The Apostle Paul, in his later years, writes clearly and succinctly regarding the need for fathers in the local church (see I Tim 3, Titus 1). Please forgive me if I don’t add: “fathers (and mothers)” in this setting. Paul, as we will see, was not ambiguous or vague or bashful regarding this subject!
Paul writes to Timothy, a co-apostle, who was responsible for a network of house churches in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8,19) but which were being undermined by men teaching “strange doctrines”. (cf. 1:3 “… instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrine”; 1:6 “some men straying from these things”; 1:20 “Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan”; 4:3 “men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods”; 5:24 “the sins of some men are quite evident”)
The church in Ephesus was under attack and Paul addresses the “false teachers/false elders” who were causing it and points to the type of men qualified to take their place:
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife… He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)… Deacons, like wise, must be men of dignity, not double tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain… Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well (I Tim 3: 1-12 NASB)
1. “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”
Men, you can (and should) aspire to eldership (“overseership”) in the local church, but you must also meet its qualifications. Wanting to oversee Jesus’ church is a fine work, a noble task! Paul seems to highlight this thought even more by saying it is a “trustworthy statement”.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit throughout the church are for healing, teaching, administration and prophesying, etc. These are spiritual gifts that (evidently) come without qualifications, but eldership is never called a gift and there were always “pre-requisites” which followed the topic of eldership. Call them the “nuts and bolts” of leading a small flock. (I Tim 3/Titus 1).
In the text to follow, Paul will spell out exactly the type of men he is looking for.
2. “An overseer, then… must be the husband of one wife… one who manages his own household well.”
This passage does not say perfectly, but well… which should cause all men everywhere to breathe a HUGE sigh of relief! It also implies that the man had a family (ie. wife and children) and that he was leading first his own family well before he could lead the house church.
If you have come to grasp a house church paradigm in any way, shape or form, then this charge comes as no surprise. But please mark the text carefully here: When Paul wrote that an elder “must the husband of one wife” and “he must be one who manages his own household well”, our first thought should not be: “What does this say in the Greek?” and come up with our own unique interpretations but ask the single question: “What did the original audience interpret this to mean?”
I think the answer is clear: an overseer is the husband of one wife and manages his household well. As much as our reasoning and flesh say otherwise, “It can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then”.
Of course there will always be exceptions to any biblical principal (i.e. church leaders who have no children, a student only church on a local campus, a female only underground house church in China, etc.) but I write here about the principle of “elders-fathers” and not the exception.
3. “Keeping his children under control with all dignity.”
Here Paul explains what he means by “managing your household well”. He points to the children: having children is like a training ground (read: boot camp) for managing and serving the local house church.
Another way to say it is: “Show me a man’s children and I can tell you how the church under his care looks like.”
My friend Rob has six children! (Three of them are picture above.) I have known Rob over 20 years. I can tell (almost exactly) what a home church would “look like and feel like” just because I know Rob and have met his children. I could tell you what the values of the church are, what are their passions. I could see how the children treat each other – either with kindness and respect or with harshness and rudeness – and I can carry over that picture to the fellowship of believers.
In closing, I want to admit that taking a “quick look” at these scriptures is difficult in today’s church environment, especially with such issues as leadership in the local church. We all carry so much of our own personal background and baggage into the NT. A big difference will even be seen from one generation to the next. For example, I was born in 1958, but those of my peers born in 1948 or 1968 may see the same situation in a completely different light… all, of course, using the same NT text!
Bill Johnson writes insightfully about this subject in When Heaven Invades Earth:
“I don’t want to discount a regular disciplined approach to study, or certainly those wonderful study tools, as it is God who gives us the hunger to learn. But in reality, the Bible is a closed book. Anything I can get from the Word without God will not change my life. It is a closed book to ensure that I remain dependent on the Holy Spirit. It is that desperate approach to Scriptures that delights the heart of God.”
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,