1 Timothy 3

And now he comes, 2 Timothy 3, not so much to comely order as to the outside, or as to the relation of man and woman, but to the ordinary governments and helps of the saints. He takes up what was of a graver kind, and touching more on spiritual things, namely, bishops (or elders); then deacons; and this leads him naturally to the house of God. “Faithful is the word, If any one aspireth to oversight, he desireth a good work. The overseer then must be blameless, husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity.” It is plain that this is not at all a question of spiritual gift. One might be endowed with a good gift and yet not have a well-regulated house. Perhaps the wife might not behave properly, or the children be unruly: no matter what his gift, if the wife or the family were a dishonor, he could not be an overseer (for this is the simple and true meaning of “bishop”).
In early days persons were brought in to the confession of Christ who had been Pagans, and trained up in its habits. Some of these had more than one wife. A true and gifted Christian one might be; but if such were his unhappy position, he was precluded from exercising formal oversight. The evil of polygamy could not be corrected at that time by strong measures. (Since then in Christendom it is dealt with as criminal.) To dismiss his wives would be wrong. But the Holy Spirit by such an injunction applied a principle which was destined to undermine, as in fact it did undermine, polygamy in every form. There was a manifest censure conveyed in the fact that a man with two or more wives could not be set in the charge of elder or deacon. A man was not refused as a confessor of Christ, nor was he forbidden to preach the gospel, because such might have been his sad circumstances at home. If the Lord called him by His grace, or gave him as a gift to the church, the church bowed. But an elder or bishop was to be one that not only had a suitable gift for his work, but also in the family or in his circumstances must be free from all appearance of scandal on the name of the Lord. He must have a good report, and be morally irreproachable in himself and his household. There might be trial or sorrow, few families were without both; but what is spoken of here is something that damaged the public repute of the assembly. For this very reason the grand point for local oversight was moral weight. It was not only the ability to inform, counsel, or rebuke, but in order to do all this efficiently a certain godly influence proved at home and abroad. In the practical difficulties with which an elder or bishop would be called to interfere continually in an assembly, there should never be room for those whose conduct might be in question to point to flaws in his own home, or in his own open life and spirit. Thus wisely and holily did the Spirit demand that he should be a person of good report himself, that neither past ways nor present habits should in the least degree compromise the office; and again, with a stainless reputation as well as a man of some spiritual experience in his family—“one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” These things would not apply to a man’s ministry in the Word. A Christian may begin to preach almost as soon as he believed—the word of truth, the gospel of salvation; but for one to be clothed with a public and responsible place as elder in an assembly is another thing altogether.
As a rule the Apostle never appointed persons elders directly after they were converted. A certain time was needful for the Spirit of God to work in the soul, and discipline them in the midst of their brethren. They would then and thus manifest certain capabilities and moral qualities, and acquire weight, which would make them respected and valued, besides gaining experience in godly care for the well-being of the saints of God. All these things, where there were circumstantial requisites, relative and personal suitability, would mark out a person for this office.
Besides, though this is not said here, in order to be an overseer, one must be appointed by a valid authority; and the only one recognized by Scripture is an apostle or an apostolic delegate. Thus the Christians that a superficial observer of the present day might tax with inattention to godly order in these respects are in truth those alone who are really adhering to it. For manifestly to set up men in such a position of charge without a proper validating authority is really to vitiate all in its very springs. Those who refuse to exceed their powers are clearly in the right, not those who imitate the apostles without warrant from the Lord. I am perfectly satisfied therefore that those now gathered to His name have been mercifully and truly led of God in not presuming to appoint elders or bishops. They do not possess the needful authority more than others; and there they stop, using, and blessing God for, such things as they have. Appointment must always raise the question, who they are that appoint. And it is impossible for an honest man of intelligence to find a scriptural answer, so as to sanction those who pretend to ordain, or those who claim to be duly ordained, in Christendom. There was no difficulty in primitive days. Here indeed (if we except a debatable allusion in another place) the Apostle does not touch the subject of appointment as he does to Titus. He merely puts before Timothy the qualities requisite for both the local charges.
After the overseers he turns to the deacons. “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved.” The modern deacon in the larger and national bodies has no resemblance to this, and is indeed an unmeaning form. It is a mere novitiate for the so-called presbyters who compose the body of the clergy. Of old no inexperienced man ought to have been in such a position. Even though it was a function about outward things, still they were to be first proved. “Then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave.” It is plain on the face of it that this is more particularly insisted on for the deacons than for the elders. The reason was, that as the deacons had to do more with externals, there was greater danger of their wives making mischief and heart-burning. They might interfere with these matters, which we know are apt to gender strife, as they cast a gloom over the Pentecostal Church at an early day. There was not the same temptation for the wives of the elders or overseers. Hence it is written here, “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.” In this we find the same thing as was said of the elders: both must rule their children and their own houses well. “For they that have served well purchase to themselves a good degree, and much boldness in faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
Then the Apostle sums up these regulations, and says, “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God,” (May we, too, profit by his words, beloved brethren?) “which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The church is the guardian of the truth, its sole responsible witness on the earth. The church owes all in the grace of our Lord Jesus to the truth. It may not be competent to define the truth: inspired men have done so. At the same time it is bound to hold forth God’s word as the truth, and to allow nothing inconsistent with it in the doctrine or ways of the assembly. For we are called to be a manifestation of the truth before the world, even of that which goes beyond that of which the church is the embodiment. The acts done should always be an expression of the truth. It is a most important duty, therefore, and one requiring continual watchfulness. God alone can vouchsafe or keep it good.
Truly, there are often difficulties that arise in the church of God, and prudence might suggest many plans to meet the difficulty; but then it is the house of God, not merely the house of the prudent or the good. It is a divine institution. It has nothing in common with well-intentioned men doing their best. Let the matter be ever so simple, whether it be a question of discipline or order, it should express the truth of God applied to the case. This shows the exceeding solemnity of either advising or resisting any course that might be the will of God in any particular matter. Excellent desires, zeal, honesty, are in no way sufficient for the purpose. God can employ the most feeble member of the assembly; but still ordinarily one looks for better guides. One might expect that while God would give no allowance to a man presuming on gift or experience, because the moment you begin to assume to yourself or to others, there is danger, but nevertheless, surely one might expect that God would, by suitable means, bring out that which is wholesome, and true, and godly—in short, what would express His own mind on any given subject.
These are among the reasons why the Apostle maintains it here. We have it viewed in its outward comely order in this world, but the principle of the maintenance of this, and nothing less than this, always remains true. No renewed state gives any reason for abandoning it. The great thing is, never to let details swamp the principle. There is always a way for those who, consciously weak, distrust themselves; and this is to wait, to refuse to act until God shows His way. Faith waits till it gets a distinct word from God. No doubt it is hard to be at one’s wits’ end, but it is a good thing for the soul. So here: he bids Timothy to take heed to these things, in case he himself tarried.
And what is that truth especially which characterizes the church? This is another instance of the tone of the epistle. “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness.” Mark the expression “mystery of godliness,” or piety. It is not simply the mystery of Christ in the church, but the “mystery of godliness.” “God was manifested in flesh, was justified in Spirit, was seen of angels, was preached among Gentiles, was believed on in [the] world, was received up in glory.” It is not God reigning over a people here below. This was no mystery, but the wonted expectation of all Israel, indeed, of saints before Israel. They expected the Messiah, the Redeemer to come, the One that would make good the promises of God. But now “God was manifested in flesh, was justified in Spirit.” The power of the Holy Spirit had shown itself all through His life, had been proved to the uttermost in His death, and now marked Him out as Son of God in resurrection. He was “seen of angels,” not of man alone; He was “preached among Gentiles,” instead of being found on a throne amongst the Jews; He was “believed on in the world,” instead of manifestly governing it by power. Another state of things altogether is present: it is Christianity; but Christianity viewed in the person of Christ Himself, in the grand bearings of His own person and His work; not as forming a heavenly body, nor even pursuing the special privileges of the habitation of God through the Spirit; but laying the foundation for the house of God, as the scene and support of His truth and moral order before the world. The whole matter is closed by Jesus, not only “believed on in the world,” but “received up in glory.”