Biblical Church Leadership

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on April 1, 2007

Hebrews 13:7

The Lord’s Day

April 1, 2007

I Timothy 3:1-13; Hebrews 13:7

Priorities for Church Life
Biblical Church Leadership

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to
I Timothy 3. We’ve been for a number of months now, on and off, working through
the attributes, or the characteristics, or the priorities of a biblical local
church; that is, what are the characteristics of a church which in some measure
has aspirations for and bears the marks of those qualities of life and ministry
that God expects the church to bear and aspire to in the New Testament? What in
the Bible are the characteristics that God looks for in a local church in which
He is working…a local church which desires to be faithful to Scripture in its
life and ministry? And we’ve looked at a number of things together.

The last time we were together in this topic, we were
looking at the issue of church membership and we said that church membership
itself was an expression of passion for the body of Christ, the family of God;
that it’s the place in which we experience discipleship, because discipleship
can’t happen until you are a part of a community in which there is authority.
There’s no such thing as optional voluntary discipleship. It’s in the context of
submitting to one another and embracing the biblical leadership of the elders of
the church that one embarks upon a course of discipleship, because in the
context of that community–where we cannot simply decide, well, today I’m going
to be humble and submissive and Christ-like, but tomorrow I may not decide to do
that–it’s in the context of a community that won’t let us get by with that that
discipleship really happens. And so we contemplated the importance of church
membership the last time we were together.

And we also mentioned that one of the reasons why we
so often undervalue church membership is because it costs us so little. We
Christians here in America often don’t know what it costs our brothers and
sisters in Jesus Christ to be baptized, believing members of a local
congregation in other parts of the world. Sometimes the cost is their own
lifeblood. Sometimes it is tremendous peril, exile, separation from parents,
ostracism in all manner of things. God has been merciful to us that that price
is not required of us here in Mississippi right now, but we should value what it
means to be a part of the body of Christ and of the local expression of it no
less, simply because God has not required us to pay a personal price for our

Well, today we’re going to look at the importance
of biblical church leadership, and this is not a peripheral issue.
If God
has brought together a family, and if in that family He plans for us to be
discipled, matured, grown up in the faith, then He has also given leadership in
that family.

It is vital that every one of us become
characterized as disciples who love the word
, who are captured by the word
of God; our thoughts, our imaginations, our dreams all captive to the word of
God; our belief, our faith captive to the word of God. How are we going to have
that? Well, God has appointed those to be teachers of that word in His church.

It’s important for us, if we’re going to be people
of God, if we’re going to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, to be people of
Prayer does a lot of things, but one of the things it does at the
very outset is it acknowledges that we’re not in charge. You wouldn’t pray to
God for something that you are wholly and solely capable of producing yourself.
You wouldn’t ask God to do what you are capable of doing on your own. One of the
reasons you pray to God is an acknowledgement of your finitude, of your
limitations, of the fact that God is in charge, and that only God can perform
what He has ultimately called all of us to do, even in our discipleship; so,
prayer is a living demonstration of the sovereignty of God in the practical life
of the believer day to day. Well, God has appointed officers in the
church to lead us in prayer.

And God has called us to love and serve one
another tangibly.
He’s not called us to be a people who say ‘Be warmed, be
filled, Lord bless you;’ but when we’re in trouble, He’s called us to minister
to one another. When we’re in need, He’s called us to minister to one another.
He’s called us to tangibly show our love and care and concern for one another in
the congregation, and He’s called on us to love our neighbor in that same way.
And He has put a body of officers in the church to be a living, breathing,
walking, talking example of that.

And so the issue of biblical church leadership,
the issue of elders and deacons in a local congregation, is not a peripheral
issue, it’s a gospel issue.
When the gospel takes hold of people’s lives, it
leads to growth in grace in these areas. But God knows that that growth in grace
needs all of the mutual help and accountability that we can possibly get, and
therefore He, in His goodness (we see in Ephesians 4) appoints officers in the
church who are there to edify us, there to encourage us, there to help us grow
in grace.

And He knows that that in turn will lead to the
gospel being worked out deep into our hearts and out into our lives, and that in
turn will lead to a better gospel witness to the world around us.
The world,
in other words, will look at the congregation of God’s people and say, “You
know, there’s something different about them. They believe differently, they
think differently, they speak differently, they act differently, they have
different priorities, they love differently. There’s something different about
them.” In other words, a gospel witness will result from this working of God in
the congregation, but He does this through officers.

And I want to look at the two classes of officers
that are spoken of in the New Testament: elders and deacons.
Let me just go
ahead before we read I Timothy 3 and tell you what my two points are
going to be in the message today. Point one is simply this: Elders edify the
church through example and exhortation, and they will give an account to God.
Deacons, through deeds of love and mercy, show the congregation what it means to
love one another tangibly. (Point one, Point two.) Elders edify the church
through example and exhortation, and they will give an account to God (Point
one). Point two: Deacons, through deeds of love and mercy show the congregation
what it means to love one another tangibly.

Let’s look to God in prayer before we read His word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us
by it today and make us to be a church of the sort that You envisage in the
Bible. We want to be Christ-like not only in our individual lives, but in our
corporate life together, so by Your Spirit open our eyes to behold the truth of
Your word and transform our hearts by that same truth. In Jesus’ name we pray.

This is God’s word, I Timothy 3:1:

“It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of
overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above
reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable,
able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, un-contentious,
free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well,
keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know
how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?);
and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation
incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the
church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much
wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a
clear conscience. And let these also first be tested; then let them serve as
deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not
malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be
husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own
households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a
high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Sometime in the next year, I guess, we are going to
exercise the privilege and responsibility that God gives us in the New Testament
to elect officers in this congregation. The elders haven’t decided when, yet.
They’re just talking about this now. I know that they’re talking about it,
because they talk to me about it, and I hear them talking about this among
themselves. We’ve been going through a tremendous transition the last two years
at First Presbyterian Church, and I know that this is on their hearts and on
their minds. I know it’s on their mind in part because I hear them commenting
about some of the outstanding young men that the Lord has given to this church,
who seem to bear such evidence in their lives and their ministries of the gifts
and the qualifications of these offices.

But I know it’s also in the elders’ mind because
they’re thinking of the future of the church. I don’t know when that will come,
but it’s a good thing for us to be thinking about this right now because all of
us ought to be looking around and asking the question, “Lord, who have You given
to this church who meets these biblical qualifications, who You would call to
edify this church as an elder or as a deacon? Because I know that this is a
gospel necessity for this local congregation. If we are going to be healthy, if
we are going to express the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians
4:3), then we need godly officers giving us example not just in what they say,
but with how they live, what they do.

And the Lord speaks of this in His word. In this
passage we see a list of qualifications given for elders and then for deacons,
and in each of that list of qualifications it is required that these men not
simply say the truth, but that they do the truth; that is, they are not only
ones who teach the truth, but they are ones who live the truth, and so by their
example show us how to live that same truth.

I. Elders are given by God to
the church to edify the church.

Well, today I want you to see two things that
are important for us to understand about biblical church leadership. First,
that God has given elders to the church, and these elders are given by God to
the church (explicitly, by the way, said by Paul in Ephesians 4, to be given by
Christ to the church) to edify the church by their example and exhortation so
that we are equipped for every good work. And those elders will give an account
for how they do their job.
Let me say that in another way. The church is to
be led, says the Apostle Paul in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…the church
is to be led in word and prayer by elders. Those elders by their example and
teaching shepherd and edify the saints, and those elders will give an account of
their leadership.

Let me demonstrate that to you from God’s holy word.
Isn’t it interesting there in I Timothy 3:1-7, that in that long list of
qualifications, all of the qualifications but one are basically character
qualities? In other words, all of the qualifications have to do with a man’s
life: what is he like personally, what is he like in terms of his relationship
with unbelievers in the world of business and vocation, and what is he like in
the context of his family–but all of the qualifications except one are character
qualities. The one competency qualification that is required is what? You’ll see
it in the very end of verse two. What is it? The elder must be able to teach.

Now, the elder is also to be a man of prayer.
Turn back to I Timothy 2, and look at verse 8. Paul says explicitly, “I want the
men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without … dissension.” Now,
the Apostle Paul is not saying that he does not want women to pray, or that it’s
unimportant that women pray, but he is emphasizing how significant it is for the
male leadership of the congregation to be characterized as men of prayer. And
this, of course, is exactly what we find in the book of Acts. Turn back with me
to Acts 6, as the apostles are seeking to solve the problem of the overlooking
of the Greek-speaking widows in the predominately Aramaic or Hebrew-speaking
congregation in Jerusalem. They comment in passing upon their own vocation.
These are the disciples; these are the so-called twelve. These are the leaders
of the church, but their leadership in the two areas that they name in Acts 6:4
continues on in the eldership today. Notice how they characterize their work.
How did Peter and Paul and John, how did they see their work? Here’s how they
saw their work (Acts 6:4):

“We will devote ourselves to prayer and
the ministry of the word.”

So the apostles saw themselves as primarily
responsible for leading the church through prayer and the ministry of the word.
They were to edify the congregation through the ministry of the word, through
prayer, and through teaching: through example and through exhortation.

Now interestingly we see this come to play again in
Acts 20. Turn with me there. Here in Acts 20:28, the Apostle Paul says:

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit
has made you overseers to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with
His own blood.”

Here’s Paul speaking to the elders of the church in
Ephesus, and he’s saying that it’s their job to protect the flock and feed the
flock — to shepherd the flock.

Now why is it that these elders are needed to
shepherd the flock of God?
Turn with me to Ephesians 4, and look at verses
11-13. Why is it that these elders are needed to shepherd the flock of God?
Here’s what Paul says (Ephesians 4:11):

“He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and
some as pastors and teachers.”

Now you say to me, “Wait a minute. This is talking
about pastors. This is talking about preachers. This is not talking about

Listen to what Paul said: “He gave some as pastors
and teachers….” Now, what’s a pastor? A shepherd. What did he call the elders in
Acts 20:28? Shepherds. What was the one competency that he required of elders in
I Timothy 3:2? To teach. So, what are elders? Pastor-teachers. That’s what they
are. When you’re electing elders–I’m talking about the lay-elders from your
congregation–they are to be pastor-teachers. That’s what they are. They are

And by their example and by their exhortation they
are to do what? Well, the Apostle Paul tells you in verse 12. Why did Jesus
give pastor-teachers? Why did He give elders to the church? “For the equipping
of the saints for the work of service.”

He didn’t give elders to the church so that they
could do your work for you: He gave elders to the church so that they could do
what? Equip you to do what God has called you to do in the church and in all of
life. He knew that you needed that edification, and so elders He gave to you in
order to edify you. They are to be pastor-teachers, shepherd-teachers who edify
you so that what happens? So that the body of Christ is built up.

Is that a pretty important task? Yes, it is! Is the
body of Christ pretty important to Jesus? Well, what did Paul say in Acts 20:28?
“He bought it with His own blood.” That’s how important the body of Christ is to
Jesus, and what He loves at the cost of His own blood, He turns around and He
says ‘OK, elders… OK, shepherd-teachers. I want you to take care of My body.’
You think that’s an awesome job? Yes, it is! That’s why in Hebrews 13:17, a
passage that’s in the bulletin but that we didn’t read at the beginning of the
service, that’s why the author of Hebrews, joining what Paul says here and what
James says in James 2, says, ‘You know what those elders…you know what those
officers…you know what those leaders will one day do? They will give an account
to God for how they edified you.’

But you understand this is a gospel thing. The
gospel works in their lives, and what do these elders do? They become men of the
word. They love the word, they eat the word, they delight in the word. They love
the whole counsel of God. Even as Jesus told His disciples that they were to
make disciples and that they were to “teach them all that I commanded you,”
these elders are men who have been captured by God, by His grace. They’ve been
converted and transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ, and by His Holy Spirit, and
they’ve become men that love the whole counsel of God. They love the word, and
they’re able to teach it to others. And we need that. Why? Because we as
believers ought to love the word. We ought to want to eat the word, to know the
word from cover to cover. We want it to permeate our lives so that we think
Bible, and we believe Bile, and we act Bible, so that Bible becomes instinctive
for us. But it won’t become instinctive if we don’t esteem it, and it won’t
become instinctive if we don’t learn it. And God has given shepherd-teachers to
us so that the Bible becomes a part of us, so that God’s truth presses deep into
our hearts and out into our lives. We need that.

It’s a gospel issue. We need the gospel worked deep
into our hearts and out into our lives. We need to understand that while we were
yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. We need to understand that He who knew
no sin became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We need
to understand that God delivered His Son up for us all. We need to understand
that Christ died for our sins and was raised again on the third day according to
the Scriptures.

We need to understand the gospel. It changes
everything in life, it changes everything in our lives…and He’s given us
pastor-teachers, shepherd-teachers, in order to edify us in the gospel. This is
a gospel issue. Every healthy church needs shepherd-teachers edifying the
congregation in the whole counsel of God in the truth of the gospel. It’s a
gospel issue.

II. Deacons show the saints how
to love one another tangibly.

But the church is also to be led in deeds of
service by deacons who, by example and works of love, show the saints how to
love one another tangibly.

Turn in your Bibles to John 13. In John 13.
On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, He was in the upper room talking to His
disciples and He did something very strange. He took off His outer garment,
stripped down and wore a long towel around His waist. All His disciples would
have recognized that that is the way a slave dresses when that slave’s job is to
wash the feet of the guests who are coming to visit in the house in that
culture. You can imagine in that culture walking many miles on dusty roads in
blistering heat. When you get to your [host’s] home, you are a mess. And one of
the things that a good host did is he provided a slave who washed the feet of
all the guests being welcomed into the house. Now, as you can imagine, this was
not the task that the slaves were lining up saying, “Ooo! Ooo! Can I do
that? Can I do that?” This was a very menial task. Being around someone’s dusty,
sweaty, smelly feet on your knees is about as low on the totem pole as it gets.
And suddenly in John 13, there’s Jesus! And you know the story. The disciples
are actually terribly embarrassed about this fact that Jesus is, in the manner
of an oriental slave, on His knees washing their feet. But Jesus explains to
them why He did this later. You see this in John 13:33ff. He says to them in
verse 34:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved
you, that you love one another. By this will all men know that you are My
disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus had given them an example of the
commandment that He was about to pronounce to them.

Now of course it’s not a new commandment in the sense
that the commandment to love one another wasn’t given in the Old Testament. It
was. The command to love one another is found repeatedly in the Old Testament,
even in the middle of the Law in Leviticus 19. The command to love one another
is there. The command to love our neighbor is there. There’s nothing new about
that command. Why does Jesus call it a new commandment? Because–what does He
say?–“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus in this striking way had put
Himself, the exalted one…He is the Messiah, He is the Son of the living God, He
is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and now He has put Himself at
the feet of His disciples. To do what? To serve them. And now He turns around
and He says ‘That’s how I want you to love one another.’

And God has given a group of officers to the
church that are to embody that in the way they serve the congregation. They are
to serve the congregation in time of need so that through their example and
service they show to us how we are to serve one another.

God wants our congregation to be a radically
serving congregation. He wants us to always be ready to say, “How may I serve
you?” And to that end He knows that that does not come naturally to us. We are
so preoccupied. We are selfish, we are self-centered, we are me-first kind of
people, and we live in a me-first generation. And so God has given a group of
men who are supposed to be always thinking and living the priority of service in
their lives. Why? So that they can be the ones in the congregation serving for
us? No! So that we are motivated to begin to emulate their service ourselves, to
one another.

And then what’s the result of that? Well,
Jesus told us in John 13:35:

“By this all men will know that You are My

When they look at this group of people putting others
ahead of themselves…when they look at this group of people serving one another
instead of serving themselves…when they look at this group of people preoccupied
with manifesting tangibly the love of Christ to one another rather than doing
the me-first thing, they’re going to go…??? “There’s something going on here.
Something different about these people. What is it?” The gospel.

You see, it’s a gospel issue, folks. With both the
elders and the deacons, God is working the gospel out in the life of the
congregation. This is why it is so vital that we look for men whose hearts are
aflame for these things, because their job is in their example (and in the case
of the elders, in their teaching), to show us and to exhort us in the living out
of the gospel in our relationship with one another, and then ultimately even to
our neighbors out there.

So biblical church leadership is not some peripheral,
extraneous matter that we don’t need to think about. It’s something very
important for the life of a healthy local church. Jesus gave gifts to His
church; and among those gifts, we are told, are pastor-teachers…shepherd-elders.
That’s what He gave to His church, and Jesus doesn’t give gifts that we don’t

And so we need to be praying right now, “Lord Jesus,
show that You’re at the right hand of God the Father Almighty again, like You
have so many times to First Presbyterian Church over the last almost 170 years.”
Do you realize that next Sunday morning it will be exactly 170 years since this
congregation was founded? April 8, 1837 — April 8, 2007. And one of the ways
that God has blessed this church over the years is that the Lord Jesus Christ
has given elders to us that love the word of God, love the gospel, love the Lord
Jesus Christ, and are determined to protect the flock and to make sure that the
word of God is taught in the flock. And He’s given deacons that
self-sacrificially serve this church. Let’s start praying now that God will
bless this church again, so that another generation will see and hear the gospel
lived out, and will be determined to live that gospel out itself.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for the legacy of
biblical fidelity that we have in the officers of this church. Continue that
legacy, we pray, by Your grace and mercy for a generation yet to come, even a
generation yet unborn, that we might tell them the praiseworthy deeds of our God
and declare to them the mercies which He has shown to our fathers. And we ask
that this would lead to Your glory, and that it would lead to a witness to all
men that we are Your disciples. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: The
Church’s One Foundation

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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