Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Who Is Qualified to Be an Elder? A Careful Analysis of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (Part 1 of 5)

In the first two chapters of 1 Timothy, Paul has instructed his true son in the faith to confront error and wage the good warfare (1:1-20), followed by what is expected of the church regarding prayer (2:1-8a) and the deportment of men and women (2:8b-15). The next section highlights a very important aspect of guarding and directing the church, the designated leaders, beginning with the requirements for those serving as overseers (3:1-7). 
The qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and in Titus (1:4-9), each representative rather than exhaustive, are effectively parallel and complementary, with differences in wording but not in substance. Paul could readily take for granted that his respective addressees, two of his closest colleagues, would already know certain doctrinal truths without the need to be explicitly stated. It is therefore prudent for modern exegetes to compare the relevant texts and use each as a commentary on the other, different audiences and circumstances notwithstanding.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1, ESV). 
The saying is trustworthy,” a formula used only in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus (here and in 1:15; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Tit. 3:8), preceding “weighty and memorable truths,”presumably already well known among the brethren. The conditional particle eí (“If”) does not preface an obligation but makes an assumption about “anyone” (in a position to do so) who “aspires to” or “seeks” (cf. ASV) leadership in the church. The verb orégō essentially means to “stretch oneself out in order to touch or to grasp something, to reach after or desire something” (Thayer), whether in a bad sense (6:10)2 or in a good sense (Heb. 11:16).3
The trustworthy saying does not commend an “ambitious seeking” (note vv. 3, 6; cp. 1:7) but “seems only to denote the definite character, and perhaps manifestation, of the desire, the ‘stretching out of the hands to receive’ …”4 The parallel expression that follows, “he desires,” from the intensified compound verbal epithuméō (epí, “upon” + thumós, “passion”), means to “set one’s passions upon,” whether bad (“covet,” “lust”)5 or good (“desire,” “aspire to”),6 the latter sense intended here. This is characteristic of one who is mature in the faith and firmly committed to the Lord’s work. 
The object is “the office [‘position,’ NKJV] of overseer,” or simply “to be an overseer” (CSB, NIV) or “bishop” (N/KJV, N/RSV). The single noun episkopē generally conveys the idea of “visitation” – to investigate and judge people’s character and works (Luke 19:44; 1 Pet. 2:12) – applied particularly to the activity of “oversight” or “overseership” (cf. Num. 4:16; 1 Chron. 24:19, LXX). The role of apostle is described in Acts 1:20 as episkopē, variously rendered “bishoprick” (KJV), “position of overseer” (NRSV), “overseership” (Darby), or more generically “office” (ESV, NASB, NKJV), “position” (CSB), “place of leadership” (NIV). Including the word “office” in the translation suggests status, although the “position” under consideration is more of a functional role involving responsibility and practical leadership (cf. Tit. 1:7a). 
In 1 Timothy 3 the corresponding noun epískopos7 in v. 2 identifies a leadership position in the local church, viz. “overseer” or “bishop” (ASV, N/KJV) in the sense of “superintendent” or “guardian,” especially of souls (1 Pet. 2:25; cf. Heb. 13:17). Three Greek words are employed in the NT to designate this role of congregational leadership: episkópoi (“overseers” or “bishops”),8 presbutéroi (“elders” or “presbyters”),9 and the verbal form of poiménes (“shepherds” or “pastors”). These terms are used interchangeably and apply to the same individuals: pastors = shepherds = bishops = overseers = presbyters = elders (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2; cf. Eph. 4:11).10 As indicated by the list of requirements that follows, this is not a disengaged board of directors but an effective team of pastoral mentors.11
Each community of the Lord’s church is autonomous,12 and only the local congregation is organized on earth with a plurality of qualified men (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9) serving as the principal leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6, 23; 20:17, 28; 21:17-19; Eph. 4:11-12; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:7, 17). The oversight exercised by these men is limited to the respective congregations in which each has membership (1 Pet. 5:2).13 There is no example in the NT of multiple churches overseen by one person or the same governing body, or of a Christian assembly governed by a lone pastor/ shepherd/ bishop/ overseer/ presbyter/ elder (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). 
To aspire to congregational overseership is to desire a noble task” [kaloû érgou], “a noble work” (CSB), “a good work” (NKJV). Paul employs the adj. kalós (“good,” “noble,” “honorable”) more than any other NT writer (41x out of 101 occurrences), with its highest concentration in 1 Timothy (16x).14 The noun érgon, as used here, means more than a momentary, temporary, or short-term “task.” This is an ongoing “work” (cf. 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18), including tiresome laboring [kopiáō] (5:17; cf. 4:10). Elsewhere Paul identifies the prevailing marks of leadership as “work”15 and “labor”16 (1 Cor. 16:16), affirming in 1 Thess. 5:12-13, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor [kopiáō] among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work [érgon] …” 
Rather than an ambitious striving for recognition and status,17 the desire is for arduous work coupled with weighty responsibility, as service to the Lord’s church is the priority and is observable in what leaders and prospective leaders are already doing.18 Certain ones “devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15). The word translated “devoted” (“addicted,” KJV) is the aorist form of tássō, meaning to “appoint,” “assign” or “put in charge” (BAGD 805-806).19 It seems they had actually appointed themselves to this ministry, not that they usurped the wishes of the congregation, but they saw what needed to be done and got busy.20 Paul says, “that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with [us]” (1 Cor. 16:16). While in a sense all Christians are to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5), here we find an example of unilateral submission similar to that expressed in Heb. 13:17. These men were not self-appointed leaders but self-appointed workers and laborers, and Paul acknowledges this as a quality of true leadership.
Anything done voluntarily is usually valued more than what is done by request or by compulsion (cf. 1 Pet. 5:2). The leadership aspirations of which Paul speaks, however, are insufficient without the qualifications that follow,21 where the focus is not on duties of office but on attributes of the person. 
--Kevin L. Moore
     1 H. D. M. Spence, in C. J. Ellicott’s NT Commentary 3:182; cp. Rev. 21:5; 22:6. Some have suggested the statement here points to the previous paragraph. See, e.g., A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the NT 4:572.
     2 With respect to the love of money, “reaching after” (ASV), “craving” (CSB, ESV), “longing for” (NASB), “eager for” (NIV), “coveted after” (KJV), “greediness” (NKJV).
     3 With respect to the heavenly home, “desire” (ESV, N/ASB, N/KJV), “longing for” (ISV, NIV), “aspire to” (NET).
     4 C. J. Ellicott, Critical and Grammatical Commentary 56.
     5 Matt. 5:28; Acts 20:33; Rom. 7:7; 13:9; 1 Cor. 10:6; Jas. 4:2; Rev. 9:6; and against good, Gal. 5:17.
     6 Matt. 13:17; 17:22; 22:15; Heb. 6:11; 1 Pet. 1:12; against bad, Gal. 5:17; extreme hunger, Matt. 15:16; 16:21.
     7 This is a combination of the intensifier epí (“on,” “upon”) + skopós (“observer,” “watcher”), appearing five times in the NT: Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25. Cp. Neh. 11:9, 14, 22.
     8 A comparable descriptor would be “guardians” (Jovan Payes, “Guardians of the Church,” Biblical Faith [16 Dec. 2015], <Link>).
     9 Note also the collective “eldership” [presbutérion] (1 Tim. 4:14).
     10 Around 95-96 Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthians, clearly showing the church was governed by a plurality of overseers with no distinction between bishops and elders (cf. I Clement 42:4; 44:1-2). Polycarp (ca. 115), in a letter to the Philippi church that begins, “Polycarp and the elders with him,” offers the admonition “to be subject to the presbyters and deacons.” Papias (ca. 60-130) refers to congregational leaders as presbyters. The Didache (ca. 130-150) confirms that during this time the church was administered by elders and deacons, with no distinction between bishops and elders (cf. Sec. 15). The Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 140-150) shows no difference between bishops and elders. See F. W. Mattox, Eternal Kingdom 56-59, 109-110; B. Howell, Fall from Servant to Master 106-110.
     11 See Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep 1:49-54. “Disaster may await the church whose leaders see themselves primarily as managers” (Walter L. Liefeld, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 120).
     12 There is no human supervisor or head, board of directors, synod, headquarters, or government of Christ’s church on earth. Christ is the head of his church (Eph. 1:21-23; Col. 1:18); heaven is therefore the headquarters (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 9:24). The church is governed by Christ’s authority through God’s word (Matt. 28:18; John 12:48; Heb. 1:1-2; 2 John 8-11; 2 Tim. 3:14-17). Other positions of service in the local church include deacons (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13), evangelists and teachers (Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5), and active members (Rom. 12:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:12-27). Effective leaders “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).
     13 This arrangement helps prevent the spread of apostasy; if one leadership or congregation goes astray, autonomy minimizes the adverse effects on other congregations. Moreover, “In requiring a plurality of elders, God knew that not every elder would fully possess equal measures of each qualification, yet through prayer, study and faithfulness, each should grow together in service, much like the pieces of a puzzle forming a complete, collective scene” (Scott Latham, “The Demeanor of God’s Leaders,” in Entrusted with the Faith 95).
     14 1 Tim. 1:8, 18; 2:3; 3:1, 7, 13; 4:4, 6[x2]; 5:10, 25; 6:12[x2], 13, 18, 19. Elsewhere Matt. (21x); Mark (11x); Luke-Acts (10x); John (7x); Rom. (5x); 1 Cor. (6x); 2 Cor. (2x); Gal. (3x); 1 Thess. (1x); 2 Tim. (3x); Titus (5x); Heb. (5x); James (3x); 1 Pet. (3x).
     15 Lit. “work with,” from the compound sunergéō = sún (“with”) + the verbal form of érgon (“work”); cf. also 2 Cor. 6:1; James 2:22.
     16 The verbal kopiáō conveys the sense of exhausting activity (cf. Luke 5:5; Acts 20:35; John 4:6; Rom. 16:6, 12; 1 Cor. 4:12; 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 4:10; 2 Tim. 2:6).
     17 Compare Matt. 20:25-28; 1 Pet. 5:2-4; cf. Phil. 2:1-8.
     18 Note the inner compulsion that urges one to action: Jer. 4:19; 20:9; Acts 17:16; 18:5; 1 Cor. 9:16-18; 2 Cor. 5:14. This is more than an ambitious drive or a domineering personality (cp. 3 John 9).
     19 Cf. Matt. 28:16; Acts 22:10; Rom. 13:1.
     20 Note, e.g., Matt. 25:35-40; Gal. 6:9-10; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10.
     21 Are these “qualifications” or “qualities”? When seen as “qualifications,” they can be interpreted so strictly as to discount otherwise capable leaders. When viewed as “qualities,” they can be interpreted so loosely as to be seen as mere suggestions or flexible guidelines. A balance between these extremes helps to appreciate the purpose of the directives in identifying and selecting the most effective leaders. While attributes differ in degree and expression, it is unreasonable to demand absolute perfection (note Phil. 3:12-17) or compromise on essentials (note Jas. 4:17). Every Christian should self-reflect and make personal application as he or she seeks to develop and exhibit the same (or comparable) character traits.

Related Posts:Qualifications of Elders Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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