Notes on Bishops/Elders in 1 Timothy

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1 Timothy 3:1–7

Paul believes it to be a faithful saying that if one desired the bishopric that one desired a good work. I say bishopric and not “office” or “position” of a bishop (“overseer”) simply because that is absent in Greek. Rather, the term given is in the genitive case which indicates that it shows possession of something, hence translators including “office” or “position” of a bishop, or overseer. The only other time this term appears in the same case indicative of this function is in Acts 1:20 where it reads, “Let another take his office.” Literally, one could translate the Greek in Acts 1:20 as “let another take his bishopric”—a reference to the vacated apostleship of Judas Iscariot.

While often referring to an office of an overseer, I believe that viewing such as an office robs it of its function. The way some operate or don’t is more by their title than of the “good work” to which it should be viewed as. Being an overseer in the church of Christ is not just having a title, but a “work,” a good one at that, that includes pastoring and teaching. Overseers are to be active in their work and not passive, hence Paul calling this a “good work.” Any overseer worth his salt will swiftly state that it is work, sometimes laborious and exhausting, but it is a labor entrusted to those men whom God would have shepherd His church. Three particular passages give us insight into this good work. First, in Acts 20:1728, the terms “elders,” “overseers,” and “pastor” are interchangeably used of the bishopric. Bishop is a synonym of overseer, elder of presbyter, and pastor of a shepherd. Paul had summoned the elders of Ephesus and encouraged that they pay attention to the flock over which they were made overseers. They were, therefore, to pastor the flock. Second, Titus 1:57 urges that he appoint “elders.” Such men were to serve as “overseers” of the church. Third, 1 Peter 5:1–2 has the apostle exhort his fellow “elders” to “shepherd” the flock among them while they served as “overseers.” Therefore, the terms bishop/overseer, elder/presbyter, and pastor/shepherd were all used interchangeably of this one function in the New Testament. The terms used for the work as much as define how one ought to serve and do the good work of a bishop. For example, “elder” denotes wisdom that comes with age and, therefore, warrants respect. “Bishop” denotes a guardian of something entrusted to him. “Pastor” denotes tenderness and nurturing toward those in his care.

In every place and city, elders were appointed in the early church to see to the growth and fidelity of the congregations (Acts 14:23Titus 1:5). Their oversight appears to have been limited to those over whom they had watched—note “every city” in Titus 1:5 and “among you” in 1 Peter 5:2. Several were always present, working together to do this good work (Acts 20:17Phil.1:1Titus 1:5). No one man is able to do the work alone. No one man is superior to his other overseers, and the good work of a bishop is marked not by lording his authority over the flock—including those who minister in the congregation either as deacons or preachers—but by serving as an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:1–3).

In 1 Timothy 3:2–7, the author gives a list of qualities one desiring the work of a bishop ought to demonstrate. I avoid calling them “qualifications” only because I think God would have one who has such a character rather than who can fulfill qualifications as if it were a job application rather than a heavenly appointment. It may boil down to semantics in the reader’s eye, but it’s my scruple. What I’d wish to do is simply give understanding to each of these qualities that all Christians should endeavor to have as a part of our character. These characteristics ought not to set up the belief that some Christians are better than others, but this list goes to show that one ought to have reached a certain level of maturity that others may not have.

We, first, note that those qualified will be “men” with a “desire” to do the work of overseeing the church. One who may be a man but lacking the desire, I believe, should be omitted from consideration of the bishopric. After all, the work ought not to be performed “by compulsion but willingly” (1 Peter 5:2). However, some men may not have had the desire awakened until they are approached to consider serving in such a way. Going from these two initial descriptions, we note that the bishop must be blameless, or “above reproach.” That is to say that he ought to be without a chargeable offense. Everything that follows this one standard demonstrates how he may be above reproach. 

That he is the husband of one wife has stirred more controversy among Christians than perhaps most other qualities listed here. As far as I’m aware, Koine Greek lacks a specific word to translate as “husband” and “wife.” Rather, the two terms are denoting the sexes used here. When context determines that the terms ought to be translated as “husband and wife” is when, so I’ve read, it would seem that she is in his possession, or in the genitive case. The language here could be literally translated to communicate that such a candidate should be a “one woman man.” As opposed to having concubines or mistresses—which Romans and Greeks were notorious for having in addition to their lawful wives—the bishop ought to have only one woman. This would rule out his possessing a mistress (cf. Genesis 2:241 Corinthians 6:16).

Some might say that if a man is divorced and remarried, albeit scripturally, that he shouldn’t be eligible for the bishopric. One may remarry and be a bishop if his previous spouse was unfaithful to their marriage bed (cf. Matthew 19:9), but it may be wise to not subject the church or his family to the scrutiny if it would lead to discord and division. Congregations that are more mature can accept the technicalities of this teaching, but those less mature or learned in a deeper grasp of the Bible may scrupulously and understandably think it wrong for a scripturally remarried man to be considered. If a man’s wife died and he married again, he could be a bishop because he was no longer bound to the previous marriage vows upon her death (cf. Romans 7:2–3). In each of these cases, the man would be a “one woman man” and would not have multiple women at the present time. This is the thrust of the Greek as I understand it, but I realize that some do not see it this way, and their sincerity in following Jesus ought not to be derided. I once had a brother remark to me that smaller country churches don’t have as educated preachers as other congregations to which I replied that their fidelity to God was no more or less than ours. Furthermore, if it weren’t for the educated theologians and preachers within the church, there wouldn’t even be a Bible in English, so we mustn’t dismiss the notion by a census of educated versus uneducated ministers.

A temperate man is one who is focused on his task (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:6). Having a sober mind amounts to thinking rightly about issues as God would have one do. Having good behavior is relatively self-explanatory, but the ancient method of hospitality differs from ours. Being hospitable means welcoming people into one’s home, entertaining them, caring for them, and sending them off with the blessing of a gift. That was the classical custom, though I’ve simplified it here. The term translated “hospitable” could be translated as “friendly to a foreigner.”

The one who is able to teach doesn’t mean that he is knowledgeable to teach, but that his character is worthy of him imparting the knowledge he has (cf. James 3:1). He’s also not to be addicted to wine. The phrase here isn’t indicative of a teetotaler, but of one who isn’t a drunkard. He isn’t to be violent, a lover of money, but gentle. He doesn’t start trouble and is content. He rules his own house well if his children remain under his roof. Much like the prodigal son, he was not prodigal while under his father’s household, but only after he left did he begin to live riotously.

For him to avoid the condemnation of the devil and the reproach and snare of the devil, he wasn’t to have been a novice, or new convert. Outsiders ought to think well of him because he could very well hinder people from coming to Christ if his character isn’t as such that people would avoid Christ due to the bad reputation of one of the church’s leaders. I believe that 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to the wives of bishops and deacons. Their wives ought to walk a path of righteousness just as their husband does so that they can aid their husband’s service to Christ. 

The list of characteristics is certainly a tall order. However, I don’t believe any of these should be sacrificed. Some might say that it’s such a difficult list and that no one is perfect and can keep all of these. I would want to ask which we are allowed to ignore. No one is willing to overlook a man being the husband of one wife and having children. What makes these more important than the others? Each of these characteristics is divinely inspired, are they not? Then we mustn’t try to negotiate any of them away when we haven’t been given the prerogative to do so. After all, that would be taking away from the Word, which is a grave enough sin as it is. One man can fit all of these qualifications not because he is perfect, but because he is mature enough in his faith that his character reflects godliness worthy of leading Christ’s church. 

1 Timothy 5:17–20

At this point, we take it that Paul is writing not about older men, but elders as an office. He’s already mentioned the bishops above whose office is synonymous with elders in the New Testament (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–4) and some early Christian literature (Didache 15.1; Clement, Corinthians 42; Polycarp, Philippians 5) despite the distinction appearing in Ignatius’ epistles. Because of Ignatius’ influence, this letter could be read as bishop, deacons, and elders. Some may even contend for the tripartite leadership of the church given this letter’s structure. After all, Paul only mentions the singular office of bishop in 3:1, eldership in 4:14; and deaconate in 3:8 with Timothy himself being listed as a deacon (4:6). As I continue in the role of devil’s advocate, I might also mention for full disclosure that the Greek term from which we get elder (presbyteros) eventually evolved into the term now used as “priest.” Furthermore, the bishopric was a term used of the apostolate when Judas Iscariot’s position was being filled in the wake of his death leaving it vacant: “Let another take his bishopric” (Acts 1:20; my translation). From this textual evaluation, one could conclude that the bishop took the place of the apostle in authority while the elders oversaw the church and the deacons ministered therein. 

Were we to counter this argument, we’d have to rely upon the interchangeable language used of the bishopric, eldership, and pastorate from those texts listed above. This is what we do, and why we in the churches of Christ have multiple elders and deacons within the local church. We have gone so far as to distinguish the preacher from the diaconate, but if we evaluate this epistle according to its language, we note that Timothy was a deacon or the diaconate consisted of ministers of the church. Either way, we remain with the most ancient interpretation, and this is how it is, but from what Paul writes here, we may stand to be corrected on a few points. 

First, the elders who ruled well were to receive remuneration. Both verses seventeen and eighteen attest to elders being compensated for their labor. These were likely those who, as Paul says, labored in word and doctrine. These were teaching elders who ministered as people use the term “pastor” today. These pastors actually shepherded and taught, and for such, they were to have received an honorarium of some sort. The mention of “double honor” leads either to double compensation or two forms of honor such as remuneration and respect because the word translated “double” should be rendered “two-fold” thus making the interpretation two forms of honor. 

Second, some have been of the mind that those who labor in word and doctrine shouldn’t rule as elders and that elders who teach should not be compensated for doing the work of ministry. I understand the argument for such, but most of the elders I’ve ever known who were also preachers ruled as elders but recused themselves whenever their personal compensation was discussed to avoid impropriety. An elder can be a preacher of a local congregation, can be paid, and still be an elder. This is biblical as we can clearly see here. The whole point and thrust of verse eighteen is compensation (cf. Deut. 25:4; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7). 

Third, elders are not untouchables. There seems to be the notion within the church that preachers are dispensable, and this may very well be true. However, there are also times when it is necessary for an elder to be removed. Sad, though it is, elders need to shepherd among themselves as much as the congregation over which they serve. One congregation at which I served taught me this more so. Among all elderships I’ve ever served, there has always tended to be a chief elder who believed it his duty to rule above the rest at times. At this one congregation, said elder who was the eldest and most senior shepherd often made issues where they didn’t exist with members and, particularly, me. This ultimately led me to leave that congregation. I spoke with the other elders during this unfortunate period, and it was agreed that he was problematic while I remained above reproach. My departure was necessary for me, and I learned that after I had left things became worse, and this elder was ultimately made to resign or face discipline. I will say, to his credit, he and I parted in union with apologies received and forgiveness granted. I learned that he had overstayed his usefulness and this taught me an important lesson: whenever I have run out my usefulness in service to the Lord, it would be important to step aside so that another can carry the torch. 

In this case, Paul urges that two or three witnesses confirm any accusation against an elder (cf. Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1), which I had in my case. For a man who has the responsibility to serve and shepherd the people of God, they will not be perfect. None of us are, but when the matter arises where an accusation could be levied against a shepherd of Christ’s church, multiple witnesses ought to be on hand so that disgruntled Christians don’t begin a crusade against shepherds. Notice that the deacon, Timothy is here tasked with this job, not an eldership. It may be that the presbytery was corrupted itself and needed cleansing. Timothy, sent by Paul, was to have sorted this out. The next verse has Timothy rebuking those “who are sinning” in the presence of all. The sinning here is present and active and thus an ongoing problem. For any who may be mistaken, the thrust of the phrase is best understood as those who persist in sin. This may apply to the elders against whom accusations are verified or those who are maliciously making such accusations without grounds for them. For Timothy, he was to have done such without partiality and objectively. If elders were removed, he was not to have laid his hands on others to serve as replacements (viz., ordination) hastily nor share in the sin of others who were unjustly accusing. 

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