Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the qualifications for leadership in the church (specifically for elders in 3:1-7) are vitally important. They are also not as simple as we might sometimes prefer. We generally prefer things to be neat and clean—objective and quantifiable. So it is not unusual to see the standards of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 received as a checklist which can be mindlessly applied as if black and white, requiring no judgment or wisdom.
However, Paul’s words are not intended to be received or applied in that manner. Instead, of the sixteen specific qualifications mentioned by Paul, all of them are decidedly subjective rather than objective. There is certainly one assumed qualification, that the elder be a he (tis, “anyone” in the masculine). That is the only objective characteristic described in the entire passage.
But as for the sixteen qualifications Paul lists, they are not so simple as is the gender issue.
He must be above reproach (anepilepton, lit., without reproach). But what if there are any who criticize him? Does that automatically disqualify him? Was Peter above reproach even though he denied Christ and later (temporarily) fell into a legalistic heresy? Would he have been qualified to lead in the church?
He must be, literally, a one woman man (mias gunaikos andra). Apparently, Timothy was single. Was he a one woman man even though he was unmarried? Was he qualified to lead in the church? Does one woman man refer to marital status or to character? The grammatical construction in 5:9 implies strongly that current marital condition is not in view (the widow is not currently married to one man, or by definition she would not be a widow). Current marital status would be an easy objective standard to apply, yet that is clearly not what Paul has in mind. Determining whether a man is a one woman man is not quite as objective. For example, if a man is married to one woman but has a problem with pornography, is he a one woman man? Marital status isn’t the issue.
He must be sober or restrained (nephalios). James 1:9 implies that while we must be slow to anger, there is indeed a time for anger. Ephesians 4:26 exhorts believers to be angry, yet without sin. A few verses later (4:31) we are told to put away anger. There are clearly some situational aspects to how a believer handles anger and restraint, more subjective (case by case, if you will) than objective.
He must be prudent or sensible (sophron, lit., wise thinking). If he fails in one instance to be wise thinking, is he disqualified? Doesn’t James 1:5 identify the lack of wisdom as an occasional thing with which believers have to interact? How many instances of not being prudent constitute worthiness to be described as not prudent?
He must be respectable (kosmion, translated as proper in 1 Tim 2:9). How many instances of being improper constitute being unworthy of being described as respectable. Paul admitted impropriety in Acts 23:5, though he appealed to ignorance. Still, his response was improper, and he acknowledged it. Is ignorance an excuse for being improper? Was Paul disqualified from being able to lead in the church?
He must be affectionate to strangers, or hospitable (philoxenos). How hospitable is hospitable? How generous must he be? What is the standard?
He must be didaktikos—able to teach. Are there differing degrees of teaching ability? At what point does one move from being unable to teach to being able to teach? Is there a hard and fast line? If so, what constitutes that line?
He must not be addicted to wine, or alongside wine (paroinos). It is awfully ironic that it wasn’t until Jesus and His friends arrived at the wedding at Cana that the wine ran out. Then Jesus made wine, for the purpose of its being consumed by the wedding guests. He later advocated the drinking of wine in association with remembering His death (Lk 22:20), and prophesied that He would drink wine along with His disciples in the kingdom (Mt 26:28). Now, obviously, the use of wine is to be tempered by love (Rom 14:21) and bearing the burdens of others (e.g., Gal 6:2). So, how much wine use is appropriate? And at what point is one paroinas?
He must not be a bully or violent person (plektes). At what point can one be described as a violent person? One act of violence? Two?
He must be gentle (epekeis). What is the standard for gentleness? Paul was gentle among the Thessalonians (1 Thes 2:7). Was he gentle to the Corinthians? He certainly threatened to come to them not in gentleness but with a rod (1 Cor 4:19-21). Was he gentle with the Galatians? He called them foolish and even heretical (1:8, 3:1). Are there exceptions to the rule of gentleness? If so, in what contexts and cases is non-gentleness acceptable?
He must be peaceable (amachon, lit., not contentious). Jude exhorts believers to contend or struggle earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). Paul describes us as being at war (2 Cor 10:3-5; Eph 6). He adds that we should be at peace inasmuch as it is up to us (Rom 12:18), yet implies there are instances where it is not up to us, and we will find ourselves in contentious situations.
He must be free from the affection or love of money (aphilarguron). This is perhaps the most objective of the sixteen qualifications, yet it is still difficult to identify the internal motivation of an individual, whether or not a person is striving appropriately to provide for his family (1 Tim 5:8)—a noble pursuit—or whether the striving is in fact rooted in lust (e.g., as in Jam 4:1-2). Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the two based on appearance alone.
He must be one managing his own house well (tou idiou oikou kalos proistamenon). And this is qualified by having children under control in all dignity (tekna echonta en hupotagei meta pases semnatos). At what point is one managing his household badly? One out of control act by his children? Two?
He must not be a neophutos—a newbie (or a new believer). At what point does one move from being new to being…not new? Is there a set amount of time? A set amount of maturity?
Finally, he must have a good testimony from the outside (dei de marturian kalein echein apo ton exothen). He must have good references, if you will, even from those outside the church. One? Two? What if there are some outside the church who speak poorly of him? Peter acknowledged that believers can be slandered for what is right and for what is wrong (1 Pet 3:16-17). Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.
The Responsibility of Discernment
Here is my point. God has not provided a simple, objective checklist that requires no thought. On the contrary, there is great burden and responsibility on the part of those who would appoint leaders in the church, to use discernment and wisdom as they assess whether or not the potential appointee meets the subjective standards laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. I refer to them as subjective, because the beholders (the appointers) must ultimately make the determination regarding the qualifications, and those judgments are qualitative, not quantitative.
Because we generally desire simplicity and lighter burdens, it is only natural that we would prefer more objectivity and less subjectivity. In most cases, objective trumps the subjective. But with respect to God’s standards for leadership in His church, He provides basic principles and then asks those who are appointing to apply those principles in wisdom. In these rare cases He has not provided objective quantifiable standards, rather he has left us to deal in the realm of the subjective, and He has placed upon us the burden of judging with discernment and wisdom.
In light of this we need to beware when we derive artificial checklists that go beyond the high standards of Scripture. If our morality is “higher” than what God has revealed, we are asking for trouble (or perhaps we have already found it).
Some might suggest that imposing objective standards where God has revealed only subjective ones is pharisaical. Others would counter that pharisaic thinking is only in play when one is trying to earn justification by deeds. I would suggest, along with Paul, that when we fail to recognize that the manner in which we are justified and have received the Spirit is the same manner in which we are to be “perfected” (not in or by deeds of the flesh, but by walking in the Spirit, walking in faith, Gal 3-5)—we have found real trouble.
We walk like Pharisees when we try to create objective universal standards in the (few) instances where God has only provided subjective contextual ones. Jesus taught His disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy” (Lk 12:1). Legalism does not pertain just to how we are justified, but it pertains to how we handle sanctification as well. When we miss that point, we have fallen into the hypocrisy about which Paul warns the Galatians.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.