What makes someone fit for service in church leadership? If this were a live class, I’d pause here and wait for your input. Typical answers are knowledgeable, spiritual, caring, punctual, gifted in some way, available, a good listener, an able evangelist, wise, has a certain charisma people are drawn too, successful, proven, and loving. Would it surprise you that the Apostle Paul’s list is quite different?
In 1st Timothy 3:1-13, Paul provides the qualifications for “overseers” (aka bishops) and deacons. Right away, we run into the problems of office and title. There is little consistency across the Kingdom of God for how these are determined or their exact role. In the church I’m a part of, these titles do not exist, yet their fundamental functions do exist.
While we’re going to lay down a little information on these two roles, the purpose is to see a larger picture. We’re not recommending a form of church government, offices, or titles.
The overseer/bishop is from the Greek “episkopes,” while “deacon” is from the Greek “diakonous.” There are two examples elsewhere in the Bible, which helps us understand these roles.
In Old Testament temple worship, there were also two roles. The priests who performed the spiritual services such as preparing the sacrifice and offering prayer. These priests were descendants of Aaron. And there were also the Levites, descendants from the tribe of Levi. The Levites were tasked with caring for the physical aspects of the tabernacle and assisting the priests.
In the book of Acts, we see similar roles in the growing fledgling church. The Apostles saw the people’s spiritual needs, and others served their physical needs (Acts 6). But this was not a rigid division. Elsewhere in the book of Acts and following, we see these roles overlap.
Taking those examples into account, we could say that overseer/bishop is similar to a priest or apostle. And that deacon is similar to the Levites and those chosen to serve the meal distribution in Acts 6.
By now, your either wondering why this matters or arguing with me over the terms. Let’s get down business. Consider 1st Timothy 3:1-13, how would you classify the traits presented? While there is a level of Biblical understanding present. We can all agree that an overwhelming majority of the qualifications are about a person’s character.
Paul writes, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity” (1 Timothy 3:2–4, NASB95) And, “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,” (1 Timothy 3:8, NASB95)
My point today is not to weaponize these verses to slice and dice those who lead and serve. Instead, all Christ-followers should be striving after these same character traits. Also, while some in your church may have an office of deacon (or similar role), we all serve (do the work of a deacon) in many ways. And we may at times also serve in a priestly fashion when we teach Sunday School, lead worship, or pray for one another. These character traits aren’t restricted to the professionals or the titled – they are for all of us.
Allow me a moment to speak to those who “sense a call” or desire to lead a church or evangelize a region. Biblical knowledge is to be desired. But certificates, diplomas, degrees, and ordination are not the primary qualifiers for leadership. Having a Christ-like character is the primary qualifier. That takes time, humility, prayer, and a large dose of love for God and for His people. Remember what Jesus said, “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26–28, NASB95)
Let’s all strive after these character traits – to be above reproach, be a faithful spouse, exercising restraint, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, free from addiction, not prone to argue, gentle, peaceable, not greedy, manage our household well, see to the welfare of our children, of good reputation in the world, dignified, not prone to quick promises or people-pleasing, steeped in the faith, and not prone to malicious gossip. Let me make this easier for you, strive to know Jesus, follow His example, and let the Holy Spirit mold your character. The result will improve our service to Christ and others.