Biblical Church Leadership

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 1, 2007

Hebrews 13:7

The Lord's Day Morning

April 1, 2007

I Timothy 3:1-13; Hebrews 13:7

Biblical Priorities for Church Life
Biblical Church Leadership

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy 3. We've been for a number of months now, on and off, working through the attributes, or the characteristics, or the priorities of a biblical local church; that is, what are the characteristics of a church which in some measure has aspirations for and bears the marks of those qualities of life and ministry that God expects the church to bear and aspire to in the New Testament? What in the Bible are the characteristics that God looks for in a local church in which He is working…a local church which desires to be faithful to Scripture in its life and ministry? And we've looked at a number of things together.

The last time we were together in this topic, we were looking at the issue of church membership and we said that church membership itself was an expression of passion for the body of Christ, the family of God; that it's the place in which we experience discipleship, because discipleship can't happen until you are a part of a community in which there is authority. There's no such thing as optional voluntary discipleship. It's in the context of submitting to one another and embracing the biblical leadership of the elders of the church that one embarks upon a course of discipleship, because in the context of that community–where we cannot simply decide, well, today I'm going to be humble and submissive and Christ-like, but tomorrow I may not decide to do that–it's in the context of a community that won't let us get by with that that discipleship really happens. And so we contemplated the importance of church membership the last time we were together.

And we also mentioned that one of the reasons why we so often undervalue church membership is because it costs us so little. We Christians here in America often don't know what it costs our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ to be baptized, believing members of a local congregation in other parts of the world. Sometimes the cost is their own lifeblood. Sometimes it is tremendous peril, exile, separation from parents, ostracism in all manner of things. God has been merciful to us that that price is not required of us here in Mississippi right now, but we should value what it means to be a part of the body of Christ and of the local expression of it no less, simply because God has not required us to pay a personal price for our belonging.

Well, today we're going to look at the importance of biblical church leadership, and this is not a peripheral issue. If God has brought together a family, and if in that family He plans for us to be discipled, matured, grown up in the faith, then He has also given leadership in that family.

It is vital that every one of us become characterized as disciples who love the word, who are captured by the word of God; our thoughts, our imaginations, our dreams all captive to the word of God; our belief, our faith captive to the word of God. How are we going to have that? Well, God has appointed those to be teachers of that word in His church.

It's important for us, if we're going to be people of God, if we're going to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, to be people of prayer. Prayer does a lot of things, but one of the things it does at the very outset is it acknowledges that we're not in charge. You wouldn't pray to God for something that you are wholly and solely capable of producing yourself. You wouldn't ask God to do what you are capable of doing on your own. One of the reasons you pray to God is an acknowledgement of your finitude, of your limitations, of the fact that God is in charge, and that only God can perform what He has ultimately called all of us to do, even in our discipleship; so, prayer is a living demonstration of the sovereignty of God in the practical life of the believer day to day. Well, God has appointed officers in the church to lead us in prayer.

And God has called us to love and serve one another tangibly. He's not called us to be a people who say ‘Be warmed, be filled, Lord bless you;’ but when we're in trouble, He's called us to minister to one another. When we're in need, He's called us to minister to one another. He's called us to tangibly show our love and care and concern for one another in the congregation, and He's called on us to love our neighbor in that same way. And He has put a body of officers in the church to be a living, breathing, walking, talking example of that.

And so the issue of biblical church leadership, the issue of elders and deacons in a local congregation, is not a peripheral issue, it's a gospel issue. When the gospel takes hold of people's lives, it leads to growth in grace in these areas. But God knows that that growth in grace needs all of the mutual help and accountability that we can possibly get, and therefore He, in His goodness (we see in Ephesians 4) appoints officers in the church who are there to edify us, there to encourage us, there to help us grow in grace.

And He knows that that in turn will lead to the gospel being worked out deep into our hearts and out into our lives, and that in turn will lead to a better gospel witness to the world around us. The world, in other words, will look at the congregation of God's people and say, “You know, there's something different about them. They believe differently, they think differently, they speak differently, they act differently, they have different priorities, they love differently. There's something different about them.” In other words, a gospel witness will result from this working of God in the congregation, but He does this through officers.

And I want to look at the two classes of officers that are spoken of in the New Testament: elders and deacons. Let me just go ahead before we read I Timothy 3 and tell you what my two points are going to be in the message today. Point one is simply this: Elders edify the church through example and exhortation, and they will give an account to God. Deacons, through deeds of love and mercy, show the congregation what it means to love one another tangibly. (Point one, Point two.) Elders edify the church through example and exhortation, and they will give an account to God (Point one). Point two: Deacons, through deeds of love and mercy show the congregation what it means to love one another tangibly.

Let's look to God in prayer before we read His word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us by it today and make us to be a church of the sort that You envisage in the Bible. We want to be Christ-like not only in our individual lives, but in our corporate life together, so by Your Spirit open our eyes to behold the truth of Your word and transform our hearts by that same truth. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

This is God's word, I Timothy 3:1:

“It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, un-contentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Sometime in the next year, I guess, we are going to exercise the privilege and responsibility that God gives us in the New Testament to elect officers in this congregation. The elders haven't decided when, yet. They’re just talking about this now. I know that they’re talking about it, because they talk to me about it, and I hear them talking about this among themselves. We've been going through a tremendous transition the last two years at First Presbyterian Church, and I know that this is on their hearts and on their minds. I know it's on their mind in part because I hear them commenting about some of the outstanding young men that the Lord has given to this church, who seem to bear such evidence in their lives and their ministries of the gifts and the qualifications of these offices.

But I know it's also in the elders’ mind because they’re thinking of the future of the church. I don't know when that will come, but it's a good thing for us to be thinking about this right now because all of us ought to be looking around and asking the question, “Lord, who have You given to this church who meets these biblical qualifications, who You would call to edify this church as an elder or as a deacon? Because I know that this is a gospel necessity for this local congregation. If we are going to be healthy, if we are going to express the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3), then we need godly officers giving us example not just in what they say, but with how they live, what they do.

And the Lord speaks of this in His word. In this passage we see a list of qualifications given for elders and then for deacons, and in each of that list of qualifications it is required that these men not simply say the truth, but that they do the truth; that is, they are not only ones who teach the truth, but they are ones who live the truth, and so by their example show us how to live that same truth.

I. Elders are given by God to the church to edify the church.

Well, today I want you to see two things that are important for us to understand about biblical church leadership. First, that God has given elders to the church, and these elders are given by God to the church (explicitly, by the way, said by Paul in Ephesians 4, to be given by Christ to the church) to edify the church by their example and exhortation so that we are equipped for every good work. And those elders will give an account for how they do their job. Let me say that in another way. The church is to be led, says the Apostle Paul in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…the church is to be led in word and prayer by elders. Those elders by their example and teaching shepherd and edify the saints, and those elders will give an account of their leadership.

Let me demonstrate that to you from God's holy word. Isn't it interesting there in I Timothy 3:1-7, that in that long list of qualifications, all of the qualifications but one are basically character qualities? In other words, all of the qualifications have to do with a man's life: what is he like personally, what is he like in terms of his relationship with unbelievers in the world of business and vocation, and what is he like in the context of his family–but all of the qualifications except one are character qualities. The one competency qualification that is required is what? You’ll see it in the very end of verse two. What is it? The elder must be able to teach.

Now, the elder is also to be a man of prayer. Turn back to I Timothy 2, and look at verse 8. Paul says explicitly, “I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without … dissension.” Now, the Apostle Paul is not saying that he does not want women to pray, or that it's unimportant that women pray, but he is emphasizing how significant it is for the male leadership of the congregation to be characterized as men of prayer. And this, of course, is exactly what we find in the book of Acts. Turn back with me to Acts 6, as the apostles are seeking to solve the problem of the overlooking of the Greek-speaking widows in the predominately Aramaic or Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem. They comment in passing upon their own vocation. These are the disciples; these are the so-called twelve. These are the leaders of the church, but their leadership in the two areas that they name in Acts 6:4 continues on in the eldership today. Notice how they characterize their work. How did Peter and Paul and John, how did they see their work? Here's how they saw their work (Acts 6:4):

“We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

So the apostles saw themselves as primarily responsible for leading the church through prayer and the ministry of the word. They were to edify the congregation through the ministry of the word, through prayer, and through teaching: through example and through exhortation.

Now interestingly we see this come to play again in Acts 20. Turn with me there. Here in Acts 20:28, the Apostle Paul says:

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.”

Here's Paul speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus, and he's saying that it's their job to protect the flock and feed the flock — to shepherd the flock.

Now why is it that these elders are needed to shepherd the flock of God? Turn with me to Ephesians 4, and look at verses 11-13. Why is it that these elders are needed to shepherd the flock of God? Here's what Paul says (Ephesians 4:11):

“He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.”

Now you say to me, “Wait a minute. This is talking about pastors. This is talking about preachers. This is not talking about elders.”

Listen to what Paul said: “He gave some as pastors and teachers….” Now, what's a pastor? A shepherd. What did he call the elders in Acts 20:28? Shepherds. What was the one competency that he required of elders in I Timothy 3:2? To teach. So, what are elders? Pastor-teachers. That's what they are. When you’re electing elders–I'm talking about the lay-elders from your congregation–they are to be pastor-teachers. That's what they are. They are shepherd-teachers.

And by their example and by their exhortation they are to do what? Well, the Apostle Paul tells you in verse 12. Why did Jesus give pastor-teachers? Why did He give elders to the church? “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service.”

He didn't give elders to the church so that they could do your work for you: He gave elders to the church so that they could do what? Equip you to do what God has called you to do in the church and in all of life. He knew that you needed that edification, and so elders He gave to you in order to edify you. They are to be pastor-teachers, shepherd-teachers who edify you so that what happens? So that the body of Christ is built up.

Is that a pretty important task? Yes, it is! Is the body of Christ pretty important to Jesus? Well, what did Paul say in Acts 20:28? “He bought it with His own blood.” That's how important the body of Christ is to Jesus, and what He loves at the cost of His own blood, He turns around and He says ‘OK, elders… OK, shepherd-teachers. I want you to take care of My body.’ You think that's an awesome job? Yes, it is! That's why in Hebrews 13:17, a passage that's in the bulletin but that we didn't read at the beginning of the service, that's why the author of Hebrews, joining what Paul says here and what James says in James 2, says, ‘You know what those elders…you know what those officers…you know what those leaders will one day do? They will give an account to God for how they edified you.’

But you understand this is a gospel thing. The gospel works in their lives, and what do these elders do? They become men of the word. They love the word, they eat the word, they delight in the word. They love the whole counsel of God. Even as Jesus told His disciples that they were to make disciples and that they were to “teach them all that I commanded you,” these elders are men who have been captured by God, by His grace. They've been converted and transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ, and by His Holy Spirit, and they've become men that love the whole counsel of God. They love the word, and they’re able to teach it to others. And we need that. Why? Because we as believers ought to love the word. We ought to want to eat the word, to know the word from cover to cover. We want it to permeate our lives so that we think Bible, and we believe Bile, and we act Bible, so that Bible becomes instinctive for us. But it won't become instinctive if we don't esteem it, and it won't become instinctive if we don't learn it. And God has given shepherd-teachers to us so that the Bible becomes a part of us, so that God's truth presses deep into our hearts and out into our lives. We need that.

It's a gospel issue. We need the gospel worked deep into our hearts and out into our lives. We need to understand that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. We need to understand that He who knew no sin became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We need to understand that God delivered His Son up for us all. We need to understand that Christ died for our sins and was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures.

We need to understand the gospel. It changes everything in life, it changes everything in our lives…and He's given us pastor-teachers, shepherd-teachers, in order to edify us in the gospel. This is a gospel issue. Every healthy church needs shepherd-teachers edifying the congregation in the whole counsel of God in the truth of the gospel. It's a gospel issue.

II. Deacons show the saints how to love one another tangibly.

But the church is also to be led in deeds of service by deacons who, by example and works of love, show the saints how to love one another tangibly.

Turn in your Bibles to John 13. In John 13. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, He was in the upper room talking to His disciples and He did something very strange. He took off His outer garment, stripped down and wore a long towel around His waist. All His disciples would have recognized that that is the way a slave dresses when that slave's job is to wash the feet of the guests who are coming to visit in the house in that culture. You can imagine in that culture walking many miles on dusty roads in blistering heat. When you get to your [host's] home, you are a mess. And one of the things that a good host did is he provided a slave who washed the feet of all the guests being welcomed into the house. Now, as you can imagine, this was not the task that the slaves were lining up saying, “Ooo! Ooo! Can I do that? Can I do that?” This was a very menial task. Being around someone's dusty, sweaty, smelly feet on your knees is about as low on the totem pole as it gets. And suddenly in John 13, there's Jesus! And you know the story. The disciples are actually terribly embarrassed about this fact that Jesus is, in the manner of an oriental slave, on His knees washing their feet. But Jesus explains to them why He did this later. You see this in John 13:33ff. He says to them in verse 34:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus had given them an example of the commandment that He was about to pronounce to them.

Now of course it's not a new commandment in the sense that the commandment to love one another wasn't given in the Old Testament. It was. The command to love one another is found repeatedly in the Old Testament, even in the middle of the Law in Leviticus 19. The command to love one another is there. The command to love our neighbor is there. There's nothing new about that command. Why does Jesus call it a new commandment? Because–what does He say?–“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus in this striking way had put Himself, the exalted one…He is the Messiah, He is the Son of the living God, He is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and now He has put Himself at the feet of His disciples. To do what? To serve them. And now He turns around and He says ‘That's how I want you to love one another.’

And God has given a group of officers to the church that are to embody that in the way they serve the congregation. They are to serve the congregation in time of need so that through their example and service they show to us how we are to serve one another.

God wants our congregation to be a radically serving congregation. He wants us to always be ready to say, “How may I serve you?” And to that end He knows that that does not come naturally to us. We are so preoccupied. We are selfish, we are self-centered, we are me-first kind of people, and we live in a me-first generation. And so God has given a group of men who are supposed to be always thinking and living the priority of service in their lives. Why? So that they can be the ones in the congregation serving for us? No! So that we are motivated to begin to emulate their service ourselves, to one another.

And then what's the result of that? Well, Jesus told us in John 13:35:

“By this all men will know that You are My disciples.”

When they look at this group of people putting others ahead of themselves…when they look at this group of people serving one another instead of serving themselves…when they look at this group of people preoccupied with manifesting tangibly the love of Christ to one another rather than doing the me-first thing, they’re going to go…??? “There's something going on here. Something different about these people. What is it?” The gospel.

You see, it's a gospel issue, folks. With both the elders and the deacons, God is working the gospel out in the life of the congregation. This is why it is so vital that we look for men whose hearts are aflame for these things, because their job is in their example (and in the case of the elders, in their teaching), to show us and to exhort us in the living out of the gospel in our relationship with one another, and then ultimately even to our neighbors out there.

So biblical church leadership is not some peripheral, extraneous matter that we don't need to think about. It's something very important for the life of a healthy local church. Jesus gave gifts to His church; and among those gifts, we are told, are pastor-teachers…shepherd-elders. That's what He gave to His church, and Jesus doesn't give gifts that we don't need.

And so we need to be praying right now, “Lord Jesus, show that You’re at the right hand of God the Father Almighty again, like You have so many times to First Presbyterian Church over the last almost 170 years.” Do you realize that next Sunday morning it will be exactly 170 years since this congregation was founded? April 8, 1837 — April 8, 2007. And one of the ways that God has blessed this church over the years is that the Lord Jesus Christ has given elders to us that love the word of God, love the gospel, love the Lord Jesus Christ, and are determined to protect the flock and to make sure that the word of God is taught in the flock. And He's given deacons that self-sacrificially serve this church. Let's start praying now that God will bless this church again, so that another generation will see and hear the gospel lived out, and will be determined to live that gospel out itself.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for the legacy of biblical fidelity that we have in the officers of this church. Continue that legacy, we pray, by Your grace and mercy for a generation yet to come, even a generation yet unborn, that we might tell them the praiseworthy deeds of our God and declare to them the mercies which He has shown to our fathers. And we ask that this would lead to Your glory, and that it would lead to a witness to all men that we are Your disciples. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: The Church's One Foundation]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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