When Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, Timothy was in Ephesus dealing with false teachers and restoring order to the Macedonian churches. Unlike Titus who was sent to brand new churches, Timothy was working in established churches that had gotten off track, and Timothy needed to know how their leaders should behave. This chapter, particularly verses 1-7 generated controversy in later years, controversy that I have seen, been in the middle of and dealt with over my years in church leadership.
You will note that the NIV leads this section with the heading “Qualifications for Overseers and Deacons” and this is one of the difficulties of the section, for the word “qualifications” leads to many disagreements.
“Qualifications” is a word that Paul’s text does not contain; it is a matter of conjecture or interpretation. Consequently, if we assume that these are outright qualifications, how far do we go in their enforcement? I know of at least one church that has gone over a quarter century without elders because no man was ever found to meet them all. On another occasion, I saw a very good man who was nearly barred from serving because he and his wife were unable to have children of their own.
See what I mean?
In verse 2, the NIV says “faithful to his wife” but the old NIV and many other translations say “the husband of but one wife” and the Greek says “one woman man”. As a result of this confusion, many might suggest that a man who has been widowed and remarries is no longer “qualified”.
As for me, I don’t think this passage is really all that complicated, and the legalistic approach is off target entirely. It seems clear to me that Paul’s intention is that those who lead in the church, in whatever capacity, should be above reproach, honorable, decent and loving. They shouldn’t be people who will bring disrepute upon the Gospel or the Body of Christ.
This is an important thing to consider, for the positions of leadership that Paul is discussing here, especially that of elder are not found, at least under these names, in many church groups today. In the first century, the elders of a local congregation were the governing body of their respective congregations; there was no headquarters, there were no area or district authorities or annual conventions as we might understand now. These were the people who decided what would be taught and what would not in their congregations, and of course that is how the position fits in with Timothy’s mission.
I have said this many times before here; church leadership isn’t for everyone. It is a noble calling to be sure, but a leader is held to a high standard of conduct, and while neither God nor Scripture are looking for a reason to say “gotcha!” many others are looking for just that. It shouldn’t be that way, it’s really sad that it is that way, but it is the truth. With that said, however, we must be certain that our leaders lead not only well, but with unfaltering integrity at all times.