Guardians of the Church: A Reading of 1 Timothy 3:1-7

college papers

In Philippians 1:1, Paul addresses himself “to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi with the guardians and servants.” In Acts 20, Paul addresses “the elders of the church” from Ephesus and calls them to a commitment to their pastoral ministry. In this admonition, he reaffirms that it was the Holy Spirit that “set them forth as guardians” (Acts 20:28). These few references point to the organization structure of the early Christian congregations in apostolic times but provide little by way of an exposition of qualifications needed to assume such a role.

Moreover, there are approximately four terms that are used in concert when touching the topic of church leadership; their common glosses are elder, overseer (“guardian”), shepherd (“pastor”), and steward. While this connection demonstrates their interdependence upon each other to explain the function of such leaders, only two pericopes develop the qualifications with specific details.[1] These are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 which show some variation in terminology, though “the same ideas are often expressed.”[2] The former is the focus of this reading.

Understanding the qualifications for those aspiring to the episkope in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is a pressing need for the body of Christ, in general, and local congregations in particular which seek to establish their organizational model upon the pattern of the primitive church reflected in the New Testament. A reading of this passage will be accomplished in three progressions. First, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 must be understood in its connection to the previous chapters. Second, the passage must be taken as a whole along with its subdivisions. Finally, translation and reading of the passage will provide a proper understanding of the qualification of the guardians.

Evaluating the Internal Context

The context of the previous chapters must be considered. In the assumption that 1 Timothy is a genuine Pauline document, Paul is writing to Timothy in the beginning to the sixth decade of the first century A.D., to excel in his ministry of the word in Ephesus against various false teachers and treats to church life (1 Tim 4:11-16).[3]

Contextually, in the first two chapters Paul leads his letter with a reminder of his warning against false teachers and immorality (1:3-11), then balances the rebuke against against false teachers with another reminder of God’s “mercy” (1:12-17), ending with a call to wage war against false teacher and detractors (1:18-20). In the second chapter, Paul shifts into another call for action and this time in reference to prayer that it may result in, among many things, lives framed in “dignity” in matters of authority, gender roles, and domestic roles (2:2; 2:1-15; cf. 3:4, 8; Tit 2:7).

From here, Paul transitions quickly into the qualifications of the “guardians” (3:1-7) and “servants” (3:8-13) which are framed in a virtue list. As such, then, Paul uses a common literary tool to “communicate his own theological intent.”[4] “Guardians” are part of the solution to protect and lead the church.

Breaking Down 1 Timothy 3:1-7

The pericope can be subdivided into reasonable progressions beyond the broader paragraph.[5] Gordon D. Fee organizes his analysis of this passage into five progressions (3:1, 2-3, 4-5, 6, 7).[6] Others focus on the two main aspects of this section: the faithful saying (3:1) and the qualifications (3:1-7).[7] This reading will follow a three movement progression: the faithful saying (3:1), the things which must be (3:2-5), and the dangers of the Devil (3:6-7).

The first progression is based upon the introductory statement of 3:1, which is used elsewhere in the letter (1:15, 4:9). The second progression is established by the leading statement regarding the things which are “fitting” (or “necessary”) “to be” (i.e. the qualifications) in 3:2, introducing the virtue list which technically concludes in verse 7.

However, 3:6-7 are unique in the section because they set up two warnings in connection with two qualifications (“not a new convert” and “a good testimony from non-Christians”). For this reason, these last verses are seen as a final progression.

An outline of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is as follows:

  1. The Faithful Saying (3:1)
  2. What the Guardian Must Be (3:2-5)
  3. Two Warnings for the Guardians (3:6-7)

A Reading of 1 Timothy 3:1-7

A reading and translation of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 a proper appreciation of the flow and meaning can be gained with the intention of having true “guardians” of church based upon the fifteen virtues in the apostle Paul’s list.

The First Progression. The first section of the pericope begins with no particle of transition or connective conjunction;[8] instead, 3:1 begins with the introductory slogan, “The statement is true” (pistos ho logos).

The nominatives stand grammatically separate, and the adjective πιστὸς stands in the predicate position to ho logos. Robertson disagrees with this slogan beginning the section; instead, he affirms this “phrase points to the preceding words (not like 1:15) and should close the preceding paragraph.”[9] In brief response, the “faithful saying” better introduces the protasis, “if someone aspires…,” in the present simple conditional clause in 3:1b.[10] In the end, the phrase is used to emphasize the following truth:[11] “If someone aspires to the responsibility of a guardian, he desires to secure a good work” (3:1b).

The second half of the verse contains the trustworthy maxim. First, consider the logic of 3:1b. As previously mention, it is a present simple conditional statement. The present middle indicative protasis, ei tis and oregetai, includes within it the personal emotional interest (lit. “I stretch myself to reach”)[12] of the one “aspiring to the responsibility of a guardian.” The verb oregetai takes the genitive episkopes as its direct object which suggests that episkopes defines what is the aspiration.[13] It is the episkopes and “no other” which serves as the root idea of the verb.[14]

The present active indicative apodosis, kalou ergou epithumei, portrays the simple consequence, “he desires to secure a good work.”  Another verb of emotion, epithumei likewise has a genitive as its direct object.[15] This verb is often associated with an inordinate emotion (i.e. sexual lust, covet, etc.), but in this instance the connotation of a positive desire as colored by its object “a good work.”

Second, there is a need to briefly explain why the term “guardian” (episkopos) and the phrase “responsibility of a guardian” (episkope) has been selected over its contemporary gloss “overseer” and “office of an overseer.” In brief, the New Testament use of these terms does not inherently suggest an “office” (status) as they do stress a responsibility (function). There is evidence in the papyri showing the use as a title and an office;[16] however, its contextual use in the New Testament emphasizes function over office.[17] Categories of use in the New Testament such as “one being present watching over” to care or to punish (Luke 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12), or “a position of responsibility” due to an assignment (Acts 1:20), and the act of “supervision.”[18]

In 1 Peter 2:25, God is both shepherd and “guardian” of our souls; moreover, in 1 Peter 5:2 “being guardians” displays the function of “overseeing.”[19] Agreeably, it does seem “important to try to combine the concepts of both service and leadership […] the responsibility of caring for the needs of a congregation as well as directing the activities of the membership.”[20] This is not an appeal for an exclusive gloss, but an attempt to emphasize the function of “guardian.”

Second Progression. In the second progression of 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul begins his virtue list regarding the “guardian” of the church of God (3:2-5). After the “faithful saying” of 3:1a, the impersonal present active indicative verb of obligation dei (lit. “it is necessary”) and oun transitions Paul’s readers to the virtue list with, “It is, then, fitting” (3:2). There is also the difficulty due to the wide “colloquial” use of dei, because it complicates how to view the nature of the obligation. Generally, it refers to “something that happens because” it is “fitting” (due to internal or external reasons) and is often followed by an infinitive verb as here (einai).[21]

In such a case, the infinitive may function as “the subject of a finite verb”[22] as it has been rendered here: “It is, then, fitting to be.” However, due to English grammar, the subject of the infinitive (ton episkopon) is translated along with the leading verb dei;[23] hence, “It is, then, fitting for the guardian to be.” The semantic force here displayed is what Wallace calls the “potential indicative” for it places an emphasis on the desire, not upon the doing.[24] This is a blanket declarative statement for each adjectival qualification.[25]

In keeping with what is fitting, the “guardian” (ton episkopon) stands as a representative of this class of church leadership.[26] In other words, in keeping with a virtue list which will be compared or contrasted against “deacons” or false teachers, the category of the “guardian” is in focus.  From 3:2b-5, Paul develops thirteen different qualifications, all adjectival words or participles in the accusative case. With a few exceptions, the terms are straightforward. Paul writes:

It is, then, fitting for the guardian to be: irreproachable, a-man-of-one-woman, clear-headed (i.e. wineless), self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, skilled in teaching, not quarrelsome, not combative, but forbearing, peaceable, not a lover of money, one who is engaged in the care of his own household, having children in submission with all dignity (but if he does not know how to care for his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?). (1 Tim 3:2-5 AT)

Of the thirteen terms enlisted above, three phrases were of interest in this reading. The most controversial phrase is “a-man-of-one-woman” (mias yunaikos andra, cf. 3:12, 5:12).[27] The anarthrous accusative andra is modified by the genitive mias gunaikos. Before any theological meaning can be derived from the phrase, the syntactical limits of the phrase must be established. It seems a qualitative[28] or descriptive genitive,[29] or a possessive genitive[30] are three of the best options. Of these three, a qualitative or descriptive genitive is probably under consideration as each of these uses underscores character over mere possession of a woman or wife.[31]

The second term, emphasizes the type of character which has as its primary meaning to be free of the influence of wine (i.e. wineless);[32] consequently, as a secondary meaning portrays a person who is “level-headed”[33] and “clear-headed.”[34] This is in contrast to the negative “not quarrelsome” (me paroinon) which has a primary meaning of being “given to drinking too much wine” as in being “addicted to wine;”[35] consequently, this refers to a person who would is abusive or brash, everything a guardian is not supposed to be.

The third phrase, is a present middle participle meaning “one who is engaged in the care of his own household” it describes “involvement or leadership” which must first be demonstrated “in house;” hence, the potential “guardian” must show himself to be an “active” family man who plays an important role in training and developing his children.[36] This last phrase is the subject of a parenthetical statement (3:5). In this statement, the apostle Paul forms a question in a present simple conditional sentence setting a portrayal of the sort of “guardianship” God intends to occur. “If he does not know how to care for his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?” In other words, if one has not been involved at home to personally mature and develop those in their care, the portrayal goes, the “guardian” of the church will not have the “how to” of experience.

The Third Progression. Finally, the last two verses (3:6-7) reflect the final progression with two strong warnings of how well-intended leadership can go bad. This last progression is built upon dei and einai from 3:2. It is, then, fitting for the guardian to not be “a new convert, so that he may not —having become conceited— fall into the judgment of the Devil” (3:6). The warning against a newly planted Christian becoming a “guardian” is seen in the hina and subjunctive clause, reflecting the potential result of such a fall into judgment. The same sort of warning closes the pericope: “But, it is also fitting to have a good testimony from non-Christians, so that he may not fall into the disgrace and snare of the Devil” (3:7).[37]

The section closes with a few similarities from within the pericope (3:1-7), in that a combination of an impersonal present active verb dei (lit. “it is necessary”) and the present active infinitive echein (lit. “to have”): “it is fitting to have.” The subject of the infinitive is the accusative “a good testimony” modified with the genitive of source “from non-Christians.” The point is, there is a certain fall out which results if these qualifications are not met.

The genitive of source is in contrast to the failures or work of the Devil, which depends upon how one reads tou diabolou in 3:6 and 7. In connection with 3:6-7, the genitive of tou diabolou shows there is a connection between the two “he may fall” statements and the Devil. What that connection may be is debated. The Devil may be the subject of the condemnation received from God or condemnation one endures at the hands of Satan (3:6).[38] It is read here with the former in mind; namely, in 3:6 the warning is against judgment as a result of arrogance. This is genitive of possession (“the Devil’s guilty verdict”) and it fits with the overall biblical context of the Devil’s standing before God (John 16:11).

In 3:7, there is a good reason to consider the genitive of agency or source. The context is of having a good testimony, which has its hindrances; namely, those which are done by or have their origin from tou diabolou (lit. “the adversary”). The Devil is ready to bring a shameful charge or a snare upon a would-be “guardian” to entrap him so that he falls. In both cases, the Devil stands as a warning to a prospective guardian. The Devil is the “poster child” for falling prey to arrogance, and in 3:7 stands as an ever-present enemy to those seeking to establish marturian kalen.

Concluding Thoughts

Jack P. Lewis once wrote, “Words create the patterns in which men think.”[39] It then follows that a reading and translation of this passage should help in this endeavor to think in the patterns Paul deems fitting regarding “guardians.” This reading of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 originates from a pressing need to explore the inner workings one of the two “complete” virtue lists in the New Testament for the “guardians of the church.”

The immediate context demonstrates Paul making a theological assertion about the leadership qualities of the “guardians” which reflect one who has restraint and conviction, steady relationships in the home and in the community, and is compassionate and genuine, a leader in the things which matter most in life and faith.


  1. Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005). As Carson and Moo observe, “It comes as something of a surprise to realize that, apart from the Pastoral Epistles, the New Testament has very little to say about it (and with it does, it speaks of forms like the apostle or the prophet, which, at least in their narrowest definitions, have ceased to exist). It is accordingly important that 1 Timothy has so much to say about ministers —more, indeed, than has any other New Testament writing” (575). The same can be said for the episkopos.
  2. Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 323.
  3. Carson and Moo, An Introduction, 571.
  4. David A. Mappes, “Moral Virtues Associated with Eldership,” BSac 160 (April-June 2003): 211.
  5. There are many popular commentaries that outline 1 Timothy broadly then focus verse by verse. David Lipscomb and J. W. Shepherd, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. J.W. Shepherd (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1942), Wayne Jackson, Before I Die: Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 2007), Denny Petrillo, Commentary on 1, 2 Timothy (Abilene, TX: Quality Publications, 1998), Carl Spain, The Letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1970), William E. Vine, “1 Timothy,” volume 3 of The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 1996).
  6. Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (1988; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 79-83.
  7. J. W. Roberts, Letters to Timothy (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1961), Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (1924; repr., Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1959), Walter L. Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999).
  8. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon (1937; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 576.
  9. Archibald T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (1931; repr., Nashville, TN: Broadman, n.d.), 4:572. This is also how the editorial committee of the NA28 have rendered the paragraph.
  10. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 79. Herbert W. Smyth, A Greek Grammar for Colleges (New York, NY: American Book Company, 1920), par. 2297. Lock, Pastoral Epistles, 35.
  11. Spain, The Letters of Paul, 34-35.
  12. BDAG 721; Archibald T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1923; repr., Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1934), 508.
  13. James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979). “Some verbs have a root idea (i.e. meaning) which is so closely related to the root idea of the genitive (i.e. description, definition) that they take their direct object in the genitive rather than the accusative case” (20).
  14. Archibald T. Robertson and W. Hersey Davis, A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament, 10th ed. (1958; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 230; cf. Robertson, Grammar, 506.
  15. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 132. Wallace advises not to make much out of this construction because it generally takes a genitive direct object.
  16. G. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies, trans. Alexander Grieve (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 230-31.
  17. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914-1929; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), MM 244-45.
  18. BDAG 379.
  19. L&N 35.43.
  20. L&N 53.71. Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, revised ed. (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1993). Newman provides the following glosses: “overseer, guardian, supervisor” (72).
  21. BDAG 214.
  22. Ernest De witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (1900; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1994), 153.
  23. Burton, Syntax, 153.
  24. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 451-52. Wallace goes on to say that it “is important to understand that normal force of the indicative mood is not thereby denied; rather, the assertion is simply in the desire, not the doing. Thus, this usage is really a subcategory of the declarative indicative” (451). This seems to be the force here and in 3:6 (dei de and echein).
  25. Robertson, Grammar, 1168-72.
  26. Harvey E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey. A Manuel Grammar of the Greek New Testament (1927; repr., New York, NY: Macmillan, 1957), 144. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (1994; repr., London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2005). Porter calls this the “categorical” use of the article, whereby, the article makes a substantive represent a category of items (104-105).
  27. Ed Glasscock, “‘The Husband of one Wife’ Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2.” BSac 140 (July-Sept. 1983): 244-58, Robert L. Saucy, “The Husband of One Wife.” BSac 131 (July-Sept. 1974): 229-40.
  28. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 86-88.
  29. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 79-81.
  30. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 81-83.
  31. J. W. Roberts, “Exegetical Helps,” ResQ 2.3 (1958): 128-131. Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Hermeneutical and Exegetical Challenges in Interpreting the Pastoral Epistles,” Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2010), 1-27.
  32. MM 426.
  33. BDAG 672.
  34. Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski, A Reader’s Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 459.
  35. BDAG 780.
  36. Ron Clark, “Family Management or Involvement? Paul’s Use of Proistemi in 1 Timothy 3 as a Requirement for Church Leadership,” Stone-Campbell Journal 9 (Fall 2006): 251.
  37. Newport J. D. White, EGT 4:114. There “is something blameworthy in a man’s character if the consensus of outside opinion be unfavorable to him; no matter how much he may be admired and respected by his own party.”
  38. White, EGT 4:114.
  39. Jack P. Lewis, Leadership Questions Confronting the Church (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1985), 11-12.

One thought on “Guardians of the Church: A Reading of 1 Timothy 3:1-7

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Relaunch

Comments are closed.