowships to ensure that everything would be “done decently and in order.”[2] And recognizing the vital importance of leadership, they appointed elders in each of the places. And you can, by a simple cursory reading of the Acts of the Apostles, find this on the very surface of the text. And, for example, in Acts 14:23 you will find it. By the time you get to Acts 20, Paul is taking his leave of the elders there, who had been appointed by their express purpose.

And in that structure of leadership, which we have found and which we have iterated again and again in the course of the years, we have been discovering that some are called to be responsible for the leadership of others, while all are to be responsible to the leadership of Jesus through his Word. And that vital, important principle needs to be stated and restated: that while a man may be responsible for the leadership of his home and to exercise a spiritual priesthood over his family, he, along with those who submit to him according to God’s ordinance—he, along with them, is responsible to the leadership of Christ mediated through his Word. And when a man is appointed to leadership in the local church, as necessary as it is for him to fulfill that role with wisdom, grace, and boldness, he does so in the awareness that he, along with every other member of the church, is called to submit to the leadership of Christ as it is clearly provided through the pages of Scripture.

And that is why in the preaching of the Word of God, the church is led. That is why the Word of God is supremely the Word of God in the preaching event: because God has chosen by that means to instruct his people. And that is why we think of the preaching of the Word of God as a means of grace and we urge one another to be listening to the Word of God preached: because God has ordained that by that means his family should be fostered in fellowship and grow in grace. And indeed, as hearing comes by the Word of God,[3] so faith will be engendered in the lives of those who are unbelievers.

Some are called to be responsible for the leadership of others, while all are to be responsible to the leadership of Jesus through his Word.

And in the exercise of leadership, the consideration of character is of vital importance. The men are to be a certain quality and kind of men. It is not that the qualities are different from the qualities that are to be discovered and developed amongst the congregation as a whole, because they’re not different. But it is that those who would aspire to a position of leadership must clearly be seen to be marked by these qualities and characteristics to which every godly Christian will aspire.

Now, it goes without saying, for those who have been present over the years and certainly were present for last Lord’s Day’s study, that when we talk about leadership and eldership in the church, we are talking in terms of men and not in terms of women, because of all that we discovered in verses 9–15 as well as elsewhere in the New Testament.

Now, the New Testament places as great a stress—and listen carefully to this—as great a stress upon character as a qualification for spiritual leadership as upon gift. Indeed, I think it would be possible to argue that the New Testament places a greater emphasis upon character than upon gift. In fact, the fifteen characteristics that are here before us in this little section—of the fifteen characteristics, only one of them has to do with gift: namely, “able to teach.” The remaining fourteen all have to do with godly living. And that in itself ought to be a salutary reminder to us.

When you take this passage and you view it in conjunction with the verses in Titus 1:6–9, the whole emphasis is upon personal qualities. And in point of fact, the most important contribution that the elders make to any company of God’s people is the contribution that is made on the basis of their personal godliness. And that is why these verses are a tough mirror into which we’re called to look.

Now, if you want to broaden it, as we should—he was thinking of a local parish in the Anglican Church, which would be very one-man focused as a result of all kinds of misunderstandings, etc., into which we needn’t go—but when we broaden it out, we need to recognize that, generally speaking, as are the elders, so are the people. If you have godly elders, you will have godly people. If you have evangelizing elders, you will have evangelizing people. If you have kindly elders, you will have kindly people. If you have hospitable elders, you will have hospitable people. Because the church cannot progress beyond the level of the leadership!

The kind of dad you have is the kind of family you have. Yes, the mother, too—but the father marks the place. If he is jovial or gloomy, if he is smart or dumb, if he—whatever he is—he presents an aura upon the place. And that’s what makes it so staggering. That’s what makes it so painful at any point of ministry to read this. In my present position, I’d rather pass this off to any of the other elders and say, “Go ahead, do 1 Timothy 3 for me, would you? I’d like to listen. My throat’s a little ticklish. I would rather you had a crack at this.” Because the character that is called for here is a character that is not to appear in fits and starts, but it is a character that is to be maintained for all of the life of the man in service.

The qualities of godly living are not supposed to be there in bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia—now you see it, now you don’t—but it is to be sustained, in the same way as, when we get married, they ask you the question, or you have to say the phrase “So long as we both shall live” or “Till death us do part.” In other words, this is not just a week at a time, and see how you’ll feel next week. This is twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year for the rest of your life. You have to stay pure forever!

The most important contribution that the elders make to any company of God’s people is their personal godliness.

Now, Paul understood the challenge of this. That’s why in 1 Corinthians 9, as he gets to the end of it, he says, you know, “I don’t want any of you folks to think that I’m just a shadow boxer in relationship to this. I don’t want you to think that I simply bought a tracksuit to hang in my closet, but I don’t go running. No, no,” he said, “listen”: “I do[n’t] run like a man running aimlessly; I do[n’t] fight like a man beating the air. … I beat my body and [I] make it my slave.” Why? “So that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified [from] the prize.”[4] It’s not an issue of giftedness; it’s an issue of character. There are plenty of guys who still are gifted in speaking, but they have violated the characteristics that demand leadership in the church. Therefore, they’re done! We make the mistake of assuming that because the gift remains, they stay. No! Because the qualities of godliness are the very seedbeds in which any sense of giftedness is to be worked out.

That’s why James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, because he who teaches will be judged with greater strictness.”[5] Christian leaders are not perfect. Let’s make sure we understand that. And Christian leaders are not called to pretend that they’re perfect. Let’s make sure that we understand that too. Because if nobody else understands it, our kids will understand it, and our wives will understand it. But we are called to an unequaled privilege and to a peculiar responsibility in relationship to these things.

When a Christian falls into sin, he hurts other people. When a Christian leader falls into sin, he hurts many other people. When a big tree falls in the forest, it brings down a ton of wee trees with it. And that’s the challenge here. And that’s why we say again and again, “Let’s be real clear: lest anybody thinks he stands, well, take heed lest he falls,”[6] you know. And Paul Simon, in his song, he says, “[I] don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.”[7] I don’t want to end up a cartoon in Leadership magazine—a sorry story.

Virtues to Be Cultivated

That’s why God gives us this instruction. And so we’re going to go through it. We’re going to go above it at about twelve thousand feet. We won’t go quite up to thirty, but we’re not going to dismantle all the leaves and branches, you will be pleased to know—especially if you look at your watch.

Verse 1 makes it clear that we shouldn’t be afraid of Christian leadership, as if somehow or another it’s not really Christian to want to lead. That’s just false modesty. That’s not true to our personality. Not everybody aspires to leadership, but for those who do aspire to leadership, they ought to be honest enough to say, “I aspire to leadership.” The question is then whether you should lead. But you’re allowed to say, “I aspire to leadership.” And in fact, it will be obvious, because you’ll be leading people. When you suggest something, people follow. When you say, “I think we might go there,” they say, “That’s a great idea. Let’s go there.” When you say, “I don’t think we ought to do that,” they say, “You know, I thought that was a stupid idea. Let’s not do that.”

So to aspire to leadership is not wrong. What we need to do when we’re thinking in these terms, though, is, in concurrence with what we said last Sunday evening, think in terms of service; don’t think in terms of status. And the responsibility is the responsibility of being an “overseer.” That word is episkopoi here, from which you get episcopal. The synonyms are presbuteroi, from which you get presbyter, as most of us know, and poimēn, from which you get shepherd or pastor. So the word pastor, presbyter, bishop, overseer, elder, or any other synonym you might think of are all used to describe the same task. And the distinction that we’ll come to in chapter 5 between those who are set apart and receive remuneration for the fulfilling of the task and those who do not but serve in their normal workaday routine, still as elders—the distinction there has nothing whatsoever to do with a higher standard or a lower standard, or a greater status or a lesser status, or somehow or another that if you’re not paid for it, you don’t have to have the same qualifications as if you’re paid for it. The bad news is you’ve got to do it, and you’re held to the same qualifications—and you don’t get the luxury of studying your Bible every day to that degree. That’s why those of us who do get the luxury of our Bible every day jolly well better study our Bible every day. Otherwise, why would anybody set money aside to provide us the privilege if we ended up spending our time as office managers or administrators instead of being pastors and teachers, as the Word calls us to be?

You will notice that it is a task. It’s “a noble task,” but it’s still a task. “Task” is just another word for a job. If you desire to be an overseer, you desire a noble job. It’s a task. Don’t kid yourself. If you don’t know that, we can help you.

Verse 2: What should mark this overseer? Well, he should “be above reproach.” “Above reproach.” In other words, he is not to be open to attack or criticism in terms of his Christian life in general and in terms of the characteristics which now follow. There’s a sense in which a colon after “reproach” might be quite helpful, and then we might view these other characteristics as an explication of what it means to be above reproach. Someone says, “Well, what does it mean to be above reproach?” “Well,” he said, “well, it’s the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, and so on.” It is a comma; it’s not a colon. But you might think of it in that way. Again, we should note that it doesn’t mean perfect. But it does mean that no one, either within the church or outwith the church, is able to point to an open, flagrant violation that is an endemic part of the individual’s character that is consistently there, about which he is unrepentant, from which he refuses to move, and he believes that he can continue in his own merry way and still fulfill the role of eldership.

Let me give you a classic illustration. I won’t name the church—in fact, I can’t remember the name of the church—but it was all through the Plain Dealer in the last eighteen months. Somewhere down closer to the city, some gentleman had decided that he liked a lady in the choir better than he liked his wife. First of all, he started by lying about it, and then he fessed up to it, and after he fessed up to it, he tried to get a little group within the church to keep him as the pastor. And they had all these meetings and dialogues and back-and-forth to see whether he should stay or whether he shouldn’t stay. And some quoted the constitution, and some quoted the American Constitution, and some quoted books and all manner of stuff—but there wasn’t a single soul who quoted 1 Timothy 3:2. If they had done, it would have been a very short meeting: “Goodbye, Charlie! Thanks a lot. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. You’re done!” Because it is glaringly inconsistent! You can’t do this and say you’re above reproach.

It would be the same thing if your name kept appearing in the newspaper that every year you never paid your taxes, and you just kept amassing and amassing and amassing a big tax bill, and it was a bit of a joke. You know, people said, “Oh! Let’s look in the Plain Dealer and see if he’s in again.” And people said, “There he is again!” Well, you’re done! Because there’s not an irreproachability about you.

Now, again, we’re not saying perfection. Trapp, the commentator, who is a wonderful old guy—I mean, very old; he’s dead—but he says some wonderful things. He said, “Every faithful pastor must be such as against whom no just exception can be laid, no gross fault objected. Involuntary failings and unavoidable infirmities have a pardon, of course, both with God and [with] all good men.”[8] So in other words, he’s distinguishing, as you rightfully must do—because otherwise, the quest is for perfection—he’s distinguishing between gross faults, justifiable glaring exceptions, and involuntary failings and unavoidable infirmities.

Now, the challenge in this, of course, is: Who’s setting the beam? You know, who’s deciding what the qualifying height is for the high jump? And there’s always a difference when we’re setting it for ourselves or setting it for somebody else. You know, if we’re trying to qualify for the Olympics, it’s kind of like this, you know? “Now, you’re qualifying? Oh, I’m sorry. Could you jump over the screen? Oh, you can’t! What a shame! Well, I’ll give the tracksuit to somebody else. Thanks for coming by.”

And the same thing happens. For example, just recently, somebody wrote to me from the radio program to say what a bad pastor I was. Now, I understand that, and it was, you know, kind of nice to have it reinforced. But the point of emphasis in this letter was the story that I told to you folks concerning the sixty-four-dollar pizza, if you will remember, which had to do with a speeding ticket in Chagrin Falls followed by my desire to reroute the traffic flow in the center of Solon. So they wrote to say, “One, if you were a proper, decent, 1 Timothy 3:2 pastor—one, you wouldn’t have got a speeding ticket; two, you wouldn’t have tried to cut through the thing; and three, you would have been appalled that your congregation laughed when you told them.”

Now, what do I say to that? I say, “Whew!”—and I listen. And you know, maybe that’s right. But it was honest. You know, I could have pretended to you that I didn’t speed and I didn’t cut through and I never once thought of telling lies to the cop when he caught me. Then you might have been tempted to think that not only do I wear this black suit when I’m preaching, but I wear it to my bed, and that I have my house set up in the stations of the cross, and that I’m really, really, really weirdly holy.

They called me Reverend Begg all this weekend. Reverend Begg. Nobody called me Alistair. I kept looking for my father every time they said, “Reverend Begg.” I said, “Would you stop saying that? It makes me think of my father.” They said, “Oh, is your father a minister?” I said, “No, but he’s a little more ‘reverend’ than I am.”

“The husband of one wife.” What does this mean? It literally means “a man of one woman.” Now, you’re getting familiar with the idea of applying the text woodenly. Let me give you a wooden application of the text here: a wooden application of the text would suggest that what Paul is mandating in these verses is that the only person who can serve as an elder is a married man who has at least two children. Because it says, “He must be the husband of but one wife,” and people say, “That means he must have a wife.” No, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It means that if he has a wife, he’s only supposed to have one wife. Yeah? And also, “Oh, he must have at least two children. He can’t have one child, because it says in verse 4, ‘He must manage his children,’ plural. Therefore, he couldn’t possibly—can’t be an elder if you don’t have a wife. And if you have a wife, you can’t be an elder if you only have one child.” Or, “You can’t be an elder if you had a wife, and she died, and you got another wife,” and so on. And people get themselves absolutely tied up in knots over this stuff. You’d be amazed, the conversations! They go on for hours. They generate a tremendous amount of heat, very little light at all.

What is the plain meaning here? Paul is taking what I would take to be the sort of common context in Corinth, where a guy is married, and he has kids. That’s the sort of normal circumstance. And what he’s saying is this: “The man who serves as an elder is, then, to be marked by purity in relationship to his home life.” He mustn’t be anything other than pure in both his thoughts and in his deeds. I don’t believe that from this phrase we can teach a whole doctrine concerning the place of divorcees in the potential leadership of the church, and I’m certainly not about to descend into a discussion on it right now. The plain and obvious meaning is this: if a man is going to serve in leadership, then he needs to be marked by fidelity and purity within the framework of his interpersonal relationships in his own house. That makes perfect sense.

The leadership of the elders is to be a leadership by the crook of the Word of God.

Then he says he’s supposed to be “temperate, self-controlled,” and “respectable.” A wonderful little trilogy. There’s two words in here, incidentally, that could be translated as having something to do with drinking, and the NIV distinguishes between them helpfully. This first word, “temperate,” means sober-minded. He has to have about him the kind of sobriety that you expect to find at the cockpit of a plane, especially when things begin to go wrong. He is to have about him a self-control, which is apparent insofar as he doesn’t become 480 pounds, nor does he waste away as some horrible little skinflint because he is unable to control the simple appetites of his desire for food.

He is to be “respectable,” orderly, well-behaved, and virtuous. And he is to be “hospitable.” There is to be something of the hospital about him, something of the physician’s care, something about the shepherd’s heart. He mustn’t be, in the teaching role, incomprehensible on a Sunday and invisible during the week. Now, this is a lot harder in a context like this, where the geographical disparity is so great. But if you imagine a situation where you have a community, and a community church, and someone living in that community, what Paul is saying is that when you get the guy teaching you in whatever context, or you meet him in the street, or you find yourself in his home, you will find that his character commends his message and doesn’t deny his message. That’s what he’s saying.

And in all of this, he’s supposed to be “able to teach.” What does it mean to be able to teach? I think that his word in Titus 1:9 helps to unpack that. He says the elders need to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” And this is to be done with gentleness and with respect—2 Timothy 2:24.

In other words, the leadership of the elders is to be a leadership by the crook of the Word of God. This is the influence here. This is the authority. It’s not the power of personality. It’s not ultimately the influence of giftedness. It is the power of the Word of God. And we shepherd the people by the instruction of God’s Word. So somebody comes and says, “Well, I feel this, or I wonder this about the will of God.” The elder’s response is “Let’s see what the Bible says.” Someone says, “You know, I’m out of sorts with Mr. So-and-So, and I’m not sure what I ought to do about reconciliation.” The elder says, “Well, let’s see what the Bible says.” Someone says, “I was thinking about the possibility of beginning ministry in this way,” whatever it might be. And the elder says, “Well, let’s see what the Bible says.”

And that has to happen both in a public forum, and it has to happen in less-than-public forums—in every avenue of what we do—and it has to happen in private forums. And that’s why it is such a wonderful thing. And I’m sure you, as a congregation, pick it up: that without any sense of coercion or of trying to generate it, it’s virtually impossible to have any one of our elders stand up here to say anything but they don’t stand up, first of all, with their Bible, and then they quote their Bible! That’s where it was this morning. That’s where it was last Sunday morning. Why? Because they understand that ultimately, the only thing they have to say is what’s in the Book.

You know, over the weekend, I had all kinds of people come to me to say all kinds of things. But one lady came and told me about her mother, for whom she was greatly concerned, and she asked my advice. And if you compressed it to a sentence or two, it was this: “You know, it’s very important for your mother to sit under the instruction of the Bible.” Another man came to me and told me that he was separated from his wife and was wondering about the counsel that was being offered, etc., and I said to him, “You know, I think it’s very important that the two of you sit under the instruction of God’s Word.” And pretty soon, people are going to say, “You know, if you go to those guys, they all say the same thing.” Exactly! If they don’t, something’s really up. Because the only crook that the Great Shepherd has provided to the undershepherd is the crook of his Word.

Vices to Be Avoided

Now, our time is gone. Let me just rattle through these remaining comments here.

He moves to some vices. These are virtues that are to be present, and then he says there are some vices that are to be set aside. For example, verse 3: he’s not to be a drunk, he’s not to be violent, he’s supposed to be gentle, he’s not supposed to quarrel, and he’s not supposed to be a lover a money.

This is just a sort of caricature of it to try and make the point: Somebody says to someone, you know, “Do you know George?” (And I pick George—I don’t know why I have a fascination with the name George. Some psychiatrist can work it out.) But he said, “Do you know George?” (And he’ll be wrong no matter what he works out.) “Do you know George?”

“Oh,” says somebody, “yeah, we know. You mean George, the guy at the wine bar?”

“Yeah! Yeah!”

“Oh, George, yeah. Oh, he comes in about eleven thirty every morning, has the same spot, and basically, he gets himself in a corner where he can just see the screen. It’s not so much that he wants to watch the picture. He just wants to see the ticker tape coming across the bottom. He’s totally into the Dow Jones Industrial Average. He is consumed by the NASDAQ, the American Stock Exchange, the whole thing. And that’s it: he drinks wine and watches for certain stocks coming through. In fact, the only time that you can drag him away from that is if you get him into an argument. Now, if you can get him in an argument, you can get him away from his wine and away from the screen for a wee while. And every so often—and it hasn’t happened often—but every so often, the guy actually fights people! And he’s been known to throw a couple of people right across the room and bang their heads on chairs. Why are you asking about George?”

“Because we were thinking he might become an elder in our church.”

You say, “That’s a bit far-fetched, isn’t it?” No! Isn’t it interesting? Like, it doesn’t say, “He shouldn’t spit,” you know? It says, “He shouldn’t be a drunk”! What does that tell you? That there were people there that had real problems with the booze. “He shouldn’t be a lover of money.” What does that tell you? That there were people there, like us, who had a real problem with acquisitiveness. “He shouldn’t be a quarreler.” What does that tell you? It’s that people are there that like arguments. And “he shouldn’t be a fighter.” And people say, “You know what…” You say, “When you’re looking for elders, don’t go for those guys.” Now, when you read it like that, you say, “This makes perfect sense.”

He should be an example of contentedness, whether he’s got a lot or whether he’s got a little. The elder’s life must not be controlled either by alcohol or controlled by money. That’s what he’s saying. Now, there are groups that will tighten it up, there are groups that will lighten it up, there are people that will dress it up, but what is being said is what is being said. You can understand that.

“And,” he says, “if you go home to his house, you will find that he manages his household well”—not that when you go into his house, he has perfect children and a perfect wife who all do perfect things and all say perfect things. The people like that are a perfect nuisance. Because you know that somehow or another, when they close the door, somewhere, they kick the cat, or they do something. They are not like that all the time. They go out and they beat on garbage can lids or something. So neither is the leader perfect, nor does he have a perfect wife, nor does he have perfect kids. He’s a normal guy with an extraordinary calling and given an extraordinary task. But we have every right to anticipate that he will be able to exercise jurisdiction over the little prerogative of his own family. And indeed, if he can’t do it there, he can’t do it in the church. And he argues from the lesser to the greater: “Why would you ever give anybody the responsibility of looking after a huge, big family if he can’t look after his own wee family?” Perfect sense.

Now, again, you can tighten that up, or you can lighten it up. You can dress it up. But what it says is what it says: you’ve got to be able to look after your own family. And that doesn’t mean you have to beat your kids into subjection. That doesn’t mean that you should produce children that are, like, semicomatosed all of their lives. Indeed, if you have kids like that… I’m not talking personality now. I’m talking about parents who do that to their children. You got a guy who does that to his children, and his children have no joy, no humor, no initiative, nothing, then don’t appoint him as an elder—not unless you want to turn your church into a huge, big group of people that look like that. That’s not a congregation. Those are clones. Those are slaves. Those are people in servitude. That’s not a family. And that is not what he’s talking about here. He’s simply arguing the principle: “In your home: sobriety, sensible, nurturing in the faith, encouraging them in belief, bringing them up in the instruction of the Lord Jesus Christ? Okay, then we anticipate that he would do the same over here.”

And in all of this, he shouldn’t be a recent convert. Why? Because if you give a recent convert—if you give the newly enlisted guy in the army all the stripes and a general’s hat, everybody’s in trouble. Because he’d be like, “Hey, hey, I’m the general!” when in point of fact, “No, you’re not. You’re not even a private. Who gave you that hat?” And the person will go around, and you won’t be able to find a hat big enough to fit his head. And that’s exactly what happens here. When you thrust people who are new converts, they blow up with conceit, and they blow out in usefulness.

And in verse 7 he says, “By the way, when you go down the high street, if they know him in the post office, if they know him in the car wash, if they know him in the dry cleaner’s, if they know him in the butcher’s, the baker’s, the candlestick maker’s, it ought to be no surprise to them that he is an elder in your church—not because they understand the doctrine, not because they understand even eldership, but because they would be able to say, “You know what? Mr. X is a kind man. Mr. X is an honest man. Mr. X is a respectful man.” And so on.

Three Peculiar Temptations

He who desires these things “desires a noble task.” Let me finish by giving you three words that are the peculiar temptations that fall to those who are called to the task.

Temptation number one: the temptation to shine. To shine—i.e., to seek the limelight, to enjoy admiration, to become totally unbearable because you can only listen to the sound of your own voice and the wonders that you are now unfolding for the sorry listeners to absorb. The temptation to shine.

Secondly, the temptation to recline. And I talk now to guys in my position rather than my lay elders, because my lay elders—I have not found any of them reclining in fourteen years. They don’t have time to recline. But for those of us who are entrusted with the privilege of getting up in the morning without the demands of a factory, without the oversight of someone who is calling us to another task, and we’ve been set to the privilege and responsibility of becoming students of the Word of God, one of the greatest temptations is to become downright lazy. And one of the saddest things to see in gatherings of pastors, to which I go with frequency now, is to see a bunch of recliners. And I’m not talking about those La-Z-Boys. I’m talking about lazy boys that are on the La-Z-Boys. The apex of pastoral ministry for some of these jokers is when their congregation buys them one of these big chairs. I don’t ever want one of those chairs. I want a globe! (No, sorry, I don’t want a globe either. No, I don’t! I got a globe already. Don’t. Forget… That was a joke. Not a very good joke.) But you don’t want to get these guys these recliners, because too many of us are just looking for a chance to recline.

The problem of shining, reclining, and whining. Whining: “Nobody know the trouble I’ve seen. I’m the only pastor that preaches in the whole of the world,” you know. “I know I’m the only one. I’m the only one that understands. I’m the only one left. I’m the only one the object of criticism. I’m the only one burdened by the all…” Whew! Give us a break, you know?

I know there’s days like that. But you know, Martin Luther, he came down for his breakfast one morning, remember? And his wife was dressed in her complete funeral regalia—totally in black, head to toe. And as she sat to breakfast with him, he looked up, and he said, “My dear? Has someone died?”

And she said, “Martin, apparently God has died.”

He said, “My dear, where do you get this from?” thinking he might correct her mistaken theology.

And she said, essentially, “The amount of whining that you’ve been doing for the last two and a half or three weeks seems to indicate to me that there is no longer a God in heaven to whom you may turn. And so I determined to dress for his funeral.”

So let’s be realistic. Let’s be prayerful. Let’s not establish standards the Bible doesn’t establish. Let’s not weaken standards the Bible clearly states. Let’s not turn principles into rules and laws. And let’s be done with shining, reclining, and whining.

Let’s pray:

Father, thank you for your Word. I pray that your Spirit will bring clarity where my words muddy up the waters. I thank you for the privilege of serving you here with my colleagues—the awesome responsibility of being called to account one day before the bar of heaven for every word spoken, every decision made, every counsel offered, every sermon preached. Thank you for our congregation, for their prayerfulness, submissive heart, genuine interest, honest challenges. Thank you for the wonder of the body of Christ. We’re not what we once were. We’re not what we will be. We’re making progress, and we thank you that we’re being renewed day by day into that glorious image of your Son, Jesus Christ.

And now unto him, that lovely one, who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] See Acts 2:42.

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:40 (KJV).

[3] See Romans 10:17.

[4] 1 Corinthians 9:26–27 (NIV 1984).

[5] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[6] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).

[7] Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al” (1986).

[8] John Trapp, A Commentary on the New Testament, ed. W. Webster, 2nd ed. (1865; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 641.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.