1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Elders Must Be Above Reproach

The qualifications for the overseer are moral virtues which would be worthy of respect in the Greco-Roman world. He must be “above reproach.” Along with verse 7, this is the controlling theme of the whole passage.  Paul will repeat this for all members of the church in 5:7 and 6:14.

The husband of one wife. Of all the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, this is the most controversial in terms of modern application. It has been taken to mean that an elder must be married (rather than single or a widower) as well as an elder cannot have ever been divorced. In addition, most conservative churches will read this as “the elder must be a man.” Others understand this qualification as “having only one spouse.” It seems unlikely many early Christians polygamy (that was really only for the uber-rich like Herod the Great). But Paul’s point is the elder is to live a life that is worthy of respect. Someone who has a reputation for sexual escapades and messy divorces (as were common among the Roman elite) is not worthy of the noble task of being an elder.


Sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable. These four virtues are all common in Greco-Roman ethical texts.  Sober-minded (νηφάλιος) and self-controlled (σώφρων) in fact, are often associated with the cardinal virtues in the Greek world. To be sober-minded is to be level headed and in control of one’s passions at all times. Paul has already used respectable (κόσμιος) in 2:9 for appropriate dress.  To be hospitable is a virtue among both Greeks and Jews (φιλόξενος means “a friend of strangers.”) 1 Clement 12:3 (about A.D. 95) used this noun to describe Rahab, Epicticus combines hospitable with respectable to describe the fall of Alexander.

Able to teach. From this one exceedingly rare word (διδακτικός), elders are usually tasked with teaching scripture in church.   Philo (On Rewards, 27) used the word in a virtue list to describe Abraham, Yonge translates the word as “self-taught,” Rengstorf comments that Philo has in mind the virtue of Abraham “consisting or expressing itself in learning.”

Not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. These vices are all commonly rejected by virtually every society – no one wants a leader who is a violent, greedy drunk! A drunkard is a good translation since the emphasis is “one given to too much wine.”  Moulton and Milligan (496) offer several examples of drunkenness and violence, “I sinned and was drunken in the night, in that I maltreated the brethren” (P.Lond 1914.27), although this dates to A.D. 335.

The next phrase is related to drunkenness. “Not violent” (πλήκτης) is sometimes translated as pugnacious, a bully. The verbal cognate appears in Aristotle, Ethics Eud. 2, 3.  “Gentle” stands in contrast to drunken violence, although the noun could be translated as courteous or tolerant.  “Not quarrelsome” is a single word (ἄμαχος) which means peaceful (anti-war, put it is used in non-military contexts, including a grave inscription by a husband describing his beloved wife (Cos 3259). A “lover of money” is greedy (ἀφιλάργυρος), a virtue found in instructions to people from midwives to generals (BDAG).

The family of the overseer is important.  “He must manage his own household well.” This is far more than a single word, and Paul gives a reason for the elder to have a well-managed household: an elder is in charge of the household of God, if he is not faithful in his own family, he will not be faithful in the church either.  The verb (προΐστημι) means to exercise authority, or “be the head of” something, and the very is modified with the adverb “well.” On the one had, this could be taken to mean he is a good leader in the home.  Josephus (Ant 8.300) used the word to describe the wickedness of King Jeroboam, who did not appoint kind rulers who would “govern righteously.” But the verb can have the meaning of “have care for.”  In 1 Thess 5:12-13 this is the word used to describe the activity of the church leaders (they are to care for the needs of the church).  If a person does not take care of his family properly, why should he be trusted to care for the family of God in the church!

This description of a proper leader in the church opens up some problems for application, possibly because pastor’s children are held to a high standard and are often judged as little hellions. At what point does a pastor / elder use the behavior of their children as a measure of how well a pastor / elder has led in their home? This is something like the application of the Proverbs, all things being equal, raise up a child in the way they should go and they will not depart from it. But sometimes that does not happen and a child, through their own choices, seriously defect from the faith of their parents.  A bad child is not always the sign of a bad parent.

He must not be a recent convert.  Perhaps this is the problem with the overseers who have defected from Paul’s gospel, they were to quickly accepted as leaders in the church and were arrogant.  At least in the mid-first century, this might have been a real problem since it was probable that churches were established from only new converts. But by the early 60s it was possible that there were now second generation believers and people who had been Christians for many years.  Paul is advising that these mature believers be considered for leadership, not a recent convert.

The reason given is that they could become arrogant and fall into “condemnation of the devil.”  What does this mean?  Probably that the new elder would be judged like the devil, who also fell because of pride. How they “fall” might be a hint of the false teachers.  Their arrogance leads them to accept teaching that is outside of the faith passed from Paul to Timothy, they more easily accept new and innovative doctrines, perhaps of their own making, because they do not have the spiritual maturity to resist being on the “cutting edge.”

If these are the qualifications of a church leader, what kind of person is Paul describing? If this was a person who is “worthy of respect” in the Greco-Roman world, are these sorts of things still “worthy of respect” today? Are there culturally conditioned behaviors which might make a person less “worthy of respect” in a modern context which are not on this list? Perhaps there are some cultural values we might consider worthy which are missing from this list, should they be considered when discussing the qualifications of an elder?

5 thoughts on “1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Elders Must Be Above Reproach

  1. There are no “Lone Rangers” in the Kingdom of God. No one, by an act of his own will, may receive this appointment unto himself, it is only by the approving of the Holy Spirit, Who will reveal this approval to the potential Elder’s Pastoral leader, and will be recognized and confirmed by “seasoned ministry” along with any other Elder in his church family. A potential Elder will also conduct himself, in his lifestyle, as an Elder before he is ordained. Through prayer and by the laying on of hands of his or her church leadership (presbytery), the Elder is confirmed by the Holy Ghost and publicly established among his brethren.

  2. Paul addresses his qualifications for overseers (elders) is 1 Timothy 3:2-7. As Long noted many of the virtues listed that elders should possess were also virtues of respectable people in general in Greco-Roman society. Some examples are that they should not be drunkards, that they should be self-controlled, and that they should not be lovers of money (greedy). These are also values in today’s society, especially for people that are in positions of leadership. A few of the qualifications that Paul lists are a bit more difficult to agree with today such as his statement that an elder should be a husband of one wife and manage his household well. Scholars have not been able to clearly define what Paul meant by the phrase “a husband of one wife.” It could simply mean that the husband is faithful to his wife, or it could mean that the husband can only ever have one wife (prohibiting divorce and remarriage), or it could mean that polygamy was prohibited (ESVSB p.2329). Some also interpret this verse to mean that elders must be married. People today would likely not require elders to be married or prohibit those that had divorced and remarried from becoming elders. Regarding the qualification for elders to manage their households well, people today would likely think that elder’s families be up to a certain standard but defining that standard would be difficult. Overall, I think the list Paul provides of qualifications is still useful in selecting elders today because the characteristics he described still define a person who is respectable or “above reproach.”
    (note for professor Long: I did not cite TTP because it had little to offer on this particular topic.. see page 278)

  3. A passage that the church refers to when discussing and deciding who should be an elder or overseer is 1 Timothy 3:2-7. These verses lay out qualifications and qualities of someone who should be chosen to be an elder for the church. However, these qualifications are not as easily interpreted as they could be. The main example is the qualification “the husband of one wife.” “Of all the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, this is the most controversial in terms of modern application” (Long, 2019). Some of the interpretations include being faithful to his wife, elder must be a man, must be married, and only have one wife against polygamy. Long states that “Paul’s point is the elder is to live a life that is worthy of respect” (Long, 2019). This person should not have a reputation that is involved with questionable divorces or affairs. These qualifications make it that these elders’ lifestyles are strictly examined. This reminds me of the verse in James that talks about how not everyone should become teachers because “those who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Another aspect of being judged harshly in regard to 1 Timothy is with the qualification of the family of the overseer is important. If a child of an elder or overseer does not act in an appropriate way, it can look bad for the parent. But Long states that “A bad child is not always the sign of a bad parent” and children have their own free will and do not always follow the right path for them (Long, 2019). Moreover, Paul writes that those who oversee the church have important jobs, and not everyone is fit to carry out this task.

  4. Elders in the modern church can be severely lacking in one or many of these areas, and yet, still be elected to eldership. In the modern church, we have abandoned the core theology of eldership for a principle of “representation”, as seen in Republic or Democratic government systems. Therefore, in many churches there needs to be a minimum number of elders, rather than simply only choosing the truly qualified men to lead.
    If elders and deacons have the same qualifications – with the exception that elders need to be able to teach, why does the church choose men to be in leadership that struggle to meet even these qualifications? It is not that these men are bad or not walking with the Lord, but when they struggle to control their anger or do not lead their children in the right way which is pleasing to the Lord, we must examine why they are leading the church at large if they have failed to lead their own families.
    What is the solution to this problem? The church needs to help build up men who can lead their families and the church and be a beacon for Christ. The men who are truly meeting the requirements of church leadership positions need to take responsibility to help their weaker brothers grow in their relationships with Christ. This will ensure a new generation of men who have truly given everything to Christ and are focused on sharing the Gospel, as well as growing the church – in numbers and in their relationship with Christ.

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