Monday, March 19, 2018

Modeling The Noble Task of Church Leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-16)

Most of the books I’ve been reading recently on leadership, have used as epic adventure to illustrate the qualities and aspects of leadership they are talking about.

Leonard Sweet in his book Summoned to Lead used ‘Earnest Shackleton’ whose true leadership came when his 1914 expedition to the south pole met with disaster and his ship aptly named ‘the endurance’ was caught and crushed by ice. Over a two year period Shackleton was able to lead all his ships company safety home, at great personal risk and heroic endeavour. He stepped up to the challenge of the moment.

Tod Bolsinger in his book ‘canoeing the mountains’ uses the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis and Clark had set out with a company on a river adventure up the Missouri River, with the false expectation that they would find a water way that would connect the east with the pacific west, only to be confronted by the vast hostile Rocky Mountains, to achieve their mission of exploration they had to adapt to life in the mountains. Their men had to trust them as they went off the map into a new and for white Americans unknown environment.

They are great tales,  they capture the imagination, and are a great metaphor for the challenge of leading a church in a world that has gone through so much rapid change, that it no longer feels familiar, that is new and different. One of sweets other books calls it being the church in the perfect storm.

Sometimes however it is hard to equate the leadership roles in our congregation with those epic adventures. The everyday, week to week month to month stuff. In the passage we are looking at today Paul asserts that it is a trustworthy saying That whoever aspires to be an overseer or a leader desires a noble task. That looking at providing leadership in the church is looking at doing a good and great thing, it is a call to an epic journey

When people look for jobs and tasks they will talk of looking for work that is “fulfilling, satisfying, financially rewarding, enjoyable, and perhaps needed in society” but they don’t often say they are looking for a task that is noble or good in and of itself. So what does this passage have to say to us about leadership, remember we are looking at Paul’s letters to his fellow workers, known as the pastoral epistles to give us insight into Christian leadership, God’s call to maturity and ministry within the church.

Paul had written to Timothy to encourage him in the task of countering false teachers. Who were misleading the church away from its mission, away from faith worked out in love to contentious arguments about myths and genealogies, misleading them away from a life that reflects the gospel to one that reflects the society around them. Paul had started with prayer and public worship and how people were to act and the demeanour they were to have that reflected the gospel. Now Paul turns to talk about leadership for the community to continue it on the right path it needs to have the right kind of leadership.

After his assertion that leadership is good and noble, he gives a rundown of the qualities that are to needed when selecting Christian leaders. The list is very similar to the one we saw in the book of Titus when Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the church on Cyprus. There are some things in the list that speak of what we’d call competences like being apt at teaching and shown to be able to effectively and peaceable run the household of God by how their home life was like.

Unlike in his letter to Titus he differentiates two different kinds of leadership episkopos, which means ‘overseers’ and diakonos which we translate as deacons but means those who wait tables or serve. In the middle of that in v14 he talks about the qualities of women in leadership, which we shouldn’t be surprised about, before going back to some more teaching on deacons and finally a wonderful section where he uses a hymn about Jesus ministry and mission as a way of summing up how the church should seek to live in pure holiness.

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve worked through the text from 1 Timothy, word by word and line by line, and that’s been important. But when we looked at the book of Titus earlier this year we did the same thingwith Paul’s duty code, his list of desirable traits for Christian leaders, in that case it was elders. Today I want to explore understanding this passage in the context of different models or understandings of Church. Because what this passage has to say is determined by our understanding of the Church.

The first model of church is what is known as the settled church, or the hierarchical church, which basically sees Church as an institution, to be preserved and maintained. It is basically the model of Church that served during Christendom, that time when the church was at the centre of European society. I’ve illustrated that as a triangle sitting on a long side. Theologically it says Christ is the head of the church and other positions of leadership work their way up or down from that to lead the body of chirst. 

The focus on leadership becomes about positions within that structure and who is fit to have those positions. Historically, there have been debates over the structure of church leadership as elsewhere Paul talks about eldership being the model for church leadership, to which my Presbyterian heart goes, Amen. By the second century overseer had become associated with the office of the bishop. The oversight of a city or region being in the hands of the bishop. Likewise deacons were seen as a position in the Church, set up to take on the more practical jobs and roles to keep the church functioning.  In our system in the old days we would have referred to them as managers.

Character and attributes are like a check list for people to attain those leadership offices. Arguments and decisions over who can do what becomes almost legalistic. The husband of one wife, can a widow, or a single man be in those positions. Can women be in leadership. It’s interesting that the churches that are the most fervent against women in leadership are also the ones who seem to have forgotten the idea of a married leadership and have enshrined celibacy for their leaders.  The ministry gifts of the Holy Spirit are then identified with those offices rather than as being  given to the whole people of God for them to minister to one another and share the gospel.

Some see Paul’s teaching here as the beginning of the church transitioning from a pioneering movement where leadership was from gifted itinerants to an established institutional church. The positives of the institutional church is that its stable, institutions are designed to maintain the advances made in the past. However it is also open to the pitfalls that Paul mentions for overseers to fall into the snare of pride, it can become about status and power.  You only have to look at church history, ancient and modern to see those abuses. Institution and all its trappings, both good and bad,  can be the thing that is worshipped not Christ. Institutions find it hard to adapt and to be reenergised. While institutions have that idea of permanence, they have a life cycle.  A great example is video rental stores, every block used to have one, now they are as rare as hens teeth.

Greenleaf's famous model of servant leadership
is a of a leader being first amongst equals.
Another model is the servant leadership model. That leadership is all about serving others. If it is healthy then it is a more biblical understanding of leadership. You could say it is tips the hierarchal model on its head, where leadership holds the church up to Christ. Overseers elders and deacons then become about roles and functions not position and office. They are there to serve the church. Paul’s list of qualities equally applies, we want those who serve to be worthy of doing it, we need people with a Christlikeness to serve as Christ served and love as Christ loved, as well as being capable. Overseers and deacons can be seen as equals and part of a team with different and complimentary roles, not as a hierarchy. Spiritual gifts can be seen as given to some to help others.

The theology is good but in practise it can result in the leaders being left to do all the work, all the heavy lifting of keeping things going and we can forget that the purpose of the church is that we might all grow into full holiness and godliness, our faith has its outworking in love. We can become a served church rather than a serving church. Things are left to a small group of people who have the curse of Atlas, to carry the world on their shoulders and they get tired and worn out, either to be replaced or the structure gets wobblier and wobblier and unstable. I couldn’t help but think of a spinning top, a child’s toy, that is able to keep up on its point because it is spinning at a certain speed, its hard to keep it at that speed, but you’ve got to, or else it wobbles and falls flat.

We’ve seen churches that have simply dissolved and collapsed because of the failing of one of its key components. It also lends itself to a consumer ideal of church, we shop around till we find the place where we get the services and service we want, and when it changes so do we.

Lastly is the missional Church model, represented here by a triangle on its side, an arrow heading towards Christ.  Put very simply it is the church that hears Jesus call to follow me, and is prepared to do that, we often think of the people who answered Jesus original call as his disciples, but when Jesus  prayed and chose the twelve they were not just as followers and learners but apostles, sent ones, to do God’s will. In Timothy one of the things that concerns Paul is that the false teachers have derailed the church at Ephesus from supporting and working with him on his mission, that is at the heart of God, to see all people come to saving knowledge of the truth., worked out by our faith resulting in love.

Leadership in this model, both overseeing and serving is seen as working so that the church is able to keep going in its mission, to keep following to achieve what God has called us to do, corporately as witnessing communities and to discern and clarify and direct the church in that way. Others serve to enable us in our mission. It’s not about a position or office, or a role that need to be fulfilled, but rather it is the how we are to do what God calls us to do. The rugby vernacular is that we have leaders all over the field working for a common vision.  The qualities of leadership that Paul lists of both groups are indicators that the person we select for leadership has their lives attuned and resonating with Christ and his mission. There marital life, family life, their relationship with wealth, their appetite focused on following Christ. Men and women. By the way biblical scholars think that Paul’s mention of women means he was open to women deacons, but I wonder if here Paul didn’t leave the door open for women overseers as well, he has to mention women’s exemplary behaviour because in roman society none of them would have been the heads of households, so their ability in that area couldn’t be tested.  The overseers are apt to teach as they have their lives attuned to Christ and are passionate about Christ’s mission. How they are seen by those outside is significant because they are witnessing to Christ (the same as the other models but in this one its an important part of who they are and their leadership role). Serving deacons becomes the things that need to be done practical and spiritual to fulfil God’s mission. We can all exercise leadership as we see where we are and we nudge ourselves and our community forward in following Christ.  Change is still hard and difficult, and I recently read a definition of missional  leadership as being the art of disappointing people at a pace they can endure. But we change because we are on the mission God has called us for an epic journey unique to each faith community. 

In the end Paul says, our epic journey  our mission is to  find the spring from which comes  the call to leadership and the call for all the church to order our lives, even amidst the wild storms of societal change and as we head off the map of the familiar In the words of the hymn Paul quotes it is to follow and worship and obey the one who…

Appeared in flesh

Was vindicated by the Spirit

Was seen by angels

Was preached among the nations

Was believed on in the world

Was taken up in glory.

…Are  you ready for the noble task.

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