Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/6/2016 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
“If a Man Desires”
Often the question a Christian man asks himself, “Am I called into the ministry?” Too often people have tried to answer that in some mystical way, as if we could somehow learn the secret will of God for your life by some special supernatural revelation. But the protestant reformed position on answering that question is not mystical. It’s rather ordinary, and it involves wise, biblical discernment. And so we’ve typically understood this search for calling in terms of an internal and an external call. The internal call deals with one’s own personal sense and desire for the calling. The external call deals with what others think about that person’s fitness for the calling. And so, in discerning whether you are called into ministry, there should be both an internal calling and an external calling. Well, today’s passage deals with this regarding the office of elder. We will spend today reflecting on the internal call and the external call for an elder. And yet I would also mention that the very notion of an internal call and an external call has an application with regard to any job and calling someone might engage in. So even while we are specifically thinking today about calling into the office of elder, I hope we can also see how these principles can apply more widely to any daily calling someone has.
So let’s begin by thinking about the internal call to the office of the elder. We see at least part of this idea brought up in verse 1 when it talks about the aspirations and desires of someone to the office of elder. Someone who has an internal call should have some aspirations and desires for ministry. In the NKJV, the word “desires” appears twice in verse 1, but it’s two different Greek words. I want to talk about each because they both help us to think about the internal call.
So, for the first occurrence of desire in verse 1, I like the translation of “aspire”. The word is very colorful. It’s about stretching out your hands towards something. Imagine you are in a race, you are naturally going to be leaning forward and doing everything you can to get yourself to the finish line. Or if you are reaching to grab something that is almost out of your reach, you’ll have to really do everything you can to position your body and strain and stretch out your arm toward what you are trying to grab. And so the point is, that part of that internal call to the ministry is that you not only sense a desire to serve, but that you therefore make effort to obtain that desire.
Now, to clarify, this aspiration should not be sinful aspiration. What do I mean? Well, some people aspire for something that is not theirs to have, but in a power grab they find a way to take it anyways. In the same way, someone could aspire to be an elder and yet not truly be qualified or suited for the ministry, but they find a way to becoming an elder anyways. You could imagine someone who might not even be truly converted, but they think the prestige of position and honor that comes with the office in the church is something to achieve, and so they learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk and grab hold of an office they shouldn’t have. Certainly, that kind of aspiration would not be biblical.
But this kind of aspiration in verse 1 is affirmed, and so verse 1 must have in mind the godly pursuit of a noble call. By analogy, I think of 1 Corinthians 12:31, when Paul had been talking about the various kinds of spiritual gifts in the church. He talked about how certain gifts are especially useful and honorable. And at the end of the discussion, he on the one hand said we should be content with the gifts God gives us, but on the other hand says we should earnestly desire the greater gifts. And so, when you consider the idea of looking for an internal call, it includes the notion of pursuing the calling in a biblical way. That means you reflect biblically on what is required to be in that office and you seek to grow in those ways. You take the steps necessary to obtain the office in a godly way, because you have this sense of internal call to the ministry of elder.
So that’s the first word here in verse 1, translated as “desire” – it’s the sense of aspiration, actively striving for what you want. The second occurrence of the word “desire” is a more general word for desire in the Greek. It’s about having a strong impulse toward something you want. It’s about the general craving you might have for something. Interestingly, this second word for desire can sometimes be used in the Bible as a positive thing and sometimes as a negative thing. For example, Galatians 5:17 uses this word to describe the “desires of the flesh”. There it’s a negative desire. So, what makes the difference then over whether something is good or bad to desire is not the desire in itself, but the thing you are desiring. And that is what verse 1 affirms, of course. When talking about a desire or craving to be an elder, it explicitly says this is a good thing to desire to be.
So let’s get practical here for a moment. What if you have humbly recognized that you have the gifts and qualifications at least to some degree to be an elder, but don’t really have the desire to serve as an elder? Does that mean you do not have an inward call? Not necessarily. Remember, Moses at first didn’t seem to want the call God gave him at the burning bush, but that was nonetheless what God was calling him to do. We can let sinful reasons squelch the passion we should have to serve. And there can be other reasons why we are not inclined to want to serve in this capacity. I would speculate that this is why this became a faithful saying. There are many challenges and difficulties to serving as an elder. Back then, for example, there was so much persecution of Christians, I am sure that the elders would be on the front lines of receiving it. It might not have been that natural for people to desire to be an elder, even though they were qualified for it. But this faithful saying started to be shared more and more to let people know how good it is to actually desire this office of elder. And so if you have the gifts and see the need but don’t have the desire, I encourage you to pray about the desire. At the end of the day, you indeed may not have the inward call of God. On the other hand, it may be the prayer that God uses to have you wrestle with the reasons that have kept you from putting your heart toward this noble calling. Remember this faithful saying, it is a commendable thing to aspire toward this call. Wrestle in prayer in this regard.
But then let’s ask the question the other way. What if you have a great desire and eagerness to be an elder, but you know you don’t meet the qualifications? What do you do then? Well, it is commendable to seek to grow in these areas. Yes, you’ll need to have the humility to accept God’s will for your life even if you don’t ever grow to possess the specific gifts and qualifications needed to be an elder. But it is certainly a noble thing to strive to grow in these ways. So, how do you go about trying to grow to be qualified to be an elder? Well, use the ordinary means of grace! And use a passage like this to see the qualities needed in an elder to help direct your efforts. As we will see as we continue to study this passage, a big emphasis is on personal virtue. So, you will need to look to grow using the Word, and prayer, and the Supper, and the church worship services, and the fellowship of the saints. In other words, if you want to grow in terms of your personal virtue and godliness, then you need to use the things God’s given for such growth. It’s like if you say you want to become more physically fit and more physically healthy, but you never exercise, have a poor diet, and don’t get enough sleep, should you be surprised if you are not that physically healthy? The Bible says Christian virtue is a work of the Spirit, Galatians 5:22 for example. And so, put yourself where the Spirit typically does the most work: in the Word, in His Church, in prayer, in the Supper, etc. Along these lines, I would also advise you to start reading good books on theology written by solid reformed Christians. A qualification for an elder is to be able to teach. They have to stand against false doctrine. That means you need to become an expert in sound doctrine. So, start with the historic reformed confessions. Read and study those and do it in a way that you keep going back to the Scriptures to see that these confessional statements are biblical.
So, I’ve spent some time thinking about the idea of an internal call to the ministry. Let us now in our second half of today’s message start thinking about the external call to the ministry. In other words, when considering if you are called to be an elder, it is not enough for you to personally believe you are called. Sadly, there are ministers out there who have basically self-appointed themselves to the ministry. That is not biblical. Rather, we are reminded here when we read the required qualifications for elders, that the church also needs to recognize God’s call for someone to be a minister. Again, this is a task of discernment. It’s not so much that the church itself empowers and endows someone to be an elder. It’s that the church is recognizing the call of God in someone’s life by their gifts and qualifications. Yes, the church is not infallible in this. Sometimes the church in retrospect has erred in who it has ordained. But no one should presume the office of elder by their own appointment. It is necessary for the church to recognize the gifts and affirm that through what we refer to as an external calling.
We see this notion of an external call first and foremost here by the fact that Paul is writing to Timothy of what qualifications are needed in an elder. That immediately implies that the fact that someone desires the office is not sufficient for giving them the office. Timothy as an ordained minister in the congregation will need to especially lead the church in this area. He will need to make sure that no person is allowed to become an elder who doesn’t meet these qualifications. So right away that shows that the existing leadership of the church has a role in vetting new leaders. We do this in the OPC as well. If someone in the church nominates someone to be considered as an elder or deacon, they can only be voted on by the congregation if the existing elders have examined and certified the candidate as possessing the biblical requirements of office. We do something similar with potential pastors, but because of the nature of their work, we have the elders on the regional presbytery level do the examining. And so the existing leadership in the church especially has a role in the external call of the church.
But this passage goes on to talk about other aspects of the external call. Look at verse 2. It says that an elder must be blameless. To clarify, this not saying that the elder must be morally perfect, one who never sins. There is no such person besides Jesus himself, so that’s not what this is saying. Rather, this is the idea of being above reproach. It means that they are not open to censure or criticism by the church. This means that the person lives the way a Christian should live, in a way that is consistent with the faith. Their life can be an example to others. Their life is not one riddled with scandal or egregious sins. Their life is not one that brings open shame on the church. Rather, people can point to their conduct and say that is how Christians’ should conduct themselves. It is people recognizing Christian maturity in this brother. We should especially be looking in this brother for the qualities mentioned in these verses. And so, realize that this is saying that what others in the church think about this brother is important. If other Christians would look at him and rightfully find fault, then that shows this brother is not qualified for the office, at least at this point in their life. This is part of the external call. The church in general makes the call for someone to serve in the office. They must recognize the maturity, and the virtue, and the gifting, needed in the brother to serve as an elder.
We see a somewhat similar note in verse 7. Verse 7 says, “He must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” Now to clarify, we are not saying that outsiders should select our elders or have a say in that process. But again, we see the general idea that what others think about the potential elder is important. And I think verse 7 shows that not only do we care what those in the church think about the brother, but those in the church should care what unbelievers even think about the brother. You see in verse 7, when it talks about him having a good testimony among outsiders, it is not talking about his personal testimony of becoming a believer. It is talking about the testimony that unbelievers would give about him. Is he above reproach in their judgment? Now obviously, we must understand that from our Christian judgment. If outsiders don’t like him like how the Ephesian idol makers didn’t like Paul because he was bad for business, then obviously, that’s to be expected. But what we don’t want is to make someone an elder who is perceived by the world as less than an upstanding citizen. For example, if a candidate’s coworkers say he’s hard to get along with and always causing strife in the work place, that would be a red flag. Or, if their boss says they are often late and don’t follow instructions well, that would question their suitability to office.
And so, the idea of an external call, means that the church and especially its leaders must make sure we only ordain people who meet the Bible’s qualifications for the office. 1 Timothy 5:22, for example, Paul tells Timothy to not be hasty in the laying on of hands – the laying on of hands referring to the act of ordination done via the laying on of hands. And so, we should see the role in the church in the external calling of someone into the office of elder.
So, if you think someone has the gifts to be an elder, let the elders know, or make a nomination at the annual congregational meeting. The elders will then consider, train, and examine such nominations, based on our biblical discretion. And if the elders certify such nominees, then the congregation will ultimately get to vote whether you would like to officially call such person to the ordained office in our church.
But beyond that, I encourage you to recognize other ways that you can support the external call of the church for someone into the office of elder. There are several ways you can participate in this. One, use your own gifts to invest in people that you see as a leader in the raw. You might see abilities that can be further cultivated and grown and your gifts might be useful in that way; things like praying for them, encouraging them, giving them constructive feedback, etc. When thinking specifically about someone who is pursuing becoming a pastor, they especially need your feedback and support during their time of internship. That is a critical time to give them feedback and encouragement as they work on testing, honing, and growing their gifts. That feedback is part of the informal determining of the external call, as the candidate learns from various people if his services are edifying to the church and he works to see if he can improve where he needs to, in order to be more edifying. The OPC also sponsors internships, which your annual Thank Offering giving especially helps in that regard. So, these are few examples of how you can participate in the overall process of the church considering an external call. The overall point is that the church needs qualified men in leadership. Be used by God in the process for developing and ordaining such men.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I would like to remind us that behind this internal and external calling is the grace of God. It is God who ultimately gifts his people for service. It is God who even gives the church wisdom in discerning who should be called into the ministry. Let us step back again today and praise God that this is part of how he cares for his people. God so loves us and knows that his chosen ones need such leadership. He has provided this process for providing for leaders. That is an act of his care and love. It’s like what we said last week, that ultimately Christ is our chief shepherd and overseer. Jesus died on the cross not only for our forgiveness of sins, but for the overall reclamation of us from darkness and to bring us into his marvelous light. In other words, Christ’s saving work includes our growth here and now, and he uses under-shepherds to be about this. See this as grace from above. Trust in this too by faith. We trust in Christ by faith for forgiveness of sins. Trust by faith that he will be with his church, and provide even for its need of leadership. Trust in faith that he will use us in his church as part of that selection process.
Stepping back even further, I would also like to recognize in closing that the notion of the internal call and the external call has applications for every calling a Christian might get into. These ideas are not just helpful for determining if you’ve been called to be a pastor, elder, or deacon. But you can use these general ideas for discerning if God would have you serve in any vocation. Let’s say you are considering becoming a doctor. You can begin by asking if you have aspirations and desire for it. And you can ask yourself if you think you would be good at that job. You can also ask if this desire is a good thing, in other words, is the vocation you desire a godly vocation (being a doctor would be, but a prostitute would not be). You could then aspire toward that calling and take steps to work toward it. But you would still need some sort of external calling too. You could begin by asking others if they think you would do well in that line of work. Ultimately you would interview for a job and the external call could be affirmed through a job offer. That external call could later be reaffirmed and confirmed through positive employment reviews by your supervisor. So, hopefully you can begin to see how even the process we talked about today for elders can have some analogy in general to all professions and callings in life.
And the reason to end our message on that idea, is because this reminds us that God has a calling for each of us to be serving him. This idea then is not just for elders. Let us each look to serve God in our earthly callings by his grace and for his glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.