The First Epistle to Timothy introduces us to a new set of epistles which were written by Paul. There are three of them that belong together (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and they are called “The Pastoral Epistles,” because they have to do with local churches. You will find that these pastoral epistles are in contrast, for instance, to the Epistle to the Ephesians. There Paul speaks of the church as the body of believers who are in Christ and the glorious, wonderful position that the church has. The church which is invisible, made up of all believers who are in the body of Christ, manifests itself down here upon the earth in local assemblies, in the local churches.
Now, just to put a steeple on a building and a bell in the steeple and a pulpit down front and a choir in the loft singing the doxology doesn’t mean it is a local church in the New Testament sense of the word. There must be certain identifying features. I have written a booklet called The Spiritual Fingerprints of the Visible Church, in which I point out that a local church must manifest itself in a certain way in order to meet the requirements of a church of the Lord Jesus.
These three epistles were written to two young preachers who worked with Paul: Timothy and Titus. They were a part of his fruit; that is, they were led to Christ through the ministry of Paul. He had these men with him as helpers, and he instructed them about the local church.
In all three epistles Paul is dealing with two things: the creed of the church and the conduct of the church. For the church within, the worship must be right. For the church outside, good works must be manifested. Worship is inside; works are outside. That’s the way the church is to manifest itself.
Paul deals with these two topics in each of the three epistles. For instance, in 1 Timothy, chapter 1, is faith, the faith of the church—its doctrine. In chapter 2 is the order of the church. Chapter 3 concerns the officers of the church. Chapter 4 describes the apostasy that was coming, and chapters 5 and 6 tell of the duties of the officers.
In 2 Timothy, Paul deals with the afflictions of the church in chapter 1 and the activity of the church in chapter 2. Then the apostasy of the church and the allegiance of the church follow in chapters 3 and 4.
Titus has the same theme. Chapter 1 tells of the order of the church, chapter 2 is about the doctrine of the church, and in chapter 3 is the good works of the church.
So there is creed on the inside of the church and conduct on the outside. Within is worship and without are good works.
The church today manifests itself in a local assembly. It first puts up a building. In Paul’s day, they didn’t have a building. That’s one thing they didn’t need because they were not building churches. They generally met in homes and probably in public buildings. We know in Ephesus that Paul used—probably rented—the school of Tyrannus. I suppose Paul used the auditorium during the siesta time each day. People came in from everywhere to hear him preach. That could be characterized as a local assembly, and it became a local church in Ephesus.
In order to be a local assembly, the church must have certain things to characterize it. It must have a creed, and its doctrine must be accurate. There are two verses that summarize Paul’s message in these epistles: “As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went to Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other [different] doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). It is important that a church have correct doctrine. That’s what I mean when I say that a steeple on a building doesn’t make it a local church by any means.
Then again Paul said to this young preacher: “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The local church is made up of believers who are members of the body of Christ. In order for them to function, they need leadership. Somebody has to be appointed to sweep the place out and sombody to build a fire in the stove—if they have one.
In the first little church that I served, I swept the church out sometimes, and on Sunday morning, because it was a little country church, the first one who got there built a fire in the stove. I always tried to be a little late, but I’d say that half the time I built the fire. Those things are essential. Also it’s nice to have a choir and a song leader. In addition to this, Paul is going to say that officers are essential for a church to be orderly. There must be officers, and they must meet certain requirements. The church should function in an orderly manner and manifest itself in the community by its good works. Unfortunately today that is idealistic in most places because the local church doesn’t always manifest what it should.
From these Pastoral Epistles have come three different types of church government which have been used by the great denominations of the church. The churches never disagreed on doctrine in the old days as much as they disagreed on this matter of church government, that is, how the local church is to function. I marvel that they could get three different forms of government out of these three Pastoral Epistles, but they did.
- There is the episcopal form of government where there is one man, or maybe several men, who are in charge at the top. The Roman Catholic church calls that man a pope. In other churches he is called the archbishop; if there are several leaders, they are called bishops. The Church of England and other churches follow the episcopal form of government. They are controlled by men at the top who are outside the local church.
- Another form of church government is known as the presbyterian or representative form of government. The local church elects certain men from its membership, called elders and deacons, to be officers, and the government of the local church is in their hands. Unfortunately, the churches were bound together by an organization above the level of the local church, and that organization could control the local church.
- The third type of church government is the opposite extreme from the episcopal form, called the congregational form of government. You see it, of course, in the Congregational and Baptist churches. The people are the ones who make the decisions and who are actually in control. The entire church votes on taking in members and on everything else that concerns the local church.
Perhaps you are wondering how they could get three forms of church government from the same words in the Pastoral Epistles. Well, of course, certain words were interpreted differently. I’ll try to call attention to these various interpretations as we go through the Pastoral Epistles.
The very interesting thing is that in the early days all three forms of church government functioned and seemed to work well. But in recent years all three forms of government have fallen on evil days; they don’t seem to work as they once did. Men who are members of all three forms of government tell me that there is internal strife and disorder and dissension. What is wrong? Immediately somebody says, “Well, the system is wrong.”
This is an interesting question since we have a representative form of civil government in this country. It was patterned after the church government. You see, the early colonists didn’t want a king. That was the only form of government they had known, and they had had enough of a king. They did not want an autocratic form of government, and they were rather reluctant to let the people rule. That may seem strange to you when you listen to local politicians today who talk about “everybody having a vote.” In colonial times women didn’t vote; men who were not landowners did not vote. Only those who had property and belonged to a certain elite class voted.
The reason the colonists did not want a king to rule over them was because they couldn’t trust human nature, which means they couldn’t trust each other. We think of those men as being wonderful, political patriotic saints. Well, they were human beings and filled with foibles. They knew they couldn’t trust each other, so they would not put power in the hands of one man. They were also afraid to put power in the people’s hands because they had no confidence in the people either.
That contradicts the concept that the politician purports when he says that the majority can’t be wrong—or “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Frankly, that’s just not true.
Why is it, then, that our forms of church government are not working as they should? Well, I want to say—and I hope I’m not misunderstood, because I recognize my inability to express it in the way I’d like to express it to you—that I believe Paul is saying in this epistle that the form of government, important as it is, is not as important as the caliber and character of the men who are holding office.
These epistles outline certain requirements for officers, such as being sober, having one wife, etc. These requirements are essential and are the subjects of debate in the local churches. But here is something more important that I have never heard argued in my forty long years as a pastor, and that is the most basic requirement for officers. Paul is trying to convey to us that the men who are officers must be spiritual, because no system will function unless the men who are in the place and position of authority are right. If they are wrong, no system—whether it is congegational or episcopal or presbyterian—will work.
That, my friend, is the problem. It is the problem today in politics, and it is the problem today in the church. When we elect a man, he must be successful in his vocation and he should have leadership ability. I think those are good requirements, but we need to determine if he is a spiritual man.
Paul is going to emphasize two aspects of the spiritual officer: he must be a man of faith, and he must be motivated by love. Unless those two characteristics are operating in his life, the officer can’t function in the church no matter how much ability he has.
What this simply means is that the authority the officers have is actually no authority at all. Paul says that when you’ve been made an elder or a bishop or a deacon in the church, you have an office and you may feel very pompous and authoritative, but Paul says you really have no authority. Well, what does he mean? He means that Christ is the Head of the church, and the Holy Spirit is the One to give the leading and the guiding and the direction. The officer is never to assert his will in anything; he is to find out what the will of God is. That means he will have to be a man of faith.
He also will have to be motivated by love. Now that doesn’t mean that he is to go around soft–soaping everybody and scratching their backs, trying to be a man–pleaser, but he is to carry through the will of Christ in that church. It is his job to make sure that Christ is the Head of the church. Oh, how I’ve spent weary hours in board meetings talking about some little thing that had absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual welfare of the church, but had a lot to do with the will of some hardheaded, stubborn officer who thought he was a spiritual man. Such a man had no idea that he was to carry through the will of Christ because, to begin with, he had never sought the will of Christ. All he was attempting to do was to serve his own will because he thought his will was right.
Oh, my friend, Christ is the Head of the local church today. We see this is the very first verse where Paul calls Him “the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is the Lord, and, remember, that means He is Number One. The Lord Jesus said in His day, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). A lot of people call Him “Lord” today in the church, and they’re not following Him at all. To be an officer in the church means that you’re to carry through the will of Christ, His commandments, and His desires. He is the Head of the local church. That is what is needed today, is it not?
Therefore, I am not prepared to argue with anybody about the form of government in his church. If you think yours is the best form, fine! You go along with it. But it will work only if you have the right men. It won’t work—no matter what the form is—if you have the wrong men. The unspiritual officer is the monkey wrench in the machinery of the church today. Although it is the business of the church to get Him through to the world, that is the reason we don’t see much evidence of Christ.
In 1 Timothy, then, we deal with the nitty-gritty of the local church, with the emphasis that it is the character and caliber of her leaders that will determine whether the church is really a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 50: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus & Philemon. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)