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Pastors and Deacons Should Set the Example, Not Rule Churches (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

God has high standards for all church leaders (for a very good reason).

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 3:1-13

Having established that Timothy needs to have the men and women in that church respect the pastor, Paul now explains the characteristics of a qualified pastor (worthy of such respect) as well as the office of deacon, the position designed to help that pastor serve the congregation. Here, we learn the proper structure for a church.

“If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” 1 Timothy 3:1

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

A Chip off the Ol’ Block.

One of the lines in our passage this week is that a pastor ought to have his “children under control”. The idea is that a child often (but not always!) reflects what a dad is like in private/in the home. If the kids are out of control, the dad is probably not a great role model. We have phrases like “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” to describe this phenomenon. I think this works two ways:

  • Positive. The dad is a good, well-respected, and humble man in his home and community. People gravitate to the dad, making it easy for them to gravitate to his children.

  • Negative. The dad is a scoundrel, meaning that the children have to overcome that reputation and impression their whole lives.

Ask your class about kids that make them say “he/she reminds me so much of the father”. Focus on positive examples, please! If someone has an example of a child overcoming a very negative father-figure, I’d say that’s worth sharing too. This icebreaker would be for the purpose of getting your class to realize why Paul would suggest this.

What Makes a Good Society Leader.

Every one of our communities has leaders that we have an impression of (positive and negative), and we all have leaders that we respect. Just like in the previous idea, we’re focusing on the positives this morning: think about the community leaders you respect. What is it about them that draws a positive response from you? What character traits or competencies do they have that resonate with you? Write these down on a board, and then when you talk about Paul’s character traits for church leaders, compare the two lists. How are they similar (my guess is that they’ll be pretty similar)? How are they different? Try to explain the differences (perhaps you think that a community leader is different than a church leader? or perhaps you need to rethink your definition of a good community leader?). This icebreaker is designed to get your class thinking about the importance of character traits in good leaders (eventually applying them to church).

How Does Your Perspective Change with Age?

Now that I’m in my mid-forties, I’m finally starting to appreciate this phenomenon. Over time, our perspectives change (even if it's very slowly). The things we think are important begin to re-prioritize themselves. Ask your class how their perspectives and priorities have changed as they have aged. In what ways do they think those changes are good? Or are bad? (I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten lax about some things that surprise me, and I’ve doubled-down on some things that surprise me.) Here would be the point: in Paul’s world, “elder” referred literally to someone who was “older”. Paul wanted leaders in those early churches who were older. Why do you think it might be a good thing to have some of your church leaders be “older”? And just as importantly, how old do you think someone has to be to be “old enough” to have “elder” qualities? (Remember that life expectancy in Paul’s day was 40s-50s, so keep your class reasonable.)

This Week's Big Idea: Elders, Deacons, and Greek Words

This “big idea” is just for your personal edification. I do not expect you to teach this! (unless you’re asked about it). But when I read a passage like this week’s, I can’t help but wonder how we ended up with so many different kinds of churches. In some denominations, they have turned the “overseer” into a position that’s above a local church and has the power to tell that church what to do (from afar; a bishop). Other denominations have noted the plural form of “elder” and instead of having one person in charge, they give that power to a group of people who have the authority to tell a church what to do (from afar; a presbytery).

Baptists should realize that we have a wide variety of structures in our own churches (which we say are “congregational”, which by definition means the power lies in the congregation).

Those top two models are called “pastor-ruled” or “elder-ruled” (1) or “deacon-ruled” (2) churches. Let’s just be honest. That’s not a congregational church. That congregation doesn’t have any more power than a Catholic parish.

That next model I would call “pastor-led” (3); the pastor is more-or-less “in charge” but works with the congregation to see his vision implemented (in a church with a strong deacon body, the deacons play a special role). The next model I would call “deacon-led” (4) (or “elder-led” if it’s elders instead of deacons). The “power” of the board is mitigated by the congregation’s power to appoint those individuals. The next model is called “congregation-led” (5); the congregation has the true power by appointing individuals to serve as pastor and deacons and having “veto” power over church decisions through what you might call a business meeting. The final model is called “pure congregationalism” (6) in which every decision made is done by the congregation (usually in some kind of democratic vote).

In my opinion, each of those last four models can be biblical congregationalism depending on the responsiveness of the pastors and deacons to the congregation. If they are a “part” of the church and working with and through the congregation, then they’re operating as Timothy did in Ephesus—as a member of that church.

So now the real question: what did Paul actually mean when using these words in our passage? Let’s start with “overseer”, the Greek word episkopos, which is where we get the word Episcopal (the word “bishop” is another translation of episkopos). It’s only used 5 times in the NT, and one of those is for Jesus (1 Pet 2:25). Of the other 4, two of those are used to describe the duties of “elders”, the Greek word presbyteros, where we get Presbyterian (Acts 20, Titus 1). Somewhere early in the second century, the pattern became that the “elders” were the leaders of a local congregation, and a “bishop” was in charge of them (and later a group of churches). The idea of “elders” being “older” goes back to the synagogue, and I’m sure you can see the value in having elder church member as leaders (remembering that in Paul’s day, 30s would have been considered old). That Acts 20 passage also introduces the word poimen, which is where we get “shepherd” or “pastor”.

Paul also spoke of “deacons”, the Greek word diakonos, which referred to someone who served tables (or more menial personal services). From the beginning of the church, they were men who served the congregation. They were also highly respected believers who would often teach, preach, evangelize, or lead. (It’s worth noting that Paul only gives the qualifications for deacons, never their duties! They probably did lots of things in their churches.)

Paul used the words “pastor” and “elder” and “overseer” interchangeably. I believe that’s because they all refer to the same person/position. “Elder” referred to that person’s maturity. “Pastor” referred to that person’s teaching and caring responsibilities. “Overseer” referred to that person’s leadership role (note that the Greek word “to rule” is never used with any of these offices). Paul used the plural for “overseer”; this could either mean that he was writing to multiple churches, or he believed that a church should have more than one leader (this could be a team of pastors/elders). However, the idea of pastors being distinct from elders cannot be found (clearly) in the Bible. Likewise, the idea of deacons having the duties of pastors/elders cannot be found in the Bible.

Let me close with this: Baptist churches have the authority to make any office they want and give it any power they want. They can have a deacon board. They can have an elder board. They can do whatever they want. But in the Bible, pastor/overseer/elder/bishop referred to one position. And deacon referred to something separate. For my part (as a Baptist), I just want to make sure that all authority truly flows through the congregation.

Our Context in 1 Timothy

Some people just see Paul as doing nothing but stirring up trouble for churches in the 21st century. But take a step back.

  • What’s the problem in Ephesian Church? There are people teaching who don’t know what they’re talking about, and there are influential members who don’t respect the pastor.

  • What’s the solution? First, explain proper behavior for men and women in church. Second, explain what kind of leaders the church should have. Those come in two “flavors”—the teaching and administrative leaders (“overseers”), and the serving and caring leaders (“deacons”).

In clarifying these roles, Paul is trying to cut off those people who are wanting to get into church leadership for the glamor and power. And in explaining their qualifications, Paul is getting ahead of any future problems with church leaders (I’m putting both pastors and deacons in this category; then as now, people had the wrong understanding of the “power” of the deacon—yes they lead, but they lead by serving) not being respect-worthy. Think of it this way: imagine two churches, one with solidly-biblical pastors and deacons, and one with totally unqualified pastors and deacons. Which of those two churches do you think is in better position?


Part 1: A Pastor’s Heart (1 Timothy 3:1)

This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.”

I’ve already discussed the word “overseer” (episkopos) from which we also get the word “bishop”. It clearly refers to an office (just as it did in the Hebrew military), but we should note that Paul talks a lot more about the overseer’s character than job description. Why do you think that is? What does your class think the “job” of a pastor is (and again, remember that I believe “pastor” and “overseer” are different descriptors for the same office, kind of like how some members of our church call David “Preacher” or “Rev” instead of “pastor”)? You’ll hear things like preaching, and hospital visits, and weddings, and baptisms, etc. Basically, all of those come back to the idea that someone in the church needs to be responsible for the church’s actions and people. The buck stops with him, so to speak.

(I know of some churches, and some pastors, who believe that they may as well not have church if the pastor isn’t there. That’s simply wrong. Every Christian has immediate and direct access to God. Pastors are Christians who are called and gifted in ways to help our worship gatherings be better, but a church is still a church even without a pastor.)

Apparently, Paul and Timothy were dealing with similar problems that we have today—not enough men wanting to go into pastoring. Think about it. The culture was hostile to Christianity. They were essentially starting from scratch in a tough mission field. And they were responsible for the Christian training of men and women who were a lot wealthier and more influential than they were. Does that sound like a problem? (Like today—why would any Christian run for president?) Paul wants to make it clear that it is a noble thing to be a church leader.

Your initial application is this—if you have people in your class who have considered church leadership (particularly being a pastor), encourage them. We need good pastors in our churches. And also make sure they appreciate the calling of the pastors you have in your church (this handout goes to Sunday School teachers beyond FBC, so I’m not being totally self-serving here). Encourage your class members to pray for their pastors, that they would stay true to their noble task, and do it well.


Part 2: A Pastor’s Character (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.

The temptation when going through a passage like this is to become very judgy and finger-pointy about your own pastor(s) here. “Let’s take a close and personal look at our pastor and find every flaw.” That’s not what Paul is doing here. This letter was written to Timothy to help Timothy explain to prospective pastors what they were getting into. Prospective pastors were supposed to use this list to evaluate themselves. This list can also help churches screen potential pastors. But make sure your class remembers that our primary person to “judge” is ourselves.

That said, wow is this a high bar for pastors!

  • “Above reproach” means that no one in the community could bring a credible accusation of any kind against the pastor.

  • “Husband of one wife” - see below; I believe this means someone who has never cheated on his wife in any way.

  • “Self-controlled” relates to a fruit of the Spirit. Considering all of the additional qualifications related to self-control, I think this directly relates to how the man handles crisis and controversy—being level-headed.

  • “Sensible” means wise and responsible, taking action after careful deliberation.

  • “Respectable” refers to conduct that is worthy of respect (remember what I said last week: a pastor cannot demand respect; he must be worthy of it).

  • “Hospitable” might be surprising to you. In those days, there were not hotels but brothels, the kinds of places a Christian shouldn’t stay. So Christian travelers stayed in the homes of other Christians. Pastors were expected to take the lead on this kind of hospitality.

  • “Able to teach” is an obvious one; elsewhere Paul specifies that this means teach truth. We all know a good Bible teacher when we hear one, even if we can’t put our finger on what makes him so.

  • “Not an excessive drinker” has been controversial. Many Baptist churches take the “teetotaler” line with their pastors, but we should be clear that Paul is not saying that. In fact, he encouraged Timothy to drink wine for its medicinal effects. For me, it comes down to the fuzzy definition of “excessive” and the earlier call to be “above reproach”. I don’t know how much is too much, and I don’t know who’s watching, so my personal response to this passage is not to drink alcohol at all. I’m also not going to judge a pastor who thinks it’s fine to have a beer with friends. Churches need to be clear (and consistent) on how they understand and apply this characteristic.

  • “Not a bully but gentle” was tough then, and it’s tough today. There are a lot of ways a pastor can get his way or achieve his goal; being a bully is not that way. It’s easier and quicker, but God wants pastors to lead with humility (“gentle” relates to courtesy and patience).

  • “Not quarrelsome” logically follows. People who teach are generally good in an argument (whenever my wife and I disagree about something, I can find a way to “win” the argument, even if I know I’m not actually right, which is common). Pastors must not use their talents to “bully” their way through words.

  • “Not greedy” is something that comes up a lot for Christians in general, let alone pastors. Greed, from Jesus’ perspective, puts another god in front of your allegiance to Him. Greed, from Paul’s perspective, is also another tool that can be used to easily manipulate a pastor (either by Satan or by wealthy church members).

“Manage his own household” is something I want to spend a little time on because I have heard it unfairly applied to pastors. In general, we can learn a lot about a person by how his/her children behave. If a child acts entitled, petulant, selfish, or rude, that’s a red flag as to the kind of person the parent is at home. How consistent are they? How dedicated are they? What do they spend their home time doing? And that’s why Paul puts the qualification in here. But do remember that children are fully independent human beings. I’m sure we all know good dads whose children went wayward, even if just for a few years. Paul is not talking about excluding a pastor due to a “prodigal son”. Rather, he’s talking about a pattern of behavior—a man who clearly doesn’t have control over his household. That man is not qualified to lead God’s household.

“Not be a new convert” is tough from the sense that I know plenty of churches who have called as pastor someone who became a Christian and immediately felt a call to preach. Sometimes that works out; more often it does not. Why? They don’t have the Christian maturity to handle the pitfalls of leadership, be that the pride of being in leadership, or the temptation of reaching beyond what a pastor is intended to be. That’s what I think “condemnation of the devil” means—Satan tempted Eve and Adam through their desire for more knowledge, to move beyond the boundary God set for them. Pastors can be tempted in the same way, to obtain more power than intended (which is what happened to bishops in the Middle Ages), or to teach beyond the truths of the Bible (which is what I think happened to leaders like Brian McLaren in books like A Generous Orthodoxy). It’s tempting to be “that pastor” who leads his church into something “new” and noteworthy and achieve notoriety.

Those are big shoes to fill. We need to pray for our pastors that they don’t grow weary in doing and being what God has called them to do and be. Pray as well for their families.


Aside: Bishops and Deacons

In some denominations, the offices of bishop and deacon have come a long way from their humble New Testament beginnings. How did we get here? Like many things, it’s a long story. The early church faced many significant heresies that threatened its very existence. Early leaders responded by saying that the true church was led by men who were appointed successors of the apostles (and not those wicked heretics). It worked—the church survived. But the leaders obtained significant authority over churches, and eventually men came into those positions with the intention of accumulating more authority (the kind of men Paul warned about). The history of deacons is more obscure. As far as we can tell, as the church started building up its structure and hierarchy, there was an obvious need for additional “middle management” (for lack of a better term). By this point, the church had split “pastor” (of a single church) off from “bishop” (of a region of churches), and the only other office mentioned in the Bible was “deacon”, so that became the name of this new category of minister—the assistant to the bishop. They were given administrative and liturgical duties. After the Reformation, churches gave those duties to “elders” (newly split off from “pastor”) and returned deacons to more of a servant role. But that’s why churches today disagree about the function of bishops and pastors and elders and deacons—we have 2,000 years of serious disagreement and no clear single precedent to work with.


Part 3: A Deacon’s Character (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. They must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons. Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything. Deacons are to be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently. For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

There’s quite a bit of overlap in these qualifications, and that should make sense. We want all of our church leaders to be like Jesus! Again, take a look at my “big idea” with a bit about the origins and development of “deacons”. Let me just focus on the differences for deacons from pastors. Paul highlights “not hypocritical”. Why do you think he would do that for deacons and not pastors? Well, one, it’s implied for pastors. But two, in their position, a deacon can create much trouble for pastors if a hypocrite, so this qualification is for the good of the church. Paul also mentions “the mystery of the faith” just for the deacon. Essentially, Paul is saying that pastors need to be able to teach that mystery; deacons just need to know and believe it. “Tested first” is another difference. Paul doesn’t say that deacons can’t be new converts, but instead they have to be tested (this refers both to their knowledge of the mystery of the faith as well as their character). Who does the testing? The Bible doesn’t say (see below); in many Baptist churches, the congregation does the testing through the selection process. Paul also includes instructions for deacon’s wives (see below). Note that their instructions are no different than for any other Christian! Why would Paul give instructions to the deacon wife and not the overseer wife? I don’t know, but here’s my best take. Pastors, as we learn elsewhere from Paul, have a unique calling. They are specially brought to a church for service, and the wife is a part of that process. Deacons, on the other hand, are often selected from the congregation. I think that Paul is just clarifying for prospective deacons’ wives that they should not feel exempt from their husbands’ ministry.

And then Paul concludes with a wonderful affirmation of the work and place of a deacon. And it’s nothing that your class members don’t already know. A good deacon not only builds up the church, but also builds respect for the church (and thus Jesus) in the community. Why? Because whereas a pastor spend the majority of his time in the church building or with church members in ministry, the deacon often has a job in the community and spends most of his time away from the church building. I would encourage your class to spend some time celebrating your deacons. At First Baptist Church, we are blessed with men who are well-respected not only in our church family but also in Thomson. When I’m at lunch with a deacon, people come up to talk to the deacon, not to me! I love to hear people talk glowingly about the men who have served in this role in our church over the years; it’s validation of why God created the office of deacon in the first place. Just as you prayed for your pastors, have your class pray for your deacons.

And then close with a look inward: as we’ve been evaluating others in their qualifications for ministry, let’s evaluate ourselves. Are we being the person Jesus created us to be?


Aside: Husband of One Wife

Of all of the things Paul talks about in this passage, the one thing that stirs up the most debate in the phrase we often read as “husband of one wife”. Many churches have had an ugly meeting with respect to this qualification. Paul uses it in our passage with respect both to pastors and deacons.

Here are a few common approaches or interpretations:

  1. Paul is condemning polygamy. That would be great and easy, but polygamy wasn’t a thing in that day, so it is unlikely Paul was worried about that.

  2. Paul is banning single people from being a pastor or a deacon. Truth be told, I have heard of churches who want their pastor to be a married man. But I don’t think that’s at all Paul’s point. He spoke very highly of being single (1 Cor 7) and he himself was single, so that seems an unlikely meaning.

  3. Paul was forbidding remarriage. (Namely, Paul was prohibiting a divorced and remarried man from being a pastor/deacon.) The problem with that interpretation is that Paul has expressly validated remarriage after a death, and he does not say anything here about death or divorce or any other scenario. He just says “husband of one wife”.

Here’s what I think Paul means. The phrase literally reads “one-woman man”, not “husband of one wife”. Does that connotation change for you? Infidelity among men was a huge problem in Paul’s day. Just as a man who cannot lead his own children cannot be expected to lead a church, a man who cannot be faithful to his wife cannot be expected to be faithful to Jesus. It’s not about remarriage but faithfulness. I know that churches disagree with me; that’s their right. I just ask for churches to be consistent and gracious in their application.

Bonus Aside: Women Deacons or Deacon's Wives?

I know, I know, you thought we were done with the gender controversies. I certainly don’t encourage you to bring this subject up! But if someone in your class asks, I want you to have a reasoned response. In verse 11, Paul talks about the qualification for “deacon wives”. Some have argued Paul actually just says “women” there, not “wives”, and that Paul was talking about women in the role of deacon, not deacon wives. They bolster that case by noting that Paul called Phoebe a “deacon” in Romans 16:1.

Here’s my response. Paul was indeed talking about "deacon's wives". First, about Phoebe: “deacon” wasn’t an official title in those days but a common word for “servant”. By all accounts, Phoebe was a good and committed servant. That doesn’t mean she served in an “office”. Second, about “wives/women” in 3:11: there’s no arguing that Paul used that same word (gunaikas) to refer specifically to wives in 3:2 and 3:12. Why would he mix his definitions when he could have just used the feminine form of “deacon” if that’s what he meant? Also, Paul talks about deacon children in 3:12, so this would be in his pattern for a discussion about deacons.

For those who say that it isn’t “fair” to the deacon for qualifications to be put on his wife, think of it this way: when women in a church need help or counsel, where are they going to go? To a deacon’s (or pastor’s) wife. Indeed, early in the history of the church, we have groups of women taking on the role of caring for widows, pregnant women, and other things that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a man to do. The qualification isn’t about being “fair”, it’s about taking care of the needs of the church as best as possible—the deacon’s wife is a critical part of a church.


Closing Thoughts: A History of Ordination

I find this topic absolutely fascinating (and there’s no way you should have time to talk about it in class—so it’s just for your personal learning). In the Old Testament, priests were consecrated in an involved ceremony. In the New Testament, we have mention of men being “appointed” as apostles (Matthias) and as missionaries (Paul and Barnabas). And then we have mention of men being set apart for the roles of what we now call deacons and pastors through the “laying on of hands” (see Acts 6:1-6, 13:1-3; 1 Tim 4:14). And then in our passage, we have Paul saying that deacons ought first to be “tested”. Thus, ordination.

In the Catholic church, ordination is a big deal that must be performed in a specific way by specific people after a period of training and literal testing. After the Reformation, particularly early on when demonstration of a specific theological perspective was critical for the health of a church, church leaders would undergo theological tests to confirm their knowledge. This led directly into seminary training where graduation would be dependent on passing tests of knowledge. Baptist churches today implicitly use that system when they require a pastor to have seminary training (receiving a degree is “passing the test”).

But for deacons, that “testing” is all over the map. Some churches still use an ordination council of pastors and deacons who formally test a potential deacon as to doctrine and conduct. Other churches make their testing more implicit in the sense of church members affirming the potential deacon’s qualifications through a vote. Every church should realize that Paul put the “testing” clause in for their own good. We should reserve the role for qualified men—this is for the good of our churches and the gospel.


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