elders: what’s happening in ‘the lists?’


We’ve attempted to broadly categorize the words and phrases contained within the two most frequently referenced lists of qualifications for elders among God’s people (1 Timothy 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9). To those lists we’ve also drawn attention to two texts that are all too often neglected (1 Tim. 5.17-22; 1 Pet. 5.1-5). Having done this, we’re now prepared to zoom in and look at the words and thoughts in these four texts in a bit more detail.

However, before we do that, we should note that the apostle Paul is simultaneously doing two things as he constructs the better known texts (1 Tim. 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9). First, the contents of the lists he is authoring is not at all unique to Christian thinking. First-century readers would have been quite familiar with such lists.

“We find here the sort of list typical of Greco-Roman moral discourse, found in inventories of virtues and vices, in catalogues of hardships, and in polemic.” (Luke Timothy Johnson; The First and Second Letters of Timothy; p.213)

Further, as Paul creates these lists, he is deliberately searching for, and pointing out, the ideals of good things he can see respected by the culture surrounding, and making up, the population of the churches ministered to by Timothy and Titus. For example with the list of 1 Timothy 3 specifically in view, James W. Thompson writes:

“The list enumerates qualities that ancient people highly respected in religious and secular contexts. Indeed, several attributes listed also appear in an ancient list of qualities of the good general.” (The Transforming Word, p.992)

And as M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock put it in The People’s New Testament Commentary:

“All of the following sixteen virtues are found in typical lists of the qualifications expected of civic and military leaders in the Hellenistic world.” (p.661)

Or as Carl R. Holladay notes:

“To require that one love goodness (philagathos) and be prudent (sophron), upright (dikaios), and devout (hosios) identifies qualities highly prized within the Hellenistic culture.” (A Critical Introduction to the New Testament; p.425)

There is precious little that is distinctly “Christian” about the concepts Paul includes in his two lists in 1 Timothy and Titus. Paul is not revealing new, surprising, or dramatic concepts, rather in effect, is saying “Both believers and those yet to believe know and understand what sort of people are truly qualified to lead other people.

Second, while finding points of resonance with the surrounding culture and appealing to the common understanding of what is truly exemplary moral character, Paul is also selecting words and concepts that strongly contrast with the characteristics of the opponents and generally unhelpful characters Timothy and Titus face in their particular ministries in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1.3) and Crete (Titus 1.5), respectively. We’ll make note of such contrasts as we work through the lists in detail in the coming posts in this series, only noting here what one well-known New Testament scholar has rightly observed:

“… the message of the chapter [1 Timothy 3] is missed if the reader does not interpret it in light of the Ephesian situation. Almost every quality Paul specifies here [1 Timothy] has its negative counterpart in the Ephesian opponents. They are bringing the church into disrepute, so at the head of the list Paul says that a church leader must be above reproach. They are teaching only for financial gain; Paul says that an overseer must not be greedy or a lover of money. They are promiscuous; Paul says the overseer must be a ‘one-woman’ man. Once a full picture of the opponents is developed, chap. 3 becomes one of the strongest arguments that the PE [Pastoral Epistles; 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus] are directed toward a specific historical problem and should be understood in light of that situation. (William D. Mounce; Pastoral Epistles: Word Biblical Commentary, p.153)

And so, as Paul writes Timothy and Titus, he is saying to them, “You’ll know what sort of leaders to appoint in the churches by finding people with qualities precisely the opposite of those who are giving you problems.

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