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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩