Overseers: A Reputation Above Reproach (3:1-7)

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.

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