Church Leadership in The Pastoral Epistles

1 Timothy, Titus and 2 Timothy are normally called the “pastorals epistles.”  The standard view is that  Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches.   The three books were first called “pastoral epistles” by Paul Anton in 1726.  The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors,” etc.  For example, John McArthur entitles Titus 1:5-9 as “the qualifications of a Pastor.”

The usual “situation” of the letters runs a bit like this.  Timothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul.  First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues. The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme. In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.

Gordon Fee, however, has called this description into question. As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones.  We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them!  It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their ecclesiology, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.”

The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in  1:5 and 3:15, especially in the light of his final speech to the Elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35.

1 Timothy 1:3  As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer

1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job (like a modern evangelist with a followup team).  There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems.  The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message.

This means that 1 Timothy and Titus are concerned with appointed good elders and deacons who will defend the faith and behave in an appropriate way.  In Titus, for example, Paul tells Titus to appoint qualified leaders, and in doing so, he is replacing the “unqualified leaders” who are destroying congregations.   That these elders are unqualified is more clear once we look at how they have been teaching and behaving, but it is clear from the qualification list in 1:5-9 that there is a serious ethical and moral problem with some of the elders in these churches.

How then do we make use of these “qualifications” lists?  How are elders and deacons”different” than members of the congregation?  Or, are they different at all?


Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral  Epistles, With Further Reflection On The  Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents,” JETS 28 (1985):141-151.

16 thoughts on “Church Leadership in The Pastoral Epistles

  1. Phillip, I was wondering when you would get to the “Pastoral Epistles” ! 🙂 However as much as I like Gordon Fee, this aspect of his is like jumping into the middle! Indeed we must begin with “scratch”, i.e. the Letters themselves! Perhaps the edited book by Kostenberger and Wilder: Entrusted With The Gospel, Paul’s Theology in The Pastoral Epistles, is a good one for today? I like it myself, since ‘The Pastorals’ have become such an issue in today’s theology.

  2. I have been progressing in more or less chronological order, so the time has finally come for the Pastorals. I appreciate the recommendation on the Kostenberger and Wilder text (URL = FYI, there is a new Pastoral Epistles Study Group at ETS, starting this year. I am not sure if it will amount to anything, but there was a solid group gathered for it this year.

    • Since I am an old classic “Paulinist”, the issue is always toward “Paul” the literal Apostle. So I always pound that drum, not much debate for me! Though even my old friend Joseph Fitzmyer has finally gone over to the pseudonymity here. I should not say “finally”, I guess it has been sometime ago. But in the old days 😉 Catholic theolog’s stood with Paul as the author! Btw, the somewhat older English or Brit’s: Lightfoot, Hort, Wescott, Abbott, Murray, etc. held to literal Paul. Though not James Moffatt, sadly.

  3. It seems like these character qualifications are to be desired in all Christians. What makes these qualifications different from living a life that is pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:10) or living by the Spirit. Is the difference that these men desire to be church leaders, while others do not?

    • Indeed, the call of God to the “presbuteroi” is the same as “elder”. But “rule” (KJV) (Proistimi) lit. means “to stand before” to lead, attend to (indicating care and diligence). With 1 Tim. 3:1, etc. this really is both a call of God, and a desire, but always within the Church of God. As we can see today I think, it is getting harder to see and find those God has called and inclined! But this is my conviction, as we see the church in certain apostasy! (2 Tim. 3) Btw, can we hear our Lord’s voice here, from Matt. 19: 11-12? This is no doubt spiritual foremost! The call of God is demanding!

  4. Dear Reading Acts: Thank you for your view on these topics. It gives me a different perspective on these matters. I never thought of it in these terms. I will continue to read on these topics to come up with my interpretation. There are a lot of different styles and beliefs in the word. It can be interpreted in many ways. I will take a closer look at it. Thank you, so much. Ricklee

  5. My first response is that the deacons and elders have to be different than the rest of the congregation. Paul tells Titus that, “an elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (Titus 1:6). It seems to me that if this was the guidelines for anyone to be accepted into that congregation, it would be very small. The church is people who are lost and hurting so to deny them when they want to grow closer to God wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think Paul is specifically referring to the deacons and elders.
    Now the question turns to what actually are deacons and elders? From reading Polhill it seems that the actual roles of the elders and deacons aren’t certain. Polhill says, “It is possible that the elder was the general term for the church leadership, and the overseers and deacons were subgroups within the body of elders” (411). Polhill goes on to explain that the overseers may have been the “pastor” of the church since they are always addressed in the singular tense. Therefore the deacons would be the people who do the other ministries around the church. I tend to think maybe small group leaders and volunteers in the church today could be called deacons. They aren’t the main pastor talking but they are definitely a huge part to make the church function. I think that is possibly one of the main reasons why Paul stressed that they be so pure. Others will really catch on to not only the pastor’s example but others involved as well. I am not sure if the present day church should abide by all these rules word for word but having clean hearted individuals are very important. For example, if a small group leader for high school students is not giving the kids a clean example of a Christ-like life, others will follow. In the same way 2000 years ago, Paul wanted teachers to be free from false doctrines so they may easily follow Christ with nothing to burden the goal of Christ-likeness.

  6. It continues to interest me that Paul continually rebukes false teaching in almost every single one of his letters. It is not like it was to only the Church in Ephesus, but it was a problem everywhere in the early church it seems. A few things come to mind as we research these early churches.
    1) Was false teaching so much more of a problem in the early church because the early believer were not as “deep” spiritually or as well “rooted” in their beliefs like we are today (or at least think we are)?
    2) Is false teaching within our churches today as prevalent as it was in the early church? I would hope that the teaching of the church today would be satisfactory to Paul and more importantly to God. Is our American culture too involved within our framework of the local church? Do we run churches too much like a business? Are our teachings within our churches reflecting the truth of God’s word to His people or are we on our soap boxes ranting about what we think is truth?
    3) Was Paul’s intentions for the Pastoral Epistles very directly related to the “needs” of that church? I mean, were those instructions for elders and leaders meant for that particular church or were they meant for all of the churches that Paul had his hand in? It seems that in the different churches today there is different forms of leadership and requirements for those in leadership and it seems to work.
    4) Is there a didache writing out there, not written by Paul, that talks about those in leadership of a church? And if so, what are the requirements that it calls for?

  7. I guess in an ideal world, there would be no difference between the deacons and elders within a church. We would all take our turn lifting up the church and filling in these leadership roles. Our lives would all represent the lives of those that follow and live according to the Law. However, we are not in an ideal world and there are those who do not live lives that are suitable to lead in a church setting. So Paul wrote out a list of the qualifications for those who should be in these leadership positions. In Titus, Paul writes that an elder is an overseer in the church, and an overseer manages God’s household. It is for this reason that those who lead, such as the pastors, elders, and deacons, should be above reproach because they are representatives of the message of the Gospel. However, with this being said, we who call ourselves Christians should also live lives that demonstrate our love for Christ. We may be the only Jesus some members of the world see, shouldn’t we make sure that they feel His love through us?

  8. I appreciated Courtney, your comments about the ideal church, having no difference between the Deacons and Elders and the rest of the congregation. Unfortunately this is not the case. I think that the qualification list is still present’s good guidelines on who would make an effective elder and deacon. The list seems like something any Christian should strive for. I think it’s especially important for those entrusted with leading a church to have these qualities, for the purpose of guarding against false teachings and false doctrine. “The churches of Crete were new, and Paul wanted to prepare the leadership in sound doctrine from the start.” (Polhill, 418). Whether this is right or wrong, I believe that leaders are called to a higher standard. This goes for Church leadership as well as leadership in the business world, in politics, in education, etc. It’s simply the nature of the beast. Leaders are looked to as examples and oftentimes scrutinized and evaluated for their actions. Unfortunately, people can be harsh, and we must remember that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7), and the Lord is the one who examines the heart (Prov. 21:2). But Leaders especially still need to guard their actions and live upright lives so that they don’t cause others following their example to stumble. I’ve learned all this through the experience of leading worship and leading children’s ministries, and it certainly isn’t easy. But the blessings of being able to lead far exceed the struggles with being called to a higher standard.

    • Yes as Courtney said it would be nice to live in an ideal world, But as Emily said this is not how things go.I think that Paul was trying to protect churches from was bad leadership within the church. These qualifications were meant to keep people who were unfit to lead out of leadership positions. In today’s culture we see bad examples of leadership, and Paul was trying to help avoid potential problems. How many times have we heard, “it all comes down to poor leadership” even in churches. Everybody thinks they can do a better job, and sometimes they are right, but often they will criticize without any desire or intent to try to do that job better. We should use these “qualifications” so as to avoid potential in-church pitfalls. Nobody is perfect and we need to remember that, but Paul gave us this list for a reason, and i think we should use it the best we can.

  9. Paul is obviously concerned with preaching the gospel and reaching as many as possible. He reached many new believers and they joined the different groups of believers in the different churches in Paul’s time. These additions to the churches do not automatically become as godly as those that have been Christians for much longer. It is unrealistic to expect everyone in the church to be as Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3. Aspiring to be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not violent, not quarrelsome and so on, is a lifelong task. The elders and deacons must be working toward this standard. God knows we are going to mess up and Paul knew that too. Ever elder and deacon will not have a perfect family and is going to fail but they must be the examples that the rest of the church follows. Higher positions call for greater responsibility.

  10. I liked the comment Emily made about how the leaders are looked upon, and how people evaluate their actions. I strongly believe that this is what Paul was talking about with the false teachers in the Church. I believe he knew that the people of the church would see such actions that the false teachers would take part in, and I think he was nervous that the people of the church would either follow these people, or take after them, themselves. Paul was protecting the people of the body of Christ. Such as when he tells the people to warn the person who is being wrong, and if they continue to do their wrong actions, to have them leave the church. Paul wanted what was best for the church, and if these people continued to make a bad impact in the church, they should be asked to leave.

  11. I do like the fact that we have the list of requirements for the leads of the church. Each have their own responsibilities within tht make the church function the way that it is supposed to. Every church has leadersthen, if each were to hold true to this letter, that would be uniform in the manner that they present themselves. No need for issues to arise among the elders then. But we live in a world where the instructions we are given are not followed.

    As far as what the church would look like. They would not all look the same, even though the leaders had the same requirements. They would still have their own creative ideas of how church works, but at least the standard that the leaders were held to is the same all the way around.

  12. I think there is a great argument from DeWitt (forgive me if I am mistaken, since I am far less familiar with his views than you are) that the elders in a church are those responsible for specific functions of the church, such as the teaching elder, the orphan and widow care elder, the finance elder, the maintenence elder, the cookies and coffee elder, etc. At least from what DeWitt shared, this seems to be the function of church eldership/deaconhood. But, I think there is a great amount of truth in what you said concerning the issue of false teachings. The epistles are full of Paul addressing the needs of various churches to deal with false teaching, and I think that is his reasoning for addressing it at this time is a valid concern for the Church as a whole and Paul is suggesting a system that could help this. I also think that Paul is modeling the church after the synogogue system which seemed to have much less of a problem with false teaching. Perhaps Paul longed for the old days.

  13. I would agree wholeheartedly with Emily and Porter and their mention that “Paul was trying to protect the churches from…bad leadership withing the church” (Porter). I have never given much thought to these “qualifications” lists…most likely because I think all my churches growing up skipped over these passages for comforts sake. How do we regard these qualifications in the modern church? How are they to be used? I have a strong belief that these qualifications are extremely important in the equilibrium of the church. Polhill says, “If [the] church leaders cannot guarantee the purity of all leadership, they can at least take heed to their own,” (Polhill 415). These lists were given not so that there would be a large separation between the leadership in the church and the people – but so that these elders and deacons were truly able to teach the Word of God being “upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:9). When Paul wrote these words I don’t believe at all that he was implying that the other Christians did NOT need to be these things, but rather he was saying that if they would be an elder or deacon they were required to be these things so they could further the Word of God by their example in all things (which seems to be a common theme in Paul’s writings). Altogether, I think the church would be much better off if they did heed these qualifications, and I do not understand why pastors commonly ignore them.

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