Epistles: Good People Needed (1 Timothy 3:1-16)

Paul gives Timothy instructions about how the church should function and how to address some problems in first-century Ephesus. In chapter 3, Paul describes the kind of people Timothy should appoint as leaders for the churches.

A virtuous person (verses 1-3)

Paul says, “Anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile” (Contemporary English Version used throughout). The Greek word translated as “church official” comes from root words meaning to “look over”; it refers to someone who looks after others. Paul does not say whether it is good or bad to desire this role; he simply says that the role is good.

Then he gives some personal qualities needed for this position: “That’s why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage.[1] They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach.…”

Paul is focusing on the person, not the duties. Being “able to teach” suggests that leaders are supposed to teach, but Paul doesn’t say much about the details. The character of the person is more important than the specific duties. If you have good people, they will be good for the church.

Paul continues the virtues needed: “They must not be heavy drinkers or troublemakers. Instead, they must be kind and gentle and not love money.” They should not be in it for the money (see also 1 Peter 5:2).

Good management (verses 4-7)

“Church officials must be in control of their own families, and they must see that their children are obedient and always respectful. If they don’t know how to control their own families, how can they look after God’s people?” The church is like a family – we are children of God, and Jesus is our brother – but a church is not exactly like a family. A person might “control” the family, but leaders “look after” the church.

Families and churches are different today from what they were in the first century. In ancient times, a “family” could include dozens of people: children and their spouses, grandchildren and servants, all living together. Culture gave the head of household (usually the oldest male) nearly absolute power over the family. First-century churches were usually small, and met in houses; they found it natural to interact as a household.

People now have different expectations of family and church leadership. The biblical culture was not perfect, and neither is ours, but we all need to work where God has placed us. Paul’s point is that leaders in the church should care for the church in a similar way as they care for their own family, and that their success in their own family is some indication of how well they will do in the church.

Paul is describing the ideal candidate – he is not creating a list in which every item must be perfectly met. We see an example of that when he writes, “They must not be new followers of the Lord. If they are, they might become proud and be doomed along with the devil.” Paul did not include that requirement for the church leaders in Crete (Titus 1), because all the believers there were new. Titus just had to pick the best he could.

Paul is not saying that all church leaders must be heads of household; a single person might be an effective leader in some cases. Similarly, personal failures 20 years ago need not disqualify a person who has more recently been a good example. Paul expects Timothy to use common sense and good judgment in the way he applies this list. If no one meets all the qualifications, then Timothy should just pick the best person he can find.

Last, Paul says, “they must be well-respected by people who are not followers. Then they won’t be trapped and disgraced by the devil.” Paul himself wouldn’t meet this qualification very well. He was frequently in trouble with religious leaders and government officials. This again shows that Paul is presenting a list of “things to look for” rather than absolute requirements.

Good assistants (verses 8-13)

Paul next describes the personal characteristics needed for another leadership role in the church – the Greek word is diakonos; the traditional translation is “deacon.” In many respects, they should be like people in the first group. These are qualities needed not just in church leaders, but in all mature Christians:

“Church officers should be serious. They must not be liars, heavy drinkers, or greedy for money. And they must have a clear conscience and hold firmly to what God has shown us about our faith.” Paul does not say that they should be able to teach; this indicates that deacons did not have a teaching role.

Paul suggests a probationary period: “They must first prove themselves. Then if no one has anything against them, they can serve as officers.” In one sense, all church leaders need to “prove themselves” through good personal conduct ahead of time. They need to be “doing the job” before they are formally appointed. Paul also seems to suggest here that the congregation has a role in approving such appointments.

Paul next mentions qualities needed by another group: “Women<“>[2] must also be serious. They must not gossip or be heavy drinkers, and they must be faithful in everything they do.” Paul will say more about the proper behavior of women in chapter 5. Here, he continues his description of a good deacon:

“Church officers must be faithful in marriage. They must be in full control of their children and everyone else in their home.” A person whose home life is chaotic would probably be unreliable in the church as well. Paul summarizes: “Those who serve well as officers will earn a good reputation and will be highly respected for their faith in Christ Jesus.”

Summary of our religion (verses 14-16)

“I hope to visit you soon,” Paul writes. “But I am writing these instructions, so that if I am delayed, you will know how everyone who belongs to God’s family ought to behave.” Most likely, Paul was never able to visit Timothy in person, but his letter could address a few urgent needs. Due to the way that the Gentile churches were developing, he saw a need to say more about Christian behavior.

Timothy knew well that grace was the basis of our salvation. But perhaps he needed to be encouraged to say more about the way that people should respond to God’s grace. The gospel of grace teaches that we should have good behavior (Titus 2:11-12). God is sharing his life with us; we are to let him live in us and change us. God gives us life, yes, but if we are going to enjoy that life, then it matters a great deal about how we choose to live.

Paul connects our behavior with the message about Christ: “After all, the church of the living God is the strong foundation of truth.” We are to reflect truth in our actions as well as in our words.

“Here is the great mystery of our religion: Christ came as a human.” Although he was divine, he was also human. “The Spirit proved that he pleased God.” As led by the Spirit, Jesus was fully obedient. “And he was seen by angels.” This is not part of the normal apostolic message; it seems to refer to angelic approval while Jesus was living on earth.

“Christ was preached to the nations. People in this world put their faith in him.” This describes the spread of the church in response to what Jesus did. “And he was taken up to glory.” This seems out of chronological sequence, but it suggests that the growth and response of the church continues to give glory to Christ.

The Greeks had a word for it: ἐπίσκοπος

The word episkopos comes from the Greek roots epi and skopos, meaning “over” and “one who looks.” It refers to someone who looks after other people. The word supervisor is similar, because it comes from Latin words for looking over. “Overseer” is the English-root equivalent. Episkopos was eventually shortened to piskop, and then became bishop, and that is the traditional translation.

The New Testament uses several words for church leaders – overseer (or bishop), elder (presbyter) and shepherd (pastor). The terms seem to be interchangeable. Peter wrote to the elders and told them to be shepherds (pastors) watching over (like a bishop) the believers (1 Peter 5:1-2). Paul gave Timothy qualities of an episkopos (1 Tim. 3:2) but not for an elder, even though Ephesus had elders (1 Tim. 5:17). In Titus, the description of elders blends right into that of bishops (Titus 1:6-9).

The Bible does not describe exactly what these leaders were to do – that may depend on local circumstances.


[1] Some translations say “married only once,” but this is misleading, since the Greek word was used for behavior within a marriage, not the number of marriages. A single person can be a good leader for the church; so can a person who has remarried after death of a spouse or a divorce.

The Greek words literally mean “a one-woman man.” Rules were often put in the masculine even if they applied to women as well. For a lengthy study of whether women can have positions of leadership in the church, see https://archive.gci.org/women.

[2] Grammatically, it is not clear whether Paul means female deacons, or the wives of the male deacons. I think that he is referring to female deacons, because it would be odd to mention qualities needed for the wife of a deacon, when Paul has said nothing about the wife of an overseer. If Paul is referring to wives, then he is also implying that they had special functions within the church, and had a distinct role of their own.

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.

This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2013. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.


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