Honour the Vanilla Men

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One of the striking things about modern society is the lack of respect it shows for hierarchies and institutions.  I do not see this, as some appear to do, as a unique contribution of this age.  For all the trumpeting of the disillusion of contemporary youth with institutions, today's young people on the whole seem merely more indifferent and less active in their disillusion than the generation which protested Vietnam.  Yet it does raise a cultural challenge for the church.

In 1 Timothy, Paul sketches out a blueprint of how the gospel is to be preserved after the passing of the apostles.  As I think I have noted before, he specifically does not tell Timothy to look for the big personalities, the beautiful young things, the heavyweight scholars or the hit-and-run itinerant preachers of the parachurch world.   What he advocates is the appointment of rather bland, non-descript, respectable men as elders.  These vanilla men, basically competent and with no skeletons in the cupboard, are to be entrusted with keeping the church on the straight and narrow.

This makes Paul's comment in 1 Tim. 5:17 interesting: the elders are to be doubly honoured, especially those who teach.  That is hard teaching in a world where age is despised and where institutions are distrusted.  Indeed, when one reflects on the fact that the phrase 'organised religion' is now typically a pejorative, one can realize how far the problem extends. Reflect for a moment on how strange that is: is it really the case that  'disorganised' or 'anarchic religion' are good things?

So why are elders and teachers, these bland, vanilla men, to be so honoured?  First, we can say why they should not be honoured.  They are not priests.  They possess no special access to God denied to others and which they can dispense to the great unwashed at their own will. This is why I dislike intensely the practice among some Protestants of wearing clerical collars other than at fancy dress parties.  Second, they possess no intrinsic quality which should lead them to being so honoured.  As I said above, the qualifications for eldership are essentially that the elder should have a mature and consistent Christian walk; the one thing that might make him different to others is that he should be able to teach; but that is scarcely a quality that makes him morally superior.  It is rather a technical ability.

In fact, I suspect the elder is to be honoured because of the peculiar place he fills in the church.  As Paul says, these are the last times and they are marked by the rise of false teaching within the church.   The elders are the first line of defence in this great tribulation which is taking place within the church.

It makes sense that, if the enemies of the church, human and spiritual, wish to destroy her, they will subvert her from the inside.   Persecution from outside usually has the opposite effect, strengthening the church and fostering growth.  Modern China is the great example of this.  Attack from the inside is far more deadly.  For this reason, the elders are in the front line.

As the public face of the church, both externally and internally, the fall of an elder is always more devastating in terms of its impact than a church member.  In addition, the false teaching of an elder will foster false professions of faith among those who hear; and false converts will encourage the appointment of more false teachers and the propagation of more error.  The elder, then is going to be the primary target in the church of evil.  The church, humanly speaking, needs vanilla men who will stand firm, morally and theologically.

Further, the teacher is the herald of good news.  Like a messenger from a battlefield, he brings the goods news of the triumph of the king against the armies that seek to destroy the church.  That makes him a target for those who would wish that such news never be proclaimed.

It should also make him an object of honour for those who hear and rejoice.  It is hard to imagine that the villagers would not honour that man who brings word to them that the army which threatened their destruction has been destroyed.   The herald did not win the victory but he would no doubt be carried shoulder high through the village that night.

So it should be for the one who proclaims God's word each week.  He should be honoured not for who he is or what he has done but for the glorious good news which he brings.

This brings me finally to the way in which such vanilla men should be honoured.  It seems probable that Paul had finances in mind in 1 Timothy, presumably because he was aware of some particular local conditions.   But honour should not be restricted in that way.  For me, the best way I can be honoured is that people pray that I fall not into sin and bring disgrace upon the church but finish well.  And then they can honour me when I preach by listening to what I have to say.  Not that they should believe it because I say it; they should always search the scriptures to see that these things are so.  But when a man stands up to tell you about the victory of the great king, that is vitally important news; and the ones who do not hang on his every word are presumably the ones who are really clueless - or really careless - about what is happening.

Lloyd-Jones put it pungently in Preaching and Preachers (page 172): '[I]f a Christian man, however able and learned and knowledgeable he may be, is not ready to sit down and listen to the man whom God has called, and appointed, and sent to perform this task, with joy and with keen anticipation, I take leave to query whether that man is a Christian at all.'

Posted May 7, 2012 @ 10:50 AM by Carl Trueman
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