In this write up, we’ll look primarily at the qualifications of overseers and deacons. We will not focus so much on the details of how the leadership should function within the church or the method of ordaining and commissioning leaders. Also, we will be primarily looking at 1 Timothy 3. This is by no means the only scripture which give direction concerning church leadership. Titus 1 correlates closely to 1 Timothy 3. There are also other passages such as Matthew 20, Mark 10, Acts 6 & 20, Hebrews 13, 1 Timothy 5, 1 Peter 5, James 3 & 5, Ephesians 4, and more that give direction as to the qualifications of leadership in the church.
Examining 1 Timothy 3
First, let’s look at the words that are used in relation to the functioning of leaders within the assembly. Over the centuries, and throughout the various denominations and traditions, various applications and practices have evolved in the functioning of church leadership. For myself, one of the more troubling dynamics which has become very common place in most of what we know as church; is the clergy/laity divide. While, again, that is not the main thrust of this article; this dynamic has very much affected our concepts of church life. While the particular tradition of the conservative Mennonites in which I originated does hold to a concept of brotherhood and accountability that much of Protestant American Christianity does not have; we were still influenced by the clergy/laity divide and church hierarchy. Our particular concept of church leadership was what we referred to as the three office ministry. There, the leadership operates as what are referred to as the offices of deacons, ministers, and bishops. The deacons primarily look after the various needs (financial in particular) of the congregants and occasionally preach, the ministers are primarily the preachers and also the enforcers of church discipline, and the bishops carry the most authority and usually give the final word, with one bishop usually overseeing around 4-6 congregations. While it is not my goal to find fault with the various traditions, I do not believe that what we are about to study here in 1 Timothy 3 would support the numerous offices (such as the Mennonite three office structure; or, on the other hand, the contemporary evangelical practice of the solo pastor) or the clergy/laity divide. Let’s take a look at what the apostle Paul has to say here…
In 1 Timothy 3, the KJV uses the term ‘bishop’ in verse 1. A study of this word using the ‘Interlinear Greek-English N. T.’ and the ‘New Englishman’s Greek-English Concordance and Lexicon’ shows that this word translated bishop here comes from the Greek word episkope (Strongs 1985). The definition is shown as ‘inspection (for relief); by impl. Superintendance; spec., the Chr. Episcopate: – the office of a bishop, bishoprick, visitation’. This word is translated in the KJV N. T. as ‘visitation’ in Luke 19:44 and 1 Peter 2:12, ‘bishoprick’ in Acts 1:20, and ‘the office of a bishop’ here in 1 Timothy 3:1. This word seems to be derived from the word episkeptomai (Strongs 1980), which means to inspect or by implication to select and by extension to go and see. It is also related to the word episkopeo (Strongs 1983), which means to oversee and by implication to beware. This word is translated ‘looking diligently’ in Hebrews 12:15 and ‘taking oversight’ in 1 Peter 5:2. Then in verse 2, the translated word ‘bishop’ comes from a different form of the word episkopos (Strongs 1985), which means superintendant or overseer. This word is translated in the KJV as ‘overseers’ in Acts 20:28 and ‘bishop(s)’ in Phi 1:1, 1 Tim 3:2, Tit 1:7, and 1 Pet 2:25. Personally, I do not care for the term ‘bishop’, as to me it denotes the ecclesiastical system with the clergy/laity divide. However, if used with the understanding laid out in the scriptures, it can be viewed as a simple term of responsibility and oversight in the assembly of believers. A bishop or overseer is comparable to the foreman of a job site, or a fire chief at an emergency incident. He is responsible for the functioning and welfare of the assembly. He will ultimately give account to the Lord for what is transpiring in the assembly(ies) for which he has been given charge.
In verse 8, the ‘deacons’ are now addressed. The word translated here as ‘deacon’ is the Greek word diakonos (Strongs 1249), defined in Strongs as ‘an attendant, ie a waiter (at a table or other menial duties); spec. a Christian teacher and pastor– deacon, minister, servant’. This word, used many times in the N. T., is normally translated in the KJV as minister or servant, but is translated in three places (Phi 1:1 & 1 Tim 3:8,12) as deacon. Another form of the word, diakoneo (Strongs 1247) which means to be an attendant or to wait upon, is translated as ‘use the office of a deacon’ twice in 1 Tim 3:10&13 and elsewhere as ‘minister, administer, or serve’. Again, I do not prefer such translations as ‘office of a deacon’, as I feel it encourages the ecclesiastical system mindset. Our English word deacon, is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos in the same way that baptize is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo. Both of these words, rather than being translated to an English word that meant the same thing, were formed into a new word (rather than translating diakonos as servant, we created a word that fit the ecclesiastical mindset and rather than translating baptizo as immerse, we created a word that fit the present mode of operations). Deacon simply means servant, attendant, or waiter. He serves and ministers to the congregants, but he also is an attendant to or an apprentice under the overseer.
Here’s the ‘M. G. M. translation’ of 1 Timothy 3 as I understand it…..
“This is a trustworthy saying, If any man aspires to the task of oversight, it is a good work that he desires. It is necessary then, that the overseer is above reproach, the husband of one wife, circumspect, of a sound mind, orderly, hospitable, able to instruct; not addicted to wine, not contentious, not seeking after ill gotten wealth: but patient not quarrelsome, nor a lover of money, one who administrates his household well, having his children in obedience with all respect. (For if a man does not know how to rule his own household, how will he care for the assembly of God?) He should not be a novice, lest being conceited he fall into the judgement of the devil. Furthermore, it is necessary that he have a good reputation from those without the body, that he would not fall into reproach and a snare of the devil. Ministers/deacons likewise should be honorable, not hypocritical, not addicted to wine, nor greedy of gain; holding the mystery of the faith with a clean conscience. And also, let these be proved first. Then let them serve, being found above reproach. Likewise, their wives are to be honorable, not gossipers, but temperate, and faithful in all things. Let a deacon be husband of one wife, administering his own household and children well. For those who have served well acquire a good standing for themselves, and much confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. I write these things to you, hoping to come to you shortly. But if I am delayed, that you may know how to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the assembly of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
The context implies that it is not wrong, but actually good for a man to aspire to the task of oversight. However, it is clearly laid out that such a responsibility is given upon one’s having been proven. Here is given a list of qualifications for the consideration of all involved, both to the one aspiring to oversight and also to those who would recognize the calling and give the charge.
First of all, the one in question should be blameless, or above reproach. This obviously does not imply that he has no faults or weaknesses, but he should have a good reputation both in the church as well as in the local community. He should be living his life in such a way that he cannot be spoken evil of by any reliable source. If he is a man whom people do not want to do business with, or if substantial allegations have surfaced regarding his character, we need to be aware. Titus 1:6 is similar, “If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.”
Secondly, he is to be the husband of one wife. This is indicative of the need for faithfulness to his wife, along with living a life of moral purity. He must be free from any adultery or other promiscuity. Along with this, in accordance with what Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, he should be one who has not lost his first love for Christ; but should be (as opposed to the Laodiceans) on fire for his Saviour, not having swerved aside after any ‘false loves’.
He is to be nephaleos vigilant (KJV), sober-minded (ESV), temperate (NASB), stable (ISV), or circumspect; walking in wisdom, discreetly avoiding pitfalls, and being wary of wolves who would devour the flock. He should not be lazy, undisciplined, or foolish. He doesn’t make rash decisions and does not endanger others welfare, but rather shepherds the flock. I see a man with a clear mind who makes principled decisions.
He is also to be sophron (safe [sound] of mind): to be sober (KJV), self-controlled (ESV), prudent (NASB); indicating that he must be discerning and able to make sound judgements. Strongs says i.e. self-controlled or moderate as to opinion or passion. Such a man will not be violently enforcing his opinions on others. He will check his opinions against facts and the Scriptures. When he speaks, his words will carry authority because he does not speak lightly or out of his personal agenda.
He ought to be kosmios (orderly i. e. decorous): of good behaviour (KJV), respectable (NASB), decent (YLT); apparently bearing forth the fruits of the Spirit such as patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc. (This same word is translated modest in 1 Tim 2:9.) Such an one is not unruly, undisciplined, or self-centered; but rather ‘full of grace and truth’.
Also of importance, is that a candidate for the function of overseer should be hospitable. He ought to be friendly and congenial and welcoming to the stranger. He ought not to be impolite, discourteous, or uncaring of others. An inhospitable leader would deter from bringing converts into the assembly of believers.
An overseer should be didaktikos (instructive); apt to teach or able to teach. In order to shepherd the flock, an overseer or shepherd must be able to lead the sheep to ‘green pastures and still waters’. Teaching is not necessarily relegated to sermons or lectures, though they certainly have their place. Teaching has to do with giving edifying and nourishing instructions. A teacher does not have to be eloquent or skilled at public speaking, but he must be able to feed the sheep. A good teacher teaches by example. Can a teacher be effective if he does not have a genuine concern for the welfare of his sheep?
An overseer should not be paroinos (literally, staying near the wine): translated not given to wine (KJV), addicted to wine (NASB), drunkard (ESV). In addition to refraining from drunkenness, he should be free from other addictions and substance abuse. A man who is intoxicated and under the bondage of addictions is not in a place to lead others into righteousness.
Along with the subject of drunkenness, such a man should not be plektes (a smiter i. e. quarrelsome): no striker (KJV), not violent (ESV), or pugnacious (NASB), not contentious. While the physical striking of others is a more obvious transgression, it is the same spirit of plektes that causes men to ‘strike’ and tear down the reputation of others by violent words and slander. A good overseer will seek to strengthen and build up others rather than contentious quarreling. He is not easily induced into arguments.
He is not aischrokerdes (literally sordid gain): not greedy of filthy lucre (KJV), not greedy for money (WEB), not greedy of ill gotten wealth. Such an one is not seeking for money obtained through dishonorable ways. A man who is in a craze for wealth, and seeks for money at the cost of integrity, honor, and relationships; is a man not fit to care for the souls of others.
He should be gentle and patient. Gentleness and patience are characteristics of a shepherd who carries his flock on his heart. These qualities do not usually come naturally for leaders, but often must come through the fires of the crucible as God refines the heart of a man.
This man should be amachos (not a brawler): not quarrelsome (ESV), not a brawler (KJV), peaceable (NASB), not contentious (YLT). An overseer should seek to bring peace and unity among the flock, as opposed to contention and quarreling. While a true overseer will not stand for a false peace, he does seek unity of the Spirit and stands firmly against divisive influences and behavior.
He is to be aphilarguros (unavaricious, without covetousness): not love money (NLT), not covetous (KJV), not a lover of money (YLT). A genuine overseer is heavenly minded and not swayed by earthly gains. He cannot be bought. His focus is on laying up treasures in heaven. Does the prospective overseer have a mentality to amass wealth? Is he free to give of his earthly possessions?
A potential overseer should be proistemi (presiding over) administrates his own household well: manages his own household well (NASB), ruleth well his own house (KJV), his own house leading well (YLT), conducting his own house well (DBT). Along with that, he should have his children in subjection with all respect; having children who respect and obey him (NLT), keeping his children under control with all dignity (NASB), having his children in subjection with all gravity (KJV). This is a very important point, and as the next verse explains, ‘For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?’ A man who does not have his own household in order and whose children do not respect him, cannot expect to be able to care for the local assembly any differently. He must first of all learn how to manage his own home, and thereby gain the necessary experience and training to care for the household of believers. If the church is considering a potential overseer, they do well to consider the affairs of his household.
A prospective overseer should not be a neophutos (literally newly planted): not a new convert (NASB), not a novice (KJV), not be a new believer (ESV). He needs to be a mature believer, grounded in the faith. It is necessary that he has gone through a period of testing of his faith and has become firmly rooted in Christ. The explanation is given for this necessity. Lest being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil (KJV). If a man new to the faith and not yet tested is given charge among the church as an overseer, there is a great possibility that he will become conceited by his ‘position’ and make errors that will be detrimental and even fatal to his own faith and to the welfare of the assembly. Think of what would happen in the work place if you put somebody who is new to the field in charge of the operations. It would be a recipe for disaster.
Moreover, he should have a good reputation from those outside the Body, lest he fall into reproach and a snare from the devil. Can a man who does not have a good testimony among the community be effective in leading and overseeing the flock, especially in relating to new believers and seekers? If his testimony is marred because of his behavior or lack of character, and it is known that he is an overseer among the assembly; it will cause the Lord’s name to be reviled.
Now, our attention turns to the deacons or assistants. They also should be semnos (venerable i. e. honorable): well respected (NLT), dignified (ESV), grave (KJV), serious (ISV). While deacons have not been entrusted with the oversight of the assembly, it is expedient that they too are men of honor and serious minded, having respect of the Body.
A deacon should not be double tongued. A man who is hypocritical and who makes his story fit the occasion, is not fit to be serving the Body. It is necessary that such servants are men of honesty and integrity, men whom the people can trust. Their words should be trustworthy and free from guile.
As the overseer is to not be given to wine, so the deacon too is not to be addicted to much wine. One who is in bondage to addictions is not free to minister to the Body. A deacon needs to be free and clear to minister and care for the assembly of believers.
Also, like the overseer; the deacon should not be greedy of ill gain. If his heart is caught up in the pursuit of wealth, the deacon is not effective in ministering to the needs of the assembly. Deacons have often been given the responsibility to look after the financial needs of the congregation. A deacon who is greedy of ill gain, is not to be trusted with the finances of the group.
He should hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. The ‘mystery of the faith’ seems to be referring the work of Christ in his life (Col 1:26-27). He should hold that with a pure conscience, operating out of a pure motivation. The Lord’s working in and redemption of his life should be obvious to those looking on.
He should first be proved, and then let him minister when he has been found to be above reproach.
A deacon is a servant, a minister, an assistant. He, like the overseer, should have gone through a season of proving before being given a charge in the congregation.
Not only are the deacons themselves to be examined, but their wives too are to be considered. A deacon’s wife ought to be honorable, not a gossiper, but temperate, and faithful in all things. Why is the deacon’s wife required to manifest these qualities? As a deacon works closely with various situations in the congregation, his wife will no doubt have an understanding of some of the more confidential details of people’s lives and relationships. Imagine what damage a dishonorable, gossiping, undisciplined deacon’s wife could do in the assembly. Therefore a deacon’s wife must be one who lives in integrity, knows how to hold her tongue, has a clear and sober mind, and is trustworthy in all areas of life. If a man has such a wife, it will empower and equip him to do the work of his calling.
Just like the qualification for overseer, a deacon also should be the husband of one wife. His love and affection should be obviously directed toward one woman alone. He should be free from any adultery or other promiscuous behavior. He should not have a wandering eye. You can usually tell a lot about a man by looking on the countenance of his wife.
He also is to rule his own house and children well. If he does not administrate well in his own household, how will he be faithful in the relationships and affairs of the assembly? Since a deacon will tend to be involved in more confidential aspects of congregational life, it is important that he builds healthy relationships and conducts himself with integrity. His family will expose how he really does this in the daily walk of life. If his household is out of order and his children wild and rebellious, it can be expected that he will likewise conduct the affairs of the assembly.
For those who have served well acquire a good standing for themselves, and much confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.