The Noble Task of Pastoral Ministry

Let’s begin by reviewing the overall message and structure of 1 Timothy to this point. We’ve said that the overall theme of this book is “Putting God’s House in Order,” and rooted that theme in 1 Timothy 3:15: “I write these things so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” Paul is writing to his protege Timothy, who is ministering in the city of Ephesus. He opens the letter with the presenting issue—false teachers in the church—and exhorts Timothy to address this problem for the sake of love proceeding from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a sincere faith (1:5). In addition to speaking to certain aspects of the false teaching, he recounts his conversion and celebrates the gospel of the happy God—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and Paul was the worst.

Then Paul begins his discussion of the church. He first relates the church to the wider society, urging prayers for the authorities and encouraging Christians to live peaceable and quiet lives as they seek the good of society and the salvation of all people. Then Paul turns to consider the internal ordering of the church, especially as it gathers for worship. Pastor David carefully walked us through Paul’s exhortations to men and women: let the men pray, let the women do good, let the women learn, let the elders teach. Over the next two weeks, we’ll consider the two formal offices of the church—the overseers or pastors, and deacons.

The Noble Task

The rest of this sermon is structured around a simple word in 3:2: “therefore.” “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be…” Paul’s flow of thought is: “There’s a noble task to be done. Therefore, it’s necessary that the men who aspire to that task have certain qualifications.” Because it’s a noble task, the men must be like this. So my outline is simple, and seeks to answer two questions: What is the noble task? What kind of men must fulfill it?

First, a word about terminology. Last week Pastor David said that the terms “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor” refer to the same office, and so I just want to briefly make the connections between. First, 1 Timothy gives us two offices: overseer and deacon. Philippians 1:1 gives us the same two offices: “to the church at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” In describing the qualifications, Paul uses the term “manage” or “govern” or “rule” or “lead” (3:5) and then later in the book, he says, “Let the elders who rule/govern/lead well be worthy of double honor.” So overseers govern and lead; and elders govern and lead, and so we take these to be two names for one office. Or consider Acts 20:28. Paul gathers together the eldersof the church (20:17) and tells them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” He says to the elders, God has made you overseers. So what about the term “pastor?” Paul refers to the church as a flock, and the verb for “care for” is the word “shepherd” or “pastor.” To the elders, Paul says, pay attention to the flock, of which God has made you overseersto shepherd or pastorthe church.” And this is confirmed in 1 Peter 5, where Peter says, “I exhort the eldersamong you: shepherd or pastorthe flock of God, exercising oversight.” And so from all of that, we conclude that in the early church, there were at least three names for one office: elders = pastors = overseers, and that’s the noble task that Paul has in view in 3:1-7.

So let’s explore the noble task. Begin with the term “overseer.” Pastors over see a people; they watch over the people. They supervise the people. They watch out for the people. Or, consider the task of the elders in 5:17: “Let the elders who rule/govern well be worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” As Pastor David noted, governing and teaching are the same activities mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a women to teach or exercise authority over a man.” And 1 Thessalonians 5:12: “Respect those who labor among you (in teaching and preaching) and are over you [literally: rule/govern/lead you] in the Lord.” So there are at least two aspects to the noble task of oversight: teaching and instruction, and governing, leading, and ruling. And these tasks are related. One of the ways that pastors govern and lead is by teaching and instructing and exhorting the church. But they aren’t identical, because not only do pastors teach, but they also organize, manage, put the church in order for God’s purposes. As pastors, we don’t just show up here on Sundays and teach. We also meet together every other Thursday night for a few hours, and we pray and we discuss and we organize and we make decisions about how to best govern the church. We’re overseeing, watching for needs and threats and challenges and issues and doing what we can to meet them and address them and resolve them, with God’s help and for the sake of God’s mission in the world. 

So pastors teach and pastors govern. As Pastor David says, pastors feed the flock and lead the flock. But in order to fill out the noble task, let’s explore some of the biblical background to the pastoral task. As we think about the meaning of this office, we want our imaginations to be shaped by the Bible. So I want to think about the biblical view of shepherds and the biblical view of priests. And this is important because when we say the word “pastoral” or “shepherd,” a certain cluster of characteristics and traits comes into our minds. And we want to make sure that the traits that we associate with those words are biblical, and we want to make sure that there aren’t traits in the Bible that we miss. 

Shepherds Lead and Feed

So what do shepherds do? Most obviously, they care for sheep. And in fact, that fits well with 1 Timothy 3, because Paul says, “if anyone does not know how to manage or govern his own household, how will he care forthe church?” (3:5) Shepherds care for sheep. What does that mean? It means they look out for the needs of the sheep. They are attentive to the sheep. This particular word “care for” only shows up a few times in the Bible, and the other place is in the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan “cares for” the needs of the injured man (Luke 10:34-35). That’s what shepherds do for sheep. Of course, we immediately think of another of Christ’s parables, in which the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one that is missing. He pays attention to the flock, recognizes that one is lost, and takes action to care for that sheep. And that’s what pastors do: they care for sheep.

But shepherds do more than just care for sheep. They’re also ready to fight wolves. David is the model shepherd in the Old Testament. And what made him a good shepherd is that he killed lions and bears when they threatened his flock. He carried a sling and stones, and a rod and staff to drive away wild animals that sought to devour his sheep. Good shepherds must be ready to fight—to identify threats to the flock and take action to defend them, at great cost to themselves. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He gets in between the sheep and the wolves. 

Priests Comfort and Guard

Now the second term that I want to explore is “priest.” Pastors aren’t exactly the same as priests; the shift to the New Covenant has brought certain changes. But the priests do provide a good model for the task of pastors. And so we should think about what priests did in the Old Testament. And this is where there is much confusion today. For example, for a number of years there’s been a popular paradigm for church leadership among church planters that distinguishes between prophetic, priestly, and kingly leadership, based on the three main offices in the Old Testament. Here’s what this teaching says for “priestly leadership.” A priest “loves on people.” He sees needs and meets them. He “focuses on the feelings and emotions of people first.” He makes people feel loved and cared for. He considers peoples feelings when choosing communication methods. In fact, the danger of a priestly leader is that he can elevate the feelings and needs of people above God’s truth. 

Now that paradigm is based on the fact that the priests brought the sins and needs of the people before God. They offered sacrifices for the people, and lived among the people, and comforted the people with God’s forgiveness. And that’s true. But think with me for a moment about how the Levites, the priestly tribe, got their call to ministry. While Moses is up on the mountain meeting with God, Aaron leads the people in idolatry by making the golden calf. Moses returns and confronts the people for their wickedness. And as he stands before the people, he cries out, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And the Levites come to him, and Moses tells them to put on their swords and go to and fro in the camp, and kill their brothers and neighbors. And they do it. And God responds by saying, “Today you have been ordained to the service of the Lord.” There’s a connection between their willingness to cut off their idolatrous brethren and their call to the ministry.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In Numbers 25, we’re introduced to Phinehas, grandson of Aaron the priest. Again the Israelites are committing idolatry and offering sacrifices to other gods, so that God has sent a plague upon them that killed 24,000 people. One Israelite takes an idolatrous wife and flagrantly brings her into the Israelite camp. This is the ancient equivalent of a Pride Parade in the camp of the saints. Moses and the people weep when they see it. But Phinehas jumps up, grabs a spear, enters the man’s tent, and pins him and his pagan mistress to the ground. And the plague stops. And then God says, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel’” (Numbers 25:10-13).

What these stories teach us is that priests were the sort of men who were so zealous for God and his holiness that they were willing to kill their brothers when they committed high-handed rebellion against God. The Levites in the Old Testament carried swords, and they guarded sacred space. Israelite society was structured in rings of holiness: Holy of Holies at the center where the presence of God dwelt, then the Holy Place, then the tabernacle or temple complex, then the holy city. Levites and priests were charged with ensuring that these gradations of holiness were respected. And they did so, lest Yahweh, the Holy One, break out and consume the people. Israelite society was conditioned on the guardianship of the priests. 

And this connects to something Pastor David said last week. Adam was called to work and keep the garden. Outside of Genesis 2, those words only appear together in the book of Numbers, where they describe the responsibilities of priests with respect to the tabernacle. Priests were to work and keep, to guard and protect the tabernacle, and they were to do so with zeal.

Now here’s the relevance for this in understanding the noble task of pastoral ministry and oversight. While pastors don’t carry swords or slings like priests and shepherds in the Old Testament, there is a deep similarity in the type of task. Pastors must be devoted to God and his holiness. Romans 12:8 says that the one who rules, governs, and leads in the church, should do so “with zeal.” We don’t pick up physical weapons to slay our neighbors, but pastors must be willing to cut off Hymenaeus and Alexander, to hand them over to Satan if they teach different doctrine, and we must do so, even if they are our friends. I hope you feel the weight of the noble task, because your pastors feel the weight of God’s holiness.

Let me summarize the noble task in my own words. 

Pastors are called to oversee and care for the flock of God by 1) teaching the word of God with divine authority, 2) zealously guarding the doctrine and worship of the church, and 3) organizing and mobilizing the church for mission, (equipping the saints for the work of ministry; Ephesians 4). That’s the noble task.

What Kind of Men?

Now the question is, in light of that task, what kind of men must fulfill it? Paul gives us seven positive terms (3:2), four negative terms (3:3), and then three additional qualifications with specific reasons (3:4-7). Of these qualifications, only one has to do with a specific technical skill (“skillful to teach”). The others are all about the man’s character and maturity in life. I stress that because we’re prone to identify some of these traits with particular personality types, and that’s not the point. These traits can be present in introverts and extraverts, in the boisterous and outgoing, and the quiet and easygoing. One of the reasons that we so value team leadership and team preaching is to prevent these traits from being linked in your minds and our minds with particular personalities. We want you to see the truth of God and godliness manifested in a variety of personalities. And in the remainder of this sermon I want to briefly describe these character qualities and show their relevance for the noble task. Start with the seven positives.

Seven Positives

1) Above reproach - this is an overarching and general term that covers the rest. The idea is that a pastor must be an exemplary Christian. He must be a model of Christian maturity, with no scandal or grave defect of character. You should be able to say about him, “Follow him, as he follows Christ. Be like him.”

2) Husband of one-wife - a pastor must be a one-woman man. We don’t take this to mean that a man who has been divorced is necessarily disqualified from the pastoral office. There are circumstances where a wife has been unfaithful and divorced her husband, and her infidelity doesn’t disqualify him. At the same time, it is a great tragedy that in our day, pastors who are unfaithful to their wives return to ministry far too easily and soon than is at all reasonable. But it does mean that he is faithful to his wife, that his emotional and romantic loyalty is to one woman and one woman only.

3-4) Sober-minded and self-controlled - I’m linking these two traits because the Bible links these traits (Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 4:7). I loved Kyle’s definition of sober-minded in last week’s exhortation. To be sober-minded is to have a refreshing clarity about life and reality. Pastors must be level-headed, reasonable, under control, steady, not hot-headed, not reactive or reactionary, not enslaved to passions and appetites. They must be prudent and thoughtful and men of good judgment whose advice and counsel you want. There’s a kind of self-possession and self-restraint and self-mastery that flows from seeing clearly all of life in light of our heavenly hope and the threats that face us in the present. And you can see why these traits are so essential. A pastor is an overseer. Therefore, he must see clearly. He must feed the sheep and fight the wolves, and therefore, he must be the sort of man who can tell the difference. When he takes up the word of God, he must know whether he’s giving the milk of the word to the people of God, or using the sword of the Spirit to fight God’s enemies. 

5) Respectable - as Pastor David said last week about women’s apparel, respectability is about making it easier for people to respect. Being respectable and being respected aren’t the same thing. Some people are simply disrespectful, and therefore they don’t respect those who are respectable. But we don’t want to put barriers in their way. Pastors should engender trust in their people by the way that they carry and present themselves.

6) Hospitable - this is the love of strangers or outsiders. Pastors must be models of mission. If the pastors are called to organize and mobilize the church for mission, they must be open and welcoming to outsiders, who are the mission field. Men who don’t love lost people shouldn’t be pastors.

7) Able to teach - this is probably better understood as “skillful to teach.” It doesn’t just mean, “able to teach, if you put a gun to my head.” It means there’s a skillfulness and eagerness to teach God’s word. This doesn’t mean that every teacher is the same. Your pastors aren’t. The key is this: when they tell you what the Bible says, is it clear? Can you see it in the passage? Do people get help when you explain things? That’s skillful to teach.

Negative Traits

Now we turn to the four negative traits, which are the opposites of some of the positives, especially sober-minded and self-controlled.

1) Not a drunkard - a pastor cannot have his judgment undermined by the influence of too much alcohol. Alcohol is a good gift from God, meant to gladden our hearts. But like many good gifts, it’s dangerous, and a pastor must be sober-minded and have his appetites under control.

2-3) Not violent or quarrelsome, but gentle - I’m linking these two traits. Violence has to do with being out of control, losing one’s temper, being governed by the passion of anger. The opposite of violent is gentle, and gentleness is closely related to self-control. The gentle may have great power and strength, but it’s under their control. They don’t break bruised reeds. They don’t quench quivering wicks. There’s a kindness and tenderness to them. Similarly, quarrelsome has to do with a love of controversy and fights. Now think about these two qualities in light of the noble task. Shepherds must fight wolves. Priests must zealously guard sacred things. In other words, pastors will be called upon to fight, which means they can’t have an undue love of fighting. They must fight, so they must not be quarrelsome. They will be called upon to be spiritually violent in their defense of sound doctrine, and therefore they must not be violent, but gentle. 

We see a similar theme in 2 Timothy 2:24–25: 

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Notice that the Lord’s servant is called upon to correct people. Pastors must rebuke, and exhort, and admonish. The list of qualification in Titus 1 includes this: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Instruction and rebuke. A few verses later, Paul says, “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13), and again, “Exhort and rebuke with all authority” (2:15). But when we exhort and rebuke and correct, we do it with gentleness. We reprove, rebuke, and exhort “with all patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). We’re not quarrelsome but kind and patient and gentle. 

4) Finally, the pastor must not be in the ministry for money. Like alcohol, money is a good gift. But it’s dangerous, and the pastor must lead in generosity and wisdom in stewarding God’s provision.

Three Final Qualifications

And then we come to the three final qualifications: a good leader in his home, not a new convert, and a good reputation with outsiders. 

1) Managing or governing or leading one’s household well means that the husband is the chief ordering agent in his home. Kids are kids. They’re immature and they’re sinners. A man who aspires to ministry must be able to govern his children, to pull them back together. This doesn’t mean that his kids don’t sin. It does mean that they aren’t living in regular defiance of their parents and of God. A man who tolerates defiance in his home will not be a Phinehas in the church. Similarly, a man who crushes his children with a domineering headship will not be able to be gentle with the flock of God. Faithfulness in leading his own household is the prerequisite for leadership in God’s household. What’s more, a man whose home is falling apart will not be able to pay careful attention to the flock of God. 

The final two qualifications both mention “falling” and both mention the devil. Pastoral ministry is dangerous. It’s possible to fall, to stumble, to trip into the condemnation of the devil or the snare of the devil. And so, Paul says, “Don’t make a new convert into a pastor. Give him time. Let him mature. Let him be tested and humbled. If you fast track a man into ministry, arrogance and pride are real dangers. They are demonic dangers. The devil is arrogant, and a pastor who thinks more highly of himself than he ought is falling into the same sin as the devil. Similarly, a man who has a terrible reputation with outsiders is falling into the devil’s snare. The devil wants to undermine the church in her mission. A pastor with a bad reputation (as a crank, a money grubber, a hot head, etc) does not represent his Savior well and is not a model for his people.

This is how your pastors view the noble task that God has assigned us, and how we have assessed the men that we’ve brought onto the pastoral team over the years. We feel the weight of the pastoral calling and the qualifications. It’s a burden that we carry. And it’s a happy one. We love pastoring this church. And as we come to the table, let me give you one reason.

The Table

I mentioned that King David is the model shepherd in the Old Testament. But he’s not the Chief Shepherd. Christ is the Chief Shepherd. The Lord is our Shepherd. And your pastors love to shepherd because God himself is our shepherd. Listen to Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures. 
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness 
for his name’s sake. 

 Notice the shepherd cares for the flock. He sees the needs and meets them. He leads and he feeds. But David goes on.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 

There are threats around; there is evil at hand. There are enemies. But we’re not afraid. Why? Because the shepherd is here, and he’s armed. He’s ready to fight the wolves, and so the sheep can lie down in green pastures and rest beside still waters.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies; 
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life, 
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.