The Qualities of Godly Leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

As we’ve been going through Paul's letter to Timothy, we've seen that there has been a problem in the movers and shakers in the church in Ephesus. False teaching and pagan practices have been creeping in, and Timothy needs to put people in positions of leadership that will safeguard orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (righteous living) for the sake of the spread of the gospel.

I’m putting our church leadership on the hot spot today. I am keenly aware of that. I am also going to challenge all of you today, because what Paul requires of leaders ought to be a standard for all of us.

Here’s another statement you may trust: if anyone is seeking a position as overseer in the church, he desires an honorable and important work. Here are the qualifications to look for in an overseer: a spotless reputation, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, sensible, respectable, welcoming to strangers (allowing them into his home), and gifted to teach.  Disqualify any drunk or violent man.

Look for a gentle man; no belligerent fellow can follow this calling. And he should be free from money lust. He should exert good control over his own household, and his children should obey and honor him.  (If someone can’t manage his own household, then how can he take care of God’s family?)

He mustn’t be someone recently converted; otherwise, he may become arrogant and fall into the devil’s condemnation. He should also be respected for his character and known as an honorable person by people outside of the church so as to avoid the pitfalls of the devil (“avoid the pit into which the devil fell).

The same standards apply to deacons: they should be dignified. Double-talking hypocrites, heavy drinkers, and those greedy for ill-gotten gain should not be considered. They should be people who hold tight to the great mystery of faith with a clear conscience. Put these deacon-candidates to the test first; and if they come through without stumbling, then send them out to serve.

Again the same applies to women (wives?) in key positions; they should also be dignified, not backstabbing gossips but self-controlled and faithful to the core. Now deacons should live faithfully as the husband of one wife and be in control of their households, including their children. Those deacons who serve well will achieve a good standing for themselves in the community and have great confidence to walk in the faith that is in Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King.

I am going to first separate the three categories of people mentioned, then walk through the qualifications.

1. Overseer/elder/pastor  Overseer is mentioned other times (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; Acts 20:17-38; Titus 1:6-7; Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11) and is often used synonymously with "elder" or “pastor”. Those three terms are sometimes used differently in churches today to make a distinction in roles in the church, but they demand the same qualifications. In a nutshell, they are responsible for the spiritual leadership and guidance of the church.  They protect and promote true doctrine and righteous living. 

2. Deacons  The office of deacons emerged as the church grew. There was too much for overseers to do; they needed another group of leaders to share the load (Acts 6:1-6).  This freed up overseers to focus on protecting and promoting true doctrine and righteous living. The deacons generally  focused on basically everything else in the church. This is not only practically demanding, it requires a level of spiritual accountability that is very similar to that of the overseers. 

3. Women (or wives) in key positions. This could have included a number of things, since women were very involved in the early church. This passage appears to be talking about deaconesses specifically, so see the previous comment on deacons. 

Now, on to the list of qualifications (which I am going to combine for the sake of time). 

Spotless reputation/ respectable/ Respected for his character; known as an honorable person by people outside of the church. 

There is an image attached to this word, a metaphor, of a boxer who is so good that his opponent can’t land a single hit. This has to do with more than just leadership within the church: there is the issue of public witness. When people both inside and outside the church hear that you are in leadership, does it make sense to them? They might not agree with your doctrine, but they ought to look at your life and think, “Yep. That was a good call. You want them to lead.” This matters, because a disgraced leader brings shame on the church and undermines the message of the gospel (3:15).

If rumors spread about bad character or actions, do people latch on to them because it’s in line with what they know, or are they skeptical – “That doesn’t sound like them.” Granted,  we aren’t perfect, and we can’t control what others think (fairly or unfairly) but does our public life rob accusations of their power or give them life?

Husband of one wife. Literally, a "one-woman man."Based on other passages of Scripture, it doesn’t seem likely Paul was saying they had to be married, or that this was a blanket ban on remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:39-40; 1 Timothy 5:14). After all, exceptions to the rule prohibiting remarriage were made in the case of adultery (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) and when an unbelieving spouse left (1 Corinthians 7:15). 

The qualification appears to be a requirement of faithfulness in marriage. Perhaps this is a way of highlighting that our private life has consequences for the church. The phrase is probably stressing that, if they are married, the quality of their marriage matters.   This does not demand perfection – that doesn’t happen on this side of heaven – but it does demand a consistent faithfulness characterized by honor, mutual submission, and sacrificial love. 

So let’s address a lurking question here: why doesn't it say the wife of one husband? Can only men be overseers? I need to address this, but since it is not the main point of my sermon (See the footnote at the end for more clarity).

Sober-minded. This doesn’t mean they could never laugh. It means they needed to be clear-headed and vigilant in overseeing the life of the church. They had to have a good head on their shoulders. 

Sensible. One meaning is ‘balanced, stable, or moderated. Not given to excess.’  This suggests the need to control impulsive behavior, not to overindulge appetites. They can’t be compulsively self-destructive in their lifestyle.  Today we might talk about all kinds of addictions: compulsive eating, gambling, shopping, online surfing, or drug and alcohol abuse. It would include controlling one’s emotions in a balanced manner.

Welcoming to strangers (allowing them into his home). Hospitality was crucial in the NT culture, and even more so in the church. This was different than just inviting people over for lunch (though it could include that). It had more to do with a call to show honor towards everyone while being radically generous in caring for them with all your resources. All believers were to practice hospitality (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9; Titus 1:8).

Gifted to teach. Considering the problem of false teaching going on in Ephesus, this qualification would include some ability to be able to present solid doctrinal teaching (5:17; 2 Timothy 2:1) and show why false teaching was wrong (2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9). There is a division of labor among the elders alluded to in 5:17; this suggests the ability to publically teach or preach might not need not be the strong suit of all the overseers, but it would include the ability to do this informally. 

Not drunk or violent. That means exactly what it says. Don’t live like you are in a reality show ☺

Gentle; not belligerent. Not one who picks a fight. There is an ability to absorb personality flaws and differing opinions with graciousness. An overseer who is thin-skinned and can’t take criticism, or who can’t seem to ever acknowledge the possibility that he might be wrong, or who causes controversy not by defending true doctrine but by failing to consider if he is gracious is going to cause problems. 

They must be fair and reasonable. I keep coming back to this summary: they must be safe physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in their attitude and demeanor.

Free from money lust. Don’t be greedy. Be generous. We can’t serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

Exerts good control over his own household, and his children should obey and honor him. A household at this time would have included the wife, children, maybe extended family and servants (if you had the money). Some Christian householders in Ephesus owned slaves (think indentured servant).  Leaders in the church needed to exhibit godly leadership at home. To suggest this meant perfection would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament. I’m not sure it even means that the husband must answer for all the sins or rebelliousness of other members of the household. People have free will and make choices. But was he a godly leader? Did he offer a godly example combined with godly leadership?  Did he maintain his witness and raise the spiritual and moral bar in his home? It’s not enough to be a ‘good man’ publicly; he must be so privately as well.

Not recently converted (or he will become arrogant). The apostle's term means puffed up, a metaphor that reminds us of a balloon. It’s is light, and has nothing in it but air.

Part of the danger with new converts is that they can think they must be spiritually awesome because they are leap-frogging over people who have been Christians for longer than they have. This does not suggest that leaders must be chosen based on the ones who have been saved the longest; after all, we all have different gifts and callings. Perhaps the question to ask is this: do they want to be a leader because they want the reputation? Or so they can have power? Or because they think they are awesome? That’s a bad sign. If they are chosen to lead because they are spiritually mature enough to step into their gift of leadership, that’s a good sign.  Honestly, if leaders generally feel like they are in over their head, that’s probably a good sign, because they are. It’s only with God’s supernatural help that they will succeed.

Not double-talking hypocrites. They shouldn’t be two-faced or lead a double life. Their stated belief and their lifestyles need to match. They shouldn’t ‘talk out of both sides of their mouth,’ representing themselves one way and then another depending on their audience.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ‘be all things to all people’ as Paul did. He was good at presenting the Gospel in a variety of ways that often looked very different. We are talking here about not being a person whose witness for Christ ebbs and flows depending on the audience.

Holding tight to faith with a clear conscience. They should be grounded in true doctrine, not easily led astray by false teachers. Once again, true faith leads to right conduct. Doctrine matters, because ideas have consequences. 

Not backstabbing gossips. That’s pretty blunt. Keep in mind what we talked about last week: gossip was a problem in this community. No wonder he calls it out.

So that’s the standard for leaders in the church. It’s also the bar that is raised for all of us. You don’t have to be in church leadership to feel the weight of this. So how do shoot for this without becoming wrapped up in a legalistic rat race?

  •  Pray ‘with upraised arms.’ I love the image from last week: open before God and others about the reality of our lives. It symbolizes humility; it requests inspection of hands and heart. We surrender our integrity, reputation and public witness to the scrutiny of God and others. 
  • Immerse ourselves in Scripture. With all the commands about clinging to doctrine, we must be students of the Word. Read the Bible, commentaries, books. Listen to podcasts. Study deeply, widely, and with discernment. [Note: I don't know of any Christian leader with whom I agree about everything. We unite on the creedal core of the faith, but not necessarily on secondary issues.]
  • Submit to accountability in church community. We need accountability on our doctrine and our lives. We can deceive ourselves pretty easily about how we are doing. We must live in humble, submitted community.
  • Praise God for doing the work we can’t while doing the work we can. I’ve used the phrase before: God demands that we put ‘sweat equity’ into our faith. God does all the work we can’t, but he has given us the privilege and responsibility of, to use Paul’s words, running the race and fighting the good fight. Getting saved doesn’t erase our reputation; being a Christian does not guarantee everyone will now admire us. God won’t magically give us a good reputation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t illuminate Scripture we don’t read. God will empower us miraculously, but we have a responsibility too. 



  Let’s first give some context to what was happening in the early church.

  • Women were elevated in the early church that was unprecedented in those cultures, including Judaism.  
  • Jesus had women who sat at his feet, suggesting he taught them as disciples, which was remarkably unusual. 
  • Paul insisted women be educated in the church in a time when nobody educated women. 
  • Women were so prevalent in the early church that the Romans mocked the church for having so many women. 
  • At a time when Jewish men thanked God they were not women, Jesus appeared to women first after his Resurrection, and Paul insisted that in Christ there was no “male or female.” 
  • We see women as deaconesses, prophetesses, and evangelists, co-workers with Paul, teachers, and perhaps even in an apostolic role .
  • Wealthy women were patrons who hosted house churches and would have been very involved. 

It is crucial that we understand that women flocked to the church because it was a haven of safety and opportunity, and it offered them a value, worth and dignity that was unprecedented.  Here's a brief list of how women were elevated in both worth and role in the New Testament, beginning with the life and ministry of Jesus.

  • The angel appeared to Mary, and everyone had to take her word even though women were considered unreliable liars in Jewish community.
  • Jesus' disciples included several women, which was highly unusual (Luke 8:1-3)
  • Christ's first clearly identifies himself as the true Messiah to the Samaritan woman (John 4:25-26).
  • He treated female outcasts with dignity (Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 7:37-50; John 4:7-27).
  • Jesus appeared to women first after His resurrection as eyewitnesses.
  • At Pentecost, women were there praying with the other disciples (Acts 1:12-14). They clearly understood sound doctrine and experienced spiritual giftedness (Acts 18:26; 21:8-9).
  • Paul ministered alongside women (Philippians 4:3).
  • Paul applauded their faithfulness and giftedness (Romans 16:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:5
  • Couples evangelized with him (1 Cor. 16:3)
  • Paul says that Andronicus and Junias labored with Paul in apostolic work (Romans 16:7)
  • The church in Philippi met in the house of Lydia, a seller of purple cloth. Paul’s visit to her suggests she had a leadership role of some sort (Acts 16:35-40).
  • Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2) is called a deacon and a leader.
  • Priscilla, along with her husband, taught Apollos (Acts 18:26).
  • The four daughters of Philip appear in Acts 21:9 as prophetesses. Eusebius viewed these daughters as “belonging to the first stage of apostolic succession.”
  • When the Roman governor Pliny the Younger interrogated church leaders, he included two slave women called ministrae (deacons).
  • Clement of Alexandria wrote that the apostles were accompanied on missionary journeys by women specifically to preach to women.
  • Jerome (330’s) was so impressed with Roman women studying with him that he sent some church elders to one of them, Marcella, to resolve a question of hermeneutics.
  • Augustine (400’s) claimed that Christian women were wiser in spiritual matters than were many philosophers.
  • Fabiola founded the first Christian hospital in Europe.

There is one position in church that women did not hold in the New Testament: overseer (elder or pastor). Was that a timely command put in place because of cultural dynamics, or was that a timeless command that is rooted in a theology of church leadership? Christians attempting to read the Bible accurately disagree about this, sometimes very vigorously.

One thing is clear.

This is clearly about roles in the church, not inherent worth. In the same way we see the Trinity having different roles with no devaluation of worth, men and women have roles in the church without devaluation of worth. There is no sense anywhere in Scripture that one’s sex is connected with being greater or lesser as a human being.  This is about roles. Men and women are egalitarian (equal) in worth while being complementarian in roles.  

If a man reads this and thinks, “I am clearly more awesome than women,” he has totally missed the point. If a woman reads this and thinks, “Crap. I’m not as good as a man in the eyes of God,” they have missed the point also. This is about roles, not worth. 

I have read quite a bit of the discussion among Christians about how to understand this passage, and there is not settled agreement. However, I do know that for most of the past 2,000 years, the church has generally (though not entirely) viewed this distinct role of men as ‘overseers’ in the church as a timeless command for the church. CLG has submitted itself to the weight of the historical church’s interpretation of this passage, as do I.