Someone once said, “Sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car or a mechanic.” This is especially true of leadership in the church. A comparison of many people’s experience with pastors and elders, and the requirements in the Pastorals, betrays a serious lack of coherence. Just because someone holds the office of elder doesn’t mean they are an elder.
There is a renewed interest in leadership. In fact, it is commonplace to hear about “training leaders” when we are accustomed to hearing about “training pastors.” Part of this is a welcomed shift. So often seminaries spend the bulk of their time filling students’ heads with data and then telling them they are ready to lead communities. We used to called it “biblical and theological training,” and now call it “ministry training”; the problem is that what was being taught, and how it was taught, has not changed. So I welcome the renewed emphasis on leadership issues, while at the same time valuing the necessary biblical and theological training that future church leaders require.
The bulk of the explicit teaching on church leadership in the New Testament comes from the Pastorals, especially 1 Tim 3. When joined with 1 Tim 5 and Titus 1, we gain a clear understanding of what Paul expected to see in the churches in Ephesus and Crete. It is our task in this chapter to walk through the discussions in the Pastorals, and then make some connections with the modern church.
It is critical to understand the background of our passages if we are to understand the specific instructions, especially the ad hoc nature of the lists related to biblical eldership.
The Kind of Leader in the Pastorals
Gordon Fee was the first in our generation to emphasize that the Pastorals are ad hoc in their teaching. In other words, they are not a church manual written in isolation from real life experiences. Paul is addressing real issues in a very real church; and when he lists the qualities of a biblical leader, he is thinking of the excesses of the false teachers in Ephesus. They were uncontrolled (akratē, 2 Tim 3:3); Paul says an elder must be self-controlled (sōfrōn). Elders were sleeping with the widows (2 Tim 3:6); Paul says an elder must be faithful in marriage (1 Tim 3).
Paul had spent three years in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, a longer time than any other church (of which we are aware). When returning to Jerusalem, he met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus and gave them a stern and troubling prophecy. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30, ESV).
God had apparently revealed to Paul that the Ephesian church was headed for conflict, and not conflict from without but conflict from within. In a healthy church, conflict should arise from without; in fact, it must. We are salt and light (Matt 5:13-14); in order to do our work we must be different from the world. Salt cannot preserve meat if it is not different from meat. Light cannot shine into the darkness of the world if it is itself dark. The church must be inherently different form the world; to some the aroma of life, and to others the stench of death. This is a good thing.
But this is not what was going to happen in Ephesus; the conflict was to come from within. There would be fierce wolves not sparing the flock, even though the church of God was obtained with Jesus’ blood. Those wolves were “men” (andres), and from what we can tell the false teachers in Ephesus were male. They were going to speak “twisted things,” which fits with Paul’s later descriptions to Timothy that they were in fact the elders of the church.
While Paul is prophesying specifically about Ephesus, life’s experiences has taught me that what happened historically is paradigmatic for much of what is happening in today’s church, and the solution for today is the same as it was then: appoint leaders who have the character (“above reproach”), calling (“able to teach”), and competencies (“manage his own household well”) to lead, and do so according to the processes outlined in scripture.
We cannot view the qualities as a checklist. True, they do govern the selection of leaders. If the candidate was a drunkard like the false teachers, he could not be selected as an elder. But if this were a checklist, then neither Paul nor Timothy could be elders in the Ephesian church since they were not married. A person who had only one child could not be an elder, since elders must manage their “children” (plural) well. And if the lists were checklists, it would be difficult to understand why the lists are not identical.
Rather, Paul is describing the kind of person who should be considered for leadership. If married, is he faithful? If a person is single, this requirement does not go away. The question should be asked, how does he treat members of the opposite sex? Is he faithful in those relationships? If he has children, has he shown his managerial skill in the home? If he does not have children, has he shown in some other venue his management skills with people? The lists are ad hoc – meaning they were written for a particular purpose within a specific historical context.
The Duties of a Leader in the Pastorals
Secondly, while the lists do not enumerate the duties of church leaders, we can get some idea of their tasks by reading between the lines. The first group are the overseers (episkopoi), who Paul elsewhere calls the “elders” (presbyteros). He says they are to “manage” the church, which agrees with sentiments expressed elsewhere that the elders were to “shepherd the flock” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). The one requirement of elders not shared by deacons is that they be able to teach (didaktikos, 1 Tim 3:2); the church is led by its teachers.
The second group of church leaders are the deacons (diakonos), a word meaning that they were involved in the day-to-day serving of the church. This does not mean the elders did not serve nor that the deacons do not lead. It does mean that each group had a specific emphasis, but the final, authoritative word did belong to the elders.
While the nouns “elder” and “deacon” are not used in Acts 6, the division between apostles (devoted to prayer and teaching) and the Hellenistic Christians (caring for the widows) creates a helpful picture. It also explains why an established church like Ephesus needed both elders and deacons while the new churches of Asia Minor (Acts 14:23) and Crete (Titus 1:5) only needed elders; only as the church outgrew the ability for one group to lead do we see the need for deacons.
On a practical level, this two-fold structure calls into question much of the modern day churches. There is no place in the New Testament for a “Governing Board” over the elders. There is no place for a church structure of deacons but not elders. There is no place for a “nominating committee” that controls the selection of elders. There is no place for a church without an authority structure. And it calls into question the practice of treating deacons as a stepping stone to elder, or as trustees without a spiritual component.
The Standards of a Leader in the Pastorals
In the commentaries it is often argued that the qualifications for church leaders is so low, no better than secular norms, that Paul could not have written them. After having pastored for six years, I changed my mind on what I wrote in the commentary. The fact of the matter is that the requirements are surprisingly high. Even though Paul does not enumerate any “spiritual” qualities, it is my experience, and the experience of many pastors, that very few people actually qualify for leadership. L. T. Johnson comments, “‘It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy’ (1 Cor 4:2). Fidelity to one spouse, sobriety, and hospitality may seem trivial virtues to those who identify authentic faith with momentary conversion or a single spasm of heroism. But to those who have lived longer and who recognize how the administration of a community can erode even the strongest of characters and the best of intentions, finding a leader who truly is a lover of peace and not a lover of money can be downright exciting.”
Importance of Leadership
We will now turn to 1 Tim. 3:1 as the foundation for our exegesis of leadership in the Pastoral Epistles.
The Nobility of Leadership
Paul begins by saying, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” He is not saying the desire is noble, but that the task is noble. The normal challenges of leadership, combined with the special issues of leadership in Ephesus and the false teachers, would have made many people shy away from the task. And leadership is hard work. I am reminded of the person trying to recruit a new elder with the encouragement, “It is easy; just meet once a month and make a few decisions.” He knew little to nothing of the true task of leadership.
Practically speaking, there are two sides to this coin. Beware of the person lusting after power, who cannot find anyone to recommend him and so he recommends himself. Beware also of the good person who does not desire to be a leader; there are good people who are poor leaders. The office of elder is a good work, and candidates should understand the task and feel called to that specific ministry.
The Necessity of Leadership
Because of the importance of the office, it is “therefore” (oun) necessary that the elder be a certain type of person. “It is necessary” (dei). This requirement is repeated in v 7. Interestingly, vv 1-6 are one sentence in Greek, and v 7 begins a new sentence that carries into the discussion of deacons. Both sentences begin on the same note: “it is necessary.”
I am reminded of the man who told me having requirements for leadership was legalistic and all we needed was good men capable of making decisions. I say to that: to violate the clear, unambiguous teaching of Scripture is dangerous, and to appoint elders that do not meet Paul’s qualifications is sin.
If there is anything I say that resonates with you the reader, it should be this: Paul is explicitly clear that due to the importance of leading God’s house, the elder must absolutely, unequivocally, be a certain type of person. Paul did not brook opposition to his decisions in the early church, and I doubt he would brook opposition to his assessment in today’s church.