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The Noble Task

Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task

Did you know that UK churches are beginning to run out of pastors? In both free churches and and the Church of England, the number of candidates for ordination for evangelical ministry has declined, and lags below the number who are retiring. While the situation isn’t as bad as in Japan, where 89% of pastors are over fifty, we are facing a situation in which, in future years, there just won’t be the men to lead churches, let alone plants. Or, at least, not men with the gifts and character that the role requires. (I say “men” here not in any way to denigrate the vital ministry of women in paid Bible teaching but because I am thinking of the role of senior minister of a church.)

Could one of the reasons for this be that in the culture of our churches we have forgotten that the role of overseer (which a pastor is) is, as Paul puts it, a noble one? Might it be that we no longer see this as a role which a suitably gifted younger man would aspire to?

Paul is not wanting to put overseers / pastors on pedestals, as if we should be bowing and scraping to them. Not at all. But he recognises that churches need spiritually healthy and suitably gifted pastors. Men need to be found to do this work, and this will not happen if the role is regarded as a non-job, or its occupants regarded with suspicion.

Of course, those selected for the role must be suitable – hence Paul’s list of qualifications here in 1 Timothy 3 – but Paul also knows that the reputation of the role also matters, if men are to do it. This must be why he also book-ends this list with his closing assurance that those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus (3:13). Paul wants to say, beginning and end, loud and clear, “Truly, this is a great job!”

One can only speculate about what was going on in Ephesus that meant that Paul needed to remind folks there (via Timothy) that the pastor’s task is noble. Most likely, given the problem behaviours he lists (3:3, 5, 6), people had seen ungodly pastors and this had diminished their respect for the role. In our own times, the widely publicised poor behaviour of a few pastors may also tarnish our respect for the role, and replace respect with suspicion. On top of this, there is of course, the worldliness that creeps in even to Christians’ assessments of what is a “good job”.

By contrast, a church whose culture reflects Paul’s words here will be valuing this role and praying that suitable men will take it on. This must surely include those who have the gifts and training to do very well in their current jobs. We must get away from thinking of pastoral ministry as suitable only for those who can’t do anything else!

In 1927 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a highly talented London doctor with a glittering medical career ahead of him, astonished his contemporaries by becoming the pastor of a church in a steel-working town in South Wales. People often remarked on the ‘sacrifice’ he had made. According to his biographer Iain Murray, “he repudiated the intended compliment completely. ‘I gave up nothing,’ he said on one such occasion, ‘I received everything. I count it the highest honour that God can confer on any man to call him to be a herald of the gospel.’”

Truly, this is a great job!