1 Timothy 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
If a church were to place an ad in a newspaper inviting applications for church leadership positions, what might it include? From visiting the board meetings of almost any modern church one might get the impression that successful businessmen make the best elders--after all, management is management. On the other hand, books that deal with leadership training often highlight the sense of calling, dependence on God and perseverance that we see in the great biblical characters--Moses, Jeremiah, Paul--to provide a model. Of course, these figures were powerful leaders, and there is much to be learned about leadership from them. But if the question is "Who is fit to lead in the church?" and this decision falls to other church leaders, then the place to begin is with the kind of concerns raised in 1 Timothy 3:1-13.
At this point in the letter, the tone changes. What had been a discussion of what the church and certain groups in the church ought to do becomes a discussion of what leaders in the church ought to be. The moral lapse and defection of some of this church's leaders undoubtedly had left the fellowship in a state of instability. And the internal disruption was likely to be met by severe criticism from unbelievers. For these reasons the two lists included at this point describe the necessary qualifications for the offices of the overseer and deacon. In each case the focal point is the candidate's reputation among believers and unbelievers, which is to be computed on the basis of proven moral character and maturity. Duties are hardly mentioned. The standard, above reproach (3:2) or blameless (3:10), is extremely high, but not out of proportion to the importance of the church's mission in the world (3:15-16), which always hangs in the balance.
Who were the overseers and deacons? The term translated overseer in the NIV was first used outside the church to refer to supervisors of various sorts. As a description of one level of church leadership, it appears in Acts 20:28 and, again alongside "deacons," in Philippians 1:1. To judge from the account of Paul's farewell meeting with the elders (presbyters; compare 1 Tim 5:17) of Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38) and the instructions in Titus 1:6-7, the terms "overseer" and "elder" referred to the same office. Moreover, church leaders alluded to in Romans 12:8 ("leadership," "govern") and 1 Corinthians 12:28 ("those with gifts of administration") as well as in Ephesians 4:11, "pastors and teachers," would probably hold this office. Among the duties assigned to this office (though perhaps not exclusively) were preaching and teaching and generally leading or managing the church.
The office of deacons (which may have included women; see below on 3:11) probably emerged as the church grew in size and the demands on the leadership required that certain functions be delegated. The table-waiting deacons of Acts 6:1-6 may have been prototypical of the office referred to here and in Philippians 1:1. Teaching and ruling are not specifically mentioned in connection with deacons; they were apparently subordinate to the overseers and generally charged with seeing to the fellowship's practical needs. Nevertheless, some deacons would have been active in preaching the gospel (Stephen and Philip show how widely the preaching ministry extended).
The second of Paul's "trustworthy sayings" (see 1:15) promotes the office of the overseer as a noble task. Perhaps the problems in Ephesus had led some to regard the offices with suspicion and disrespect. If so, a reminder of the honor and importance traditionally attached to the position might restore some of that respect and instill confidence in carefully chosen leaders. But as the following guidelines imply, the viability of the office is closely linked to the one seeking to hold it. For us today, whose too-full schedules lead us rather to disregard offices in the church, the same reminder could well be taken as an exhortation to availability.
The code that follows in verses 2-7 gives guidelines for measuring a candidate's reputation, which must be above reproach. This requirement, one word in the original Greek, is the only one in the code that requires further definition. The items that follow give an idea of the directions that "irreproachability" should move in. Generally, the focus is on observable conduct. Most of the items of behavior that follow require little explanation. The reference to the overseer's marriage, however, is an exception.
Although we might cringe at the thought, most of us would probably admit that one's marriage sheds a good deal of light on one's character. Paul apparently held similar feelings. But the meaning of the condition that the overseer be the husband of but one wife (literally, a "one-woman man") continues to provoke discussion, and some of the interpretations bear a closer look.
1. The qualification prohibits polygamists from holding this office. However, this is not likely to have been Paul's intention. Monogamy was by far the norm of that day. Polygamy was generally regarded as abhorrent and did not need to be mentioned in such a list.
2. The qualification excludes those who have remarried after the death of a spouse. This is an equally unlikely suggestion. Remaining single, particularly in the case of widows, was often commended, but Paul seems to have allowed and even to have encouraged the remarriage of the surviving partner (1 Cor 7:39-40; 1 Tim 5:14).
3. The qualification specifically rules out those who have remarried after divorce. But even granting a fairly strong stand in the New Testament on the issue of divorce, exceptions to the rule prohibiting remarriage were made in the case of adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9) and perhaps in the case of desertion by the unbelieving mate (1 Cor 7:15). Furthermore, there is nothing to exclude from consideration those who fall into this "exceptional" category (apart from this uncertain phrase, for which in any case there is no first-century evidence of its use in connection with divorce).
4. The qualification is a requirement of faithfulness in marriage. Given the context, this interpretation seems more plausible. Actually, the tone of the phrase is positive rather than prohibitive, which suggests a nuance of meaning different from the first three positions. The flow of thought in the list moves from personal to church life, from domestic to official functions. Implicit in this movement is an important axiom: what one does or is in one's private life has consequences for the church. It follows that within Paul's holistic outlook, which brings together personal and domestic qualities, it is far more likely that he would stress fidelity in marriage. So the point of the phrase is probably not how often one can be married, nor precisely what constitutes a legitimate marriage (that the marriage of the candidate is legitimate is assumed), but rather how one conducts oneself in one's marriage.
Without a break in the sentence, Paul inserts several personal qualities to amplify the meaning of above reproach. The candidate must be temperate, or better "sober," which taken figuratively, as probably intended here (in view of the prohibition of drunkenness in v. 3), means to be clear-headed or vigilant. Vigilance is the opposite of drunkenness or fuzzy thinking, which in this context has the life of faith in view. Christians are to guard against spiritual laziness and avoid habits that lull one to sleep (things and activities that draw us away from God).
Self-controlled, next on the list, is a quality Paul refers to frequently in the Pastorals as a basic element of the observable Christian life (2:9, 15; 2 Tim 1:7; Tit 2:2, 4, 5, 6). As a fundamental aspect of the new existence in Christ (Tit 2:12), it is the ability to take charge of the mind, and Christians have this possibility opened to them. This allows control over impulses (to overindulge the physical appetites, to think wrong thoughts about others and ourselves) which without control would drive us to excessive behavior.
Respectable refers to observable behavior that corresponds to inner self-control. It is behavior of all kinds (2:9) marked by self-discipline, order and balance. Paul's use of this traditional quality, especially in connection with self-control, sets before us the possibility and challenge of developing a life in which inner motivation and outer action achieve a harmonious balance. The ancients viewed inner control as the strength of life and outer balance as the beauty of life.
But Paul was not simply lauding traditional values that, some two thousand years later, are of no use to us. On the one hand, vigilance, self-control, respectability, and the balance of inner and outer life that Paul envisions are realities available to us in the Spirit. They are also necessities. Without vigilance (spiritual awareness and discernment) we will not exercise self-control. Without self-control we will indulge ourselves freely according to the advice of the world around us instead of setting the limits that produce godly balance.
Hospitality was a virtue also widely heralded in Greco-Roman culture. Within the church, however, the practice of hospitality was imperative. Some Christians had been forced out of their homelands by persecution or found it increasingly difficult to make a living. And this was always a prospect for Christians in the Roman Empire. The practical and sacrificial sharing of one's home and minimal resources might mean survival for someone. The New Testament enjoins all believers to practice hospitality (Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9), but the Pastorals mention it only in connection with those who would serve (5:10; Tit 1:8), who are then to be examples.
Able to teach relates more directly to the ministry connected with the office of overseer. In the present context of heresy, this qualification would necessarily include teaching and preaching (5:17; 2 Tim 2:1) and refuting the heresy (2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:9). In view of the apparent division of labor among the elders alluded to in 5:17, perhaps this qualification is typical and the ability to teach need not be equally in evidence in each candidate (compare Rom 12:6-8).
As the list continues to probe the background of the candidate for leadership, it prohibits four characteristics of behavior. Tendencies toward drunkenness and violence (Tit 1:7) are clearly reasons for rejection. The church cannot afford to be led by those who allow themselves to be controlled by intoxicating substances (which enslave the user and inhibit decisive thinking) or emotions. But evidence of these traits in any believer calls for immediate action. They are signs of a loss of control. Maturity and strength are to exhibit themselves instead in gentleness, as they did in Christ (2 Cor 10:1).
At the same time, the overseer must not be quarrelsome. This tendency betrays an inability to get along with and accept the views of others, and perhaps deeper personality flaws as well. The false teachers in Ephesus were known for their quarrels (1:5; 6:4-5). A leader prone to this weakness will produce discord instead of harmony. But a leader, or any Christian for that matter, who promotes peace among people will create and preserve the relationships necessary for building a unified church.
Then, the overseer must not be a lover of money. This means the candidate's attitude toward material wealth ought to be one of healthy detachment, but certainly not irresponsibility. Such a leader can be a model of generosity and simplicity of lifestyle because of the knowledge that whatever one's economic status might be, all that one has belongs to God and so must be looked after faithfully before him (6:17-19). But this applies to every believer, and the issue raised by this characteristic is one we all ought to face. Many of us are capable of generating a comfortable income. How much is enough? How can we know if we have begun to put money and material things before God? What does responsibility mean in this area of our lives? These are hard questions, the kind we usually prefer not to ask. The very fact that these questions make us uncomfortable proves the relevance for us of Paul's word to overseers. All we can do here is suggest a beginning. Our attitudes and motivations where money and acquiring things are concerned must be brought before God for evaluation. God's Word and not the values of the society in which we live must be allowed to shape and correct our thinking and behavior in this area (Mt 6:19-24; 2 Cor 8--9; 1 Tim 6:5-10, 17-19).
The profile of the ideal candidate concludes with three conditions, each accompanied by a statement of rationale (vv. 4-6). First, Paul cites proficient management of the household (NIV family) as a prerequisite of church leadership (vv. 4-5). Indeed, if one's marriage hints at fitness for leading a church (3:2), then the effectiveness of one's attempts to lead and provide order in a home speaks volumes. Paul has in mind the typical householder of Greco-Roman society, who ordinarily would have been a citizen. Besides the male head of the house, household members included the wife, children and, depending on the economic status of the householder, slaves. In fact, some Christian householders in Ephesus owned slaves (6:2). The dwellings ranged from the spacious houses of the upper-class householder to the apartments (which varied in size) of middle- and lower-income households. Normally the authority structure of the household was strictly patriarchal, and at each level subordination to the householder was expected. Anything less than this kind of obedience to the householder was taken as a sign of disorder and even political subversion, for the stability of the household was regarded as fundamental to the well-being of society as a whole.
Given these values, it would have been unthinkable for Paul to sanction as church leaders those whose households belied their leadership skills. Society expected the householder to command the respect of his wife, children and slaves. To expect less from church leaders would have been to risk associating the church with charges of social disruption and political subversion. However, this particular condition was not meant to exclude the unmarried from holding positions of leadership in the church; in that day marriage was the almost universal rule.
Second, the overseer must not be a new believer (v. 6). The reason is not lack of leadership potential but lack of spiritual maturity. The new believer is more likely to see such a position of leadership as an opportunity for personal advancement and to fail to understand the gravity of the task. The sense in this condition is well illustrated in the modern church, which has seen many recent converts who, because of influential position or fame in the world, are thrust into positions of church leadership that they are hardly ready to fill.
The danger, as Paul describes it simply, is becoming conceited (or "filled with pride") and falling under the devil's judgment (v. 6). The latter may mean fall under the same judgment as the devil (NIV) or, as seems more in keeping with the next verse, "be condemned by the devil." The point is that conceit, especially among church leaders, is just the kind of chink in the spiritual armor that the enemy often exploits. In Ephesus conceit was the bane of the false teachers (6:4; 2 Tim 3:4), who may well have been immature overseers. Their quick rise to this level of authority could easily have led them to think more highly of themselves (compare Rom 12:3) and their teaching than they ought, hardened them in stubbornness and caused no end of arguments in the church. Conceit and cooperation have nothing in common. Unfortunately, when the enemy discovers this breach in defense and a church leader falls into sin, the testimony of the church falls as well.
The final condition states clearly what has already been implied: the overseer must have a good testimony before outsiders (v. 7). Here the list of requirements concludes by returning to the general thought of "irreproachability" (3:2), but now with a particular audience, unbelievers, in mind. The good testimony is to be measured according to the preceding kinds of qualities. Deficiencies in the overseer's reputation or behavior that damage the testimony open the leader up to disgrace from outsiders--that is, the devil's trap. Perhaps in Paul's mind the greater danger lies in the fact that a fallen leader brings disgrace on the church and its message from those it is meant to reach (3:15).
To put the overseer code into proper perspective, the importance and urgency of the church's evangelistic mission require that its leaders be of the highest caliber (2:1-2; 3:14-15). They must be leaders whose management skill and purity of lifestyle instill confidence in Christians and elicit respect from outsiders to the faith. But the emphasis in this code is often missed. "Irreproachability" does not mean perfection. If Paul meant "without defect" or "in no need of growth," no one would qualify. Rather, as the range of qualities suggests, the code stresses "wholeness" as a measure of development toward maturity. That is, Paul wanted in leadership positions those in whom the Spirit was evidently and actively at work (but not necessarily finished) in the whole of life. Although realistically life is far too complex for anyone to be able to say at any one moment, "The Spirit is now renewing every part of my life" (who could stand the strain, anyway?), still from one's demeanor and attitudes and from evidence that the renovation is already under way, this kind of thoroughgoing commitment to God is possible to see.
As a guide to spiritual maturity, this code is applicable to all believers. It may serve as a map to chart for us a course to those areas in our life that need attention, while along the way we can receive encouragement at the signs of progress already made. And if we lose our way, the map can get us back on the right road. A thoughtful look at this map from time to time will keep our attention on thorough and balanced growth in Christ, with no area of our life escaping notice.
Candidates for the office of deacon come under the same careful scrutiny. The qualifications they are to meet are closely similar to the overseer's. As verse 10 indicates, "blamelessness" (the practical equivalent of above reproach in v. 2; compare Tit 1:6-7) represents the acceptable standard (the NIV there is nothing against them obscures this point). Verses 8 and 9 explain what is meant by "blameless," and again the concern for wholeness of development emerges. The qualities listed in verse 8 fall into familiar categories of observable conduct. Worthy of respect (or "serious"--2:2; Tit 2:2) implies a bearing or deportment that is obviously respectable. Following closely on this is sincere, the positive rendering of the literal negative "not double-tongued" (or "two-faced"). That is, the deacon's word must be reliable. The deacon must also have control over drinking and not be allured by dishonest gain. Plainly, the same kinds of qualities expected of the overseer are to be apparent in the deacon.
Paul next (v. 9) inserts what appears to be a "spiritual" requirement--namely, that the deacon keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience (compare 1:19). He means they must prove themselves to be unconnected with the false teachers. The latter, whose consciences were seared (4:2), rejected the faith and destroyed their spiritual lives (1:19). Very likely some had been deacons in the church. In Paul's thinking the clear conscience is the organ of decision. With it one can cross the distance from the faith, embraced with mind and heart, to godly conduct. Adherence to correct doctrine is also a matter of decision and, above all for the church leader, an aspect of godly conduct.
According to the criteria laid down in verses 8 and 9 (and also v. 12), the candidate's fitness to serve is to be tested. Both the term "blameless" (NIV nothing against them) and the notion of testing imply the public dimension of the candidate's life. The deacon's reputation among believers and unbelievers must be demonstrably acceptable.
Qualities enumerated in verses 11-12 clarify the meaning of "blamelessness" still further. However, at verse 11 a new sentence begins, and Paul issues instructions that refer to either the wives of deacons (so NIV) or women deacons ("deaconesses"; NIV margin). It is difficult to be certain which meaning Paul intended. Those who favor the meaning wives point out that requirements concerning the women are surrounded by those related to deacons. Furthermore, "women" is too common a term to designate an office. In defense of the meaning "deaconesses" others explain that (1) the introductory phrase in the same way (NIV; one word in the original; see likewise, 3:8), which is characteristic of exhortation to distinct groups, (2) the exact replication of verse 8's sentence structure in verse 11 and (3) the dependence of each verse on the initial must verb of the passage, verse 2, make a reference to women deacons equally possible. The question remains open; but it is well to keep in mind that in the absence of a technical term ("deaconess"), a reference to "women" in a code listing requirements for the office of deacon would have sufficed to direct attention to those candidates who were in fact women (compare Rom 16:1).
The actual qualities expected of these women parallel those expected of men (vv. 8-9). They are to lead lives that command respect, no doubt because they speak prudently with control (NIV not malicious talkers), do not drink in excess and generally are trustworthy in all things (5:10). The patterns of behavior that characterize overseers and deacons are also to be obvious in the lives of these women. Furthermore, as in the case of the deacons, these women represent the antithesis of certain other women who had come under the influence of the false teachers (5:15; compare 2 Tim 3:6-7).
A final word reminds deacons of responsibilities toward wife and family (3:12). Like the overseer, the deacon must be a faithful husband. He must also have proved himself a capable manager of his household. As we saw, this was a quality greatly admired in (and also expected of) the householder by that society. If the householder clearly lacked this ability he was quickly criticized. Paul's point is again that one who would lead in the church must first know how to lead in the family in a way that promotes harmony among its members and loyalty to its leader. It is a safe assumption that one who manages his home haphazardly, whether he is a heavy-handed tyrant and slow to listen or simply irresponsible and unconcerned for his family, is likely to leave a similar stamp on the church. To be a leader requires having leadership skills that are tried and tested in the most practical of situations, the home.
Verse 13 concludes the list of requirements for office with an encouragement to those who serve well. It parallels the "faithful saying" that heads the list (see on 3:1) and is probably similar in purpose. The apostasy of some elders and deacons in Ephesus almost certainly lowered opinions about leaders and leadership in the church and in the minds of outsiders. So confidence in the office and in the people filling that office needed to be restored. Today this same confidence needs to be maintained. Thus Paul reminds us that deacons who serve well will receive a twofold reward. Among people faithful deacons will gain an excellent standing, a good reputation. They will also grow closer to Christ in faith and assurance.