Teaching series from 1 Timothy

Leadership in Healthy Churches

1 Timothy 3:1-13

Teaching t14017


Brief reminder of the setting and purpose (read 3:14,15) – to explain how each of us can contribute to our church’s spiritual health.  The church is not a static institution memorializing its dead Founder, in which only a few professional curators participate.  It is like a living body, in which each member is personally united with Christ (GOSPEL), and has a vital role to play (read Eph. 4:15,16).

We come now to another passage related to this theme – namely, leadership in healthy churches.  The Ephesian church had become unhealthy, in large part because its leadership had become unhealthy.  Therefore, restoring the health of their leadership was a key part of Timothy’s task.  Let’s read Paul’s instructions on this subject – read 3:1-13.  From this passage and a couple of others, we can identify four key relationships between healthy churches and church leadership.

Healthy churches have official leaders

It may sound too obvious to mention, but healthy churches have official leaders.  Paul speaks here of two different leadership offices – overseers and deacons.

“Overseer” (3:1,2) is synonymous with “elder” (see Titus 1:5,7).  “Overseer” describes their function – to provide overall spiritual direction (to stay on mission) and spiritual care (3:5b).  This is why Peter calls elders “shepherds” (1 Pet. 5:1,2).  “Elder” describes their relative spiritual (not chronological) maturity (3:6) – more on this soon.

“Deacon” (3:8,12,13) means literally “servant.”  All Christians are to be servants of Christ and others, so “deacons” are evidently exemplary servants.  The New Testament doesn’t describe deacons’ function beyond this, except that they operate under the leadership of the elders (deacons are always mentioned second).  In our church, deacons are home church leaders and other exemplary servants.[1]

So a healthy church requires human leadership.  God has always been the ultimate Leader of His people, but He has also always raised up human leaders and worked through them to accomplish His plan (EXAMPLES). 

Sometimes, churches over-react to bad leaders by wrongly pitting leadership offices against being led by God (BABY-BATHWATER FALLACY).   For example, the “Simple Church” house church movement is outspoken in arguing against any formal church offices. As Frank Viola explains, the house church must be “gathering under the Headship of Jesus Christ without a clergy, where the members know one another deeply and are experiencing a depth in Christ, where decisions are made by the community, and where every member functions in the meetings (services) without any man controlling, directing, facilitating, or dominating . . .”[2]

Although this sounds good in theory (i.e., leaderless groups may sound like they would facilitate spirituality and freedom), they usually result in chaos, wasted and directionless energy and (often) the rise of strong personalities who function as unofficial leaders to fill the direction vacuum.  But the biblical solution to bad leaders is not no leaders – it is godly leaders!  The Ephesian church had had some bad leaders, so Paul reminds Timothy how to identify godly leaders . . .

Healthy churches have godly leaders

Paul describes what godly Christian leaders look alike from three different angles: their character, the content of their teaching, and their track-record of previous proven leadership.

First, godly leaders must have godly character.  Godly character is God’s goal for all Christians (1:5) – and leaders must have this to inspire and lead others into it.  Paul describes godly character generally both negatively (“beyond reproach” – 3:2,10) and positively (“respectable” – 3:2; “good reputation” – 3:7; “people of dignity” – 3:8).

“Beyond reproach” means that the prospective elder or deacon must be free from obviously discrediting behavior (explain 3:2a,8,11 behaviors).  “One-woman man” (3:2,12) refers to sexually faithful/chaste people, free from sexual immorality.

But just the absence of discrediting behaviors is not sufficient; church leaders must have positive character qualities that inspire people’s respect and imitation (explain 3:2,3b terms; 3:7). 

Second, godly leaders must know, sincerely believe in, and effectively communicate God-inspired (biblical) truth.  So elders must be “skilled at teaching” biblical truth (3:2), which is further defined in Titus 1:9 (read).  Deacons must “hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” – have sincere convictions that the gospel is the truth (see 3:15 – the church is “the pillar and support of the truth”).  It is God’s Word that saves people and changes lives (2 Tim. 3:16,17).  When church leaders depart from this Bible-centeredness, whether into heresy or doctrinal tangents, the church eventually loses both its message and its spiritual health.  This is why our church requires that prospective deacons complete our core courses on theology and ministry.

Thirdly, godly leaders have a track-record of previous leadership effectiveness.  One of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior.  For example, they should have led their families well (explain 3:4,5).  They should have been tested in other servant roles (3:10).  Other examples include effectiveness in helping to lead home churches and/or a ministry team.  This is why, in our church, prospective elders must have a strong record of effective home church leadership.

What a treasure it is to have leaders who are godly in these ways!  What can happen if even one of these is missing?  But more is needed for a church to be healthy in this area . . .

Healthy churches have good followers

Thirdly, healthy churches have good followers.  Paul implies this here, but he states it explicitly elsewhere, as we will see.  You can have godly leaders – but members can effectively short-circuit their leadership if many of them are poor or unwilling followers.

Two other passages point to two keys to good followership:

Read 1 Thess. 5:12,13.  Good followers appreciate their leaders and esteem them in love because of their work (contra taking them for granted).  As we will see in a couple of weeks, this may involve supporting them financially.  Good leaders don’t milk appreciation (let alone money) from their people, but they are encouraged by it – I have experienced this many times.  And such appreciation helps to create a culture in which aspiration to leadership flourishes (conversely, people will not follow punished models).

Read Heb. 13:17.  Good followers are willing to be led, inclined to follow their leaders – even if they may disagree on some judgment calls.  No godly leader wants people who blindly follow (not that this is our problem in American culture!).  They want their teaching and leadership to be evaluated by and held accountable to the Bible.  But is grievous indeed to try to lead people who are unsubmissive:

“I have no problem submitting when I agree with the leader’s decision.”  But that’s not submission!  Submission is choosing to accept a judgment call decision and to actively help it succeed vs. passively waiting for it to fail.

“I have no problem submitting to God – just to people.”  But God leads many time through leaders, so our submission to Him will be tested here.  “Good leaders are hard to find” may say more about me than about my leaders.

“The burden is on you why I should follow.”  No, respectful submission means that the burden is on me why I should not follow.  Unless an important biblical truth is being violated, I am to be willing to help their legitimate goals succeed.

All of three of these are essential for a healthy church.  But because some leaders go bad (as in Ephesus), or because the church grows in size, or because leaders have to step down because of age or illness, healthy churches need a fourth quality . . .

Healthy churches have people who aspire to leadership for the right reasons

Lastly, healthy church have people who aspire to leadership for the right reasons.  Re-read 3:1.  “Desires” (epithumia) is a strong verb (sometimes translated “lust”).  “Aspires” (oregetai) is an even stronger verb.  To strongly want to be a leader in God’s church is a fine (kalos) thing because this work is a noble work (because the church is at the center of God’s plan; because leaders represent Christ in a special way)!   Though it is not God’s will for every Christian to be an elder or deacon, we can rest assured that God will plant this strong desire in many of our hearts.  In healthy churches, many people respond to this God-given desire by seeking to make progress in the three areas above, and by praying that (if it is God’s will) He will raise them into leadership at the proper time.  In healthy churches, furthermore, most people have a positive view of this aspiration.

In churches that lack in this area, you often hear this sentiment: “I appreciate you leading – but don’t ever ask me to lead.”  This is a sign of ill health, and I fear we have this in some parts of adult ministry.  Several factors can lead to this problem:

Some members are willing in principle to lead, but have such serious other responsibilities that taking on a church leadership role is not possible.

Some members are willing to lead, but lack the training or support they need in order to lead effectively – so the task seems overwhelming.  This task is humanly overwhelming, but God can enable us – and He works through leaders to formal and personal training, and also provide oversight to advise and encourage leaders.  We are blessed to have quality training and support in our church.

Some members may be cynical about leadership because of cultural or (especially) church leadership failures.  Peter names of these common leadership failures (along with their godly counterparts) that are toxic to this quality (see 1 Pet. 5:2,3):

“I have to” vs. “I get to” – dutiful models cannot inspire to lead.

For the money (or prestige) vs. with sincere eagerness to serve God.

To boss people around vs. being examples of humble servant-leadership.

Godly leaders can often dissolve this cynicism as people see and benefit from their leadership.  But sometimes this cynicism is just a justification for self-centeredness, which requires personal repentance.

Some members are unwilling to become leaders because of their own past failures in leadership (e.g., moral disqualification; groups failing; etc.).  But failure in any important and challenging endeavor is almost certain.  The question is not: “Will I experience any failure?” but rather: “Will I respond to failure as an opportunity to receive God’s grace and to learn value lessons?”  (e.g., PETER)

Some members may be inordinately pre-occupied with other aspirations (e.g., career; family; hobbies; etc.).  They view these aspirations as more rewarding.  Yet remember Paul’s reference to church leadership as a noble work (3:1), and notice how Paul closes this passage (read 3:13).  What could be more rewarding than having greater confidence in your faith (through the testing involved in leadership)?  What could be more rewarding than having high standing in God’s eyes (including BEMA reward), and in people’s eyes (i.e., a good role model)?  How much will your aspirations and advancements in these other areas matter 500 years from now?

Are you willing to say to God: “I want to be used by You as effectively as possible.  I am willing to serve contentedly in whatever capacity You have for me, including leadership roles if that it Your will.”


NEXT WEEK: 1 Timothy 4:7-16 – “Being a Potent Spiritual Influencer”


[1] “Women” in 3:11 almost certainly refers to female deacons rather than deacons’ wives.  If Paul required these qualities from deacons’ wives, how much more would he requires them from elders’ wives?

[2] Frank Viola, “Rethinking the Five-Fold Ministry.”