1 Timothy 3:1-3 – “Overseers, Part 1: Qualities that Identify the Overseer”
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
This text is a complete unit in which Paul exalts the office of overseer for the purpose of charging Timothy and the Ephesian church leaders to seek only qualified men to fill that office. After reading through 2:11-15, it should be abundantly clear that we are only seeking men to fill this office. But not just any men. Qualified men.
The transition between the role of women and the role masculine leadership is best explained by John Calvin. When commenting on these verses almost 500 years ago he wrote, “It is as if Paul had said: Far from women being suitable to enter this office, even men should not be allowed in without discrimination” (Calvin, John. 1998. 1&2 Timothy & Titus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, p. 52). Not only are women barred from the office of overseer, but only qualified men should be considered.
These verses contain the qualities that identify the overseer (vv. 1-3), the qualities that expose the overseer (vv. 4-5) and the qualities that protect the overseer (vv. 6-7). Even at a glance there is simply too much here to unpack without a 10,000 word post (resulting in a 2-3 hour sermon). And so for purely pragmatic reasons, we will content ourselves to the study and understanding of the first three verses alone for this week. But before we do we need to answer a very important question. What is an overseer?
The Greek word (ἐπισκοπῆς/episcopase) is where we get our English word for bishop. There are still several English translations that use bishop instead of overseer. The word indicates one who has been given authority or responsibility to govern or oversee a group/estate/or situation. A careful study of the New Testament will reveal that this word is used interchangeably with another Greek word (πρεσβύτερος/presbyter). This word is often translated as elder. In fact when we look at Paul’s letter to Titus (1:5) we notice that a very similar list of character traits and qualifications for the elder is given. What are we to make of this? We should understand that the elder and the overseer are one and the same.
Some commentators suggest that overseer emphasizes the work and duties of the office while elder emphasizes the honor attached to the office. Perhaps that is true and perhaps not. But what we must understand is that the two terms are synonymous. We must not make the erroneous assumption (as have some) that a bishop is a higher-ranking church official who oversees several churches, which are in turned governed by elders. Neither should we wrongly think that only the teaching overseers are called elder while the administrative overseers are referred to as deacons. The deacon is a beast all on its own and we will study our way through that in the weeks to come. For now it is suffice to say that the New Testament model demonstrates autonomous churches governed by a plurality of elders/overseers.
Because the church is built on a the same foundation as the family (see more here) we see God designing and creating roles within the church that look much like the roles within the family. The family is not created as a group of cohabitating anarchists. But neither is there an overseer outside the family, governing it as well as other families from a distance. The family is an autonomous unit in submission to Christ, and so is the local church (see more here).
Yet the standard of holiness is placed very high within the church (Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect – Matt. 5:48). It is therefore necessary that the men who are to lead Christ’s bride meet this high standard. The verses that we will undertake in this post (vv. 1-3) do not define the role of an overseer so much as they identify the qualities of an overseer.
The Overseer is a Hard Worker (v. 1)
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”
I hope you recognize that opening statement from 1:15. It was there that Paul introduced a well known theological statement that Christ Jesus came into the world for the purpose of saving sinners. This too is a well known (at the time it was though I’m not so sure it is now) statement with which Paul’s audience should be familiar.
If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do
At this point Paul does not put any parameters on this office. If any man desires this, it’s a good thing. That certainly does not mean that any man should be an overseer. Paul is commenting on the office itself.
If any man aspires to the office…
That word aspires speaks of an internal drive. If any man reaches for the office, stretches himself for the office, has ambition for the office of an overseer, the object of his ambition is good.
The NASB translates this word (καλός) as fine. The indication is that the work in question is of the highest quality. This is the same word Paul used to describe the Law back in 1:8. This work is a good work, a noble work, a fine work indeed. But notice that it is still work nonetheless.
Paul does not here associate the office of overseer, one who attends and governs the church of Christ, with honor or prestige or privilege. Rather he associates this office with work, because it is indeed work. Leadership at any level is nothing but tireless work. How much more when dealing with people’s souls?
I cannot count how many times I’ve heard the joke that pastors only work one day a week. This is usually said tongue-in-cheek, yet I fear many have this perception. It is because of that false perception that some men seek the office to begin with. What’s not to desire in a job where you’re paid a salary to stand up and speak for a single hour (usually far less) once a week? Even if you keep something resembling office hours, there is ample time to pursue any number of personal hobbies. Yet I cannot escape how Paul begins this passage dedicated to the qualities necessary in a shepherd of God’s people.
He makes no comment on the hypothetical man’s motivation. At this point he doesn’t even look at the character. In fact the man is not really in view in this single verse. Regardless of his motives, if he is striving for the office of overseer, the work that he so desperately yearns for is a fine work indeed. If the individual in question has even the slightest clue what he is striving for, he must understand that he is asking for work and plenty of it. The overseer had better be one who is not afraid to role up his sleeves and dive in.
The Overseer is of High Character (v. 2)
“An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach”
Paul immediately transitions from the quality of the office to the qualities of the one seeking the office. There can be no shortcuts, not corners trimmed, no excuses. The overseer MUST be above reproach. The term indicates that there is nothing about the man in question that would tarnish his (or the church’s) reputation.
Literally above reproach (ἀνεπίλημρτον) means not being able to take ahold of. The idea is that there’s nothing about this man that someone (inside or outside the church) can grab and hold up as a reason for disqualification. The man comes with no handles to grab.
But the word is even stronger than you may suppose. Anyone may be able to keep certain aspects of their life under wraps and out of sight. The term used here doesn’t only mean that there’s nothing about this man to be used against him, but this man truly deserves to be recognized as such. There’s nothing on the surface or hidden that someone could latch on to and bring forward as evidence for disqualification.
But what does that look like? What follows in this verse are six character traits that help to identify a man qualified of this high office.
The husband of one wife
Literally translated this reads “a one woman man.” The man in question must not have the label of “womanizer,” “adulterer,” or “polygamist” with which someone might latch on to. But this is more than a teaching against polygamy or other forms of fornication (though they would all certainly be prohibited here). This quality identifies the heart of the potential candidate. To be a one woman man does not only mean that he has one wife, but that his wife is the only woman in his life. Again, this goes well beyond illicit sexual affairs. The overseer can only have a single woman, his wife, in his thoughts, desires, home, as well as in his bed. The point is focused on devotion to a single person in every conceivable way. Faithfulness is what is in view here. External as well as internal faithfulness is required of any man who strives for the office of overseer.
Some translations say sober or sober minded. The force is not necessarily sobriety from intoxicants like drugs or alcohol (we’ll get to that in a minute), but a mindset that is free from outside/distracting/unhelpful influence. The idea comes as level headed or stable. Just as alcohol can cause a person to use poor judgment, false/subjective/illogical teaching and thinking can cause a man to say some pretty stupid things. The overseer must be free from such influences. If you cannot drink and drive without impairment, then neither can you oversee Christ’s church while under the influence of murky thinking.
This falls into a very similar meaning as temperate and is actually related to the term translated as discreetly in 2:9 and self-restraint in 2:15. The basic idea is self-control. The overseer must be moderate, prudent, and in control of his speech, thoughts, and actions.
The NKJV translates this word as good behavior as it is used to describe someone who conducts himself in a manner worthy of admiration. A man who presents himself well, minds his manners, mows his lawn, and keeps his workstation tidy is a respectable man. But Paul is not concerned with the outward presentation so much as he is concerned with the inner character that drives that outward behavior. An overseer is a man who is well ordered. The outward signs of that are easy to pick up on, but it is still the heart that matters.
The Greek word here (φιλόξενον) literally means “love of stranger.” In the first century a person who was traveling had very few options but to rely upon the hospitality of others. Any respectable person would be loathed to stay a night at an inn, places where scenes of all kids of untold depravity would be commonplace. For a traveling Christian especially, whether traveling for business or in association with the gospel ministry, one would hardly stay at such a place. Rather it was custom for Christians to seek lodging with the local church. The overseer must demonstrate to the flock under his care this kind of love for the brethren, even a brother that he does not know. The overseer must be ready, willing, and able to show love to strangers.
Able to teach
Make no bones about it; the primary responsibility of the shepherd is to feed the sheep. An overseer must be able to teach the Word of God. Again John Calvin is helpful here when he writes, “Some people keep their learning to themselves, through a speech impediment or through lack of mental ability or because they are so out of touch with ordinary people. Such people should, as he goes on to say, go and do something else…Paul is commending knowing how to apply God’s Word so that people listening benefit from this” (Calvin, p. 55). It does no good to simply know the Bible, although if you do not know Scripture you certainly cannot teach it. The ability to teach means that those sitting under the teacher understand what Scripture clearly says and are able to personally obey it. This, like the other qualities, is non-negotiable.
The Overseer is a Humble Servant (v. 3)
“Not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.”
A more wooden translation will reflect that this verse contains five more qualities. The first and last two are negative with the quality in the center being positive, i.e. gentle. The term is hard to translate into English, but it means something like gracious, yielding, tolerant, or courteous. It carries the idea that the gentle person does not seek or insist upon his own way. The gentle man is one who is willing to lay aside his own desires for the sake of another. The way in which Paul presents this verse forces the reader to focus upon this character trait. Here’s a visual representation of how Paul presents this verse.
The other negative qualities emphasize a man who focuses primarily upon himself. A drunkard is a drunkard because he is in love with his drink. A pugnacious (or violent) man is easily ignited when his own pride is wounded. A quarrelsome man is much the same way, but fights with his words rather than his fists. In both instances, it is his way or the highway. The lover of money is much like the drunkard, willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain the thing he loves most.
The overseer must not be preoccupied with his own desires, his own pride, his own fulfillment. His work, which is indeed fine and good and noble, requires him to be a servant to others. He is to be gentle, yielding, tolerant. Not tolerant of false teaching, but where matters of personal opinions reign he is to prefer others.
This is a brief sketch of what identifies an overseer. These men are charged with taking care of the household of God. Christ’s sheep are entrusted to them. The church is to take care that they place only qualified men into this office. Their work is tremendous in effort as well as in scope. But such men that display a complete dependency upon Christ so as to illustrate these qualities will arise to the occasion.