1 Timothy 3:2 – Defining the Role of Elder

One of the problems reading 1 Timothy 3 is modern readers define the world elder through the lens of our modern church experience. While the office of elder does develop from Paul’s teaching in this passage, it is hard to say what we call an elder in churches today is the same thing Paul described in 1 Timothy. Elder boards in American churches tend to look quite a bit like boards which run large businesses. This is especially true for larger churches where a great deal of money and property is involved. Sometimes elders are appointed for what the contribute to the needs of the church. Unfortunately, some churches use financial contribution as a measure of what makes a good elder. Churches need accountants and people with a good head for running a business, so they tend to be appointed to a corporate elder board to run the business end of the church.

This is absolutely the opposite of Paul’s description of church leaders in 1 Timothy 3!

The overseer (ESV, Greek, ἐπισκοπή) was a kind of household manager. It was a “position of responsibility, position of oversight” (LN 35.40). In Septuagint, Genesis 50:24 used the word to translate פקד, a verb which is usually translated visit, but has the sense of look over and inspect something. Joseph says in the future, God will inspect Israel and guide them out of Egypt. In the history of the Greek language, the word was used for a wide variety of civil officials (TDNT 2:611 for examples). In the LXX the word occasionally is used to describe officers or rulers (Num 31:14, 2 Kings 11:15, Judg 9:28, Isa 60:17).

BishopIn the New Testament, the overseer appears to be the same as elder. A presbuteros (πρεσβύτεροι in Acts 20:28) generally refers to older men, but it was used as a technical term for an office in the synagogue prior to A. D. 70. As well as for members of the Sanhedrin. The term appears in Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22f; 16:4 with respect to the Jerusalem church, and in Acts 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1, 5 with respect to churches (whether Jewish Christian or Gentile).

Since the word “bishop” carries some (often negative) historical baggage, most modern translations use “overseer.” It is possible Timothy and Titus were both functioning as bishops, something like “pastors to the pastors.” They overseeing a number of churches. has sent Timothy to Ephesus to deal with a particular problem with elders who have defected from the truth and are behaving in a dishonorable way.

It is important to notice Paul never uses the word priest to describe the leadership of Christian churches. This would be highly unlikely for a Jewish-Christian writer since that language was never used to the synagogue. Essentially Paul is taking over the language of the leadership of the synagogues and using it to describe the leaders of individual house churches. In addition the word priest would man something quite different to a Gentile.

Paul is using a household metaphor which would have been understood by the members of the church. The Pastoral letters often use the metaphor of a household to describe the church and elsewhere Christ is described as a head (although of a body rather than the head of a household). If the church is like a Roman household, then members of the household may be appointed to manage aspects of the household or be given responsibility for what occurs in the household.

If Paul conceived of the leadership of a church as servants appointed by the master of the house, should church leadership be appointed for their business experience? How would the image of an elder as a household manage change the way the American church organizes itself? Is the corporate board model wrong?

8 thoughts on “1 Timothy 3:2 – Defining the Role of Elder

  1. Good point about priests not in the synagogue. The 2nd Temple and synagogue operated separately for different purposes. It seems to me that the synagogue grew out of the need for catechesis. The Levites and priests were scattered in Israel (not having a separate territory) to teach the Israelites aspects of the Law.
    Christians are priests inherently and are a temple both individually and corporately. The church definitively is an organism and not an organization. It is also a ministry and not a business. However, each individual congregation may choose to what extent they want their buildings to accommodate themselves; that is, if they are not a house church, as was most of the early congregations. By apostolic practice, the church developed as a place to pray corporately, to share in fellowship, to break bread on the Lord’s Day (a cultic practice continuing the enduring sign of the sacrifice of Christ). The teaching was corporate while the mentoring of pastors seems to be more individualized.

  2. I believe that churches should have people who are smart with money and are willing to run the financial part of the church. However, I would not consider them an elder. If they wish to be an elder along with this responsibility, I believe that is okay. However, someone should not be appointed as an elder simply because they are smart with money and business-like activities. Those who are appointed as elders in the church are set apart from the rest of the congregation to be identified as leaders in the church. This does not mean that they are to lead financially or lead worship songs. This means that they are to be Christians who practice the faith, have a good head on their shoulders, care for the members of the church and wish to come along side other leaders in the church to ensure that the body of Christ is not going astray. Paul illustrates in 1 Timothy 3:2-4 the characteristics of a good elder. These all are referencing characteristics that would also be found in a good, strong Christian. What is important to note is that Paul states in verse six that an elder cannot be a recent convert. I believe that this is key to what an elder is (and also maybe where the name came from?). Those who are new in their faith often can be swayed easily as they are still trying to navigate their new beliefs, doctrine and how to fit into a church community. Paul is stating that elders are to have some sturdiness under their feet, strong in what they believe. Strong enough that it reflects in everything they do, from how they act, treat others, talk, and how they handle things when their faith is tested.

  3. I think that it would not be a bad thing to have someone be appointed as an elder because of their business experience. There are definitely some aspects to running a church that it would be very helpful to have someone with business experience be a part of, especially in regards to financial matters. They would be able to give advice and run things based off of their experience and the things that they learned about through their business. However, while this is the case, there are also some downsides to having too many people on the board who are in business. If there are too many people in business who are elders, it would definitely make the church act more as business as a church. They would probably become much more focused on generating money and growing the congregation than they would on reaching out to the community. One of the main focuses of the church should be to reach out to the community and trying to evangelize to them, but if they were run by people who were businessmen than they would be focused more on the church, and not so much on the community. So, I think that it would not be bad if the board were made up mostly of businessmen, as long as they made sure to not allow their business mindsets to over shadow their Christianity, which is probably something that doesn’t happen much in today’s world. In order for it to truly work, they would have to be able to balance the business aspect as well in order for it to work.

  4. I think the best person in my opinion that is to be appointed as an elder is someone that has experience with a business type knowledge because they would be the best at handling tasks in that sort of way. It takes a lot to run a church I understand that and there is a lot of expenses that go along the lines with that. I think it definitely takes more than just one person though it takes a group of people willing to work together and figure out the best way to run the church. I know a couple of people that handle many things in their church but it is also a school and I have seen all the work they put into it and is a lot of time and work. They are constantly having to have meetings and raise money for the church and the school but with all the experience they have, they do a phenomenal job. They also run their own business which is why I think they can easily help out in the church in so many ways and they know what they are doing because they have the business aspects and knowledge.

  5. Paul using the metaphor of a household in reference to a church makes sense. In a household each member works together for the good of the household/family. I remember growing up me and my sibling had a chores list to do around the house to keep it clean. We would get an allowance of ten dollars if we did those things. We did this to make our household better and nicer for every member. You often hear people refer to the members of their churches as their church family. The head of the household should be someone who keeps the well-being of the family in mind, who is willing to lead in faith. In my family I would say that this person would be my mom. She contributes and leads by example. She’s the person who makes everything work in our family. The overseer or bishop according to Longenecker is to not be arrogant, quick tempered, given to drunkenness, violent, or greedy to gain (269). I think in our family this could be anyone else who accepts the role of being responsible. This reference was a great reference in helping me understand.

  6. I found it very interesting to learn from this blog post that elders in American churches and how we perceive them to be are completely different than what the Apostle Paul means when he discusses elders in 1 Timothy 3. This completely changes how one would read the passage in today’s society. This blog post was incredibly helpful because it allows me to understand what Paul meant when he discussed elders in this Pastoral Epistle. When I realize that I had the complete wrong meaning/interpretation of the concept that was being discussed in the passage, I wondered how often this happens. This was a simple reminder to me that I must read commentaries, Bible dictionaries, etc., in order to make sure that I understand what is being discussed.

    Personally, I do not think all of church leadership should be appointed for their business experience. That being said, I do think that a few members of church leadership should be appointed for their business experience. Churches are considered non-profit organizations, but it is important to still avoid “going under” financially. Churches receive money from offerings, but this money must be well-spent. If the money is not well-spent, then the overall ministry of the church can be held back and limited from achieving its potential. That is why I suggest that a few member of the church leadership are appointed because of their business experience. This allows them to create a financial budget and spending plan in order to make sure the money is being used wisely. Without business experience in the background of the church leadership, the church may struggle with constructing and maintaining a healthy budget and spending patterns. There are countless expenses that go into running a church that people do not always consider or realize; some of these expense include: wages, equipment, clothing/memorbilia, snacks and beverages, rent, utilities, etc. This must all be considered and handled by the church leadership. That being said, I think that it would be very unhealthy for a church to solely appoint leaders of the church based off of their business experience. People with business experience typically have a mind that seeks profitability, competition, and being the best it can be. None of those things are bad, but a church is a non-profit organization, so boosting sales and profit should not be at the forefront of the church’s goals or plans.

    I don’t necessarily think that the corporate board concept is wrong or against the Bible, but I do think church’s should be aware of the goals of the church leadership. Longenecker and Still (2014) also comment on the idea that church leader’s need to be aware of the lifestyle that they live. I completely agree with this sentiment, for church leaders represent the church to the general public, and even non-believers. So, their actions and way of doing things are under a microscope. These leaders must strive to honor God and glorify God in all of their actions because their image to the public is incredibly important and valuable. Church leadership is incredibly important to the success of a church from a ministry standpoint, so it is important to seek out the right members to be on the board of church leadership.

  7. In a household you are a unit and you work as one. In Gods household you work as one as well, in his world we have to work as one to make it a better place overall. Having an elder run such a program as a Church can go two ways. There can be elders that are smart with business decisions and know what they are doing with money. But then we also have elders who are not smart with money. I am fortunate to grow up around elders that are smart with their money so I have an idea of how a business can be ran with a Church. Running a Church is not an easy process and would not hurt to help make those business decision as a whole. Paul mentions that the Church can be ran just like a Roman household. This would be everyone in the Church would have different jobs and hold accountability. Paul states that ” Priest” is a leader of the Christian Church.

  8. This is a very important Blog post because it has opened my eyes and has really made me realize the actual leadership and responsibility that elders and people of status in the church actually have to deal with. Another bizarre thing that I never really thought about that came to me after reading this blog post is the extreme difference on how we perceive elders and leadership in the church from Paul’s day to our current modern society. In Paul’s day we see bishops as “members of the household may be appointed to manage aspects of the household or be given responsibility for what occurs in the household” (P.Long). This is kind of similar to how we see overseers in our church today, however there are so many more responsibilities and business that play a role. Moreover, in 1 Timothy Paul describes what an overseer of the Church must entail and what attributes they must have in order to be a member and high status person of the Church. The verse from chapter three that stuck out to me the most is that an overseer must “ not give into drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect” (1 Timothy 3: 3-4). This verse is pivotal because if a person is not suitable to run their own household they by all means should not run the household of God. Moreover, they must not be money craved. Thus, when we talk about how a church should conduct business it is important that the person doing so much in fact treats the church as a non profit and must do only good and selfless acts with the money they receive, benefiting nothing but the church and its people. With that being said I do think a corporate board would have to be made up of godly individuals that come together to make sound decisions on what needs to be done in the church.

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