The Noble Task of Eldering (1 Timothy 3:1)

First Timothy 3 and 1 Titus 1 are well-known passages because the describe the qualifications for church leadership. We usually fret the most over the line about “one wife” and perhaps that the leader must have well-behaved children, but there is far more here than those two more controversial points.

TimothyLike the previous section, Paul’s main concern is that the church be organized and led in a way which gives it a good reputation with outsiders. This is also true in business: good reputations are hard to build, they take time. On the other hand, it does not take much at all to destroy a good reputation and develop a bad one.

If you have ever read a restaurant review online, you know that one bad experience can lead to a terrible review and potential lost business. One cranky customer who has bad food or poor service can leave a review (anonymously) online, and scare dozens of people away. The same is true for church.  A family could visit on a Sunday when things were not quite right in the nursery, the musicians were out of tune and didn’t really know the songs, and the pastor finished his sermon on the way to church. This family leaves “unimpressed” and never comes back, but they tell their friends that they tried “that church” and it wasn’t very good.

But Paul is not talking about “church shoppers” in this text, since that sort of thing did not exist in the first century. There are people in the congregation who are leaders in a local house church who have a bad reputation with the community. Maybe they have some shady business practices, or they are quick to bring lawsuits, or maybe they are known to attend the banquets at pagan temples and fully participate in debauchery. If the leader has a bad reputation outside the church, then they bring that dishonor with them when the “desire to be an overseer.” To remedy this situation, Paul tells Timothy (and by extension, the churches) to appoint people to the office of Elder and Deacon who are qualified spiritually and morally for the task.

First Timothy 3:1 is another “trustworthy saying.” In this case it is not a theological statement, but that the person who aspires to be a leader in the church “desires a noble task.” Desiring to be a leader of a local house church is not a bad thing at all, it is a noble task, or a “good work” (v. 1).

It is possible that this line betrays a problem in Paul’s churches in Ephesus. It appears that people were not wanting to serve as leaders in the church. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps the false teachers had created a situation where good people were not inclined to challenge them, the did not desire to become involved in leadership because it meant challenging these false teachers. A second possibility is that the role of overseer or elder was not considered to be a job people wanted to do – it was not considered a “noble task.” It is also possible that people who were capable and qualified did not see themselves as up to the task of leading the church, perhaps for a combination of the previous two points.

One serious problem reading this passage is that we hear words like elder and deacon and immediately think of our modern “office” of elder and deacon. This is not necessarily going to help understand Paul’s view of church leadership. If at all possible, it is best for us to bracket out modern church practice for a few minutes and try to read Paul in the context of first century Ephesus.

9 thoughts on “The Noble Task of Eldering (1 Timothy 3:1)

  1. Phillip, you continue to share helpful posts at an incredibly prolific rate! Thank you. I do read most of them, despite rarely commenting.

    I’ll make up for my rarity of comments by posting a long one here. (I’m doing a cut-and-paste from Facebook, since I didn’t have my own blog running when I first shared this.) In studying 1 Timothy 3:1 I’ve come to an interpretation that is somewhat rare, and I welcome feedback. Here goes:
    ————
    When seeking to understand God’s Word, it is not sufficient to consider the abstract, factual meaning of words and sentences, as if reading from an encyclopedia. We must also consider why they were written. In other words, we should ask not only what the words *say*, but what they were intended to *do*. (In philosophical discussions of hermeneutics, this field of study is called speech-act theory, but I’ll avoid technical terms.)

    I’m thinking of this because I was thinking tonight about 1 Timothy 3:1: “This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” (KJV).

    I have often heard this verse expounded along these lines: Paul is saying that it is good to desire to be a pastor in a church. Being a pastor is a good work, and it is a worthy goal to pursue; those who desire this work are to be affirmed for their desire. In fact, one of the qualifications for being a pastor is that you really should have a desire to be one; if you don’t have a deep inner desire for this office, then you are probably are not qualified to fill it.

    Whether or not the above statements are all true, I think such an exposition is missing the point of this verse. It always makes me nervous, however, when I find myself reading a passage of Scripture in a unique way, without finding confirmation for my reading from any other interpreters. After all, here are a few prominent explanations of this verse:

    “An obvious but not insignificant qualification is the shepherd’s personal desire to love and care for God’s people. Paul and the first Christians applauded such willingness by creating a popular Christian saying [1 Tim. 3:1]… In brief, this early Christian saying declares the great value of the work of the office of overseer (eldership) while also encouraging those who desire this work. It is equally important that congregations today realize the worthwhile character of the elders’ task. They need to realize its significance so they will support and encourage the elders in their work on behalf of the church.” (Alexander Strauch, in Biblical Eldershiip)

    “Before he lists the qualifications for overseers, Paul affirms the importance of their work… Those who desire to serve in this way are to be encouraged, perhaps as those who build the church with valuable materials as in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14, a task that is indeed ‘noble.'” (Walter Liefeld, NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)

    “Rather than downplaying the position of church leader, Paul elevates it by saying that it is a good work. Why does this statement warrant the solemn introduction of a faithful saying? Most answer that the church placed its greatest esteem on the more visible, ecstatic gifts, and the Ephesians needed to be reminded that the more practical functions such as overseer were also significant and worthy of honor… It seems [to this commentator], rather, that any hesitancy to accept positions of leadership by members of the Ephesian church was the result of the excess of the opponents. They were bringing reproach not only upon the church itself but also upon anyone in leadership. Perhaps as well people were hesitant to accept positions that would bring them in direct confrontation with the opponents… The church needed leaders who would do their job well, and it was therefore a good thing to aspire to the office of overseer… The word [“desire”] describes an ‘ambitious seeking’…; whether the aspiration is good or bad is determined by the context. In our text it must be good since Paul is recommending it.” (William Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary on Pastoral Epistles)

    Notice how all three commentators above make the same exegetical slip (most clearly in the 1st and 3rd example): They slip from the biblical words about a “good work” to talking about a “good desire.” Read 1 Timothy 3:1 again; it does not actually say that the desire is good. Presumably it is–or at least it could potentially be, since the object of the desire is explicitly affirmed as being good–but the main point of the verse, even on an abstract, factual meaning, has nothing to do with “good desires,” but with a “good work.” (My point here is *not* to belittle these commentators; I have been helped immensely by them, especially by Strauch and Mounce.)

    When we move to consider the question of what this verse is intended to *do*, then the real message of the verse becomes clearer. But before we do that, let’s consider another hurdle: A concordance search for the Greek phrase behind “good works” would seem, at first reading, to affirm the commentators I’ve quoted above. This exact phrase is used elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles to describe:
    (1) What widows should be doing if they are to be considered eligible for the “widows list” (1 Tim. 5:10).
    (2) The behavior that potential elders should be demonstrating before they are appointed (1 Tim. 5:25).
    (3) What rich Christians should be “rich” in (1 Tim 6:18).
    (4) What Titus should show himself to be a pattern of (Tit. 2:7).
    (5) What all the Cretans should be eager to do (Tit. 2:14; 3:8, 14).
    In all these cases (and elsewhere in the NT, such as in Heb. 10:24), God’s people are urged to be pursuing “good works.” So doesn’t it make sense that here, too, in 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul is urging people to pursue a “good work”–this time the “good work” of an overseer?

    I don’t think so. Here context is key, and two aspects of context bear consideration.

    (1) First, and most importantly, notice how the following verse begins: “A bishop then must be blameless…” (KJV). Do you notice the word “then”? This word links the first two verses of 1 Timothy 3. Verse one says that the office of overseer involves a good work; verse two says that, because that office involves a good work, the overseer must be blameless. Or, to say it in reverse: Why must an overseer be blameless (v. 2)? Because he is doing a good work (v. 1).

    The NASB and NET read much like the KJV. The ESV makes the connection even clearer: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…” The NIV hides the connection almost entirely: “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach…”

    This link suggests something of why Paul wrote verse 1; he was not trying to lift up the office of overseer so that everyone would start filling out applications for the pastorate. Rather, he was lifting up the office of overseer in order to demonstrate why such high qualifications were required for those who filled it. Perhaps we could paraphrase: “If anyone is reaching for the chance to be an overseer, he’s reaching very high indeed!”

    (2) Second, the context of the entire letter (and of all three Pastorals) is that Paul is writing to churches wracked by false teachers. Both 1 Timothy and Titus begin abruptly; after brief greetings, Paul skips the customary prayer/blessing found in most letters, and jumps right into the topic of the need for proper leadership. Here in 1 Timothy we read of false teachers who were “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1:7). Similarly, in Titus 1:16 we read of false teachers who were “unfit for any good work” (a different, but similar Greek phrase).

    This context suggests that Paul was facing a situation where unqualified people were serving as leaders in the church. In such a situation, Paul was concerned to elevate the office of the elder/overseer, reminding people of the high qualifications that were required of those who would fill it. The first and overriding qualification in both 1 Timothy and Titus is that leaders must be “above reproach.” The problem was not simply a lack of leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so we receive more applications!”) but a multiplication of bad leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so that only qualified persons will be allowed to lead”).

    I have read this verse along these lines for quite a while, so I was delighted tonight to find a commentator who affirmed my reading:

    “Why does Paul cite a trustworthy saying (1)? Since this appears to be a commonly known saying, he was probably here using it to underline the importance of the overseer’s office for the benefit of those who were underestimating it. Paul sees the work as a noble task. Such an office needs the right kind of people to fit it.” (Donald Guthrie, in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition)

    (To be fair, both Strauch and Mounce also say similar things, but only after being temporarily derailed by first emphasizing the points quoted above; Guthrie never gets similarly derailed.)

    Does all this matter? Well, suppose I say, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the hand of my daughter, he desires a noble lady.” Would I be content if all the young ruffians in town thought I was urging them to aspire to marry my daughter? Or might I be happier if one of them took a good look at how noble my daughter really is, then refocused his gaze inward to become the man truly qualified to win her hand?

    May we read God’s Word not only to discover God’s truth, but also to discover God’s desires.
    ——-
    If you read my whole post, thanks for your endurance! 🙂

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  2. I have heard various applications of the passage stating that an elder should be the husband of one wife including the applications that you described. Perhaps we should look at that phrase as saying that an elder should not be a polygamist. In another letter Paul says that each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (1 Cor 7:2). Both of these verses may be signifying that a person should not be a polygamist rather than signifying a mandate for an elder to be a married person. One way of reading this passage that the authors present is that these descriptions are not meant to be a “litmus test” but instead more of a guide (TTP 269). However one views this passage, I think that it is important that if one is going to hold strongly to one of these things in the list such as requiring the elder to be a married guy who was never divorced, they must hold strongly to the entire list including the idea that the elder’s children must be believers. Looking at culture of that time may better reveal what Paul was meaning when he said that an elder should be the husband of one wife.

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  3. There are a lot of different ideas of what this passage is stating. There is a time in another passage that I remember reading over not too long ago in 1 Cor. 7. That says that each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband. Now this could be taken as one single wife, and one single husband. This is something that could guide us to what we really need and that is just one, there really isn’t room to say that polygamy is an option.

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  4. The word used not really elder it’s more of a position of leading. Some translate the word (ἐπισκοπή) as bishop and some translate it as overseer. Overseer seems to have the idea a bit better, since we tend to think of bishop in a modern sense. Balz and Schneider give an interesting point. They says, “one does not, so to speak, automatically grow into this office through longer affiliation and testing, but rather that one can consciously strive for it.” (35). The desire of the position is really a striving towards it, and striving to live the life required. I think by calling it a noble task Paul is telling Timothy that the office of overseer is really a tough on. It requires a lot.

    Bibliography: Balz, Horst Robert., and Gerhard Schneider. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990. Print.

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  5. Good reputations are difficult to build, and it is very important for Christians in the church to follow Jesus, for real. Perhaps Christians should live like their effectiveness in sharing the gospel depends on their conduct and reputation, because it does! Many things you said hit home. Many Christians today don’t want to step up to leadership, for the same reasons that they did in the 1st century. Being called to that “good work” and “noble task” is not to be taken lightly, and should be taken up by more honest people in the church! It takes a lifetime to build your reputation, and 5 minuets to destroy it. It is a process that the elders of the church (1st century or today) should be constantly working, to become more like Jesus. Character describes the church leader who honestly enjoys living for God in secret, and in public. There must be a distinct difference between believers, especially church leaders, and non-believers. But the reputation of a Christian should be to care for others, and speak the truth of the gospel to them. They will only take your proclamation seriously if you live it out!

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  6. I feel like Paul’s description of what an elder or deacon is required to be/have is slightly unfair. In 1 Tim. 3:4-5 it talks about how the person must manage his family well, and this I agree with, but having children with proper respect and obedience isn’t really fair to the guy. How can you judge one person by another person’s actions? If my parents were to have been judged by me, I know for a fact that dad couldn’t be an elder or deacon because i was a little brat, and no matter the punishments i was given, I just wouldn’t listen to the rules because i was a stubborn kid. I just disagree with that little segment in 1 Timothy about choosing elders and deacons.

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