American Journal of Biblical Theology Copyright © 2004, J.W. Carter
1 Timothy 4:1-16.
The Ministry of Spirit-Filled Leadership
Caution: This lesson is rated, "T" for tough. Do not continue if you do not want to take a serious look at the state of your church and your own part in it. The Ephesian church was in trouble, and many of the lessons they needed to learn might just apply to us. Many of the challenges faced by Timothy are faced by Christian leaders today, and we may need to look closely at why this is true.
Timothy, the pastor-leader of the Christian church in Ephesus, found a divided congregation when he started his ministry there. The church was being drawn away from the simple truth of the gospel into a variety of different directions by a divided leadership who vied amongst themselves and their congregation for dominance and control. Each had his own idea of how church "should be done," and impressed those ideas on others. Timothy faced a difficult task of restoring the fellowship to its origin: a body of believers who simply love the Lord, love each other, and worship God in Spirit and in truth.
It is evident that the church has not changed much. The church today is profoundly divided. One cannot easily count the "denominations" of Christianity that, like religious sects, have each declared some distinctive way in which church "should be done." By dividing, the church loses both fellowship, and the power that a united church would have in the world. Only Satan wins when the church is divided. Likewise, just as the church is divided into denominations, even within denominations there is much division as individual church leaders, both within the clergy and laity, make demands on church members as they seek to impress upon others how "church" should be done.
There is a tremendous misunderstanding today, as there was in the early church, of what church is. If I were to argue that the "church" is not a building, I would get few who disagree, and so to dwell on this argument is probably not truly edifying (note the play on words.) We would state, in agreement, that the church is the body of believers, not the building. However, there is a definition of "church" that is largely ignored, and it is the consequences ignorance that divides us. We define church by the model by which we "do church", that is, we have prescribed an order, usually traditional, of what is "required" to worship "properly." For the most part, the distinctiveness of our denominalization lies within the manner in which worship is conducted. We argue that some people "like" liturgy, while some people "like" a traditional style, while some others "like" a contemporary style of worship. We are also divided by our leadership models where some churches place the authority for making decisions among the laity to where others place that responsibility entirely within a local church governing board, or within a denominational authority.
What has happened to the church? Why is it so divided? Without exception, as the church has been drawn away from its simple roots, it has been taken there by leaders who desire to impose their own opinions on others. The opportunity for the Holy Spirit to guide the church is entirely quenched by pride and tradition. The church teaches denominalized doctrines, taking it in a myriad of different directions, and by so doing is all but nullifying its effectiveness in the world. There is now very little difference between the organization and life of the church as there is in the organization and life of the world. The evidence of faith in the world is indiscernible. Christians look and act like non-Christians. The philosophies of the world have become the philosophies of the church.
That is quite an indictment of today's church, and I would not be surprised if some who have read this far are offended. If we take an honest look at ourselves, and look at what Timothy was dealing with, we will see many similarities. Paul gives instruction to Timothy that exposes the errors in the congregation, and by so doing, gives direction for correction.
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
Who do we listen to as we approach the discipline of faith? Do the church members truly seek the voice of the Holy Spirit, or do they rely on the voices of one another? Who makes the decisions for the church? Are they made by a governing board? Or are they made, as in many small churches, by a single dominating member? The voice of authority in the church is not the pastor, it is not a governing board, and it is not a demanding leader. The voice of the authority is God, and God alone, who expresses His will through the Holy Spirit, the still-small voice who speaks the truth to every believer who will submit to Him. What Paul is stating here is that it is not he who makes the following declaration on the state of the church, but is the Holy Spirit. The error in the church is exposed by listening to the Holy Spirit rather than listening to the divisive opinions of the church leaders.
What is the Spirit exposing? Paul declares a prophesy in the form of an axiomatic truth: the church is being drawn away from the faith. It is redefining itself. Note that when we look at the church today, we have even given ourselves names that clarify what kind of direction we have gone. Without fail, every denomination has taken the name of the church and qualified it with more limiting titles. Instead of being the Christian church, we are "Baptist Churches" and "Methodist Churches" and "Episcopal Churches", etc. The list is almost endless. We are stating that we are the Christian church, but one that is qualified by additional distictives. If one polls members of any particular denomination, they will often find that those believers think that they are the only ones who are doing it "right" and all other denominations are in error. Some go so far as to declare that members of other denominations are unsaved.
Does the Holy Spirit divide the church this way? Does God seek to divide his people into exclusive enclaves that fail to love each other as God loves us? If such division is not holy and ordained by God, then what is the source of such division? Paul goes on to state where this motivation comes from: "seducing spirits" and "the teachings of demons." Paul clearly delineates that which is not holy is simply unholy, and that which is unholy is not of God, but of the spirit of Satan.
What are some of the spirits of which Paul refers? A "Seducing" spirit is one which draws one away. It is a teaching that is attractive to the basic desires of man. This is probably the most common source of error in the church. We do (1) what we want, or (2) what a demanding leadership wants. Pride demands satiation, and the fulfilling of one's need for esteem is a powerful intoxicant. Unfortunately, over the years I have experienced a succession of churches who are divided, and often brought to their knees, by demanding leadership who take great pride in their own position.
The truth is simple: no man has authority over another in the church. It is the same Holy Spirit who works in the life of every believer, and when one person demands authority over another, the work of the Spirit is quenched. Many have heard the cliché, "the ground is level at the foot of the cross," though they do not practice its meaning.
The second stimulus that Paul describes that draws the church away from the faith is the following of worldly doctrines. The teachings of the ancient Greeks form much of the worldly doctrines that we live with today. "New age" and "secular humanism" are just two of the easily definable world doctrines that come from Greek roots. Christians are so much a part of the world that they bring the world doctrines into the church, doctrines that can be used to tolerate any number of sins in the body.
Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
"Seared with a hot iron" is a single word in the Greek that refers to the practice of branding an animal with a hot iron. We might associate the practice of branding with the American West when cattle and horses were branded with a label that identified who owned them. This practice did not originate in the Old West. Paul states that those who are leading the church away from the truth have a conscience that does not belong to the Holy Spirit. By speaking in hypocrisy, the leader knows "deep down inside" that what he/she is doing is not right, but because their conscience is seared, they simply do not look that deep for the truth. The result is hypocrisy. Paul states in Romans 1:22, "professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." I have often considered those who take hold of the church to be "sincere", but "sincerely wrong." When one is sincere in their beliefs, they are very difficult to teach. It is in that sincerity that their conscience is seared, branded, owned not by the Holy Spirit, but by another authority.
When leadership exhibits this demand for control, and is successful in obtaining it, that leadership is in a position to steer the direction of the church body, wresting control away from the Holy Spirit, and putting it in the hands of man. When we do this, all manner of worldly doctrines can infiltrate the faith. Again, because of the sincerity of the leadership, the doctrines sound sincere and good, but because they come from the logic of man, they are filled only with man's logic rather than filled with the Holy Spirit's power. Such doctrines can only diminish the church, not build it up.
Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. 4For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: 5For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
One example of the erroneous doctrine that has infiltrated the church is that of ascetism. This doctrine emanates from the Greek Gnostics that teach that all that is physical is evil, and all that is spiritual is good. Therefore, that which brings pleasure is evil. True spiritual good is attained by rejecting every form of pleasure. It is understandable that such a worldly position would arise in a culture where there is such a rampant philosophy of pleasure-seeking. Ascetism is practiced by the abstinence of physical pleasure. Some take this practice to the point of self-flagellation, inflicting pain on one's self as an expression of "humility." It is from this ascetic teaching that some were espousing similar doctrines in the church. Paul gives two examples.
First, there were some that demanded that people in the church do not marry. Such a doctrine ignores God's ordinance of marriage and His ordinance of the family unit, a principle that is repeatedly taught in scripture. Of course, if nobody marries, children are not born, souls are not saved, and Satan wins. The demand of celibacy illustrates the intense power of tradition. This identification of holiness with ascetism crept into the early church and was rampant in the second century. Those who demanded celibacy as a "more holy" lifestyle promote Gnostic heresy, not the teachings of scripture. Where some might try to defend the practice by drawing from some scripture verses, it is clear that Paul herein gives a powerful statement against the practice. Again, it is the same Holy Spirit who empowers every believer, and no practice makes one more "holy" than another. It is only in submission to the Holy Spirit that one is holy, it is not by any practice.
Likewise, there was a teaching of abstinence from certain foods. This was a practice that was very easy for Jewish Christians to embrace since, under the law, there were many such restrictions. However, Paul clearly teaches that Christians are free from the law that condemns the sin of those who are lost, and are under the authority, not of the Law, but of the Spirit who now leads, guides, and directs as those who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ have been forgiven, and are no longer under the Law's condemnation. However, if church leaders can put people back under the condemnation of the law, it gives them power to control others, again empowering the satiation of their personal pride.
Paul goes on to defend his position by pointing out that the dualistic Gnostic ascetism that declares all physical substance evil is simply heresy. God declared each component of His creation as "good." We see this declaration after each era of the creation event as recorded in the book of Genesis. Paul states that when one is led of the Spirit, one is thankful for that which God provided, and by that sincere thankfulness, the provision is sanctified. God sanctified that which is physical because He created it, and man receives that sanctified gift in prayer and thanksgiving. The practice of praying prior to a meal may have become a vain repetition for many, but such prayer is based in a spontaneity of worship. Such prayer is the appropriate and spontaneous response to a spirit of thankfulness for what God has provided, and when food is received in such a way, there is no "meat" that is inappropriate for consumption. Of course, such freedom demands responsibility. Paul also teaches that to flagrantly take part in a practice that others would not understand does not serve the gospel. Also, God gives us enough knowledge and wisdom to abstain from eating that which is unhealthy. The principle that is applied here is directed at the practice of ascetism: the declaration of food consumption practices as a badge of holiness. It is this that Paul condemns.
The practice of ascetism did not originate in the church, but in the world philosophies that combated secular humanism. Sounding "holy" those practices were quickly embraced by the church, and many ascetic practices remain today. What is an ascetic practice? It is any practice of man, anything that one can DO to become more holy than another. It is God's Spirit in the heart and life of a Christian that makes one holy. There is no practice of man that gives one holiness, it only gives one the appearance of holiness. Consequently, when one appears holy, but is not, we find the very definition of the word Paul just used: hypocrisy.
If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained.
Though Paul is writing to Timothy, the letter was to be shared with his congregation, and is likewise shared with us. How is Timothy to confront heretical religious doctrine and tradition? He simply describes "good ministry" as bringing to remembrance good and sound doctrine. Paul does not tell Timothy to take a club into the congregation and beat down its leadership. Likewise, we are not called upon to bring change in the church by promoting conflict. Paul describes good ministry as that which promotes change by simply teaching good doctrine that exposes the heretical practice and points the way to the truth. This instruction is given to Timothy, to an individual who's conscience is not seared with a hot iron. Timothy knows the truth of the gospel and is encouraged to simply teach that truth, allowing good doctrine to expose the heresy as words of faith expose words of works. However, by describing such an approach as that of a "good minister," even the seared conscience can be touched. A sincere leader, though engaged in sincere error, will usually seek to be a "good minister." Here Paul directs the path of a "good minister." This is the model that church leadership should, not just aspire for, but should regularly practice. The good minister (or literally, "godly minister,) teaches good doctrines of the faith, and these alone. The good minister does not teach tradition. The good minister does not appropriate spiritual authority for himself, nor for the church.
But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. 8For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. 9This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.
Paul reminds Timothy of the only source of Truth by exposing that which is false. Our world is replete with "truths," cultural rules which declare what is worldly right and wrong. These world philosophies might even have some basis in God's truth, but have been perverted by the worldly model. This is what Paul refers to as "profane" teaching. It does not take a great deal of mental effort to observe worldly teachings that have infiltrated the church. One obvious and controversial example is illustrated by the embracing of the practice of homosexuality within the church. Though this is an obvious and stirring example, the church has embraced the mores of this world in almost every area of life. The church follows "old wives' fables" to the point where many do not know what is doctrinally sound and what is not. Preachers spend the bulk of their time preaching on their philosophies and opinions rather than being submitted to the Word of God. I recall one large church, a member of a large and well-known denomination, that voted to abstain from the practice of prayer and Bible reading from the pulpit so that nobody in the congregation would be "offended." The gospel has become watered down to the point where it fits well within the profanity of the world. We are called upon to reject such profanity and come back to the teaching of good doctrine. Rather than exercising ourselves in a manner acceptable by the profane world, we are to exercise ourselves in a manner that is acceptable to God.
It is often difficult for us to accept a message that is critical of our current practices. Our fleshly desire is to have our "ears tickled" with words that will make us feel good, words that will not make us have to consider our failures, or words that will not require us to change. That makes a message like Paul is bringing to Timothy one that can be difficult and unpopular. Just as this is a message that is hard to accept, it is one that is difficult to teach. However, Paul is never abashed about confronting error in the church because such confrontation can bring the church back to "godliness" that is "profitable unto all things." The exposure of heresy and its replacement with the true promise of life and that which is to come is faithful, worthy, and acceptable. I am often criticized for teaching a "negative" message, one that exposes sin and error. People prefer a "positive" message. However, the true positive is realized when we know the truth that sets us free from error, free from vain tradition, free from legalism, and free from the domination of one another. It is a worthwhile exercise to sometimes pause and take a hard look at where we are to see if we are where we should be. Timothy is being instructed to bring the Ephesian congregation to this point. We might do well to do the same.
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. 11These things command and teach.
When I think back on the many tears that have been shed over 20+ years of ministry, this verse brings more tears. How does the church treat those who expose heresy? How does the church treat those who attempt to bring the church back to the Word and away from their tradition? My wife and I have been members, and positions of leadership, in many churches over the years as we have lived in and traveled in many areas of the United States and Europe. We have twice left the ministry of congregations because it was simply too hurtful and painful to stay. In both situations the church was led by a single individual who demanded and commanded all authority in the church. The church was required to take on the world view of this leader, and those who disagreed with any part of that view are treated with reproach. In both cases we stayed in that ministry for as long as we could bear, but there came a point where the stress affects personal health, and it is time to move on.
The real hurt is that we have been attacked, not by the pagan world, but by those who believe. Paul is preparing Timothy for this same treatment. When a minister in the church places his trust in God and in Him alone, he exposes those who use the church to fulfill their personal need to control. Those who seek to control see that control structure threatened and respond in an attack on the minister. I have seen this happen repeatedly over the years. The average tenure of a pastor in most Christian denominations is less than three years. It is the reproach that ministers receive at the hands of their congregations that keeps them moving. Thankfully, we are currently members of a church where we, in 12 years, have never been treated with reproach. It is no surprise that the church has doubled in size over the last ten years.
Why do ministers subject themselves to such reproach? It has been our experience to be subjected to such treatment to the point of frustration, only to leave and be strengthened by a new congregation that is loving and caring, becoming refreshed and strengthened enough to jump back into another stressful setting. For us, the cycle seems endless. Ministers do this because that is the call of the ministry. Timothy is told by Paul that it is these things that he is to command and teach. Ministers are commanded by the Holy Spirit to expose heresy. Ministers cannot, in good conscience, ignore heresy and false doctrine in the church and remain true to their calling.
Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
One of the traditions of the church is to elevate leadership based upon their calendar age rather than their spiritual maturity. We think of a board of elders as a set of gray-haired men, with little thought as to why we do. It is evident that Timothy was not gray-haired. Though we do not know his exact age, it is apparent from the chronology of Paul's journeys and his placement of Paul in Ephesus, that Timothy was probably in his early thirties. The ancient mid-eastern culture did not consider such a person to be wise. When such a view infiltrates the church, we see yet another example of how profane heresy can become a basic part of church tradition. Leadership in the church is not predicated on the calendar years of men. Leadership in the church is to be in the hands of the Holy Spirit. It is through men (and women) who are sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit that the work of God's kingdom is accomplished. Paul, in the previous chapter, showed how to recognize one who is sensitive to the Spirit and who is an appropriate choice for Christian leadership. Nowhere in Paul's description did he refer to old age. He simply stated that the person should not be a novice in the faith (3:6).
Consequently, Paul instructs Timothy to recognize that his age is not a relevant issue, yet will be one that will be expressed among the graybeards. Certainly we should be careful about appointing to leadership one who is not experienced, but relevant experience does not require 60 years to attain. We do not usually have to look far to find spiritual maturity in far younger men and women. Often it is the younger leaders who are not as encumbered by tradition and dogma, the very attributes of some older leadership that Timothy is instructed to teach, an act that will bring that reproach.
How does one who is younger than the elder gain the respect of the elder? It is done by being a consistent example of Christian maturity. Timothy is to be a consistent example to the believers of what it is to be a Christian who is sensitive and submitted to the will of the Holy Spirit. Such evidence will be seen in his word (what he says), in his conversation (what he does), in charity (in the way he demonstrates love to everyone), in spirit (in the way his submission to the Holy Spirit is evident) and in purity (a life that is not a mosaic of impurity, but one that is lived in uncompromised integrity.) This is the model of leadership for all Christian leaders. It is also a model that gives God the opportunity to work through the individual to affect positive change.
Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. 14Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. 15Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. 16Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
Paul fully knows the challenge that Timothy faces. It is a challenge faced by many ministers and many Christian laity today. Paul encourages Timothy to maintain the strength that will be needed when facing opposition by the faithful adherence to the edifying practices that brought him to the position where he is. There is a Southern American cliche that states, "dance with the one what brung you." It may not be very good grammar and spelling, but the truth in it is valuable. Do not wander from that which brought you to where you are. Timothy is instructed to continue in the study of the Word, to continue in sharing that word with others, and to continue to apply the word in appropriate and good doctrine. Also, Paul instructs Timothy to continue to exercise the gifts that were given to him: gifts that were recognized in him by Paul and by his faithful peers. It is easy to forget those gifts when one is subjected to the criticism and reproach of those who are in opposition to him. Paul calls upon Timothy to remember those who know him and recognized the call of God in his life.
This has been a tough lesson. It has been tough to write, as it brings to surface many hurtful memories, and as it exposes errors in our church today. How do we take such a lesson and apply it to our lives? We may be able to consider these instructions of Paul as we ask some hard questions:
- Is our church characterized by the errors of the church in Ephesus? Do we have teachings and practices that are based on tradition rather than on the Word of God? Do we have teachings and practices that allow the expression of worldly philosophies that we accept over the Word of God?
- Is our church characterized by prideful leadership? Do the leaders serve so that their own agenda can be accomplished? Do they criticize, condemn, or otherwise condemn those who do not agree with them? Is our church leadership an example to believers in word, conversation, charity, spirit, faith and purity, or is it simply a board of authority?
- Is our own life characterized by teachings and practices that are based on tradition? Do we personally embrace worldly philosophies rather than those of the Word of God?
- Are we personally driven by prideful motives, or are we personally an example to other believers of being fully submitted to the Holy Spirit in what we say, what we do, in our love for all people, in the presence of the Spirit in our lives, and in our uncompromised integrity?
It would be instructive and profitable for us to ask these questions as we seek to turn from our sinful ways, from our pride, from our prejudices, from our need to control others, and simply submit the the Holy Spirit as we ask for God's forgiveness for the way we have been acting as we turn to Him. Let us make Paul's instructions to Timothy a model for our own lives, and appropriate the corrections that Paul prescribes for the Ephesian church for our own churches as we replace tradition with the spontaneous response to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and turn control of the church from our own hands back to that of the Holy Spirit as we empower each believer to be a part of the true body of Christ.