(Old Facebook Post–Slightly edited and shared November 19, 2015.)
When we seek to understand Scripture, we should ask not only what the words say, but what they were intended to do. It is not sufficient to consider the abstract, factual meaning of words and sentences, as if reading from a dictionary or an encyclopedia. We must also consider why they were written. What difference were they intended to make? Or, to phrase it a bit differently, what actions were the words designed to perform?
(In philosophical discussions of hermeneutics, these questions are the focus of an approach called speech-act theory, but I’ll avoid technical terms.)
I’m thinking of this because I was thinking tonight about 1 Timothy 3:1:
This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. (KJV)
I have often heard this verse expounded along these lines: Paul is saying that it is good to desire to be a pastor in a church. Being a pastor is a good work, and it is a worthy goal to pursue; those who desire this work are to be affirmed for their desire. In fact, one of the qualifications for being a pastor is that you really should have a desire to be one; if you don’t have a deep inner desire for this office, then you are probably are not qualified to fill it.
Whether or not the above statements are all true—and I think evangelicals tend to err here on one side while conservative Anabaptists tend to err on the other—I that think such an exposition is missing the point of this verse.
It always makes me nervous, however, when I find myself reading a passage of Scripture in a unique way, without finding confirmation for my reading from any other interpreters. After all, here are a few prominent explanations of this verse:
An obvious but not insignificant qualification is the shepherd’s personal desire to love and care for God’s people. Paul and the first Christians applauded such willingness by creating a popular Christian saying [1 Tim. 3:1]… In brief, this early Christian saying declares the great value of the work of the office of overseer (eldership) while also encouraging those who desire this work… The first matter to consider in appointing elders is the candidate’s personal desire.” —Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership,1 emphasis added.
Before he lists the qualifications for overseers, Paul affirms the importance of their work… Those who desire to serve in this way are to be encouraged, perhaps as those who build the church with valuable materials as in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14, a task that is indeed “noble.” —Walter Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus,2 emphasis added.
Why does this statement warrant the solemn introduction of a faithful saying? Most answer that the church placed its greatest esteem on the more visible, ecstatic gifts, and the Ephesians needed to be reminded that the more practical functions such as overseer were also significant and worthy of honor… It seems, rather, that any hesitancy to accept positions of leadership by members of the Ephesian church was the result of the excess of the opponents. They were bringing reproach not only upon the church itself but also upon anyone in leadership. Perhaps as well people were hesitant to accept positions that would bring them in direct confrontation with the opponents… The church needed leaders who would do their job well, and it was therefore a good thing to aspire to the office of overseer… The word [ὀρέγεται, “desire”] describes an ‘ambitious seeking’...; whether the aspiration is good or bad is determined by the context. In our text it must be good since Paul is recommending it.” —William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles,3 emphasis added.
Notice how all three commentators above make the same exegetical slip (most clearly in the 1st and 3rd example): They slip from the biblical words about a “good work” to talking about a “good desire.”
Read 1 Timothy 3:1 again; it does not actually say that the desire is good. True, presumably the desire is good—or at least it could potentially be, since the object of the desire is explicitly affirmed as being good. But the main point of the verse, even on an abstract, factual meaning, has nothing to do with “good desires,” but with a “good work.”
(My point here is not to belittle these commentators; I have been helped immensely by them, especially by Strauch and Mounce.)
When we consider the question of what this verse is intended to do, then the real message of the verse becomes clearer.
But before we do that, let’s consider another hurdle: A concordance search for the Greek phrase behind “good works” would seem, at first reading, to affirm the commentators I’ve quoted above. This exact phrase is used elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles to describe:
- What widows should be doing if they are to be considered eligible for the “widows list” (1 Tim. 5:10).
- The behavior that potential elders should be demonstrating before they are appointed (1 Tim. 5:25).
- What rich Christians should be “rich” in (1 Tim 6:18).
- What Titus should show himself to be a pattern of (Tit. 2:7).
- What all the Cretans should be eager to do (Tit. 2:14; 3:8, 14).
In all these cases (and elsewhere in the NT, such as in Heb. 10:24), God’s people are urged to be pursuing “good works.” So doesn’t it make sense that here, too, in 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul is urging people to pursue a “good work”—this time the “good work” of an overseer?
I don’t think so. Here context is key, and two aspects of context bear consideration:
(1) First, and most importantly, notice how the following verse begins: “A bishop then must be blameless…” (KJV). Do you notice the word “then”? This word links the first two verses of 1 Timothy 3. Verse one says that the office of overseer involves a good work; verse two says that, because that office involves a good work, the overseer must be blameless. Or, to say it in reverse: Why must an overseer be blameless (v. 2)? Because he is doing a good work (v. 1).
The NASB and NET read much like the KJV. The ESV makes the connection even clearer: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…” The NIV hides the connection almost entirely: “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach…”
This link suggests something of why Paul wrote verse 1; he was not trying to lift up the office of overseer so that everyone would start filling out applications for the pastorate. Rather, he was lifting up the office of overseer in order to demonstrate why such high qualifications were required for those who filled it. Perhaps we could paraphrase: “If anyone is reaching for the chance to be an overseer, he’s reaching very high indeed!”
(2) Second, the context of the entire letter (and of all three Pastorals) is that Paul is writing to churches wracked by false teachers. Both 1 Timothy and Titus begin abruptly; after brief greetings, Paul skips the customary prayer/blessing found in most letters, and jumps right into the topic of the need for proper leadership. Here in 1 Timothy we read of false teachers who were “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:7). Similarly, in Titus 1:16 we read of false teachers who were “unfit for any good work” (“good work” here is a different, but similar Greek phrase).
This context suggests that Paul was facing a situation where unqualified people were serving as leaders in the church. In such a situation, Paul was concerned to elevate the office of the elder/overseer, reminding people of the high qualifications that were required of those who would fill it. The first and overriding qualification in both 1 Timothy and Titus is that leaders must be “above reproach.”
The problem facing Paul was not simply a lack of leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so we receive more applications!”) but a multiplication of bad leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so that only qualified persons will be allowed to lead”).
I have read this verse along these lines for quite a while, so I was delighted tonight to find a commentator who affirmed my reading:
Why does Paul cite a trustworthy saying (1)? Since this appears to be a commonly known saying, he was probably here using it to underline the importance of the overseer’s office for the benefit of those who were underestimating it. Paul sees the work as a noble task. Such an office needs the right kind of people to fit it. —Donald Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary,4 emphasis added.
(To be fair, both Strauch and Mounce also say similar things, but only after being temporarily derailed by first emphasizing the points quoted above; Guthrie never gets similarly derailed.)
Does this all matter? Well, suppose I say, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the hand of my daughter, he desires a noble lady.” Would I be content if all the young ruffians in town thought I was urging them to aspire to marry my daughter? Or might I be happier if one of them took a good look at how noble my daughter really is, then refocused his gaze inward to become the man truly qualified to win her hand?
May we read God’s Word not only to discover God’s truth, but also to discover God’s desires.
What do you think? Am I reading Paul well here? Do we need a renewed sense of how noble the task of overseeing is? (I sometimes think some conservative Anabaptists are a little too afraid of possessing a desire to shepherd–or at least of anyone saying they possess the desire.) Are there other Scripture passages where we might be understanding the words but missing the point? Share your insights in the comments below.
- Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995), 83, 187, 281. ↩
- Walter Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), Kindle location 2487. ↩
- William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 167-68. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), note on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (Logos Bible Software edition, page unknown). ↩