One of the subtler issues facing the American church is the way we regard our leaders. This is one of those areas in which we’ve so internalized the world’s values and ways of looking at things that not only are we not aware of the problem, it’s not even easy to see when it’s pointed out. You see, we tend to look at our leaders—even those of us who are leaders do this—from a human perspective, the same way we look at leaders in any human organization. We look at pastors as professionals, or employees, or experts, or whatever—and we pastors tend to look at ourselves in the same ways, and at our calling as a career, to be pursued accordingly—and we look at elders and deacons as just another set of volunteers. And there is some truth to that; but it’s not the most important truth, and focusing on it leads us into bad habits.
What Paul understands is that leading the church isn’t the same as leading any other organization; to be a deacon, or an elder, or a pastor, is to accept a very different sort of responsibility. (Paul is talking about everybody in this passage; the word translated “elder” here seems to have been an umbrella term covering both overseers and deacons.) Those called to lead the church aren’t called to run it like a business, or according to any standard set of worldly principles. Rather, God calls us to lead his church according to only one thing: his will. Elders, deacons, pastors, all of us, it’s not our job or our place to decide what we think ought to be done, much less to insist on what we want done—our job is to discern, together, what God wants us to do, and where he wants the church to go, and then to follow as he leads us, leading the church to follow him as we follow him. Our job is to be, collectively, the voice and the guidance of God for the people of God.
That’s why Paul is so concerned about those leaders in Ephesus who are misusing their position to mislead the church; and it’s why he lays out such careful instructions here as to how to handle this situation. Yes, those who have sinned must be disciplined—publicly, not sweeping anything under the rug, since their sin has had public consequences in the church—but notice his overarching focus here: this must not be allowed to weaken the rest of the leaders in the church in Ephesus. For one thing, it must not become an opportunity for people to work out grudges by making false accusations; and at a deeper level, there’s the danger that the congregation will end up disgusted with all their elders and deacons, and that can’t be permitted either. Even as Timothy is trying to deal with the false teachers in his congregation, he must work to build up and support those elders and deacons who have remained faithful to the gospel and to their calling as leaders in the body of Christ, or else the church will only be worse off in the end.
Thus Paul sets out certain rules for how Timothy is to proceed. First, he says, don’t listen to any accusation against a leader of the church unless it’s supported by two or three witnesses. No hearsay, no whispering campaign, no anonymous charges, no chance for one disgruntled person to pop up and ruin someone they don’t like—these kinds of things are how the world takes people down, and are not to be allowed to happen in the church. When you’re talking about an elder or a deacon, Paul tells Timothy, you don’t even listen to a charge unless you have strong evidence, and two or three people who are willing to step up, put their names on the line, and testify.
Second, this applies especially to Timothy, who must not play favorites. There were no doubt leaders in the church in Ephesus whom he liked quite well, and others with whom he didn’t get along, but Paul tells him he must be careful not to let that get in the way. Paul underscores this point by invoking the heavenly court, the presence of God and his angels; he reminds Timothy that to use his authority unjustly, to favor some or to hurt others, would be a sin, and that God would judge him for it. It doesn’t matter how Timothy feels about anyone; the only thing that matters is the truth, and Timothy is called to find and uphold and proclaim the truth, wherever it may lead.
When anyone is disciplined, Paul says that their discipline is to be public; and there are, I think, a few reasons for this. One, which Paul notes explicitly, is the deterrent effect on others in the congregation. Two, if you have to punish someone publicly or not at all, you’re going to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing, and make sure you’re justified, before you go forward; kangaroo courts are impossible under those circumstances. And three, this is all part of keeping things above board. You don’t charge people in secret, you don’t allow anonymous complaints, and you don’t punish people secretly, either; everything must be done openly, so that the congregation knows what’s going on and everything may be scrutinized. That’s how the church is supposed to conduct its business.
We have to do this because pastors, deacons, and elders are sinful human beings just like everyone else; ordination does not remove sin or make us immune to temptation. Unfortunately for Timothy, he was confronting the kind of situation no pastor ever wants to face: a group of elders who were in full revolt, not against him—that would have been a personal matter, not necessarily a sin issue—but against God. That was far more serious, and it had to mean disciplining some people, and removing them from office; which, obviously, would also mean finding new elders to replace them. As a consequence, Paul gives Timothy one other major piece of advice: don’t ordain anyone hastily, but make very sure you know them first. Choose people who have a track record, who’ve been around long enough for both their sins and their good works to come to light, so that you know who they are and what they bring to the table. People always retain the right to surprise you, but the idea is to keep the unpleasant surprises to a minimum.
Now, it’s painful to have to discipline a leader of the church; we, sadly, have reason to know that. God willing, we will not become experienced in that pain. Even so, there are a couple important principles for us to take away from this passage. The first, as I noted earlier, is Paul’s concern that the church conduct its business openly—not that every detail has to be published, certainly, but that what can be fairly and reasonably told must be told; the picture we give people, however incomplete, must be true and sufficient as far as it goes. Lies breed in the shadows, but we are called to be a people of truth and light, and we should do our business accordingly. There should be no room in the church for anonymous complaints, backstabbing, or any of those other things so characteristic of our world; we should make decisions openly and honestly, or not at all.
Second, the work of the leaders of the church is worthy of honor, and they are worthy of honor for doing it. As I said earlier, we tend to get this subtly wrong, because we tend to look at their work from a human point of view; it’s not that we don’t honor our leaders, but that we tend to honor them for their importance, or because we agree with their decisions, just as we would honor the leaders of any other human organization. As chapter 6 makes clear, however, this isn’t the way we ought to look at things.
If you were wondering what those verses about slaves are doing here, or what they have to do with anything else, the best answer to that question is that Paul is still talking about elders and deacons in the church. Specifically, he’s offering a comment addressed to elders and deacons who were slaves, commanding them to treat their earthly masters with honor and serve them faithfully; at the same time, as Paul has said, their masters were to treat them with honor, as leaders of the body of Christ. What really mattered wasn’t their status as servants to the people who owned them under Roman law; what really mattered was their status as servants of Christ, called to lead the people of God according to his will.
Those whom God has called to lead his church are worthy of honor because they are his representatives to his people, called to lead in his name and for his sake; and those who lead well, Paul says, are worthy of double honor. Interestingly, in the Ephesian church, part of that honor was monetary; at least some elders and deacons were paid for their service to the church, and it’s clear from verse 18 that Paul felt they deserved it if they did their jobs well. We don’t know if they were all paid, or how much, but it’s an interesting point to note. Beyond that, Paul makes clear that those who lead well deserve the respect of the church—this, too, is part of fair compensation for the job.
Which raises the question, who are the elders who rule well? What does that mean? Well, flip back to chapter 4—if you were here three weeks ago, you may remember me saying (I hope you do) that being a good leader of the church is first and foremost about being a good follower of God. As I said then, this is captured in Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” Leadership is about imitation, because the Christian life is not merely a series of dos and don’ts that can be taught in a classroom—it’s a way of life which must be lived to be fully understood. To learn to follow Christ, we need to see the lives of others who are following Christ. Good pastors, good elders, good deacons, are people who set good examples—and in particular, a good pastor is one who helps the elders and deacons set good examples and thus be good elders and deacons. That’s something I only realized recently, that part of my job is to disciple our leaders as leaders, to lead them well to lead well.
So does this mean that the only good leader is a sinless leader? No; which is a good thing, because there aren’t any of those. Rather, the point is that those of us called to leadership in the church need to have our eyes, our minds and our hearts, firmly fixed on Jesus, and to be dedicated to putting to death the sin in our lives, as Paul commands in Romans 8:13. We need to be all about Jesus and the gospel and the ministry of the kingdom of God, not about ourselves and what glorifies or satisfies us. We need to model in our lives the hard work of spiritual growth—of honesty and repentance when we sin; of the willingness to humble ourselves to make things right when we do others wrong; of resisting temptation rather than just giving in to it; of putting our money and our time where our faith is, setting aside the first portion of both each week for God rather than spending it all on ourselves; of spending time studying the word of God; of asking God to search out the darkness in our hearts and our minds, and to show us what he sees. We need to be people in whose lives others can see what it means to follow Christ, and that for all the struggles that come on that journey, there’s great joy in it; we need to be people whose lives draw others to follow.