1 Timothy 3:1-16 — “Bishops” and “Deacons” in Context

Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 9 (1 Timothy 3:1-16)

by Reta Halteman Finger

Ruins in Ephesus
Ruins in Ephesus

The author of 1 Timothy has a headful of advice for his churches. After telling both men and women how to behave when they gather for worship in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, (Lessons 7 and 8), he moves to another topic in 1 Timothy 3:1-16 by listing job qualifications for two kinds of church leaders: the episkopos (3:1-7) and the diakonos (3:8-13). The chapter ends with a transition paragraph (3:14-16), before moving to the next instructions.

Although the NRSV uses the term “bishop” for the Greek episkopos, Annette Huizenga joins others to translate it more accurately as “overseer,” or “supervisor.” “The church structure represented in the Pastorals does not seem to have evolved to having ritually appointed ‘offices,’ which begins later in church history” (p. 32). Benjamin Fiore, S. J., affirms that this is not the “monarchical bishop” role that will develop later (p. 74).

Even so, the term episkopos is used only five times in the New Testament and almost entirely in the later writings—once each in Philippians, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, and Titus. The NRSV uses “overseers” for episkopoi (plural) in Acts 20:28. “Overseers” and “helpers” are more appropriate to Paul’s context in Philippians 1:1 than the more hierarchical titles of “bishop” or “deacon.” Paul Zehr notes that these terms are never used for traveling missionaries, who are instead called apostles, prophets, or teachers (p. 78). Episkopos and diakonos were common roles in Greco-Roman culture, not primarily religious titles.

When is a deacon not a deacon?

The second type of leader is a diakonos, a term used for “helper,” or “assistant.” In connection with a meal, it refers to table service. The NRSV uses “deacon,” which “implies a church office that has developed over time into a variety of meanings and responsibilities” (Huizenga, p. 35). In this context, diakonos suggests “some special role, but we do not know the exact duties of these helpers, nor what their relationship was to the overseers.” Huizenga’s preferred translation is “server” or “assistant” (p. 35).

One thing is clear: an episkopos must be a man, since one of his tasks is teaching (from which women are barred) and because he is a husband (1 Tim. 3:2). Diakonoi are also men with wives. However, verse 11 refers to women who “likewise” are held to the same ethical standards as men and also seem to be “servers.” Some commentators assume they are wives of the diakonoi, but Jouette Bassler thinks the term “likewise” implies a parallel role to the male servers (p. 70). There are no marriage requirements for these women, but they may be among the widows discussed later in 1 Timothy 5:9-16. If this verse does refer to female deacons, there is precedent in Romans 16:1-2, where Paul names Phoebe as a diakonos.

Who qualifies for leadership roles?

Besides being male, what are the qualifications of an overseer in the churches of Ephesus around CE 75-125? Most commentators observe how little is said about the role itself. It calls for good teaching ability and management skills as proved by a man managing his own household (3:2, 4-5), but otherwise the main concern is the upstanding character of the overseer. One gets a picture of a mature, well-behaved man who has been a believer for some years and who manages a fairly large household. Aside from a few theological references, this description reflects typical Greco-Roman values of household management (as observed in previous lessons). At the same time, it eliminates not only women from this role but the great majority of Christian men as well: male slaves, and lower-class free and freedmen who live at subsistence level in tiny tenement apartments.

Persons identified as diakonoi likewise must be of good character and competent managers of their families. Otherwise, there is no specific job description for these helpers.

We should also ask why the marriage qualification for men in either role is important enough to name near the top of each list? The NRSV says “married only once” or, literally in Greek, “the husband of one wife” (3:2, 12). Among various definitions, Huizenga prefers two: (1) a faithful monogamous man married only once to a woman still alive; or (2) a widower who remains faithful to the memory of his wife by not remarrying (p. 33).

Thus far I have read little about why this marriage qualification was so essential for these leadership roles. I suspect it is the one item that differs significantly from pagan Roman culture, which assumes sexual freedom for married men but demands chastity from wives for the sake of their husbands’ legitimate children. In this case, we see evidence of Jewish influence in these mixed Gentile/Jewish churches: the seventh commandment for men not to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).

Is 1 Timothy “unbiblical”?

Overall, why is the author of this letter so concerned to shape the Ephesian churches in the mold of Roman ideals of dignified, socially respectable, patriarchal household management?

Such instructions differ widely from the social-reversal teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the countercultural theology in Paul’s undisputed letters. They only make sense in light of the intra-church conflict described in 1 Timothy 1:3-20. Organizations in chaos may for a time need quiet, restrained leaders who are good managers and don’t make things worse. But danger lies in canonizing them for the church in all times and places.

“Lifted out of context and reified,” declares Thomas Long, this picture can become “deeply antithetical to the gospel.” Long contrasts it to the father in the story of the prodigal son, a figure who can be compared to God. Yet he is a parent “having trouble managing his own household, whose younger son was in full rebellion, and whose older son seethed with resentment.” But when the son appeared, “this father threw all protocols of quiet dignity out the window, hiked up his skirt, and raced with crazy love and unbounded joy toward his lost son” (p. 95).

The purpose of the letter

A transition paragraph closes the chapter (1 Tim: 3:14-16). Paul’s persona appears with the realistic warning that he may be delayed (!), so the above instructions are “so you [Timothy] may know how to behave in the household of God” (v. 15). Bassler devotes six pages to this paragraph (72-77), which she believes contains “two of the most significant theological passages found in this letter: the description of the church and the fragmentary Christian hymn” (p. 77). Note how the stanzas of this six-line hymn (v. 16) alternate between earth and heaven. As majestic poetry, the hymn provides a striking literary contrast to the prosaic, male-oriented descriptions of overseers and helpers.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Do you think the hymn in v. 16 is a fitting climax to this chapter on church organization?
  2. Are there circumstances today where church leaders should try to conform to instructions in 1 Timothy 3? How does your church congregation (if you have one) compare?
  3. Do you think the women of 3:11 are diakonoi in their own right or the wives of the assistants?

Sources used

Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Fiore, Banjamin, S. J. The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, Titus. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Long, Thomas G. 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Zehr, Paul. 1 & 2 Timothy Titus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.