Church Officers, 1 Timothy 3

So far in Paul’s letter to Timothy, the senior pastor has given the younger pastor advice on his own personal ministry in Ephesus—resisting false teachers and false teaching.  Then he proceeded to give instructions on how to conduct the public worship service properly, including whom to pray for, who may lead in prayer, and how they ought to pray.  Now, Paul will give Timothy some “administrative” advice, namely, choosing the right people for the offices of elder and deacon.  Paul gets very specific with his requirements, and since he gave young Pastor Titus a similar list of qualifications in his letter to him, we must conclude that the qualifications for those seeking positions of leadership in a local church are universal and not just limited to people in first century Ephesus.

1.  A worthy ambition, 3:1

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

This is the second of five “trustworthy” or “reliable” sayings, with the first one back in chapter 1—

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1:15)

This first “trustworthy saying” introduced some significant theological teaching relating to Christ’s redemptive work.  The second “trustworthy saying,” though, has nothing to do with matters related to faith or salvation, but rather to a worthwhile and honorable aspiration:  leadership.  The New English Bible captures the essence of how Paul introduced his teachings on elders and deacons:  “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition.” In other words, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a leader, and in fact, the desire to be a leader is commendable.

The phrase “aspires to” in the tNIV is translated “sets his heart on” in the NIV and speaks of a noble ambition or pursuit.  The thought is that this person is actively seeking such an office and that he is doing what he can to obtain it.  If one has the qualifications to be an elder or deacon, it is fitting that they should seek out that office.

The office being sought is that of “an overseer.”  This is a rendering of one Greek word, episkope, and the KJV chooses to use the word “bishop.”   This is not an altogether incorrect translation of episkope, but it is misleading to modern readers.  We have come to associate “bishop” with an ecclesiastical administrative office, a step above that of “priest” or “pastor.”  We will deal with what episkope meant to Paul and Timothy in the next verse, but for now, Paul is simply telling Timothy that is right and proper to seek leadership positions.

Such a position is a noble one, says Paul.  Being a leader, in the Church or outside the Church, is not only a noble position, but it is also a position that carries tremendous responsibility.  On this point, Ralph Earl’s observation is worthy:

One needs to be sure that such a desire is not an expression of carnal pride, but that rather it reflects a deep consecration to the work of the church.

No doubt this is the very reason for the strict qualifications that follow.

2.  For overseers, 3:2—7

What exactly is an “overseer?”  If we read Titus 1:6—7, we find an almost identical list of qualifications presented there, not for an “overseer” but for an “elder,”  and the Greek word there is presbyteros.  Originally, the Greek word episkopos came from the organization of secular societies, and simply meant “one who leads.”   In Acts 20:17, we read where Paul sent for the “elders,” presbyteros, of the church at Ephesus.  Then is verse 28 he calls them “overseers,” episkopos. For Paul, then, the terms are interchangeable.  We might say that an elder is an overseer; elder being the name of the office, overseeing God’s house describing what they do.

In the early Church, the pastor of a church was called many things, including:  elder, bishop, shepherd, and minister.  So Paul gave Timothy a list of no less than 15 qualifications an elder and/or a pastor must meet.   The first and unspoken requirement for elders is that they must be a man.  Paul does not specify that in writing, but it is implicit throughout his other 15 qualifications.   Those who aspire to the office of elder and/or pastor need to be men, not women.  It should be stated clearly that Paul is not addressing the leadership of women in the world, only that the Church of Christ must observe God’s divine order within His Church.  Paul is also not teaching that women should never preach or teach in the Church.  His only point is that elders must be men.

As we look at these 15 qualifications, it should be crystal clear that any leader in the Church must have a pristine reputation among two groups of people:  those inside the Church and those outside the church.

An elder, then, must be:

  • Above reproach.   In the Greek, this comes from a single word which means “not to be laid hold of.”  Within the Body of Christ, then, an elder’s behavior should be such that no charge of wrong-doing can stick to them.  Of course, elders and pastors are often blamed for all kinds of things that go wrong in a church, but Paul’s point is that though they may be accused of things, the accusations will prove groundless.  Paul is not suggesting an elder must be sinless or faultless, but that it is proper that elders and ministers be judged by a higher standard than the average member of the congregation.   The average church member may be forgiven character defects and failures that would sink a pastor and end his career.  Gould observed, There are some things which a merciful God will forgive in a man but which the church can never forgive in its ministry.
  • Faithful to his wife.  Some have used this qualification to suggest that an elder or pastor must be a married man.  This is not what Paul meant and the tNIV’s translation is a good one.  If an elder is married, he must be a faithful husband.  It does not suggest that a divorce in the past disqualifies a man from being an elder; just that he has one wife and that he be a good and faithful husband to his wife.  An elder and pastor must be a man of unquestioned morality.
  • Temperate.  This refers to an elder’s mode of living; his tastes and habits.  Though the Greek word often refers to the opposite of drunkenness, what Paul has in mind is a kind of “soberness” or “circumspection” in how an elder and pastor lives his life.  “Such a person lives deeply,” wrote William Hendriksen.  If an elder is wealthy, he does not flaunt his wealth.  If an elder is a leader in business, he does not work himself to death in pursuit of money or fame.  An elder is not given to any kind of excess; his life is balanced, calm, careful, and he is filled with a desire for spiritual things as opposed to temporal things.
  • Self-controlled.   An elder is a man with a sound mind; he is not easily swayed by emotional impulses, like anger or lust.  This character trait was especially important in Ephesus, where men were tempted by false teachings and alluring the priestesses of pagan religions.
  • Respectable.  In regards to morals in general, an elder must be respected and therefore virtuous.  The basic meaning of the Greek word kosmios, “of good behavior” (KJV), “modesty,” really means “orderly.” An elder’s life should be so ordered that he garners the respect of those within and without the church.
  • Hospitable.  A hospitable person is one who is literally “a friend to strangers.”  In the early days of the church, this was a most important trait.  Christian evangelists and itinerant preachers roamed the countryside, traveling from community to community preaching and teaching the Gospel, and the depended on the hospitality of Christian families for support and shelter.   Hospitality is a wonderful trait in the motel-hotel age of today, for it encourages a healthy fellowship between believers, and when believers are close, they are more apt to care for each other.
  • Able to teach.  Every elder should be able to teach, and should be gifted in this area to some extent.  We often apply this qualification to the pastor, but it is not his exclusively.  The word “able” should be “qualified,” meaning that an prospective pastor, who is an elder, should be properly trained and educated.  It also means that an elder has himself been taught; he has sat under sound Biblical teaching and is able to teach others.
  • Not given to drunkenness.   Literally, this means “one who does not linger beside his wine.”  Being a teetotaler is not what Paul means; he simply says that an elder should never be “tipsy,” or live under the influence of too much wine.   What a sad commentary on any society that such a stipulation was even necessary!
  • Not violent but gentle.  Literally this means “not a striker.”  An elder must not be a violent man.  Paul is referring to a man who is ready to fight at the drop of a hat; a man whose fists are always clenched because he has a “chip on his shoulder.”  An elder should be the opposite; he should be “gentle.”  A gentle elder is one who is able to defend the Gospel, but is willing to yield his personal rights if necessary to keep the peace.
  • Not quarrelsome.  In other words, an elder and pastor should not be argumentative or contentious.  “Not quarrelsome” means he should be averse to fighting, both physically in the sense of brawling, but also in the sense of conversation; an elder must not be quick to bicker or nitpick.
  • Not a lover of money.  The love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10) we are taught.  We are also taught that one cannot serve two masters, God and money.  In the case of a pastor, he should execute his calling without regard to how much (or how little) he is paid.  In the case of elders, they should be focused more on spiritual things than on the accumulation of more and more wealth.  Of course, we assume that elders will have jobs and responsibilities outside the church, but one who aspires to be an elder, will put their ministry in the Body of Christ above all other pursuits.  If a man is not willing to do that, they have no business being an elder.

The first two verses list a dozen qualifications for elders briefly and in quick succession.  The next three are given at length, with the first one qualification taking up two verses:

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)

An elder, then, must be a good husband and a good father.  The idea is that if a man cannot exercise godly and proper authority at home in the raising of his children, he is disqualified to be an elder.  J.B. Phillips seemed to capture the sense of this verse in his translation—

He must have proper authority in his own household, and be able to control and command the respect of his children.

Many an elder or pastor has suffered in their work for the Lord because they were busy saving other people’s children while ignoring their own.  A pastor’s first responsibility is not to the church that called him and that is paying him, it is to his family.  Why? Verse 5 is the logical answer:  if a man has a good and decent family life, it is evidence that he has the innate capabilities to run a church.

Verses 6 and 7 stipulate that an elder must be a man of maturity:

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Like the qualification that an elder not be a wino, this one seems like a no-brainer!  But, verse 6 gives us a little insight into the Ephesian situation.  For some reason, Paul felt it necessary to stress the fact that nobody should be promoted too quickly in Christian service.  A church must be lead by mature leaders; elders and pastors must be seasoned before they can assume their respective offices.  The danger is all-too clear:  an immature man who becomes a spiritual leader will suffer the stinging judgment that results in pride and conceit.  This was Lucifer’s downfall and has been the downfall of many a church leader who thought himself above all others.

Since Timothy himself was relatively young, Paul probably is referring to spiritual and emotional maturity, not necessarily to chronological age.

Finally, part of being mature and even-minded is that an elder will have the respect of those outside the church in which he serves.  This is especially true of elders, as opposed to the pastor.  The pastor spends the bulk of his time among the people of his church, but an elder, who has a job or a business, spends the bulk of his time among the unsaved.  It is essential that he have the respect of those who know him if he is to serve as a leader in his church.  If an elder does not have the respect of his community, he brings “reproach” upon the whole church.

If a church paid attention to Paul’s teaching on elders, much grief would be avoided down the road!

2.  For deacons, 3:8—13

Clearly from what Paul taught concerning elders, an elder must be a man, not a woman.  Not so with the office of deacon, the qualifications for “deaconesses” (“women” in many translations) are sandwiched in between those for deacons in verse 11.

The office of deacon is first seen in Acts 6:1—6, where the church in Jerusalem chose a group of men to “serve tables” so that the apostles would be free to preach and teach the Word.  The concept of a “deacon” is that of a worker; one who tends to the physical needs of the Church and congregation, while the elder tends to their spiritual needs.

The word “deacon” is the English version of the Greek diakonos, which is a simple word that means “servant.”  In the Gospels, diakonos is most often translated in that way.  It is interesting that Josephus and other writers of his day used the word diakonos for those who waited on tables.  Though not used in Acts 6, we see the first technical use of the word in Philippians 1:1—

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

The references to “deacons” and “deaconesses” in the New Testament are few and far between, but their work is no less important than that of the elder, nor are they inferior in any way to an elder.  Being a deacon, like being an elder, is a worthy ambition and it is a glorious task.  In fact, serving as a deacon is based upon the love and concern Christ had for His followers.  Caring for the physical needs of believers must be close to Christ’s heart for whatever is done for the least of His brothers, He considers it having been done for Him.

Like elders, Paul gives a list of qualifications that deacons must meet.  A deacon must be:

  • Worthy of respect.  A deacon must be “dignified.”  The Greek word is semnos, and is very difficult to translate into English.  The sense that Paul is trying to communicate is that deacons will live their lives and conduct themselves in such a way as those who see them will respect them.
  • Sincere.  In the second place, a deacon must be sincere, that is, they must mean what they say and say what they mean.   The Greek word, dilogos, means that a person will not talk out of both sides of their mouth.  This is the only time this word appears in the New Testament and it paints a vivid picture!  A deacon will practice what they preach.
  • Not an abuser of wine.  This is a stronger statement than what Paul wrote in relation to elders.  The qualified deacon is moderate in his use of wine if he drinks any at all.
  • Does not pursue dishonest gain.   While elders are to “not love money,” the admonition to deacons is much pointed.  A deacon must not be an embezzler or a pilferer, or a shady business operator.  They need to be honest in all their business dealings.
  • Men of spiritual integrity.  Verse 9 is a requirement that goes far beyond any of his requirements for elders.  The phrase “mystery of the faith,” according to Gutherie, “is a common Pauline expression denoting not what is beyond knowledge, but what, being once hidden, is now revealed to those with spiritual discernment.”  A deacon, then, is a spiritually enlightened individual.
  • Men of proven worth.  Only those who have been tested should serve in the Church.  This does not mean that prospective deacons need to be tested by the church board; it means that they should have a proven track record of a dedicated and consecrated life.

Verse 11 deals with deacons who are women, NOT the wives of deacons, as is suggested by some translations, which is completely unsuited to the context and also to what we know about the first century church.  Many deaconesses are mentioned throughout the New Testament:  Phoebe and Priscilla to name just two.  The syntax clearly indicates that Paul is addressing deaconesses:  “The overseer therefore must be…Deacons similarly (must be)…Women similarly (must be)…”  Hendriksen points out that deaconesses are a group by themselves rendering special service in the church, just like elders and deacons.  To this group of servants, Paul gives these qualifications:  A deaconess must be—

  • Worthy of respect.  Like deacons and elders, deaconesses must be women who are respected both in their church and in their community.
  • Not malicious talkers.  In the Greek, this is but one word which means “slanderous, accusing falsely.”  In other words, a gossiper need  not apply for the position of deaconess.
  • Temperate.  This is essentially the same word used of elders in verse 2.
  • Trustworthy in everything.  To say the least, this is an all-encompassing requirement.  Hendriksen gives some excellent examples of this kind of woman:
    • The two Deborah’s (Gen. 35:8; Judges 4:4)
    • Jochebed (Heb. 11:23)
    • Naomi and Ruth (Ruth 1:15—18)
    • Hannah (1 Sam. 1:15—16; 1:22—2:10)
    • Ichabod’s mother (1 Sam. 4:21)
    • Abigail (1 Sam. 25:3, 25, 36)
    • Zarephath’s widow (1 Kings 17)
    • The Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8)
    • Huldah (2 Kings 22:14)
    • Queen Esther (Esther, whole book)
    • Elizabeth (Luke 1:5—6)
    • Mary, mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46—55; 2:19; Acts 1:14)
    • Anna (Luke 2:36—37)
    • Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38—42; John 11; 12:1—8)

Hendriksen goes on and on listing more and more examples of the kind women in Scripture Paul has in mind.  Against this list of women of excellence, Scripture mentions numerous evil women, including Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:7—33) and Jezebel (1 Kings 21:5—10).

With verse 12, Paul returns to the deacons, men, with a final requirement:

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.

We can never overstate the importance the Apostle placed on proper leadership within the Body of Christ.  As far as he was concerned, with the right pastor, elders, deacons, and deaconesses in place, a church could not help but press forward, being an effective witness for the Kingdom of Heaven in their community.   Choosing the right church leadership is vitally important:

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.  (Proverbs 22:1)

That proverb applies to the individual and to the Church.  God’s church, done God’s way will observe what is written in Scripture, will obey what is written in Scripture, and will enact what is written in Scripture.  God’s church, done God’s way cannot fail, but will always prosper in everything it does.  God’s church, done God’s way will function in full submission to the teachings of God’s Word.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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