Author: Ron Graham

Study of First Timothy

Bishops and Deacons
—1Timothy 3:1-13

Verse by verse study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. In this lesson we examine chapter 3 verses 1-13, looking at bishops and deacons. Paul describes the kind of man who is suitable to appoint to the office of an elder or deacon.

First lets take a brief look at the terms Paul uses here in 1Timothy 3 when referring to the congregation's leaders.

1 Comparing the Terms Bishop and Deacon

Before we comment in particular on the terms in 1Timothy 3, here for your reference, is a table of New Testament terms for elders and deacons:

Table of terms for elders and deacons

cf 1983-4
1Timothy 3:1,  Titus 1:7, Philippians 1:1, Acts 20:28

cf 4165-8
Ephesians 4:11, 1Peter 2:25, 1Peter 5:1-4, Acts 20:28

cf 4243-7
1Peter 5:1, Titus 1:5, Acts 20:17, 1Timothy 4:14

to rule
1Thessalonians 5:12, 1Timothy 5:17

cf 1247-8
servant minister
1Timothy 3:8, Philippians 1:1

Bishop: 1Timothy 3:1-2 Paul uses the term "overseer", or in some translations "bishop" in 1Timothy 3:1-2. This is one of four terms used to describe elders or shepherds in the congregation. The term "bishop" is not self-explanatory and is for that reason perhaps not as good a translation as "overseer" which well describes the work and purpose of an elder.

Deacon: 1Timothy 3:12-13 The term "deacon" is also arcane, and the translation "servant" is probably much clearer and better because it describes the work and purpose of a deacon. He is a servant of the church who is put in charge of some activity or responsibility that needs special attention and leadership. There is a good example in Acts 6:1-7.

2 Comparing Instructions to Timothy and Titus

1Timothy 3:1-13

When we compare the instructions given here to Timothy, and the instructions about elders given to Titus (Titus 1:5-9), we apparently find something in Titus that is missing here in First Timothy, and something in Timothy that is missing there in Titus.

Believing Children

Paul told Titus that an elder must have "children who believe" or in some translations "faithful children"(Titus 1:6) and these terms are usually taken, with good reason, to mean children who are baptized believers and members of the church. This requirement for an elder's children does not occur in the instructions to Timothy.

The Missing Deacons

Paul gives Timothy instructions about both elders and deacons, but we do not find any mention of deacons in the instructions to Titus.

Some see it as a problem that Timothy (in Ephesus 1Timothy 1:3) on his instructions from Paul, would be implementing something different to Titus (in Crete Titus 1:5). Attempts are made to “reconcile” both passages. It should be noted that this perceived “problem” assumes that Timothy and Titus had never discussed the qualifications of elders and deacons with Paul, and that all they knew about the matter was what Paul wrote to them individually in the letters we have. That is not a natural assumption and is rather unlikely.

note The three-sided debate surrounding the above matter is presented point by point in the lesson "Faithful Children" in the series on eldersshow

3 Comparing the High Standing of Elders and Deacons

1Timothy 3:2-13

It is important to observe that the deaconry is not a second-rate office where second-rate men will do. The qualifications of elders and deacons are linked with the word "Likewise..." (1Timothy 3:8) showing that the qualifications for deacons set a similar high standard to those of elders. This is confirmed by Paul’s statement, "Those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing..." (1Timothy 3:13).

When we compare Paul’s description of the sort of man who makes a good elder, with his description of the sort of man who makes a good deacon, the descriptions are quite similar, and there does not appear to be any difference in the high standard set for both.

I have not taken each description or qualification and separately discussed it, because that seems to me a rather tedious and unnecessary task, since the descriptions are pretty much self explanatory.

The first description, "above reproach" (1Timothy 3:2) is a catch-all and underlies all the descriptions that follow. Elders and deacons need to be above reproach. They cannot be accused of being inexperienced, or of having shown instability in their lives, or of lacking dedication and self control, or of not being respected in the community. They are good and capable men, and have a track record of being so. If we cannot have elders and deacons like that, then we are better to have none at all, and to remain wanting until men like that can be found.

4 “Women” - Deaconesses or Deacons’ Wives?

1Timothy 3:11-12

There is debate about whether Paul was referring to the wives of deacons, or to deaconesses when he used the word "women" in verse 11. Some think that this verse should be accepted as authority for having women as deacons in the church. They tie this verse with Romans 16:1 which refers to Phoebe as "a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea". They say that "servant" here should read "deaconess". However, as much as we might wish we could find authority for deaconesses here, we cannot make the words "woman" and "servant" refer to deaconesses just by wishing them to. There needs to be pressure from the context to interpret them that way, and the context does not provide it. So it remains a speculation or an assumption, and that is no authority.

“Man”, “Woman”, “Servant”

In the Greek, there are no special words for husband or wife, they are just the words “man” and “woman”. Only from context can you tell whether “husband” or “wife” is intended. In the same way, there is no special word for deacon, it is just the word “servant” and only from context can you tell whether “deacon” is intended.

In verse 12, the Greek says, "Let those who serve be men of one woman". It is clear from the context that "Those who serve" means deacons, because many people serve in the church without being the man of one woman, so here there must be a special kind of servant in mind, namely a deacon. It is also clear from the context that "woman" means wife, because it occurs in the phrase "men of one woman" which obviously means "husbands of one wife".

This is an example of the pressure of context where the giving of a special meaning to the words “servant”, “man”, and “woman” becomes necessary to give the sense, rather than merely arbitrary.

“Women”, “Wives”, “Deaconesses”

Coming back to verse 11 the translator has to decide whether to use the word "women" or "wives" or "deaconesses" here.