This is a reliable saying: For anyone to aspire to oversight [a bishop], is desiring a good work. An overseer [bishop] must have a blameless record, be the husband of one wife, temperate, with perspective, dignified, hospitable, capable of teaching; not given to wine, not quarrelsome; instead he should be fair-minded, peaceable without any streak of covetousness. He must be one who keeps his own household in good order, his children kept under his watchful and earnest leading, (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he know how to take care of the church of God?) He must not be a recent convert, lest [elevated] with presumption he fall into disgrace having allowed himself to be tempted by the devil. Moreover, he must also have a good reputation from those outside lest his public record become a snare so the devil's temptations can get to him.
     Likewise the regular ministers [deacons] must be earnest, single-minded in their devotion. Not ambiguous in their demeanour, neither addicted to too much wine, nor eager to scrounge a further penny, having a clean conscience, holding onto the mystery of faith. And let them first off be examined and tested and then, if they are found to be beyond reproach, give them all encouragement to render their service. Likewise their wives, who also are thereby called into service, must be [similarly] single-minded, not those who accuse-and-gossip [behind the scenes], [staying] alert without [the whiff of] wine-addiction, with integrity in all things.
     These ministers [deacons] should also be the husbands of one wife, in charge in a positive pastoral sense of their own households. For they who exercise the office of minister [deacon] will find they store up for themselves bold and enhanced faith in the Lord Jesus. - I Timothy 3: 1-13/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

Church pulpit

Who leads? Paul outlines critera for church leadership. PICTURE: Stephen Radford/Unsplash.


"If we now look carefully at the listed criteria we can note that these are characteristics to be aspired to by all and that such servants are to possess these in a way that is readily recognisable from their deeds."

Paul writes to give Timothy advice since he has to either appoint or give his endorsement to those who are exercising oversight to the young Christian communities. Who are going to be “overseers” (EPISKOPOS) and who “ministers” (DIAKONOS)? In that sense Timothy's work, under Paul guidance, has a special character.

The Letter to the Philippians - sent under the names of both Paul and Timothy - addresses “the saints at Philippi, with the overseers and the ministers". It would seem that in this letter we have Paul's instructions to Timothy concerning how he, in his teaching, should explain and endorse such service in the midst of the congregation of believers.

Timothy and the people he is serving are to use discernment and recognise the “oversight” of persons with the listed characteristics. Likewise, they are to make room for a somewhat more “free ranging”, maybe voluntary and less-defined ministry of those giving themselves to various necessary tasks to maintain an alive and visible witness to Jesus Christ, their Lord, alive and visible.

The criteria by which “ministers” (or “deacons”) are to be evaluated is not all that different from that over “overseers”. Both are to receive respect from the community of believers. But if the company is composed of those with broken marriages and households then the people should not have to be burdened from leaders who have such important restorative tasks of their own to deal with.

This is not to say that “a man of but one wife” is more righteous than anyone who has had marriage breakdown. It does not mean that the once married automatically qualifies. It is to suggest that among the company of the faithful there will be those who carry such baggage. The way to give pastoral support to persons with such “personal baggage” is not via the route of service in congregational leadership.

The advice also assumes the intimate interweaving of the congregation's life with the marriages, families and households of its members. Moreover, with the appointment of the “overseer” as the one in charge, there is a presumption that this is also a position with an interface with “outside”. It involves contact in the public sphere, as the congregation’s spokesperson in relations beyond the congregation's boundaries.

If we now look carefully at the listed criteria we can note that these are characteristics to be aspired to by all and that such servants are to possess these in a way that is readily recognisable from their deeds.

The congregation of believers is not assumed to be perfect - the criteria as spelled out for both forms of service seem to suggest that such “overseers” and “ministers” have avoided various temptations: they are temperate; they have perspective; they are able to conduct themselves in a dignified and non-hypocritical way; they can openly and freely offer hospitality; they don't have to apologise for scandals associated with their family circle; they are teachable and so on.