Desiring a Good Work 1 Timothy 3
Every elder wishes that there were more people who desired to serve God’s people in the church! It takes no theology degree to make that observation. It seems strange, especially when God attaches such value to serving. Being an elder or a deacon is first and foremost a work of serving. As such, they are great ministries. So much so, that Paul gives these two ministries special attention in 1 Timothy 3.
Desire for being an elder
There are three possible reasons for desiring to be an elder: 1) personal benefit 2) pressure from others or 3) spiritual desire. While the first two reasons are clearly wrong, 1 Timothy 3 does allow for and even condones a man “aspiring” (NASB) to do the work of an elder. In studying this verse, we must be careful to note the critical facts.
1) This is one of Paul’s “trustworthy statements” (see 1 Tim 1:15, 4:9, 2 Tim 2:11), which he uses to emphasize a point. In other words, you can count on this being true. While it is relatively easy to castigate anyone who desires the work of an elder as a power seeker, this Scripture cannot be ignored. I can almost hear many readers sighing, “Would that we had more men who wanted to do the actual work of shepherding.”
2) Many translations render the goal of the seeking to be that of “office of bishop” or “office of overseer.” But the original Greek does not include the word “office.” Paul uses the word episcope, which is where the institutionalized church gets its word “episcopal.” The word actually emphasizes a watching over, inspecting or observing. It can also be used in the sense of visiting. These are functions, not a formal church office. A frequent (and better) rendering of this in English is “overseer.”
3) Paul says the work of eldering is a good work. It follows that to seek to do that work is also a good thing. This doesn’t go against the notion that it is God who raises up an elder, and not an elder raising himself up. Indeed, one of the ways God raises up a person is by planting the desire in his heart. Psalm 37:4 tells us He gives us the desires of our heart if we delight ourselves in Him. So when a man is living an obedient, devoted life to the Lord, and discovers a desire to be an elder—that is a good thing and it is placed there by God!
It does no good to pressure a man into service. Peter instructs the elders to “exercise oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God” (1 Peter 5:2). However, challenging men to consider being an elder by mentoring them, providing training material and giving general teaching to the church on the role and ministry of elders, can be used by the Lord to fan the flame of desire in some men—namely those in whom God’s Spirit is working.
Interestingly, the word translated “good” can also be translated “beautiful.” God sees the work of an elder as being of the highest order, in a sense, beautiful in His eyes. Men should serve as elders because it is a good and beautiful thing. While many times it is burdensome, the godly elder will by faith hold on to the great and wonderful calling he has in Christ to shepherd the flock of God. Some day the Chief Shepherd will appear to dispense the unfading crown of glory to His under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:4).
4) Now, this desiring to be an overseer that Paul has in mind is not just an idle wish, but literally a “stretching out to or reaching after” the work of overseeing. It is not for lazy people who want to occupy an office of privilege and power. Nothing will stretch a man more than doing the work of overseeing! Few understand the heartache, the frustration, criticism, disappointment and discouragement elders face. Little gratitude is shown, and the depths of spiritual struggle are shared only by the select minority. Is it any wonder that Paul follows this statement with thecritical criteria for being an elder. This is not so much a list of qualifications of office, but more of a qualifier for the desiring to do this work. In other words, if you desire to oversee the spiritual life of God’s people, here is what it will take! This is what you are going to need! You will need to develop the following list of spiritual character traits, or you will wipe out for sure. In a sense, this list contains the “tools” for doing the work of overseeing, the necessary characteristics that you and I need to hone, so that we can be good overseers of God’s people.
5) We understand this “overseeing” (1 Tim 3:1) to be identified with those who are called “elders” (see 1 Tim 5:17, 19). The term “overseer” emphasizes the function of overseeing, while the term “elder” identifies the maturity of the one doing the overseeing, one who is “older” spiritually.
It is possible that a person can do much of the work of an elder (in the sense of overseeing God’s people) without being recognized as an elder. In fact, all Christians should watch out for one another at some level (see for example, Gal 6:1-2); yet some people obviously have a greater burden for this. The NT thrust is that the healthy church will identify those individuals and encourage them to work together. For example, Paul’s normal pattern was to appoint multiple elders in each church he established (Acts 14:23). And he desired them to work together as a group; that is why he met with the identifiable groupof elders from the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Further, he specifically refers to the elders in Philippi as an identifiable group (Phil 1:1). The fact that Scripture includes qualifications (1 Tim 3) and describes the work of elders (1 Pet 5:1-3), supports the idea that there are men who are recognized as elders and men who are not.
Since we have written elsewhere in ESN about the qualifications for elders, we will not comment on them here (see ESN Index on our web-site).
The work of deacons
In the same context as elders, Paul speaks about deacons (1 Tim 3:8).
1) By identifying criteria for the functioning of deacons and by referring to them in Phil 1:1, we can surmise that deacons are a recognized group of individuals. As the history of the church unfolded in Scripture, what had been a rather common term (diakonos) for servant or waiter, came to be used in a specialized sense, as we used the word deacon. This is one of two words that Paul was fond of using to refer to himself (the other is douloswhich means servantor slave). This probably came from wanting to be an imitator of Christ who became a servant (see Rom 15:8, Phil 2:7). While all Christians are called to serve, certain ones are identified as servantsor deaconsin a specialized sense.
If any men desire to be deacons, they “must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons” (1 Tim 3:10). People could serve in a general way without the deacon qualifications, but they could not serve as deacons. Criteria must be met before the designation deaconapplies.
2) Following a list of deacon characteristics, Paul lists two results (3:13) of serving wellas a deacon. This first is that he attains a high standing. The same word “well” is found here that was used earlier, that is, serving well is something beautiful in God’s eyes. Such a deacon ascends to a place of highstanding! The paradoxical nature of this verse is obvious. The path to exaltation is through humility, not through self-promotion. While the culture around them saw a diakonosas a lower person, the early Christians saw it as a description to be coveted. One song writer spoke of “ascending to the height of the bended knee.” To be known as a true servant was the height of Christian ambition. Not a false humility, but a genuine servant who sacrifices in service to others.
O that more of us would ascend to such great heights, that we would take our towel and wash each other’s feet, in imitation of our Lord! This reflects the example of Christ in Phil 2:9-10, that exaltation follows humility. Would there be any greater accolade than for the Master to say to one of his followers, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?
4) The other result of serving well as a deacon is great confidence in faith. Indeed, it takes great faith to serve well, believing that your self-denial, sweat and tears has eternal value. Indeed, serving well means great sacrifice, most of which is never seen by human eyes. Yet faith exercised is faith strengthened. So the greater the sacrifice, when done in faith, the more one’s confidence in Christ, the true Servant, is strengthened.
The word confidence actually carries the sense in the original language of “freedom of speech.” In other words, a true servant can speak confidently, he knows whereof he speaks, as it were. Great is the man who actually gives his life to serving others, particularly in the church. He has truly shared the mantle of servanthood, a title that honored Christ Himself.
5) The functioning of deacons is sparsely described in Scripture. The closest thing we have is found in Acts 6:1-6. In the early church the division of responsibility found expression in a group of men being appointed to organize the serving of daily food rations to the needy. While the term diakonosis not used as a descriptive title in Acts 6, their work was more of the physical sort, rather than the ministry of the word or prayer. It seems reasonable to see this as a sort of prototype of a developing deacon ministry, which eventually found its way into Paul’s teaching (1 Tim 3 and Phil 1:1).
However, since direct teaching about the function of deacons is lacking in Scripture, we do well to not be overly dogmatic in our application. Could it be that in God’s wisdom He gave little information so as to leave the church free to implement the role of deacons with considerable freedom? Suffice it to say that it seems the deacons were to be involved in the physical, earthly aspects of serving the body of believers, while the elders were to oversee the overall ministry of the church.