The Beautiful Task of the Office-Bearer
The Beautiful Task of the Office-Bearer
I am saying nothing new when I conclude that there is a lot of discussion about the special offices in our churches. Not only are people thinking about the new ways in which office bearers should function today, but many congregations have difficulties in finding brothers who are suitable and willing to serve in the special offices. Many dread the thought of becoming an office bearer.
Much is expected of office bearers today. The work has become more difficult. And in addition the day jobs of many demand more time and energy than was formerly the case. Young fathers also want to participate actively in the raising of their children. Many experience being an office bearer as a significant burden that involves a continuing struggle to do justice to all one’s responsibilities.
All these factors cause people to look at the special offices negatively. “You are the fall guy for the next three years” is a statement that is probably heard more often than we care to admit.
Shepherd with the Word⤒🔗
That people have a negative view of the special offices is nothing new. Timothy already had to deal with it in the church at Ephesus. The Bible does not disclose why the office of elder had become discredited at that time. But we can imaging that the office was far from a sinecure in the beginning years of the Christian church. The church was surrounded by a heathen society that was hostile toward Christians. Moreover, many of the members of the church belonged to that stratum of society that had to work hard for their daily bread. A significant number of Christians were slaves.
Whatever the reason, the circumstance gave Paul cause to remind the church via Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). I want to reflect a bit on this injunction of the apostle. For it says not only that the office of elder is a noble task, but also why it is noble.
Usually people think of the opening words, “Here is a trustworthy saying”, as an introductory formula that is followed by what the writer wants to emphasize. However, Professor J. van Bruggen has shown that this expression, which appears more often in the Pastoral Letters, is an exclamation that can be translated as: “The Word is trustworthy!” Paul wants to impress on his readers that you can rely on God’s Word and that therefore you can believe it with all your heart. Accordingly, 1 Timothy 1:15 says: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance”. That further explanation is precisely what the apostle has in mind in the passage quoted above.
In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul proclaims that the task of the elder or overseer is a noble one. The exclamation with which he begins demonstrates why the task is so noble. It is noble because the Word of God is trustworthy. The elder does not tell human stories and ideas on his visits, but he brings the trustworthy Word of the Lord. It is that Word that he may proclaim in the homes of the church members. With that Word he may comfort, admonish, and reprimand. And thus, the overseer is indeed minister of the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus!
And that is why his work is “noble”. The Greek word employed by Paul literally means something like “beautiful”, “attractive”, and “graceful”. We can render the meaning very well with our word “splendid”. The task of an elder is not simple and it demands a lot but, declares Paul, it is splendid because you may serve God’s children with his trustworthy Word.
I have been using the word “elder”. But the apostle speaks of the “office of overseer”. It is apparent from Acts 20:17 (see 20:28) and Titus 1:5 (see 1:7) that the words “elders” and “overseers” refer to the same office bearers. When Paul writes about the “office of overseer”, he directs our attention specifically to the substance of this office. The Greek uses a very pastoral word. It speaks of the care of a shepherd who “feeds” his flock (Acts 20:28) and of “overseeing” the flock (1 Pe. 5:2). It is therefore splendid indeed to be able to care for Christ’s sheep as a shepherd!
In my view, it is very relevant to remind each other today of what Paul writes.
You are not the “fall guy” when you are called to serve as office bearer. We have to realize again that the task the office bearers may perform is a beautiful one and how privileged you are when the Lord wants to use you for this purpose. A good perspective on the work of office bearers can help us to overcome the crisis surrounding the special offices among us! How do we speak about the offices? Do we see only the buts and the objections, or do we still realize how “splendid” the task of the elder is, in the way Paul speaks of it?
Setting Your Heart←⤒🔗
When we realize again that the Lord entrusts his people with a beautiful task, the desire to take up the office will flourish.
The apostle speaks of that desire. With his words he stimulates the person who “sets his heart” on being an overseer. The Greek word used here implies a desire that is visible (see Heb 11:16, which uses the same word). When you dearly want to serve the Lord, you will show that in your conduct. Paul does not provide further details here. But in what follows we learn what is essential for a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6), when he exhorts Timothy: “train yourself to be godly” (NIV), or “for godliness” (ESV) (1 Tim. 4:7). That text tells in brief compass what is essential for an office bearer and what everyone who desires to become an office bearer, must do.
The word “godliness” recalls the expression “the fear of the Lord” that is often used in the Old Testament. It connotes a reverence for God that is demonstrated in a life governed by his Word.
A person who sets his heart on the office of elder must train himself to live such a reverential life. Paul uses a term from the world of sports (gymnadzein). It speaks of effort, perseverance, planning; in short, of training. A life with the Lord does not come to us automatically. It requires training. In the context Paul refers to the Word of God and to prayer (see 1 Tim. 4:5). Both of those are the means that must be used for the training. If you want to live in the fear of the Lord, you must sit at Christ’s feet and have a hidden relationship with the Lord in prayer. You need to set aside time for both. And you must persevere in them and engage in them regularly. All of this is the most important lesson on the road to the office of elder!
The Love of Christ←⤒🔗
Professor C.J. de Ruijter recently pointed to a “spiritual attenuation” as the “serious ailment” that causes the decreasing motivation to serve as office bearer. I think that he is right. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul writes that Christ’s love compels him. That is what motivates him. It is striking that the apostle does not speak of a love for Christ, but of the love of Christ. He is speaking of the love of Christ that is directed toward the church, the church that he bought with his blood, and for which he died. It is that love that “compels” Paul. The Greek word means something like, “being taken prisoner by”, “being monopolized by”. That love of Christ has Paul in its spell, it holds him prisoner. And that is why Paul is an apostle and is able to bear the burden of his office. If you are not filled with the gospel and are not seized by it, you lack the right motivation to serve Christ’s church. Then you are indeed the “fall guy” if you have to brace yourself for your three years of service.
But if you have been taken captive by Christ’s love, you can give things up, make sacrifices, and realize what a blessing it is to be used by the Lord in his work.
I realize that circumstances can make it impossible for a person to serve in a special office. The expression “spiritual attenuation” does not apply to all situations. But the difficulties many of our churches face in filling the offices must cause us to reflect. Do people have their priorities right? Do younger brothers realize that it is not all about their careers, but that the work of an office bearer is also important? Do we take our responsibility to prepare for that work seriously? Are our homes filled with the fear of the Lord? Does the love of Christ compel our hearts?
The Christians in Macedonia participated fully in the acts of service Paul asked of them. They performed them spontaneously and whole-heartedly, because they had first given themselves to the Lord (see 2 Co. 8:5). I believe that with all the difficulties concerning the special offices today it is important to remember that. We must give ourselves to the Lord, wholeheartedly and with our whole being. And we must do so again and again and always more and more fully. When we do that, we shall also know ourselves to be called to serve in the special offices. Christ came to serve, says Matthew 20:28, and that should motivate us to imitate him.
The difficulties around the special offices affect all of us. They compel us to examine ourselves. Are our hearts filled with the love of Christ? Do we desire the riches of the world, or do we flee from the egocentric life of that world and pursue the fear of the Lord (1 Tim. 6:11)?
When the life of faith attenuates, the church suffers. But when we live in Christ, we shall receive out of his abundance whatever is necessary for the building up of his church!
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