Timothy is a tree farmer. The species “elder,” calls for special notice, so Paul instructs Timothy to water the good, chop the bad, and test the saplings. So simple, but, alas, this arboreal wisdom doesn’t translate to ecclesiological wisdom, or, in other words, we’re naturally better tree farmers than elder farmers.
Here is a good tree, what are we to do with it? Many Christians think, “Leave it be. Don’t want to mess it up.” There are two plants, one is thriving, and one is dying. So they put all their efforts into the bad tree, a tree that any unbiased arborist could see was beyond hope. What happens? Now they have two dead trees. Water the good tree and you get more good fruit. Water the bad tree and you get more rottenness. It is true that if there is no water, there will be no fruit, but it isn’t true that if you just keep watering, then there will be fruit. When a tree is bad, more water won’t make it good. Therefore, following “no water, no fruit,” the second lesson of spiritual dendrology is “no fruit, no water.”
If the tree is bad, chop it down. Of course, first you check to see if pruning and fertilizing might suffice. But if an elder persists in sin after you’ve lovingly sought his repentance, he is to be publicly rebuked. The reverse is regrettably frequent. Satan loves to redirect the water that the good is worthy of, channeling it to the bad. The honor good elders deserve is directed to the bad; the rebuke the bad deserve, he heaps on the good. Petty accusations weigh down the good, while the sinful elder is not only overlooked, but honored as if here were no mere elder, but an apostle. The church was founded on the apostles, grand redwoods of grace and revelation, he isn’t one, by a long shot, but they treat him as though he were. This isn’t without reason. The only way such a poser’s ministry could carry any clout is if his word was regarded as the Word, because they bear no resemblance otherwise. He has to play an apostle because he is so far from them. Such a tree makes for putrid fruit, but excellent fire wood (Matthew 7:15–20).
Finally, there are saplings that potentially could be either good or bad. Saplings are to be slowly and thoroughly tested, so as to ensure that good trees are planted, because, honestly, chopping is painful and hard work. Whereas chopping is an occasional work, planting is to be a continual work. No one wants to chop. We should want to plant. Unfortunately, many don’t value planting because they don’t value trees. They don’t value trees because they’ve invested too much in bad trees and are sick of rotten fruit. Score have only experienced a dark forest of spiritual leadership bearing fruit that leaves you in your deadly slumber. Further, say you wanted to plant some good saplings, sadly, many Christians have never seen one, so how are they to recognize them? Aha! Paul has given Timothy the identifying markers. The arborist’s check list is in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. There Paul tells Timothy what a good tree looks like. He looks like Jesus.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.