1 Timothy 5

Chapter five returns to instructions about certain groups in the church, specifically widows and elders. The church is to be a family of families, meaning that we should relate to each other as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters (1 Timothy 5:1-16). Like one would take care of an aging grandparent, Paul said that the congregation is responsible for widows in their church family, under certain conditions. First, if the widow has family, they are responsible for her, not the church. Second, only older widows are included in this care program. Paul specified “sixty years old” (1 Timothy 5:9), but this could be considered descriptive rather than prescriptive, due to cultural life expectancies. Third, she was to be “the wife of one husband” (1 Timothy 5:9). This phrase is the exact opposite of an elder’s “husband of one wife,” meaning that she was “characterized by being a one-man type of woman.” Fourth, she was to be an example of godliness.

Paul specifically commanded that younger widows not be accepted “on the list” (1 Timothy 5:11-15). Rather they should remarry and fulfill their roles as described in 1 Timothy 2:9-15. In a statement that could have been written today, Paul noted that younger women with no responsibilities and full provision “learn to be lazy, and…also gossips and busybodies.” Although this may seem harsh or unfair, every civilization can verify its accuracy.

Another reason Paul wanted them to remarry had to do with a “former pledge.” In context, it seems that this complete provision for widows was a kind of remuneration for devoted service to the congregation. Because these widows had no families and were characteristically godly servants, it is possible that they pledged themselves to their congregation. Early church history shows that this is where the Catholic practice of nuns derived. However, it also may refer to the “women” or “wives” in 1 Timothy 3:11. If this is so, this group of widows probably served with the elders and deacons, possibly in ministry toward women. 1

In 1 Timothy 5:17-25 Paul came back to the elders, this time concerning congregational support for them. Some have argued that elders should not be financially supported, but this passage clearly disputes that notion. First, Paul quoted from both Deuteronomy 25:4 (Moses) and Luke 10:7 (Jesus) to prove that the one who works should receive payment for his work. Even animals get that much. Second, Paul used the same Greek word (τιμή, timē) to describe how the congregation treated both widows (1 Timothy 5:3) and elders (1 Timothy 5:17). Because this word means both “honor” and “compensation,” some argue that elders should only be honored. However, since the word obviously means compensation for widows, and the immediate context is payment for work, it must mean compensation for elders as well. Elders should be taken care of by those they serve, especially those “who work hard in speaking and teaching,” because it does not allow as much time for another form of work to provide for his family.

However, lest anyone think that this elevates elders to a level of “untouchable” clergy, Paul told Timothy that elders were still subject to discipline for sin, just like any other congregation member, and that their discipline should be public within the congregation, “as a warning to the rest” of the seriousness of sin. Thus, elders will be held up as examples, for both good or bad. For this reason, elders should be appointed carefully and slowly. Paul’s mention of Timothy’s stomach ailments may indicate that choosing elders is a stressful and difficult process.

Notes:

  1. Church history shows that once the role of deaconess was established, they helped prepare women for baptism, childbirth, etc.

1 Timothy 4

Chapter four is different from the other chapters around it because Paul broke from his instructions to groups in order to focus on Timothy himself again. In this chapter, he gave Timothy three sets of warnings or encouragements. First, Timothy was to pay close attention to false teaching that would arise within the congregation (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Even though elders and deacons should have godly character traits, Paul had already warned the original Ephesian elders that “wolves” would enter the congregation from within their own body (Acts 20:28-30), and as Paul’s representative there, it was Timothy’s job to help purge these false teachers from the congregation. The description Paul gave reveals men who had forsaken the truth of Scripture for sensational teachings that, ultimately, come from demons. As innocuous as they sound, they include teachings even about marriage and food, often focusing on what is forbidden in an ascetic way. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul wrote that we are not obligated to such unscriptural restrictions.

Second, Timothy was to guard himself and his teaching carefully, so that he did not get caught up in such heresies, even unintentionally (1 Timothy 4:6-10). Paul noted that even then there were those who focused on their physical health to the neglect of their spiritual health. While physical health does some good in this life, spiritual health is eternal and must be the priority. Paul’s comment that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of believers,” points to the fact that no one is outside of God’s ability to save. The concept that only a special group can or will be saved is contrary to Paul’s teaching.

Third, Timothy was to both “command and teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11-16). Apparently, there were some who had dismissed him as their local apostle because of his youth. Paul told him not to let that stop his work there. Instead, he was to be an example of all these things already mentioned, even to the elders of the local congregations. He was to make this his life’s focus, and it would be beneficial not only for him but everyone in his care.

1 Timothy 3

Chapter three continues Paul’s instructions for specific groups in the local church, continuing with the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7). In the New Testament, the terms “overseer” and “shepherd” describe the main functions of the elders, i.e., they rule over the congregation and protect it (like fathers of a family, 1 Timothy 3:5). Contrary to what many Bible colleges and seminaries may teach, the eldership is not something that a man should wait to see if he is called to. The apostle said that eldership is something worth desiring. It is acceptable for a man to “aspire to the office of overseer.”

The following verses describing a local church elder can be taken too strongly or too lightly. On the one hand, these are often called “requirements” or “qualifications” to be an elder. If this were the case, no one is qualified, because no one meets these perfectly. On the other hand, if these are considered only “ideals” but nothing more, then they might as well have never been written, because, again, there is no ideal elder. Rather, it is best to see these as “character traits” that the elders live out as an example to the congregation. 1

Understanding that elders are not perfect, yet expecting them to be spiritually mature leaders finds that balance. As such, this list could be read as “characterized by being above reproach…characterized by being not contentious,” etc. This also helps gain a proper interpretation of the often-misunderstood “husband of one wife” item. When the Greek phrase is read literally and understood as a character quality, we discover that an elder should be “characterized by being a one-woman type of man,” whether he is married or not.

“Deacons” are the second group of church leaders and the only other official role mentioned in regard to local congregations (1 Timothy 3:8-13). In a list similar to the elders, Paul gave character traits for these godly servants. The specific mention of “not two-faced…holding to the mystery of the faith” seems to indicate some type of teaching/counseling ministry with people in the congregation. Deacons are also supposed to “be tested first” before being appointed to this role. Like elders, they should have godly marriages and families (if they are married and have children). 2

The mention of “women” or “wives” in verse 11 is widely debated. The two obvious options are either female deacons or the wives of deacons. That the Church has historically had women serving alongside deacons is not debated, but what their exact role was, has not always been clear. Some see Paul’s reference to Phoebe in Romans 16:1 to mean that she was a deaconess in Cenchrea, but this is a grammatical reach. Additionally, Constable observes that it would be odd for Paul to qualify deacons’ wives but not elders’ wives. (To say that he meant this to apply to wives of both elders and deacons does not explain why they are mentioned in the middle of his instructions about deacons.) Given their instructions, it is sufficient to say that these women did exert some influence in the congregation, so they were to do so faithfully and with dignity, keeping their tongues in check.

In the final three verses, closing the first half of the letter, Paul made clear the confession that Timothy should hold fast to (1 Timothy 1:18), letting it drive his ministry (1 Timothy 3:14-16). First, the church is “the household of God”; thus, believers are called to live to a higher standard. Second, the church is “the support and bulwark of the truth”; thus, our teaching and doctrine must be pure. Third, our message to the world is centered on the Eternal Son who became flesh and who will ultimately finish his work after the Church has completed ours.

Notes:

  1. It has been noted by several writers that, with the exception of “able to teach,” each of these character traits is found elsewhere in the New Testament for all believers. They are not exclusive to elders, but elders should lead the way as examples of what godliness looks like.
  2. The best writings I have ever seen on this topic are Alexander Strauch’s books Biblical Eldership and The New Testament Deacon. We use these in our church and highly recommend them.