1 Timothy 3
Overseers or Elders: Care for the Saints’ Spiritual Needs (3:1-7)
The world for overseers is 'episkopos', which means 'those looking on'. It is translated 'bishops', and 'overseers', referring to the office itself. The word for elders is 'presbuterous', and means seniors or older ones, and refers specifically to the persons who occupy the office. Note that the word 'elder' can mean 'older ones' in a general sense, depending on the context, as in 1 Peter 5:5; "Likewise ye younger, be subject to the elder". But in other places 'elders' are those who occupy the office of an overseer, as in Acts 20, where Paul spoke to "the elders of the church", saying, "...all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God" (Acts 20:17, 28). Those who fill this office have the care of the local assembly, to feed and shepherd them. We find that the office of an overseer was local; "elders in each assembly" (Acts 14:23), contrary to the Church's practice of setting up "bishops" who preside over vast regions. More details on elders will follow. Elders are always mentioned as a plurality, never a single man over an entire congregation.
- First, they must be “irreproachable”, or beyond major criticism. There should be nothing in the life of an overseer that others could point to a find fault with. A good example of this is Zecharias (and his wife Elisabeth), who were walking before the Lord “blameless” (Luke 1:6). We can quickly see that, in practice, very few of the Lord’s people would meet even the first qualification. Nevertheless, we should seek the Lord’s grace that these things would be true of us.
- Second, the overseer is to be “husband of one wife”. We can see that this would exclude women from the office of an elder. Great confusion and disorder comes into the house of God when women take the place of leadership. Also we see that an overseer was to be a married man. Notice that Paul was not married, and he never calls himself an elder. Peter on the other hand was married, and calls himself an elder (1 Pet. 5:1). Although polygamy was still prevalent at the time Paul wrote to Timothy, it was not to be true of an overseer. A man with more than one wife is in a position where his marriages run contrary to the mind of God in creation (Matt. 19:18; Gen. 2:24). Further, a polygamist would have difficulty understanding the mind of the Lord in certain matters, because his own affections are divided between multiple women. Finally, there is bound to be trouble and disorder in the home of a man with more than one wife, as the sad history of Jacob and David would show us. One such man could be in fellowship, but not in oversight.
- Third, the overseer is to be “sober”; i.e. to have right moral judgment with respect to the world. This does not mean going around with a long face. One who is sober can still be characterized by joy.
- Fourth, the overseer is to be “discreet”; which means having carefulness or discernment about one’s behavior and appearance. A discrete person acts appropriately, is trustworthy with confidential information, and isn’t loud or obnoxious. In 1 Tim. 2:9 we find that Christian women are to be discreet, and now we find the same character required in the overseer.
- Fifth, the overseer is to be “decorous” or systematic. This has to do with orderliness in personal conduct; whether it be speech, manners, actions, or appearance.
- Sixth, the overseer is to be “hospitable”, which means he should welcome the saints into his home, willingly serve and refresh them, and make them comfortable in whatever way he can. Notice that this is laid at the feet of the overseer, not his wife, although having a hospitable wife is certainly a help. Many examples could be used, but Abraham and Aquilla are two excellent examples. Much of the work of an overseer will be done in his own home, perhaps in the living area, or around the dining table. Hospitality is one of the primary ways we can show love to the saints.
- Seventh, the overseer is to be “apt to teach”. It is possible that an overseer would have the gift of a teacher, but not necessarily. Even if one does not have a great teaching ability, they should put in the effort to be able, when the occasion arises, to lay out the truth of God from the scriptures.2
- First, the overseer is to be “not given to excesses from wine”. An “excess” is too much of something, even if it is not harmful or even good in small amounts. Alcohol is acceptable and even beneficial, when used in moderation. However, when used in excessive amounts, alcohol numbs the senses and perverts moral judgment. Moral judgment is vital to the work of an overseer. Some have gone to the extreme of totally prohibiting the use of alcohol among believers. However, to say so would be adding to scripture, and it can quickly become legality. There are those who have a weakness for alcohol. They must have it, and they do not know when to stop drinking. This can lead to drunkenness on one hand (which is a positive sin, 1 Cor. 5:11), or to addiction to alcohol on the other hand (also wrong, 1 Cor. 6:12). A man who uses alcohol excessively cannot be an overseer.
- Second, the overseer is to be “not a striker, but mild”. This means they are not to lose their temper and lash out in anger, whether physically striking someone,3 or hurling verbal abuses. Mildness is a beautiful quality seen perfectly in the Lord Jesus, “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). An overseer must be able to tolerate criticism, be patient with others, submit to insults, and even suffer mockery in some cases without striking back.
- Third, the overseer is to be “not addicted to contention”. There are some people who just like to argue and fight. They want to oppose others for the sake of getting a reaction out of them. There is trouble wherever they go. Such a man is not fit for the office of an overseer.
- Fourth, the overseer is to be “not fond of money”. We find in ch.6 that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). How important this is! A person who is fond of money will not have sound moral judgment. Their priorities are wrong. Such a person is far too interested in taking and gaining to be a good overseer. They can be tempted to abuse their office. An example would be the sons of Eli.
It is helpful to note that there is no mention of elders or bishops in the Thessalonian assembly. They were a young assembly, and Paul had not visited a second time. In Acts 14:21-23 we find it was Paul’s habit to appoint elders in a local assembly on a subsequent visit. We only ever read of apostles or special delegates that were given authority to appoint elders (Titus 1:5); never the local assembly. But passages like 1 Thess. 5 show that even without the official relationship, there were those the Holy Spirit was stirring up to do that work; "those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you" (1 Thess. 5:12). Note that 1 Tim. 5:17 couples "taking the lead" with elders. The exhortation is to recognize those who labored among the saints and took the lead among them. There were overseers mentioned in Ephesus and Philippi, but not in Rome, Thessalonica, or Corinth. It is important to have oversight, and for the assembly to recognize it, in order to have peace in the assembly. Even without official appointment, we can recognize and esteem those who do the work of an overseer. Notice that there is no mention of elders in Corinth, because it was a young assembly, and Paul had only visited once. Yet even there, in the first epistle, there was "the house of Stephanas" who had "devoted themselves to the saints for service", and that the saints should "be subject to such, and to every one joined in the work and labouring" (1 Cor. 16:15-16). What a tremendous help this is to us, who live centuries after the apostles and their delegates passed off the scene. God is still raising up leaders in local assemblies, even though they have no official title.
Ministers or Deacons: Care for the Saints’ Material Needs (3:8-13)
Those who occupy the office of a deacon are merely "ministers" or "servants". Overseers care for the spiritual needs of the assembly, but deacons care for the material needs. We get the appointment of deacons in Acts 6:1-6, where the assembly would "look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we [the apostles] may appoint over this business". Deacons would be chosen by the assembly, but could only be officially appointed by apostles. Without apostles or their delegates today, we cannot have officially appointed deacons, but we do have brethren the Lord has raised up, and who have the confidence of assembly, to take care of various needs. Distributing to the poor saints, counting and carrying funds, etc. are the functions of a deacon. The qualities of honesty and wisdom are especially important when it comes to choosing deacons. Notice that natural aptitude or educational in finances are not required, but rather one who is spiritual; “full of the Holy Ghost”. Further requirements for deacons are given in 1 Tim. 3. There is much in common between the qualifications of a deacon and those of an overseer, but those of the latter are even higher, just as spiritual needs are more vital than material needs. Notice also the plurality of deacons. When the cares of the assembly are involved, it is never just one man deciding for the whole.
- First, the deacon must be “not double-tongued”, or deceitful in speech, saying one thing to one person and something different to another. Honesty is absolutely critical in the work of a deacon, because the saints come to rely on these ones for many things, including the handling and distribution of funds.
- Second, the deacon must be “not given to much wine”, which refers to the same tendency for alcohol. It doesn’t say they deacon is prohibited from drinking, but that he should not be given to “much wine”. Much wine clouds the discernment of those who use it, and therefore such persons can have no part in church government.
- Third, the deacon must be “not seeking gain by base means”, or looking to get rich through dishonest ways. This is similar to what is said of the overseer, although “not fond of money” is even more strict. Again, when handling the assembly funds or any other matters, it is imperative that the deacon have moral integrity.
- First, wives are to be “grave”, or of honorable character, like their husbands. When a man’s wife is careless or foolish, it makes it difficult to trust him with responsibility. This is especially the case because the wives of both overseers and ministers will have opportunity to learn sensitive and delicate information, and it must be kept confidential.
- Second, wives are to be “not slanderers”. The Greek word here could be translated “adversaries”, and it has the thought of a personal enemy. Wives are not to be characterized by making personal attacks against the character of others through false statements. It is interesting that this is addressed to the wives of those in church government. Slander is destructive to the unity of the assembly, and so it is imperative for those given responsibility to have wives not characterized by slander.
- Third, wives are to be “sober”, or of sound moral judgment. The word “sober” is the negative of drunken. Whether it be alcohol, money, entertainment, or anything else, if it perverts sound moral judgment, it can be a real danger for a wife.
- Fourth, wives are to be “faithful in all things”. This is a broad statement, that covers the whole of her responsibilities. Whether is be holding the truth, being a helpmeet to her husband, raising her children, or serving the Lord His people, the wife of a deacon must be faithful.
Deaconesses. In 1 Timothy 3, it is clear that the office of a deacon is reserved for men. However, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “minister of the assembly which is in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1), and this is the same word as “deaconess”. This would lead us to conclude that women can function unofficially in the role of a deacon. Mr. Kelly calls attention the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan. In that letter, Pliny reports on his activities to persecute and investigate the Christian religion. He speaks of torturing two maids that were “ministers of the church”, using the Latin equivalent to what is here used to describe Phoebe’s role. Evidently it was a common thing in the early Church for a single, elderly woman to look after the temporal needs of the local assembly. The same is true today.
Conduct in the House of God (3:14-16)
The House of God. The term ‘House of God’ basically means the "dwelling-place" of God. In a greater sense, the universe is the house of God (Heb. 3:4; Acts 7:48-50; Isa. 66:1). But on earth, God had a physical house in the Old Testament, and He has a spiritual house in the New Testament where He does "in very deed dwell with men on the earth" (2 Chron. 6:18). In the Old Testament, the house of God was first the Tabernacle, then the Temple. When Israel rejected their Messiah, the presence of Jehovah departed from that Temple, and has not returned. That house is "desolate" to this day (Matt. 23:38). In the Millennium, a new Temple will be built, and the glory cloud will return; once again, the presence of God will be on earth in a physical temple (Ezek. 43:4-7). Today there is no physical house, but instead God dwells on earth in His heavenly people, the Church; "the house of God, which is the church of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15). The house is composed of individual believers ("living stones"; 1 Pet. 2:7) who are built up together into a "spiritual house". God actually indwells the House, "through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). The House of God is a figure of the Church that carries the thoughts of internal order, conduct suited to the character of God, and testimony before this world.
Godliness, sometimes translated piety, comes from the Greek word meaning "well devout", and it refers to a manner of living that is totally pleasing to God. Godliness or devoutness involves our motives, our attitude, and our conduct in the sight of God. Christ is the perfect example for us in this (1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 5:7).Therefore, Paul gives Timothy the “mystery” or secret of what is pleasing to God, that was previously unknown, but now made plain. Many people believe that the secret to maintaining a godly walk here in this world is to keep a list of strict disciplines. But the law, in any of its forms, will never produce godliness. The secret of godliness is a Person. Only a relationship with and occupation with the Person of Christ will result in godliness in our lives. This is why we need to feed on Christ as the “manna”; the bread which came down from heaven (John 6:22-59). The Christian faith is the faith that has the Son of God as its object (Gal. 2:20). We must see that it is all about Christ; everything that God is doing! It is this truth that we are to hold, and witness before the world as the house of God. Six things are given, that describe the entire pathway of the Lord Jesus on earth, as “God” (eternally divine) and man:
- “Manifested in flesh”. The first thing is the truth of the incarnation; “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). What stupendous grace! The Eternal Word, the Only-begotten Son dwelling in the bosom of the Father, infinite in wisdom and power, condescended to take humanity into His Person, with all the ramifications thereto. He stooped so low in love to mankind that He might be capable of death, and for the purpose of making the Father known; “God manifest”. What a harbinger of mercy and grace; “and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us.'” (Matt. 1:23). Well might the heavenly host burst forth in praise at this unrepeatable moment (Luke 2:13-14)! The Father could look down on this world and see a Man, a perfect Man, in whom was all His delight!
- “Justified in [the] Spirit”. This expression refers to the whole public pathway of the Lord Jesus, which was lived in the power of the Spirit of God, and thus characterized by the Spirit. Notice the absence of the article “the”; it denotes what was characteristic of Him. The word “justified” here is employed in the sense of the outward acknowledgement of that which was inwardly true. This would be similar to how an innocent man might be “justified” in court by those who witness his actions. The Lord Jesus was justified by the Spirit in the perfection of His every act, from incarnation to glorification. We might think especially of that time when “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him: and behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight” (Matt. 3:16-17). What a testimony to who He really was! Then we find an even greater witness in the resurrection. It was the exercise of resurrection power that marked the Lord Jesus out as the Son of God, and this testimony was “according to the Spirit of holiness, by resurrection of the dead” (Rom. 1:4; see also 1 Pet. 3:18).
- “Appeared to angels”. This expression is perhaps the most difficult of the six to understand. It speaks of the Lord, through His whole pathway on earth, as the visible object of heaven’s delight. As a Divine person before the incarnation, the Son of God was invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; Col. 1:15), except when He chose to reveal Himself. But in becoming “some little inferior to the angels” (Heb. 2:7), as a man Jesus became the visible object of the angels! The angels welcomed His birth (Luke 2:13), ministered to Him after the temptation (Matt. 4:11), ascended and descend upon Him (John 1:51), strengthened him in the garden (Luke 22:43), appeared at His tomb (John 20:12), and attended His ascension (Acts 1:10). He will never cease to be the object of the angels’ worship; “and again, when he brings in the firstborn into the habitable world, he says, And let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb. 1:6).
- “Preached among the nations”. In our Lord’s earthly ministry, even through He came statedly “to His own” people, when “His own received Him not” (John 1:11), our Lord’s heart for all men was revealed. We find Him rewarding the faith of the Syro-Phonecian woman, healing the centurion’s servant, etc. Christ came to earth with a mission of Divine love, and that love could not be bounded by the borders of Israel. Then, our Lord commissioned His disciples to; “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, etc.” (Matt. 28:19). Then after Pentecost, the full scope of this preaching was revealed. First with Peter’s vision in the house of Cornelius, then with raising up the apostle to the uncircumcision. He alone is the worthy object of Christian preaching to all nations!
- “Believed on in the world”. This expression is the fitting sequel to the previous expression; the preaching has been believed! God has made this One the object for faith in the world; “salvation is in none other, for neither is there another name under heaven which is given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
- “Received up in glory”. The pathway of our blessed Savior ended with a blaze of glory! Christ was seated at the right hand of God, and crowned with glory and honor. This is His place even today, where He patiently waits the Father’s perfect time. It is necessary for us to consider Christ as a man on earth (the bread which came down from heaven), but in Christianity we have a glorified Christ as the object of our faith!
- In fact, the Catholic system is the product of confusing all three spheres: gift, office, and priesthood!
- This is presented as a quality — the man must have aptness for it — not as a gift. Power to use such truth with others was very useful in fulfilling his charge, without saying at all that he taught publicly in the assembly. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
- St. Nicolas punched somebody in the face at the first council of Nicea.
- In scripture, authority always flows down from above. The relatively modern notion that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (United States Declaration of Independence) is not according to scripture, which instead teaches that "there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Rom. 13:1).
- I see no reason why it should not apply to the elders’ (bishop’s) wives. It runs really thus, “In like manner [the] deacons … In like manner [the] wives.” – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
- Kelly, W. The First Epistle to Timothy
- In Matt. 16:16 we find that the foundation of the assembly is “the Son of the living God”, which brings out the truth that He has life in Himself (John 1:4), and as the one who rose victorious over the grave (Acts 2:24; Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proved that He was Son of the living God, and that which is built on the foundation of the risen Christ is called “the assembly of the living God”.
- J.N. Darby, in his synopsis of Timothy, helpfully remarked that “…the assembly does not teach. Teachers teach the assembly, but by faithfulness in holding fast the truth taught, it sustains it in the world.” It isn’t so much by what the church says that she bares witness, but by what she holds and puts into practice. It is notable that we never read of the church teaching in scripture, but always being taught; under subjection to Christ as the head. Compare the character of Philadelphia and Laodicea. By contrast, we read of “the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself prophetess, and she teaches and leads astray my servants to commit fornication and eat of idol sacrifices” (Rev 2:20).