As our church leaders sat discussing whether we should appoint more elders, we were left with the question “What is the principal criterion for a man to be an elder?” Several qualified men hesitated because they did not think they met the criteria, but Paul was not afraid to appoint elders in every church he planted (Acts 14:23). Having sent Timothy to pastor the church in Ephesus, he instructed Timothy on the primary quality of an elder: godliness, which means conforming to the laws and instruction of God and imitating His character.
Paul uses godliness (synonyms include holiness and Christlikeness) ten times in 1 Timothy to describe the Christian life (2:2, 10; 3:16; 4:7, 8; 5:4; 6:3, 5, 6, 11). He describes godliness as necessary for true believers, and especially for those who lead them. In this letter he mentions three groups of people who need to seek godliness: growing Christians, church leaders, and those called by God to vocational service.
Growing in godliness, or sanctification, should be natural for the maturing Christian. We typically mention three kinds of sanctification: positional (declared justified at conversion), ultimate (standing blameless before God at Christ’s return), and progressive. The latter type of sanctification should be ongoing in the lives of Jesus Christ’s followers, as God’s children grow in Christlikeness and work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). So how do we become godly?
If we are planning a trip, we need to know where we are going and how to get there. In the same way, Paul clarifies that attaining godliness is not achieving perfection in our day-to-day lives, but demonstrating love that results from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5). God and His Word become the GPS guiding us. Other interests become distractions and detours.
The principal signposts that lead to our growth in godliness should be the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (6:3). His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension are the constant reminders of God being with man (3:16). Non-Christians during Paul’s time worshipped gods that were already like human beings in their thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Jesus contrasted these pagan gods by His righteous teachings and acts. Roman gods had relative power (over each other), but Jesus claimed absolute power and demanded complete submission with a whole new set of values.
When Jesus returned to heaven, His disciples were instructed to live by these values. Paul had this in mind when he talked about godliness in the growing Christian’s life (2:2).
Paul turns next to the requirement for godliness in church leaders. In 1 Timothy 3, he describes two types of people who provide special service to the church: elders and deacons. Lists of qualifications for them feature character qualities essential to godliness, including being above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, gentle, and not quarrelsome. It is similar to a recipe for cooking one’s favorite dish. By following these instructions, we get the sought-after flavor of our special food item.
The lists in 1 Timothy 3 are not designed as performance measures to eliminate potential leaders from service in the church. Since the believer’s goal is progressive sanctification, these qualities serve as goals for those in leadership. But neither are they optional. Both elders (vv. 1-7) and deacons (vv. 8-12) are held to stricter standards than others in the church, because they have responsibilities for teaching and modeling the obedient Christian life (5:17).
Paul especially warns Timothy about not selecting elders who are addicted to material wealth (6:3-10). Our culture is characterized by consumerism, status symbols, and a desire to get rich quick. The body of Christ is not immune to this; many succumb to this temptation. God’s antidotes to lust for money are contentment, security in God’s provision for the believer, and generosity (vv. 6, 17-19).
Paul teaches that godliness is the objective of a holy life. Christian leadership needs to always be on the lookout for worldly values that seek to ruin it, even as Satan attempts to destroy the Christian church.
Those called to vocational service
Paul’s last appeal for godliness is for Timothy himself to be godly (vv. 11-16). We live in a day when pastors and others in full-time Christian service are being increasingly disgraced for moral lapses. Usually the decision leading to the fall of such a worker is a slow slide into sin. Paul is personally concerned for his disciple Timothy and wants him to know his own vulnerability as leader of the church of Ephesus. He instructs Timothy to counter temptation with a passion for godliness.
Once again, Paul notes what godliness looks like: righteousness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Timothy serves as an example in ministry in his speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (4:12), and he needs to take pains to maintain a clear conscience and live above reproach. Paul mentions his concern that Timothy is conspicuous in his actions, whether good or bad, and will serve as either a good or bad example (5:24, 25).
Paul accepts no compromises; Timothy is to run from the love of money. Instead, he urges Timothy to cling to his confession of Jesus Christ’s deity, which he made publicly when he entered vocational Christian service. Paul mentions that Jesus made the same confession of His deity before Pilate. By doing these two things, Paul reminds Timothy of Jesus Christ’s godliness as his model, and encourages him to remain faithful until the return of Jesus.
It follows that, in this day of scandals, the body of Christ should not accept excuses from those in vocational service, including pastors and missionaries, for ungodly behavior. These people serve as the cutting edge for the spread of the gospel. When the world attacks believers in Jesus, their defense should be their godliness (1 Peter 2:19-25).
Go in godliness
Paul writes Timothy out of a deep concern for his personal godliness, as well as for those he ministers to. He warns Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). That deposit was the knowledge that Timothy was called to a lifetime of godliness. Just as a slow leak in a tire may not cause it to go flat immediately, over time, if not detected and repaired, a leak can weaken or destroy the tire. Paul wants Timothy to know that every lifestyle choice he makes is significant.
Our church leaders realized that godliness is an important quality not only in elders but also in all of us as growing believers. So let’s pursue holiness, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). May we reflect on our own lives and ask God to show us where we need to make any adjustments.