Change and Truth 1 Timothy 3:14-16
“But, if we just change the structure of our meetings, things will go so much better!” “But, it’s not about structure, it’s about God’s presence in our ministry!” Sound familiar? Two divergent views, reacting to each other. Common among elder-led churches are differences of what some might call “philosophy of ministry.” There are those who champion practical leading and teaching and there are those who champion doctrinal truth and the spiritual nature of the ministry; those who favor creative ministry and those who promote straight “lecture-style” proclamation. If we force the pendulum to swing to one extreme or the other, our leadership team becomes unbalanced like a man with one leg shorter than the other. It doesn’t matter which leg is shorter, the result is the same: ineffectiveness!
Paul was well aware of this tendency, which is probably why he included 1 Timothy 3:14-16 in the middle of his practical leadership letter to young Timothy. Paul’s focus is clearly on how leaders in particular should conduct themselves. “…I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God …” (3:15 NASB). Some translations use the word “behave.” In other words, the practical outworking of our faith is in view. Also, translations differ in whether Paul is instructing Timothy on how heshould conduct himself or whether this is teaching for all Christians. However, it is clear that Timothy is to teach these things to others (2 Tim 2:2).
Make no mistake, Paul’s practical teaching is rooted in rock-solid spiritual truths. For him it was not eitherpractical orspiritual, but bothpractical andspiritual. “.. the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:15b-16).
Notice how the practical is related to the core truth that the local church is essentially a household. That this is notjust a minor description of the local church is seen in the poignant qualification of elders that they manage their own households well. For how can they shepherd the household of God if they haven’t proven competent in doing the same with their own household (1 Tim 3:4-5, see also 1 Peter 4:17, 1 Cor 3:16). I sense Paul is saying that this is critical to the well-functioning of the assembly.
The Biblical model is not that of a corporation with a CEO, board of directors and stock holders. One nationally known mega-church leader asserts that we need to jettison the “shepherd” imagery of church leadership as a rural, antiquated metaphor, and use the example of the CEO (chief executive officer) model of business. His rationale is that such a move would be highly relevant to today’s culture. But this ignores the fact that God is vitally interested in both the imagery and the practice of “church life.” We are the church of the living God, not the church of 21stcentury culture—and God does not change!
A CEO’s family life has little bearing on his ability to lead a corporation. But an elder’s family life is essential to church leadership—precisely because the local church is more like a family household than a business. When evaluating potential changes in ministries or leadership structures, one key evaluative question to ask is, “Does this proposed change help the church be more like a family, or more like a business?” Or “Are we going about this like a family or like a business.” Certainly, there are some common sense business-like activities that can help any group of people function well. Families do need some structure and divisions of responsibilities; businesses need a lot! But, how changes are implemented and their result affect the family nature of the local church. Wisdom and spiritual insight are necessary at this juncture—things are not always black and white.
Local churches can err in many ways: they can be over-structured or under-structured; led by committee or led by the loudest voice; either nothing gets done or else too much gets done; nothing changes or there is too much change; too much innovation or too much tradition. Even in elder-led churches, the family atmosphere is lost when the elder team acts more like the ruling Sanhedrin than family leaders.
What does a family atmosphere look like? I remember as a child, my father was offered a job transfer. Since it involved the whole family, he wanted input from all of us, including the children. Because of discussions we had, we came to trust my father’s understanding of all that would have been involved. He appealed to us on the basis of what changes would happen to our individual lives. The move would involve relocating from the wonderful Blue Ridge foothills of western Virginia to the cement jungle of Washington, D.C. After much interaction, all the family was against the move, and so my father turned down the transfer.
A few years later, Dad had another transfer opportunity, this time to the sun-drenched, trade-wind island of Oahu (Hawaii), with rolling surf, warm weather and lots of sunshine. Again, he consulted the family for our input. The feedback was unanimous: “When do we go!”
My father was concerned about how his decisions would affect the family. He made each of us feel we were a real part of the decision. He didn’t presume to “know” what we were thinking, even when he was pretty sure what our answers would be! And, as you can guess, he was skilled to know how to influence our thinking by how he presented things to us. He certainly was within his right to make the decision by himself, as the head of the family, but he choose the path of influence rather than dictate to bring it about. The result was that we were unified as a family and we moved through the huge change in our lives with relative ease, during the important teen years of my life. That’s how a family should operate. Family is important!
As leaders in the church, the familyof God is important! All practical decisions should be made with what is best in mind for the familyand with as much familyinput as possible. In the end, the leaders are the ones who will answer for the decision, but such an approach to decision involves the whole family. Genuine leadership does not simply force people to follow. Rather, leadership is the art of influencing others toward a goal. Elders need the skill of a loving, wise father as we lead or consider change.
We have seen that the practical leading of the church should be conditioned by our understanding of the local church being a family. Also, leading should be rooted in the fact that the church is the pillarand the supportof the truth (1 Tim 5:15b). Shepherding the local church is not simply a matter of expedience or human logic. The way we lead matters, because truth of what the church is matters. To put it another way, the day to day outworking of ministry displays what truth looks like in practical clothes.
The church is guardian and promoter of God’s truth. We are not here for secondary reasons, like constructing large buildings or large congregations (by secondary, I don’t mean unimportant, but I mean to emphasize priority). This emphasis on truth does not diminish the practical aspect of church conduct, nor does it minimize God’s desire for us to reach many people for Christ. Paul’s point here is to keep everything moored to the truth. A good question to ask when practical change is being considered is, “How does this relate to our guarding and propagating the truth of God?”
So, how does the practical really connect with the spiritual, so that we are not just using empty words? In verse 16, Paul indulges in one of his frequent outbreaks of pure theology! To him the connection is so obvious he can’t contain his praise. The thing that brings believers into one household of God is a “common confession!” As some translations imply, there is no disputingwhat Paul is about to say. He goes on to say, “Great is the mystery of godliness.” By mystery he does not mean unknowable. Outside the household of faith these things remain enigmatic at best, but to the Christian they are an on-going discovery and constant delight. We are part of God’s household because of Christ, and this truth binds us together as brother and sister in the household of God!
What is it about godliness that rivets Paul? He writes of the godliness of Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, humility, mission, salvation and glorification. Suffice it to say here that practical ministry is not to be divorced from godliness. Our ministry must have as its goal to support and promote godliness. This is what makes us distinct from business or social organizations! Another good question to ask of any ministry or proposed change is this: “How does this change promote and encourage a better understanding or appreciation or experience of true godliness as found in our Lord Jesus Christ? How will this help people in this direction?”
Paul does not spend a lot of time on the connection here, because his purpose is more practical than theological. But it is a fair question to ask how these doctrinal statements about Christ and godliness relate to the practical behavior in the church. Concerning the first line, “revealed in the flesh,” we might ask how a new ministry or a change in an existing ministry would help believers understand or experience the incarnation of Christ better? Are we behaving in Christ-like ways as we promote our perspective of ministry? Do people see the likeness of Christ, as it were, incarnate in us as we discuss, debate, disagree and unite about things? Does a particular ministry or change help us emulate Christ better?
Phil 2:1-8 certainly is applicable here, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus …” (Phil 2:5 KJV). Our theology of Christ becoming human provides the foundation for godliness in our thinking and behavior. We should allow Christ to live out His mind in us. The same kind of connection can be made with the other five lines of 1 Tim 3:16 passage. You see, Paul’s point is that our theology undergirds our practice and behavior.
While there are many decisions about ministry and structure that the Bible does specifically address, the connection with godliness in this passage will so affect us that we are better able to make wise, spiritual, sound decisions. Neither making changes nor holding to traditions are of much value if divorced from the bedrock of faith and godliness. There simply is no promise of the Spirit’s affirmation. Rather, the success of the ministry does not rise or fall on man’s ideas and abilities, but on godliness.
Focusing on practical without the spiritual leads to human institutions more akin to a business, rather than a family. However, focusing solely on the spiritual without giving wise, careful thought to the practical aspect of ministry leads to confusion and dead orthodoxy. It’s like elevating 1 Tim 3:16 out of Paul’s letter and discarding the rest. Such a church winds up being either a pre-Acts 6 church with no wise leadership or an Ephesian church of Revelation 2 that has “forgotten” how to behave in love.
Paul’s passion for sound leadership practice is rooted in central truths of the faith! Both are needed—and in the right order. If these things are rightly understood, then the church is free to change as needed, without becoming loosed from its anchor of truth. It is relatively easy to remain faithful to the truth, and it is relatively easy to make changes to our practice. But it is extremely difficult to do both. Let us not err to one side or the other! Let us boldly stand on the unwavering truths of our faith, and be willing to adapt to more effectively shepherd the flock of God that is under our care.