Teaching series from 1 Timothy

Two Ministry Priorities of Healthy Churches

1 Timothy 5:3-18

Teaching t14019


Brief reminder of the setting and purpose (read 3:14,15) – to explain what healthy churches look like, and how each of us can contribute to our church’s spiritual health.

We come now to another passage related to this theme – read selections from 5:3-18.  This long section is Paul instructing Timothy on how to direct the financial resources of the Ephesian church.[1]  Paul instruction implies that the church collects money from its members, and that the church leadership is responsible to disburse those funds in a way that advances its mission.  Every church has limited financial resources.  How it spends those resources is both a reflection and reinforcement of its actual priorities.  Let’s think about what this passage teaches about two key ministry priorities of healthy churches – beginning with this specific example, and then going a little deeper . . .

Healthy churches use their financial resources to support needy members and key leaders.

First, Paul urges Timothy to financially support worthy widows in the Ephesian church.  5:3-16 refers to a list (5:9) of widows who the church was to financially support (implied from 5:4,8,16).  He gives strict requirements for widows to be put on the list (e.g., no family support; ineligible for marriage; proven church servant).  In part, requirements like these are necessary because a local church (especially in a culture with no Social Security, etc.) often has more financially needy members than it has financial resources.  It should help many needy people occasionally, but ongoing help should be reserved for those who are proven servants with insufficient other means of support.

But another reason for the strict widow-support requirements is so that there is money to provide ongoing pay to key leaders – especially those who preach and teach extensively (5:17,18).  5:17 “double honor” probably refers to certain elders being financially compensated as well as being respected (vs. double normal elder pay).  Such teaching and preaching equips the members in God’s Word (Eph. 4:11,12) and helps seekers come to faith in Christ.  Teaching preparation takes a lot of time (XENOS: 16 hours/CT & 12 hours/class) over and above other normal every-member ministries.

Of course, some churches are so small or poor that they don’t have much/any money to do either.  But they can still observe the principle that undergirds this application . . .

Healthy churches prioritize Word ministry and service ministry.

These two financial expenditures represent two broader biblical priorities for the local church – Word ministry and service ministry.  Timothy is to mobilize church members to practically serve the widows by providing food, administrating the funds for this, etc.  He is also to make sure that the teaching/preaching elders are compensated for their Word ministries.

This specific instruction reflects a clear general pattern in the New Testament:

Matthew summarizes Jesus early public ministry this way Jesus’ (read Matt. 4:23).  Jesus focused on two priorities – Word (“teaching and proclaiming”) and service (“healing”).  His service ministry also involved giving financial assistance to the poor (Jn. 12:4-6).

Jesus also focused His disciples on these two ministry priorities as He trained them for their future ministries (Lk. 10:8,9; 12:33; 24:47).

The Jerusalem church maintained these two priorities (read Acts 4:33-35). As it grew, the apostles appointed workers to serve the church’s many widows so that they could focus on communicating God’s Word (read Acts 6:1-4).  Here we see intentional division of labor within the local church to maintain these two priorities.

In addition to his extensive preaching and teaching ministry, Paul worked hard to provide financial help to churches so they could care for their poor members (Gal. 2:7-10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8,9).  He also taught his churches to maintain these priorities (1 Tim. 5; etc.).

Most of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament refer to Word and service abilities (read 1 Pet. 4:10,11).  Paul’s representative list of spiritual gifts falls into these two categories (read and explain Rom. 12:6-8).  The giving of these gifts emphasizes and facilitates God’s insistence that these ministries belong together in the same local church.

Why must Word and service ministry go together?

There are many biblical answers to this question; it is part of the larger (and complex) issue of church renewal and expansion.  But rather than look superficially at all of them, let’s look closely at two of them . . .

They belong together because they communicate the love of God to the watching world in complementary ways: The Word shares the message of God’s love and explains how to receive it; the service shows God’s love and supplies practical credibility to the Word.

The Word is God’s message of mercy and restoration.  It is bad news on the front end, because it offends our self-sufficient, self-esteem sensibilities.  It tells me that I am not a good person who has made some mistakes, but rather that I am guilty before a holy God, and deserving of his judgment – and that I cannot deliver myself from this verdict.  It tells me that I am not a basically healthy person who just needs a little spiritual self-help, but rather that I am broken beyond self-repair.  This is bad news!  But the good news is far better than the bad news!  It tells me that God’s mercy is greater than my guilt, and that God’s redemptive power is greater than my brokenness.  It tells me that through Jesus’ death, God offers me total forgiveness because Jesus took God’s judgment in my place.  It tells me that through Jesus’ resurrection, God offers me total restoration – starting in this life and gloriously completed when Jesus returns.  All the service in the world without this Word will never meet people’s deep spiritual needs.

But the Word without service that shows God’s mercy and restoration has little compelling credibility (“Why should I believe what you say?  There’s no evidence that it’s restoring anything – including you!  You Christians are just as self-centered as everyone else.”).  No matter how important the message, the medium of that message is crucial for its effective communication.  Even the most insightful song lyrics won’t enlighten and move people unless they are set to beautiful music.  The service is the medium/music – it makes the Word attractive (Titus 2:10) by displaying the love of which the Word speaks.  But when the service (to non-Christians and/or to Christians observed by non-Christians) adorns the Word, a redemptive explosion often occurs!

In the similar situation in Acts 6 (when the Jerusalem church took care of its widows), we read one of the ripple-effects in 6:7.  Why were Jewish priests responding to the gospel?  The Old Testament said they were responsible for distributing resources to the poor.  Possibly, they saw the Christians doing a better job of this than they did – which created priestly openness to the Christian message, out of which many were converted.

Church history has many examples of the evangelistic impact that results when Christians serve their non-Christian neighbors:

In 362 AD, Emperor Julian (the Apostate) rejected his Christian upbringing and tried to return the Roman Empire to its pagan roots.  He complained bitterly about one of the main reasons he was unable to prevent the continued growth of the Christian church: “The religion of the Greeks does not prosper.  Why do we not observe how the charity of Christians to strangers has done the most to advance their cause?  It is disgraceful that these Christians support our poor in addition to their own, while everyone is able to see that our co-religionists lack aid from us.”[2]

Another example is the Wesleyan movement in Great Britain (from mid-18th to mid-19th centuries).  It grew slowly during John Wesley’s lifetime (d. 1799); his journals speak far more frequently of unreceptive towns than of receptive ones.  Why such slow progress?  A key factor was that they suffered from bad press: “Evangelicals . . . were regarded as narrow-minded, bigoted, lacking in humor, devoid of imagination, incapable of understanding the real world, occupying a subculture which normal people would not wish to enter.  Those who were enticed into their circle were regarded as having met with an unfortunate accident, and no respectable family would willingly allow their offspring to be influenced in this way.”[3]  DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?

By contrast, the Wesleyan movement grew much more extensively during the next 35-40 years.  Why?  In 1820, as hundreds of thousands of people were coming to Christ, Charles Simeon (a powerfully gifted preacher/teacher), reflected on the reasons for this great harvest: “I do not think that either myself, or any other minister in the church, is very successful in converting souls to Christ.  In my mind, I ascribe it to God’s secret blessings on the nation, (and) on account of the attempts that are made to honor Him in Britain . . . which has given a kind of currency to gospel truths.”[4]  The “account of attempts made to honor Him in Britain” refers in large part to the work of the Clapham Sect (Wilberforce) and others who served the poor and disadvantaged (including slaves).  This is what adorned (“gave currency to”) the gospel message.

I could continue to give historical examples, but you get the point.  And consider our present challenge.  Like the evangelical church in late 18th century England, the evangelical church in America today suffers from a bad reputation – and it is rapidly getting worse.[5]  We can argue about why and how deserved this is, but unless we can improve the reputation of Jesus’ church, there will probably be no significant harvest – no matter how good our preaching is or how insightful our apologetics and polemics are (as important as these are).  And the main biblical way we can improve the reputation of Jesus’ church is to adorn the gospel we share through good deeds toward non-Christians![6]

Here are some of the ways we can apply these ministry priorities:

Serving our neighbors and work-associates and sharing our faith (EXAMPLES: would they say they’re glad you’re a neighbor?; known for being helpful?)

Serving in existing community organizations and sharing our faith (EXAMPLES: hospitals; food-pantries; public schools; nursing homes & hospice care; etc.)

Initiating needed service ministries and sharing our faith (EXAMPLES: medical, dental, legal clinics; substance abuse and SA-related ministry teams; Nepali ministry; life-coaching for urban youth; international students & refugees; etc.)

Exercising and esteeming service gifts in our home churches (EXAMPLES: mobilizing members into above service; praying for their work; home church service projects; etc.)

By God’s grace, we’ve made a lot of progress in these areas over the past 10 years.  And by God’s grace, we can “excel still more.”  These service ministries meet practical needs in our church and community, they enhance Jesus’ reputation, and they forge openness to His Word!  But they take a lot of sacrifice and work and real love – and that fact leads us to our second reason why Word and service ministries must go together . . .

They must go together also because the Word motivates God’s people to serve.  Anyone can give to United Way, or help their church friends once a year.  People often do this for a tax deduction, to enhance their social reputation, etc.  Non-Christians sometimes do this better than Christians (Matt. 5:46,47).  But where do you get the motivation to do the above kind of service – over the long haul, to serve people who may be ungrateful or even hostile, when there is no temporal advantage to doing this? 

Not from guilt (“God will be angry with you unless you do this!”), not from peer pressure (“What will my friends think if I don’t?”), not in order to get human esteem (“This will make my church grow – and then I’ll be somebody!”).  These motives are either inadequate (they don’t supply perseverance) and/or inappropriate (they are self-centered instead of for others and for Jesus’ glory).

This motivation to embrace a lifestyle of service comes only from God’s Word.  Only the message about God’s unmerited love toward us motivates us serve others freely and with joy (Matt. 10:8; SCROOGE).  This is why when Paul wanted Titus to motivate the Cretan churches to be more engaged in service, he told him to emphasize God’s grace (read and explain Titus 3:1-8).  As the message of God’s love toward us becomes our focus and goes deeper into our souls, we increasingly want to give God’s love away to others because it gives us joy to give freely to others what we have freely received!  Conversely, if we lack this motivation, we shouldn’t rely on self-recrimination or comparison or pressure to change this (in ourselves or one another).  We should ask God for a fresh revelation of His love from His Word– and then respond to this by giving His love away to others!

[1] See “honor” in 5:3,17 (timao; time) – here it refers to financial support, while elsewhere in 1 Tim., it refers to more generic respect (1:17; 6:1,16).

[2] Julian’s missive to Arsacius, high priest of Galatia.

[3] Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space, pp. 69,70.

[4] Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space, p. 72.

[5] “. . . measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward (over the past decade) . . . For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity. . . . Only 3% of 16 - to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals. This means that today’s young non-Christians are eight times less likely to experience positive associations toward evangelicals than were non-Christians of the Boomer generation (25%) . . . Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%).  “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity,” The Barna Group, September 24, 2007 – see www.barna.org.

[6] “Today, many evangelicals are branded as arrogant and unkind because of their convictions.  Though people may reject the truth and feel enmity toward what we believe, we must not forget the teaching of Jesus about our enemies: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:43,44).  I am convinced that servanthood is one of the best ways to answer the objections people have to our unique beliefs.  They may dislike what we believe, but they cannot help but be impressed by the way we live.”  Ajith Fernando, Reclaiming Love (Zondervan, 2012), p. 81.

“Are we the kind of church of which (our community) says: ‘We don’t share a lot of their beliefs, but I shudder to think of this (community) without them.  They are such an important part of the community.  They give so much!  If they left we’d have to raise taxes because others won’t give of themselves like they do.”  Tim Keller in John Piper & Justin Taylor, ed. The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Crossway Books, 2007), p. 122.