Monday, October 24, 2011

Church Life as Family

I once heard a conference speaker tell me that I was God’s favorite. What was immediately confusing about that statement is that I wasn’t the only one in the audience. Others must have heard him say the same thing. Which means that a few hundred were told they were God’s favorite. Which seems to diminish the idea of what it means to be a favorite just a little bit.

The fact is the Bible says that God is no respecter of persons in the sense that He has no favorites of earthly influence. He doesn’t need to.

At the same time, God’s word is also clear that He is always looking out for widows and orphans in a significant way. Take one example (there are several):

God in His holy dwelling is
a father of the fatherless
and a champion of widows.
(6) God provides homes for those who are deserted.
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a scorched land.
(Psalm 68.5-6, HCSB)

As we have worked our way through the letter of 1 Timothy, we have previously noted a couple of places where Paul implies that the family unit is like a little church, and the church is like a big family. God cares how families treat each other, and particularly how families treat their orphans and widows. At this point in his letter, in 1 Timothy 5.1-16, Paul addresses the way we treat each other in the church, responding to each other and our needs. How can we regard our fellow church members as family?

We treat every member with gentle respect. (vv. 1-2)

Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 5 could perhaps align better with what came immediately before them, but it seems appropriate to understand them as part of a larger discussion on family-church life. Paul speaks of our interactions with fellow church members, that communication should happen with gentleness and respect, as if they were family members. He adds a special phrase as a reminder to treat young ladies with all purity. So first, we are to treat each member of the church (family) with gentle respect. But there is another important admonition.

We care for true widows with loving support. (vv. 3-16)

This is a large grouping of verses to put together under one point, but they begin and end with the exhortation to assist those who are genuinely widows, or truly widows. Paul describes widows who are left without any family to help take care of them.

God’s word is clear that the church has a responsibility to help take care of those church members who have no one else to assist them. He says that if anyone has family members, the family should provide assistance, monetary and otherwise. Those who could help but refuse to do so are, according to the Holy Spirit, “worse than” one who claims no Christian faith at all. The Scripture simply recognizes that even those not operating from a Christian ethic understand the basic desire to and necessity of support for family members. Christians who don’t are without excuse.

Here God sets up a process whereby genuine widows (and perhaps by extension, anyone who is without any real means of support) can and should receive assistance from the church when possible. Paul and the church there know that many people tend to abuse the assistance process, and so he sets in place a series of guidelines as to who should receive the available support. The list or enrollment mentioned in verse 9 implies those who qualify for support. Regarding widows, to receive church assistance, he said they must be:

  • Genuinely left without support (vv. 4-5, 16)
  • Genuinely trusting in God (vv. 5-7; contrast vv. 11-15)
  • Genuinely faithful in serving (vv. 9-10)
  • Genuinely senior in age (v. 9; contrast v. 14)

Paul doesn’t want the church or the process to be abused, so parameters are set in place. And there are pretty stern warnings for those who reject this plan. We’ve already noted the “worse than an infidel” section. But notice also in verses 14-15 that those who would abuse this process for support are risking the accusations and temptations of Satan himself. This is serious business for the church to get right.

Why? Because the church is the community of truth. And how we treat widows really matters.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Monday, October 3, 2011

Good Servants of Christ Jesus

What did it take for you to become good at what you do? What did it take for you to become skilled at it? Did you have formal education or training? Did someone teach you how to do it?

For the believer, this is ultimately what discipleship is—God is training us, maturing our character, making us more like Jesus. Certainly, we must have the Holy Spirit working in us, enabling and empowering us. But the Bible also teaches that on our part, it takes practice; it takes rehearsal. Today we look at 1 Timothy 4.6-16, the next section in this series. In my own life, this section in chapter 4 had an early and lasting impact on my progress in character. These verses are among the first I memorized—because I knew I would need to remind myself often.

After warning about the real danger of falling away from faith and from the true gospel, Paul immediately addresses the church’s continual need of God’s Word. He says it in a way that Timothy and everyone there will understand—in terms of what makes a good servant or minister. He speaks of the training and practice it will take. Although he is specifically talking to Timothy in the role in which he was serving, these principles are true for everyone: The word for minister (in some translations) in verse 6 is the same word as servant. What was true for Timothy is true for us. So what makes someone a good servant of Christ?

1. Good servants of Christ grow through regular intake of God’s Word (vv. 6-7).

We grow through God’s Word, instead of being deceived through false teaching. This proves or demonstrates that we have been nourished and trained already—note that Timothy has already been following these things. Just like a baby needs milk, and instinctively desires it, we need the Word of God to be nourished (see 1 Pet 2.2-3). Are you taking in God’s Word regularly?

2. Good servants of Christ engage in disciplined training for an eternal reward (vv. 7-10).

We engage in disciplined training as opposed to being deluded through common folk fables in receiving an earthly benefit. Paul calls them “old wives’ tales,” showing that term’s usage from at least the first century. He simply means that Timothy should not get caught up in silly fables and myths that have little or no value. So it takes exercising, training, disciplining (ourselves) to avoid falling into error. Actually, it takes ongoing discipline to develop in anything.

Just like companies that offer continuing education credits to keep their employees trained, we all need continuing training. Many folks engage in physical exercise, and certainly it has some benefit. However, the Scripture here says that spiritual exercise offers benefit and promise for this life and for the eternal life that will extend beyond this one.

If you want to make an impact that will last into eternity, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness. Are you training yourself, through the Word of God, to exercise toward godliness, with the understanding that you are progressing toward an eternal reward?

3. Good servants of Christ model a mature life in front of other believers (vv. 11-14).

We model a mature life as opposed to allowing immaturity, whether real or perceived, to diminish our serving influence on others. Paul has just described the common grace of God, and the particular grace to save to the uttermost those who trust in Him (v. 10), which is why this purpose is worth living for, and then teaching and modeling for others.

Many youth group leaders have turned to verse 12 over the years as a key verse for their teens. While it’s a great verse to inspire them, this statement was not only addressed to teenagers, but a call for any servant of God’s Word to be demonstrating maturity. Timothy was not a teen. He was probably 30 years old or more, but still considered young for his day contrasted with the elders in the church who might look down on him (in their era) and despise his youth.

In our day, we have almost the opposite trend: America tends to idolize young people in our culture. In Paul’s day there would have been a great respect for the elders in the church. So his encouragement to Timothy was to lovingly and graciously show that maturity doesn’t always equate to age. The goal is to be above reproach—not to allow anyone to be able to raise an accusation about spiritual immaturity in each of these key areas (v. 12). This was proved by the confirming acceptance of God’s calling on his life, and it must not be neglected. Do you live in such a way that folks can watch your life, and then imitate it?

4. Good servants of Christ labor over good theology for Godward progress (vv. 15-16).

We are to work hard at having a good theology, as opposed to leading our churches and ourselves on a path to destruction. Paul describes the path to a healthy theological understanding: Being fully into God’s word, devoted to it. Bible translators always come up with interesting ways to render the second phrase in verse 15. Actually, it is simply a form of the word be, so that the meaning is: Be in it; soak it up; saturate yourself in the things of God through His word.

Right theology then informs and influences right living, although we sometimes think it’s the other way around. What we know about God impacts what we do on a daily basis. It will have a Godward redeeming influence on us and on those who watch us. If people watch your life, would they come to you with a question about God because they know you pore over the Scriptures? Can they see that you’re making progress?

5. Good servants of Christ share this glorious gospel for mutual transformation (vv. 6, 11, 13, 16).

We are to share this as the good news that it is, as opposed to merely gaining personal knowledge. We get to tell others. If we miss this point, we have missed Paul’s reason for these paragraphs. Are you sharing this glorious gospel with anyone?

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]