1 Timothy 3:2 – Defining the Role of Elder

Advertisements

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).

In 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?