A Commentary by John Stott

1 Timothy. 3:1-16.  3). Pastoral oversight.

From the importance of apostolic doctrine (chapter 1) and the conduct of public worship (chapter 2), Paul turns to the pastoral oversight of the church and the necessary qualifications of pastors (chapter 3). This remains a vital topic in every place and generation. For the health of the church depends very largely on the quality, faithfulness and teaching of its ordained ministers.

Two introductory points need to be made.

First, God intends his church to have pastors. Even though church history has oscillated between the equally unbiblical extremes of ‘clericalism’ (the clergy domineering over the laity) and ‘anticlericalism’ (the laity rebelling against the clergy), the basic conviction has persisted that some kind of pastoral oversight is God’s will for his people. Thus, on their first missionary expedition Paul and Barnabas ‘appointed elders…in each church’ (Acts 14:23). Moreover, this provision was not a purely human arrangement. It was the ascended Christ who gave some to his church ‘to be pastors and teachers’ (Eph.4:11), and it is still the Holy Spirit who still assigns ‘overseers’ to God’s flock (Acts 20:28). The same divine-human policy is seen in Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus. Titus was left in Crete to ‘appoint elders in every town’ (Tit.1:5), and Timothy was told the traits which would qualify leaders for the oversight of the churches of Ephesus (1Tim.3).

Secondly, God had not specified a precise form which pastoral oversight should take. For example, this chapter lists the qualifications of ‘overseers’ (*episkopoi*) in verse 1-7 and of ‘deacons’ in verses 8-13, but throws little light on their duties. It is clear, however, that it would be an anachronism to translate *episkopos* ‘bishop’. Even if Timothy and Titus may be considered embryonic bishops, in that they had to supervise a cluster of churches and appoint their pastors, yet they are not called ‘bishops’. The development of the ‘monarchical episcopate’ (a single bishop presiding over a college of presbyters) cannot be dated earlier than Ignatius of Syrian Antioch, c. AD 110.

In New Testament times it is all but certain that *episkopos* (‘overseer’, ‘bishop’) and *presbyteros* (‘presbyter’, ‘elder’) were two titles for the same office. The evidence is compelling. First, Paul sent for the ‘elders’ of the Ephesian church, but in addressing them called them ‘bishops’ (Acts 20:17, 28, NIV mg). Secondly, in the same way Peter appealed to the ‘elders’ among his readers to serve as ‘bishops’ of God’s flock (1 Pet.5:1-2, NIV mg). Thirdly, Paul wrote to the Philippian church ‘together with the bishops and deacons’ (Phil.1:1, NIV mg.); he must have omitted to mention the ‘elders’ only because they were the ‘bishops’. Finally, Paul instructed Titus to appoint ‘elders’ adding that ‘a bishop [NIV mg.]… must be blameless’ (Tit.1:5-7).

Why then were the same people given two titles? For two reasons at least. The word *presbyteros* (‘elder’) was Jewish in origin (every synagogue had its elders) and indicated the seniority of the pastor, whereas *episkopos* (‘bishop’) was Greek in origin (it was used of municipal officials, supervisors of subject cities, etc.) and indicated the superintending nature of the pastor’s ministry. In sum, ‘the title *episkopos* denotes the function, *presbyteros* the dignity, the former was borrowed from Greek institutions, the latter from the Jewish’ (GT). Dr Alister Campbell argues for a third difference, namely that the term ‘elders’ ‘refers collectively to men who were individually overseers of the churches that met in their homes. Each person is an overseer, and together they are the seniors (sc elders).’

A degree of uncertainty also surrounds the origin of the ‘deacons’ and the nature of their ministry. The traditional view is as follows: in secular society the *diakonos* was one who gave lowly service, especially the waiter at table (E.g. Jn.2:5, 9). Moreover, ‘in Greek eyes serving is not very dignified. Ruling not serving is proper to a man.’ (TDNT II, p.82). But Jesus reversed this evaluation. ‘For who is greater’, he asked, ‘the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (*ho diakonon*, (Lk.22:27; cf. Lk.12:37; 17:7ff.). Again, ‘even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Mk.10:45)’. It was from this teaching and example of Jesus that the general calling of all his followers to humble service derived. From it too came the particular calling of some to serve as ‘deacons’. The appointment of the Seven in Jerusalem was an early instance of it, since the expression ‘to wait on tables’ occurs in the story (Acts 6:2), although the noun *diakonos* does not. It seems, then, that the ‘deacons’ were entrusted with practical administration, including the distribution of funds, food and clothing to the needy, although the requirement that they ‘must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience’ (9) suggests that they would also assist the ‘overseers’ in their teaching ministry.

But this reconstruction has been challenged by Dr. John Collins in his book *Diakonia* (1990), in which he makes an exhaustive survey of the *diakon-* word-group in both Christian and non-Christian ancient sources. His conclusion is that the *diakonos* was essentially a ‘go-between’, both in word (a courier or messenger) and in deed (an authorized agent). The emphasis, he insists, is not on the humble, menial character of the service rendered, but on its in-between, representative nature. If this is correct, then it is right to see the deacons as the assistants of the overseers. Yet one wonders if the antithesis has not been drawn too sharply. After all, the *diakonos* who operates as an agent is still called to a lowly and subordinate role, however exalted the person he represents.


The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.