1 Timothy 3:1-7 – The Character of Church Leaders

Who should lead the church? It’s a question Paul and Timothy faced, and it’s a question still very much relevant today. The reputation of the church stands and falls on the integrity of its leaders.

First, Paul talks of ‘overseers’, ‘superintendents’ or ‘bishops’ (‘episkopos’). Initially, these were probably the same as those referred to elsewhere as ‘elders’ (‘presbuteros’), having leadership in the towns in which they lived (cf. Titus 1:5). The notion of eldership goes back to Moses appointing seventy men in the wilderness to help control and care for the people (Numbers 11:16). Every synagogue had elders, responsible for presiding at worship, disciplining errant members and settling disputes that other nations would have dealt with in law courts. Elders were respected men who exercised fatherly oversight of the spiritual and material affairs of every Jewish community.

So how did ‘presbuteros’ become ‘episkopos’? The answer lies in the growth of the church. As churches expanded, each town’s elders would have chosen a first among equals who would have been known as the ‘episkopos’. The word ‘episkopos’ implies both oversight and responsibility to some higher power or authority. These overseers were set apart for their office and appointed to their task (Titus 1:5).

Probably, like deacons, overseers had to be tested (1 Timothy 3:10). Paul certainly says that an elder should not be a recent convert in case they become conceited (v.6), suggesting that they need time to prove their character and maturity. Many overseers were involved in teaching and preaching (1 Timothy 5:17), and they were to be held accountable by their congregations (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Here in 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives the list of attributes they must possess. They must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.”  Being above reproach (‘anepileptos’) is being a person against whom no criticism can be made. A leader must be “well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (v.7).

All of us who are pastors or elders would do well to remind ourselves of the character we are called to exhibit. Paul clearly and understandably expects leaders to be an example to their congregations. The management of one’s own household can be challenging, but essential if we are to effectively lead “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15).

In short, leaders must have a faith that demonstrably impacts their lives. The reputation of the church stands and falls on the integrity of its leaders. We cannot preach one thing, and live another. May God give us grace!

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About Matt Stone

I'm a United Reformed Church Minister in Norfolk.

Posted on August 6, 2012, in Monday Exposition. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I agree with what you say, but when you write ‘So how did ‘presbuteros’ become ‘episkopos’? The answer lies in the growth of the church. As churches expanded, each town’s elders would have chosen a first among equals who would have been known as the ‘episkopos’’ – are you suggesting that this transition happened in the churches of the New Testament period or at a later date?

    It seems to me, with the possible exception of the angels/messengers of the churches in Rev 1-3 (depending how they are interpreted), that there there is no scriptural warrant for ‘overseer’ in 1 Tim 3:17 to be anything other than a term synonymous term with ‘elder’, ‘pastor’ or ‘minister’ – Acts 17,28, Titus 1:5, 1:7, 1 Peter 5:1-2 (as Calvin pointed out in Institutes IV, III, 8). Aside from the Ignatian letters, the notion of a moderator-bishop is not found in 1st and 2nd century sources – instead the Acts model of a presbytery of elder-overseers seems to have been the dominant model of the European and Asia minor (i.e. now Turkey) churches e.g. Didache 15 (smaller late 1st century churches), 1 Clement 44 (Rome and Corinth), Polycarp to the Philippians 5 (Smyrna and Philippi). As I see it the emergence of a presiding bishop seems to originate either as a spirited innovation of Ignatius of Antioch (as Prof Alan Brent had recently argued) or perhaps if Jerome in Epist. 146 to Evangelus is to be right (and as a 4th century writer that is probably not so) a late 1st century innovation from the Levant region (e.g. the reference to Mark in Alexandria) that gradually moved ‘up’ through the ‘Asian’ churches into Europe as a response to schism and heresy. I would be grateful for your thoughts on this issue.

    • Hi Elliot, I would argue (like you) that it happened in the early church. My reading of Acts 17:28, Titus 1:5, 1:7, and 1 Peter 5:1-2 would be for ‘overseer’ to be synonymous with ‘elder’.

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