Doing Church Well
I Timothy 5:1-6:2
When our children come over for a day, we prepare the house and get all the food ready. An hour before they arrive, the house is clean, everything is in its place. Three adults can keep a place pretty clean and then when they make an effort to clean it, it is pretty good. When they are about to leave, it is a different story. There are 5 or more pairs of shoes strewn about the entry. There is dirt that has been tracked in from playing games outside. There are two year old hand prints on every mirror, there is sticky stuff on the chair which was used by our grandson. There are toys and games laying about, dishes in the sink and pop cans on the counter. When they leave, we sometimes feel like we have been in a whirlwind and now we have to clean up after it. Being family is not a neat and orderly thing, it can be messy.
The same is true of the church family. We affirm the wonderful statements of Jesus in which he says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” We agree with the powerful statement of Paul in Ephesians 5:27, which tells us about God’s plan for the church “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless…”
But we also know that until Christ comes again, the church is not like that. Instead, we see a church in which two brothers have spoken harshly to one another and they have trouble being together in the same church building. We see a church in which singles, divorced people and widowed people are sometimes marginalized. We see a church in which new people find it hard to develop good relationships with those who have been there a long time. We see a church which continues to miss what God is doing and to miss great opportunities to do His work. We have a church in which pastors are sent packing without much notice or on the other hand, pastors who bring the church into disrepute because of their inappropriate actions. We see a church in which there is a desperate cry for workers and at the same time there are people whose gifts are not being used. Being the church is messy!
In recognition of that, in I Timothy 4:16, Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The concerns in this verse are that Timothy had responsibility to work diligently in order that he and his hearers would come to experience the purpose God had for them. By His faithful leadership, Timothy was to help the church become what God intended – a church that is not overcome, a church without spot or wrinkle. As we read on, from I Timothy 5:1-6:2, we read instructions which Timothy is to give to the church. In 5:7, he is told “Give the people these instructions so that no one may be open to blame.” In 6:2, he is told “These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.”
What is this chapter about? What is not written, but is assumed behind almost every line is the understanding that being the church is messy. Not everything is easy and perfect, there are problems. However, in spite of the problems, there is something eternally worth working on. That is why he says in 4:16, “persevere.” That is why he teaches the church what they should be like. God is building His church and in the end He will present a church without spot or wrinkle to Himself. In the mean time, He calls for our involvement to do all that we can to do church well. Being the church is messy, and that is why we need to talk about how we can do church well.
In this passage, Paul deals with four different specific issues that were relevant to making that church what God wanted it to be. He speaks about relationships with all generations in vs. 1,2. Then in verses 3-16, he talks about how to deal with widows well. In verses 17-25, he deals with how to treat leadership and finally in 6:1,2, he speaks about those who are slaves. These are not exactly our issues and so instead of dealing with these specific issues, I have begun by recognizing what is behind this passage – the fact that church is messy. Now I would like draw out the principles which appear in this passage which are universal principles and transcend the specific issues addressed here. These principles, supporting the specific things Paul addresses, are relevant for us today in dealing with the messy church which we also live with and are working in. So the question for this morning is, “how can we do church well?” Let us read the text so that we get the context and have the concepts fresh in our minds.
II. We Will Build The Church If Our Attitudes Are Right
In order to do church well, certain attitudes are important. Paul reveals some of these right attitudes in this text.
A. Family Attitude
Verses 1,2 are good advice for how leaders ought to treat others in the congregation. For example, it is sometimes necessary for leaders to confront men who are older. How does a leader do that well? Paul answers by suggesting that Timothy speak gently and wisely as he would to one who was his father. But what is the attitude behind this advice? It is the recognition that in the church we are a family. We belong to each other as closely as parents and children, as brothers and sisters. There is the same kind of mutuality and caring for one another and the same kind of taking responsibility for one another.
If we are to build the church well, we must do so recognizing that we are family. This is an instruction not only to those who actually are family, but to everyone who is part of the church. Each person who is part of the church of Christ is a member of our family.
Families spend time together, they care for each other and speak to each other. Is that the kind of attitude we have towards the members of our spiritual family?
B. Putting Hope in God
There is a line in this passage that really impresses me. In verse 5 it talks about “the widow who is really in need and left all alone” who “puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” What a powerful example of an attitude that is so difficult for us to have. The reason the “widow” mentioned here has this attitude is because she is “really in need.” A Biblical example of such a widow would be Anna, in Luke 2:37, who spent all her time in the temple in prayer. Such a person is destitute and knows that she needs God and has thrown herself completely on God. The problem with most of our Christian living and even church ministry is that we don’t really see our need. We are so strong, so self sufficient, so able in every way that we have not gotten to the place that we need to put our hope in God. Yet if we want to see the victory of God happen in our church, if we want to live truly powerful lives for God, there is only one way that we can do that and that is by putting our hope in God.
When a person has all supports taken out from under them, they have no other choice but to depend on God. The widow mentioned in this passage is in such a situation. My question is, can we come to the place where we put our hope in God without having everything taken away?” The attitude we need to do church well is to be people who depend on the Lord.
C. Non-critical Attitude
Another attitude which is important in doing church well is that stated in verse 19 which says, “do not entertain an accusation against an elder…” Of course there is more to it. If the elder is truly guilty of something then he should be accused, but we will deal with that part of it presently.
Have you ever heard the statement “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?” As I have grown up, I have discovered that I am motivated much more strongly by encouragement than by criticism. Yet sometimes we think it is necessary to criticize. When we do and it is not warranted, we discourage instead of encouraging. We destroy instead of building up. If we want to do church well, we should encourage those who are involved in leadership or ministry of any kind. They will become effective and will be encouraged to do better. From this word in Scripture, I would suggest to you that we will do church well when we encourage rather then criticize.
D. Acknowledging God’s Sovereignty
In the context of discussing choosing leaders in verses 22-25, we have these interesting verses, 24,25. It may seem like a rather hopeless statement. What it is saying is that we can do our best to discern if a person is a good and faithful leader, but some will fool us anyway and turn out not to be good. Another person has much to offer, but is never given the opportunity because we never see the good things that they do and are capable of doing. It is rather discouraging to do church well when, as this verse indicates, we will not always get it right. But there is a word of encouragement behind this and that is that God knows what is going on. When it speaks of the place of judgement and the fact that good deeds cannot be hidden, it seems to me that it is indicating that although we don’t know all things, God does and He is involved in all of our choices and will make all things right in the end. I do not think that these verses are intended as a depressing statement that is intended to discourage us from doing our best. Rather, I think it is a realistic statement that is intended to encourage us to do our best in spite of our shortcomings in the recognition that God is involved in our life and ministry. So an attitude of trust in God and faithfulness to God are important in doing church well.
What is your attitude? The attitudes we have towards God and each other are important and we need to develop good attitudes which will help, not hinder the work of building Christ’s church.
III. We Will Build The Church If We Have Good Structures
For the last number of years, we have been involved in Natural Church Development in which we recognize that there are eight essential elements in any church, which if they are healthy, then the church will be a growing church. We have done surveys to identify the elements which are weakest in our church and have tried to work on these things so that we can become healthier. One of the things which has not appeared as a really weak element is the matter of functional structures. Although not our weakest element, it is also not the strongest and we have given some effort to work on it. Doing church well means that we must have structures which do not hinder building the church. So when you get tired of discussing constitutional change or the development of new committees, remember that it is really just a way of developing structures that will facilitate the work of God in our midst.
This passage speaks about such things.
A. Discerning Structures
The discussion about widows is somewhat puzzling and we need to be careful that we don’t make it say things that it is not about. What it is about is the recognition that the Ephesian church was wrestling with structures which would help them be able to help those who were widows in need, recognizing that the church did not have unlimited resources to help in every situation. So in these verses, Paul instructs Timothy about how to develop structures that will help them do this well. As one reads these guidelines, one has the impression that Paul was speaking from experience.
Take a look briefly at how they handled this issue. It seems that they had a list of widows who were supported by the church. There were qualifications for a person to get on that list and there were expectations that those on the list would repay their support by involvement in ministry. Because the church was not able to help everyone, those who were younger widows and could still be married should choose that instead. Also those who had family who could support them should not, as verse 16 indicates, be a burden to the church. It would be interesting to see some of the principles which helped them develop this functional structure. There are some values present here, which we don’t necessarily share today. For example, it seems that people were not just given a handout, but were expected to work for their support. It also seems that there was a strong expectation that the biological family would take responsibility for caring for those in need in their family.
The aspect which I would like to draw to our attention specifically today, however, is that there were structures developed and were significant in order to do church well.
B. Choosing Leaders Well
The same principle is seen in the choosing of leadership in 5:21-24. There is actually quite a bit written here about choosing leaders. After warning Timothy “not to be hasty in laying on hands…” we see some of the reasoning which went with it. We read about being careful not to share in the sins of others, which in the context I believe speaks about being careful to choose leaders who will do well. The discussion in verses 24,25 about the sins of some men following after and the good deeds which are not always visible is also in the same context. These instructions imply that there needs to be a way of finding out who the leaders are who are called by God and there needs to be a method of discernment.
I am so glad to be a part of a church that has a long history of choosing leaders from its midst and helping them develop as faithful leaders. Because this church has had a strong history of calling out leaders and being careful in how they are chosen, I would suggest that this helps in why so few of those leaders get into trouble later on.
So from these thoughts we see that good structures help build the kingdom. If we are concerned to do church well, good structures are important.
IV.We Will Build The Church If We Take Responsibility
Besides right attitudes and functional structures, we will also build the church if we take responsibility for the things that God wants us to do.
A. To Care For The Needy
One of the direct statements about how to do church well is found in verse 3 where we are told to “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.” Of course the context here is widows so that is the direct subject and it ought to be done. In our day when our government has programs for senior’s and widows and orphans, most often the financial need for caring for widows is not what it was at one time, but the need to care for widows, to recognize their aloneness and sometimes their loneliness, the need to provide other needs like practical helps has not changed and we ought to give attention to this matter.
Of course, that is not the only needy group in our midst. Although even the Old Testament speaks about caring for orphans and widows, it also speaks about the poor and others who are in need. As a church, we ought to be constantly aware of those around us who have needs. It is the practical expression of the much repeated command to love one another. Doing church well involves taking responsibility to care for the needy.
B. To Keep Pledges
Although it seems like a harsh statement at first glance, when Paul says in verse 11, to the younger widows who want to marry that they “bring judgement on themselves” we need to understand what he is saying. He is not saying that there is anything wrong with remarriage after widowhood. What he is saying is that for widows to be put on the list involved a covenant of complete dedication to the Lord in which they would have no other relational encumbrances. Marriage would prevent them from fulfilling the obligations of that pledge of complete dedication to the Lord, so that by marrying, as the text says, “they have broken their first pledge.”
This statement seems to me to be pretty important in many contexts. This is something that I think we have trouble with today. I have observed that sometimes we make promises, but then break them when it no longer suits us. For example, we begin to teach Sunday School, but then half way through the year we become tired of it and we resign. Is this “breaking our first pledge?” What about the covenant of membership? People are baptized and join the church, but a few years later, they move away from the promise they have made. They stop attending church and they forget about the promise to Christ and to the church. In order to do church well, I would suggest that we need to take responsibility to keep the promises, the covenants we make to each other.
C. To Watch Our Tongues
The warning about those who become busybodies and go about gossiping in 5:13is also instructive. If these widows had been in the supported serving order described here, it is possible that their going about from house to house was ministry. The only problem was that they crossed what is sometimes a very fine line – the line between ministry and gossip. If we want to do church well, we will have to be very careful not to cross that line. It is possible for us in the name of caring for others to begin to gossip about them or to judge them. At that point we are no longer ministering, we have begun to destroy and that will not build the kingdom of Christ.
D. To Hold Leaders Accountable
Earlier we talked about not criticizing leaders. Of course, that is not the whole issue. Sometimes leaders do things that are wrong. Leaders, are much more in the public eye and so much more under scrutiny. As such, they are susceptible to false and frequent accusation, which ought not to be. On the other hand, because they are leaders, they are much more responsible for their actions and words. They are being watched and are an example to many. If their example fails, if they sin, they ought to be under a stricter condemnation. That is the point in verse 20. When a leader has been demonstrated to be in sin, by the witness of two or three, then they ought to be publicly corrected so that people can take warning and realize that their sin is serious.
Although it has not always been comfortable, I have appreciated the times when people have confronted me. I want to be aware of the impact my life is having and it is my desire to have a positive impact so when I am not, I want to know because I do not want to destroy the work of Christ. Doing church well means that we keep our leaders accountable.
E. To Be Aware Of Our Impact
Another principle that relates to taking responsibility for our actions is found in 6:1,2. The reason why slaves are to serve their masters with full respect is, “so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” How devastatingly sad it is that often church people have been the ones who have compromised the name of Christ by their actions. The example here is slaves who take liberties and so in the eyes of the world around them they cause people to question Christ.
What are the actions which we do when the eyes of the world are on us which cause the name of Christ to be slandered?
With shame I have to confess that there are times when my anger, or my being demanding with a merchant or some other action of mine has not been a good witness. Whether we are doing business, participating in some recreational activity, or just walking down the street, the world that does not know Christ is watching us and we, not anyone else, are responsible for what they see. Do they see Christ in us? We will do church well when we are aware that we are being watched and when we choose to let people see Christ in us.
The church will always be messy, but if we are diligent and do our part, having the right attitude, developing good structures and taking responsibility, we can contribute towards what God is doing in building that holy, perfect church that will some day enter into eternity.