Biblical church leadership – 1 Timothy 3

As a simple evangelical church we just want to do what the Bible says, and 1 Timothy 3 helps us understand biblical church leadership. Different churches have all sorts of titles for people in leadership: bishops, deacons, archdeacons, priests, rectors, pastors, elders… It can be very confusing.

Last week we looked at 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and the hot topic of women in ministry. That continues into these verses and, I hope, firms up in very helpful ways.

And, as with last week, we need to be very careful with the precise words used.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You can find more in the series in our Sermon Index.

Godly overseers (1-7)

1 Timothy 3:1-7 is about “overseers” in the church. The NLT translates the word as “church leaders” which is too broad, really. Most modern translations use the word “overseers”. If you were brought up to read “bishops” from the King James version, you need to erase that from your mind.

Paul is writing to Timothy, and he gives a list of qualifications and characteristics for “overseers”. The list he gives is similar to another list he gives to Titus in Titus 1 – but there he calls them “elders”. So what we’re reading about here in v1-7 are elders or overseers of a local church.

What does “overseer” mean?

  • Someone who has authority over a group of people.
  • Someone who is accountable for those people too.
  • If a football team isn’t doing well, the manager comes under pressure.
  • Likewise, an overseer has a responsibility to ensure that the people under his care are making progress in faith.

The reason is made clear in 1 Peter, where elders are described as “shepherds” with Christ as the “Chief Shepherd.” So an overseer or elder is very much a delegated role, caring for Christ’s people, accountable to him, appointed by him.

That’s where the word “pastor” comes from – a pastoral, shepherd word, caring for Christ’s flock. A pastor is just an elder in full-time employment and dedicated to the work. It’s possible to be an elder/overseer and still have a secular job.

Character and ability

In Paul’s description of overseers/elders, it’s mostly about character rather than ability – but there are capability requirements too.

  • The overarching theme is a life above reproach.
  • “He must be faithful to his wife” is literally “be a one-woman man”
    • It’s about being above reproach – so he mustn’t be known for womanising, or infidelity.
    • It doesn’t matter if he’s single, or a widower, or even divorced (as an innocent party). What matters is that he’s above reproach to others.
  • He’s to be “gentle, not quarrelsome” – and yet there are times when confrontation is required. In Titus, Paul says an elder/overseer must be able to refute false teaching.

Most characteristics are what you’d expect. But there are two abilities that are required: Teaching and leading.

  • He “must be able to teach”
  • He “must manage his own family well” so that he can “take care of God’s church”
  • This, then, is the “teaching+authority” role that Paul spoke of 1 Timothy 2:12. This excludes women from being elders/overseers, precisely because that role is about teaching and exercising authority over Christ’s people.

Pray for them

It’s easy to see why the devil would be interested in bringing an elder/overseer down. Read 1 Timothy 3:6-7. A young believer might well feel pretty proud and let the position go to his head. Older pastors can still feel proud too – “Oh, that was wonderful, pastor” etc, plus books, social media, headcounts, etc…  Falling like stars from heaven, like Satan himself.

Likewise, the devil will set traps to discredit church leaders – driving them to division, to sin, to disgrace. Disgrace to Christ, to grace, to the gospel, to truth. So please do pray for pastors and elders – against pride, and against temptation.

And then ask, why must an elder/overseer be required to be like this?

  1. He’s an undershepherd, working for Christ in his kingdom.
  2. He’s a teacher – teaching you to be all these things: above reproach, faithful, wise, hospitable, etc. Examples matter.

Godly deacons (8-13)

So now we come to look at “deacons” – a word that could easily be translated “servant” – someone who ministers to the needs of others. There isn’t a list of tasks to be completed, but there is another list of characteristics. And because many of the characteristics of overseers/elders are about being above reproach it’s no surprise to see similar things here.

  • Deacons were clearly people of some recognised standing in the local church, but what we don’t see is the requirement to be able to teach.
  • That said, they must be [lit.] “holding the mystery of the faith in clean conscience.”
  • Sometimes churches appoint someone as a deacons purely on abilities – but Paul’s requirements are much more spiritually demanding: “holding the mystery of the faith in clean conscience.”

While Christ appoints elders/overseers (and pastors), a church is likely to appoint deacons with their own wise judgements: Read 1 Timothy 3:10.

  • That means a deacon is usually someone who has already been doing something in the church for a while and is then recognised formally by the church as a deacon.

Our deacons are, of course, Henry, Rod and Neil.

All straightforward so far. But read 1 Timothy 3:11.

Wives or women?

Many translations say “their wives”. But the NIV says this: In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

  • The word can be translated as “women” or “wives”.
  • The next 2 verses go back to speaking about deacons.
  • So v11 is either about women who are deacons, or about deacons’ wives. Which is it?

Last week, we noted that Paul excluded women from having a “teaching+authority” role – so, excluded from being an elder.

  • We also noted that the Bible (and NT in particular) emphasised the value of women in ministry in the church
    • Paul described Priscilla as a co-worker
    • He calls Phoebe a deacon
    • See last week for plenty of other examples
  • It’s also interesting that here in 1 Timothy 3 Paul might say something about deacons’ wives but not elders’ wives
    • That’s really odd, unless he’s not speaking about deacons’ wives but rather about women deacons.

I’ve changed my position on this as the years have gone by. It’s easy to have our thoughts conditioned by our culture – whether church culture or general society. I’m now convinced that the general sweep of New Testament history and these verses in particular means that women deacons were commonplace and normal in the early church – and should be today.

There are gifted women in this church that we should long ago have recognised for what they are: servants of Christ’s church. We’ve been praying for elders and deacons. We may well have been overlooking what Christ has given us.

The great blessing of serving

For those who are deacons, v13 is smashing.

Read 1 Timothy 3:13.

  • To be recognised in this was is to nail your colours to the mast – you stand out even more as a Christian simply because you’re recognised by everyone for your contribution to the church.
  • In doing that, you grow in confidence in Christ – both as he strengthens you for the task, and in your increased willingness to speak for him.

And, as with the characteristics of elders, no-one can think this stuff doesn’t apply to them:

  • Elders and deacons are to be above reproach.
  • They are – obviously – to be examples to everyone.
  • Because you, me, all of us are to be above reproach – gentle, not quarrelsome, hospitable, not getting drunk, etc etc.

Why? Because you represent Christ to a lost world.

You are Christ on display (14-16)

Having church run in a certain way isn’t arbitrary or random. It’s deliberately done so that we will be well-ordered in godliness to be seen by the outside world.

Read 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

If you’ve been to Trafalgar Square you’ve seen Nelson’s column. High above ground level is the statue of Nelson – raised high as a tribute to British naval success. We, the church, are the household of God. We’re the “pillar and foundation of the truth” – like Nelson’s column, but instead of lifting up Nelson for everyone to see we’re holding up the truth of Christ!

What truth, exactly? Read 1 Timothy 3:16.

It’s probably a hymn, maybe written by Paul or maybe just included here because it’s perfect.

  • Christ was revealed in a human body [lit. in flesh]
        and vindicated by the Spirit. [shown to be the Son, by baptism, teachings and miracles]
    He was seen by angels [Gethsemane and the tomb]
        and announced to the nations. [“He is risen!”]
    He was believed in throughout the world
        and taken to heaven in glory. [He will return]
  • “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
  • “God wants everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

You must understand that you are a sinner. You need to know that your sin will separate you from God and lead you to an eternity in hell. But: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That’s you. God wants you to be saved and to know the truth.

He wants that for everyone.

Key moment in the letter

So all sorts of important things from 1 Timothy come together at this point:

  • This truth is a life and death matter – eternally so.
  • Teachers who get sidetracked on myths and genealogies and never speak of sin, hell, death, repentance, forgiveness, faith in Christ – such teachers will give an account to Christ one day. They’re off-topic.
  • All of us must be above reproach.
    • What good is it if you call someone to repentance when you yourself are living a life of sin?
    • Can you speak of God’s open arms if you never show hospitality or generosity? 
    • Can you speak of the peace of God, when you’re someone who loves a good argument and stirring up trouble?
  • Obviously we need godly elders and deacons to lead and serve and be examples to us, visible within and outside the church.

And the overarching imperative for us all is this: 

  • Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
  • God wants everyone to be saved.
  • We are the pillar and foundation of the truth.

So be utterly intolerant of sin in your life – your witness depends on it. Be deliberate and focussed on leading others to Christ. Not to Christianity; not even to church; but to Christ.

And pray for elders and deacons here that will enable us all to be the Christian men and women Christ calls us to be.