“Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2, ESV).
The verbal expression “must be” [deî … eînai] (vv. 2, 7; cf. Tit. 1:7) marks the entire section as non-optional criteria (incl. character traits, abilities, life circumstances), enabling the church to identify the qualified leaders among them and eliminate those who do not meet these conditions.1 The current virtue list, which is in stark contrast to the vice list of 1:9-10, is not descriptive of a super-Christian but simply a mature and faithful Christian. He is known not only for his beliefs but also for his character.
An interesting contrast between 1 Timothy and the letter to Titus is that Titus was to “appoint” [kathístēmi] leaders where they were lacking (1:5), with no such directive given to Timothy. The Ephesus church had elders in the past, having been warned of false teachers arising among them (Acts 20:17, 28-30). In the current letter to Timothy, a distinction is made between elders who rule well and deserve to be honored, and those who are sinning and subject to public rebuke (5:17-25).2
The preliminary requirement is that he be “above reproach” or “blameless” (ISV, N/KJV). The adjectival anepílēptos appears only three times in the NT, all in this letter, applicable to overseers (3:2), worthy widows (5:7), and the evangelist Timothy (6:14). It stands at the head of the list and is more general than the other expectations, serving as an umbrella term under which the rest fall.3 It is closely related to the adj. anégklētos (“unreprovable,” “blameless”), occurring five times in the NT with respect to deacons (3:10), elders (Tit. 1:6, 7), and all Christians in the end (1 Cor. 1:8; Col. 1:22).4 This is not to be understood as sinless perfection or faultless in the absolute sense (1 Pet. 1:19) but according to what is expected of all forgiven sinners who follow Christ (Rom. 6:1-18), with the condition, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard …” (Col. 1:23).5 The directive is more robust than simply having “a good reputation,” though certainly included (1 Tim. 3:7), describing a person of integrity and solid proven character.6 He is not under a cloud of suspicion. He is not culpable in that no legitimate reason for criticism can be cited or exploited to his discredit.
He must be “the husband of one wife”7 (cf. v. 12; 5:9), which disqualifies a single man (cf. 4:3),8 a woman (cf. 2:11-12),9 an active homosexual (cf. 1:10),10 a polygamist (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2),11 or someone unscripturally divorced and remarried (cf. Rom. 7:2-3).12 The essential quality, beyond marital status, is demonstrated fidelity, whether or not Paul had each of the above scenarios in mind as he penned these words.13 A man’s moral character is evident as he is “faithful to his wife” (NIV). Note also that he is to be an actively involved family man (vv. 4-5), immeasurably advantaged by having a wife who is devoted, hospitable, and a good mother, not to mention the kind of woman depicted in 2:9-15.
He must be “sober-minded,” the adj. nēphaléos14 also rendered “self-controlled” (CSB), “temperate” (ASV), “sober” (GNT), “stable” (ISV), “vigilant” (KJV). The primary sense is to be free from the influence of intoxicants, “sober, temperate, abstinent in respect to wine.”15 The secondary meaning is “level-headed” or “clear-headed.”16 Some take the injunction here in its literal sense (total abstinence from beverage alcohol),17 some see a probable “reference to moderate use of wine,”18 while others view it strictly in the metaphoric sense, “sobriety of spirit.”19 At the very least a man who is mentally and emotionally unstable is not qualified. But even moderate consumption of ethyl alcohol causes mood changes, lowered inhibitions, and impaired judgment,20 contrary to what is expected here.
He must be “self-controlled,” also rendered “sensible” (CSB, RSV), “prudent” (NASB), “sober” (KJV) or “sober-minded” (ASV, NKJV). The adj. sōphrōn occurs in the NT only here and in Tit. 1:8; 2:2, 5 in regard to elders, older men, and younger women instructed by older women. It is nearly synonymous with the preceding nēphaléos, without the implicit allusion to inebriants. The basic sense is “well-balanced” in God’s sight, entailing the curbing of impulses and desires, not merely by sheer determination but as someone who “is commanded by God.”21 It is cognate with sōphrosúnē (“self-control,” 1 Tim. 2:9, 15).22 This character trait protects one’s integrity and dictates how he deals with potential pitfalls involving sexual temptation, anger, contentiousness, alcohol, money, authority, doctrine, et al.
He must be “respectable,” “orderly” (ASV), “of good behavior” (NKJV), “dignified.”23 The adj. kósmios occurs in the NT only here and in 2:9 (regarding how women are to adorn themselves). It is the observable demonstration of the preceding attribute. The overseer “must not only be wise and self-restrained in himself, but his outward bearing must in all respects correspond to his inner life.”24 It would be comparable to díkaios (“upright,” “just”) in Tit. 1:8. In collaboration with the relational qualities subsequently listed, it enhances his interpersonal skills and the effectiveness of his influence.
He must be “hospitable,” or “given to hospitality” (ASV, KJV), translated from the compound philóxenos, a combination of phílos (“friend”) + xénos (“stranger”), lit. “a friend of strangers.” This adj. is found in the NT only here, Tit. 1:8, and 1 Pet. 4:9; the noun form philoxenía appears in Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2. Due to the scarceness and poor conditions of public lodging in antiquity, providing visitors with food and shelter was a virtual necessity. Hospitality under one’s own roof was deeply rooted in ancient society, highly valued, and even viewed as an obligation.25 The large number of itinerant evangelists and other Christian travelers made this particularly relevant to the early church (cf. 3 John 5-8).26 “Hospitality, like most of these qualities, was a practice required of all believers in general, which leaders were to exemplify,”27 and having a hospitable wife would be most advantageous. Paul regularly relied on the hospitality and provision of fellow-Christians,28 including at Ephesus among these brethren and prospective leaders (2 Tim. 1:16-18; cf. Acts 20:18-20).
He must be “able to teach,” or “apt to teach” (ASV, KJV), “an able teacher” (NET), “an apt teacher” (RSV); the adj. didaktikós used in the NT only here and in 2 Tim. 2:24. This is the first listed qualification based on ability rather than character (although character cannot be disregarded, 1 Tim. 4:12-16), not included as a requirement for deacons. Being qualified to teach is not optional (cp. 1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2:3-7; cf. Jas. 3:1); it is essential for a church leader to be capable of communicating God’s word clearly and faithfully. While the ISV rendering “teachable” may not capture the full sense here, the meaning is “not merely a natural aptitude, but the qualification of having been taught, as well”29 (cf. Tit. 1:9a; 2 Tim. 2:2). Being “ready to teach” is understood, but what about skilled in teaching?
Although some are more observably capable than others (note 1 Tim. 5:17),30 whether one teaches publically or in private is not the issue. Comparatively few would be considered gifted public speakers (note 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:6), but one can effectively teach in other ways, incl. small group settings or more privately in various instructional, counseling, or advising situations. In fact, one could argue that most teaching opportunities are not of a public nature. Some of the most effective pastoral work can be done in the foyer or parking lot after church services, or through personal contact during the week. A man might have the gift of gab or a knack for emotionally stirring the crowds, but he is not qualified without adequate biblical knowledge and the competence to teach and courage to defend sound doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 1:10; Tit. 1:9; 2:1; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Heb. 5:13-14).
1 The “spiritual ones” in a congregation (exhibiting “the fruit of the Spirit”) are recognizable (Gal. 5:22–6:1), including those who are “mature,” “strong,” and “faithful” (1 Cor. 2:6; Rom. 15:1; 2 Tim. 2:2). The good works of certain ones “are clearly evident” (1 Tim. 5:25; cf. 4:15). When individuals demonstrate their commitment and faithfulness by their regularity, hard work, and caring spirit, their spiritual leadership is to be “recognized” or “acknowledged” (1 Cor. 16:18).
2 “Timothy must see to it that elders are living according to their appointment, that is, by these standards. At the same time, of course, the whole church will be listening in and will thus be given the grounds for discipline of erring elders as well as for their replacement …” (G. D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus 78-79).
3 Mark Baker, “A ‘Perfect’ Elder? Blamelessness in the Qualifications for Elders and Deacons in the Pastoral Epistles,” ETS 72nd Annual Meeting (Nov. 2020).
4 Consider also the adj. ámōmos (“blameless,” “unblemished”) in Eph. 1:4; 5:27; Phil. 2:15; Col. 1:22; Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19; Jude 24; Rev. 14:5; the adj. ámemptos (“blameless,” “without defect”) in Luke 1:6; Phil. 2:15; 3:6; 1 Thess. 3:13; the adv. amémptōs (“blamelessly”) in 1 Thess. 2:10; 5:23; the adj. áspilos (“spotless”) in 1 Tim. 6:14; Jas. 1:27; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2 Pet. 3:14; the adj. amōmētos (“unblemished,” “blameless”) in 2 Pet. 3:14; and the adj. akéraios (“unadulterated,” “innocent”) in Matt. 10:16; Rom. 16:19; Phil. 2:15.
5 See also Acts 11:23; 14:22; Heb. 3:14; 2 Pet. 2:18-22; 1 John 1:6–2:6; Rev. 2:10.
6 Cf. Acts 6:3; 16:2; Rom. 5:3-4; Phil. 2:22. Lynn Anderson observes “that elders must be people who are consistent enough in character to earn the trust and respect of those who know them” (They Smell Like Sheep 1:160, emp. in the text).
7 More literally “a-man-of-one-woman” (J. Payes, “Guardians of the Church” <Link>).
8 Note that Paul was unmarried (1 Cor. 7:7-8) and never refers to himself as an “elder” or “overseer,” whereas Peter, as a married man, does (1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Pet. 5:1). Being “the husband of one wife” implies neither less than one nor more than one.
9 See K. L. Moore, “A Woman’s Service in the Church,” Moore Perspective (27 Dec. 2014), <Link>.
10 See K. L. Moore, “Postmodernism and the Homosexual Christian: Part 2,” Moore Perspective (5 Dec. 2014), <Link>.
11 See K. L. Moore, “Was Polygamy Ever Acceptable to God?” Moore Perspective (21 March 2018), <Link>.
12 See also Gen. 2:24; Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-10; Mark 6:17-19; 10:1-10; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11. On the so-called “Pauline Privilege” (1 Cor. 7:12-16), see K. L. Moore, “The Biblical Doctrine of Divorce and Remarriage: Part 3,” Moore Perspective (14 May 2015), <Link>. If a man’s wife dies, the marriage bond is severed (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39); in a subsequent union with an eligible marriage partner he is still “the husband of one wife” (a one-woman man). On the question of a scripturally divorced and remarried man, see Kyle Butt, “Examining the ‘Husband of One Wife’ Qualification,” AP (2012), <Link>.
13 The directive “is positive in tone and stresses faithfulness in marriage, rather than prohibiting some specific unsanctioned form of marriage” (I. H. Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, ICC 478).
14 This descriptive term occurs in the NT only here, in v. 11, and in Tit. 2:2.
15 H. K. Moulton, Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised 277; see also J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek NT 426. Josephus used the word for total abstinence from wine (Ant. 3.12.2). Nephalism is the total abstinence from alcoholic beverages.
16 BDAG 672; R. J. Goodrich and A. L. Lukaszewski, A Reader’s Greek NT 459. The verbal nēphō (1 Thess. 5:6, 8; 2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7; 5:8) also means, in its primary sense, to “be sober” or to “abstain from wine,” but metaphorically to “be sober-minded” or “have clear judgment.” Cf. H. K. Moulton, Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised 277; W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of NT Words 1067; The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon 592.
17 C. J. Ellicott, Critical and Grammatical Commentary 57; not synonymous with v. 3, which addresses the outward exhibition of excess.
18 N. J. D. White, “First and Second Timothy,” EGT 4:112.
19 J. E. Huther, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the NT: Handbook to the Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and Titus, <Web>; corresponding to egkratēs (“restraining,” “self-controlled”) in Tit. 1:8. See also D. Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles 81; G. D. Fee, 1-2 Timothy, Titus 81.
20 See K. L. Moore, “Here’s Why I Don’t Drink Beverage Alcohol,” Moore Perspective (28 Sept. 2013), <Link>.
21 K. S. Wuest, Pastoral Epistles 46.
22 Compare also egkráteia (“self-mastery,” “self-restraint,” “self-control”) in Acts 24:25; Gal. 5:23 (a “fruit of the Spirit”); 2 Pet. 1:6; cf. Prov. 25:28.
23 N. J. D. White, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” EGT 4:112. A respectable man “displays the courage to develop and pursue his own convictions. He makes his decisions based on his values rather than on pragmatism or mere expediency. He operates out of integrity and is driven by principle, not politics” (L. Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep 1:165).
24 H. D. M. Spence, Ellicott’s NT Commentary 3:190.
25 See K. L. Moore, “The Sociocultural Context of the NT (Part 7): Hospitality,” Moore Perspective (7 Aug. 2019), <Link>.
26 Letters of recommendation helped open doors of hospitality for traveling Christians (cf. Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 16:10-12; also Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9; Eph. 6:21-22). D. J. Moo, commenting on Rom. 12:13, observes that Paul calls upon his readers to “put into practice the love and concern for one another …. to have fellowship with, to participate in, the ‘needs’ of the saints. These ‘needs’ are material ones: food, clothing, and shelter… sharing of our material goods …. to go out of our way to welcome and provide for travelers” (Epistle to the Romans NICNT 779-80). See also Acts 2:44-45; 4:35; 6:3; 20:34; 28:10; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 2:25; 4:16; Tit. 3:14; 1 John 3:17; Rev. 3:17. On the negative side, see Luke 9:51-55; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-11.
27 Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus 252.
28 Acts 9:19; 16:15, 34; 18:1-3; 20:11; 21:4, 7-10, 16-17; 28:13-14; 24:23; Rom. 15:24; 16:2, 23; 1 Cor. 16:6; Gal. 1:18; Philem. 22; 2 Tim. 1:16-18; cf. 2 Tim. 4:13.
29 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon 584. Being teachable is actually a way of teaching by example (note 1 Pet. 5:3), modeling humility and receptivity.
30 In 1 Cor. 12:29 Paul rhetorically asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles?” The implied answer is “no.” Not everyone in the 1st-century church was expected to be a teacher, any more than everyone was an apostle, a prophet, or a miracle worker. But in Heb. 5:12 we read, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers …” These two passages are addressed to two different audiences in separate places and times, dealing with two very different issues. In 1 Cor. 12 Paul is confronting the problem of jealousy and discord due to the misuse of miraculous gifts; each member should be contributing his/her part for the benefit of the whole body. In this context, “teachers” fulfil a special role in the church (cf. Jas. 3:1). In Heb. 5 the problem is lack of spiritual growth and maturity. There comes a time when all Christians ought to be “teachers” in some sense, whether by (a) example (Matt. 5:13-16; Rom. 16:19; 1 Tim. 3:7; 4:12, 15; 5:25; 1 Pet. 2:11-12); (b) open confession of one’s faith (Matt. 10:32; Heb. 4:14; 10:23); (c) defence of the faith (1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3); (d) fulfilling one’s “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-21; cf. Matt. 28:18-20); and/or (e) developing and utilizing God-given teaching talents (Rom. 12:7; Eph. 4:11). It is this latter (more specific) sense that is considered in 1 Cor. 12, whereas in Heb. 5 the broader sense is in view.
Related Posts: Qualifications of Elders Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
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