Pastors Govern Sober-Mindedly
No one spoke. A few men at the table sat stone-faced. Others shrugged or grimaced. Their eyes and brows trying communicate what they couldn’t quite find the words to say: Art (name changed to protect the immature) is not a good fit for the counsel. At least not yet.
Our team of elders was once again brainstorming names for future additions. By God’s grace, the voicing of some names elicited words of praise. Sometimes there was largely enthusiasm, with some minor misgivings. On occasion, it seemed as if many of us intuited that “something’s not right” or “doesn’t resonate” when thinking of this man as an elder. Over time, I came to learn that often the language we were groping for was right here in the eldership qualifications: sober-minded.
MORE THAN JUST TEACHING
In a previous article, I celebrated what we might call the most central or most distinctive trait of the pastor-elders: “teachative” or “prone to teach” (Greek didaktikos). That means at least that the pastor-elders are “fond of or given to teaching.” They want to teach. They are eager to teach. You don’t have to put a gun their head to get them to teach. Rather, you might have to put a gun to their head to get them to stop teaching—and even then, most wouldn’t.
It is a remarkable turn of events that Jesus appoints a team of teachers, in essence, to lead his local churches. Jesus is the lone Head and Savior and Groom of his church. He gets the singular glory of being the lone singular leader and Chief Shepherd. Under him, even the apostles were plural. And every instance we have in the New Testament of local church leadership testifies to plural local leadership: a team of pastor-elders. And a teaching team at that.
However—this is where we come especially to “sober-minded”—Jesus does not call these pastor-teachers to teaching alone. He calls the pastor-elders, under the gathered assembly of saints, to lead the people. He did not choose to put savvy executives in charge. He did not require skilled administration of the pastors. Rather, he put the teachers in charge. And teachers, you might know, can be a very idealistic and inefficient lot as a group. But so he did, and we might take some cues from it as how Christ values effectiveness over efficiency in his church!
Still, these pastor-teachers do more than teach. They are called to lead—leadership that requires they be, both individually and collectively, sober-minded.
LEVEL-HEADED, NOT IMBALANCED
Of the fifteen pastor-elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, sober-mindedness might be the most underrated. Not only is teaching (with preaching) central to the pastors’ work, but also vital is “exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2). Pastor-elders not only “labor among you” as teachers but “are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). They both feed and lead. The elder “must manage his own household well” because, as a team, the elders are charged with caring for God’s household, the church (1 Tim. 3:4–5, 15). Not only are pastors who preach and teach well worthy of honor—and “double honor” (remuneration) when laboring at the work as a bread-winning vocation—but also as governors, that is, “the elders who rule well” (1 Tim. 5:17). The pastors-elders teach and rule, that is, lead or govern. And to do so requires a kind of spiritual acuity the New Testament calls “sober-mindedness.”
Men who are sober-minded are level-headed and balanced. They are responsive, without being reactive. They are not given to extremes, not suckers for myths and speculation and conspiracy theories, and not dragged into silly controversies. They are able to discern what emphases and preoccupations would compromise the stewardship (1 Tim. 1:4) at the heart of their work, and they stay grounded in what’s most important and enduring. Keeping the gospel “of first importance” as their center (1 Cor. 15:3), they are able, like increasingly few modern adults, to “keep [their] head in all situations” (1 Tim. 4:5, NIV).
Together, the team of sober-minded elders is able to navigate complicated challenges, like church-size dynamics and generational dynamics and, perhaps above all, issues of timing in the life of the local church. Many, young and old, are able to see various problems, and feel various tensions, in church life, but the pastor-elders are those with the sober-mindedness, and the accompanying superpower of patience, to know how and when to address the challenges. Sober-minded pastor-elders, together as a group, figure out how to give Caesar his (tiny) due without robbing Christ of any of his. Together they keep the church on mission (Matt. 28:19), keep the gospel central, and demonstrate that the essence of leadership is not personal privilege and preference but self-giving, self-humbling, and self-sacrifice for the church’s good.
Such sober-mindedness, without doubt, is also critical for teaching—for determining what to teach and when and how—but such spiritual acuity especially maps on to the call to govern or lead, and the untiring vigilance it requires. “Be sober-minded; be watchful” (1 Pet. 5:8; also 1 Thess. 5:6). “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The pastor-elders are those who “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). So they must be sober-minded (1 Tim. 3:2)—in fact, “always sober-minded” (2 Tim. 4:5).
HOW TO GET A SOBER MIND
In Acts 6, we are not yet dealing with pastors and deacons, but apostles and “the seven.” But we can see a kind of analogue here for what was to come in local congregations. As “the seven” were appointed to “serve tables” that the apostles might not “give up preaching the word of God” (Acts 6:2), so local-church pastor-elders have a particular calling to lead and feed the flock—that is, “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Word and prayer. We teach the word to feed the church. And sober-minded men pray to God, and take counsel with each other, to lead the church in the ups and downs on the raging seas of real life. It will not be enough to have balanced thinkers who do not pray (besides, prayerlessness would betray their imbalance). Nor would it be enough to have prayerful men without sober minds. We need both prayer and prudence, even as we need both teaching and leading. And Christ appoints that his local church leaders be such prayerful, sober-minded teachers.
All well and good, you might say, but what about the gaffs in my own sober-mindedness that I’m aware of—not to mention the many of which I do not even know. Whether already a pastor-elder, or aspiring to the office, or not, how might I become more sober-minded?
The good news is that sobering our minds is part of the work the Holy Spirit is doing on all those who are in Christ. And in particular this is work he does, over time, through the word of God, Old Testament and New. However naturally balanced and level-headed you might be, the word of God is critical in giving us real balance in a destabilizing world and sobering us up to what really matters in God’s economy. Sober-mindedness is not a miracle God does in a moment, but the effect of thousands of quiet, early morning miracles over his word day after day, for years.
In the days to come, as in the last two thousand years, the church needs men who keep their heads under pressure, in conflict and controversy. And in just the normal, steady-state life of the church, we need level-headed, wise, spiritually and emotionally intelligent leaders—rather than those who are impulsive, imbalanced, and reactive—because pastor-elders are not just God-appointed teachers, but God-appointed governors. Such men the Spirit loves to produce through years of quiet Scripture meditation and real-life accountability in the local church. And such men, then, years in the making, the risen Christ loves to give to his church to feed it through faithful, effective teaching, and guide it through patient, composed, reasonable team leadership.