Chapter three of the first letter to Timothy opens with “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.’” (3:1) What is this “office of overseer”? The Greek word that is translated as “overseer” is “episcopes,” which is transliterated into “episcopate” and therefore “Episcopal,” which drives our thinking to the hierarchical church structures and the hierarchically structured church with which we are all quite familiar in our own day. Though many of us may not be a part of a traditional, denominational church, it must be said that even non-traditional and non-denominational churches have authoritarian structures, whether implicit or explicit. We must be careful to avoid the importation of anachronistic thinking, in which the position of “overseer” in question here in the letter to Timothy becomes equated with the person that oversees a church in the modern sense, whether that be a pastor, a bishop, an area supervisor, or any such similar idea. This type of relatively rigid church structuring would not be a settled feature or widespread component of the first century church that gathered in private homes as a meal association that saw themselves as the ambassadors and harbingers of the kingdom of God, as a renewed humanity defined by their hope of resurrection, with worship of Jesus as God the focus of their meal-based assembly.
A ready awareness that the church assembled around a common meal forces us to understand that this “overseer” was, more than likely, the person that presided over the meal. This meal presidency, which was a familiar feature of Hellenistic meal practices, would rotate among a number of people. Ideally, it would rotate amongst the entirety of the assembly, with each member of the body taking their turn to perform the role, but naturally, not everybody would feel comfortable in such a role. Understandably then, those that undertook to serve in this capacity would be those that were comfortable presiding over meals, which would generally be those of higher social status, and who would be viewed as having more honor. Understanding this, the last thing that Paul would want is for the socially accepted systems of honor to determine the functioning of the body of Christ, so certain expectations are set for those that will enter into this role.
Paul writes that “The overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (3:2-4). If we put flesh and blood on these words, remembering that this is a letter to a real person, in a real church, full of real people, in a real community that functions according to the ideals of honor and shame, then this list of “requirements” appear to be a way to screen out those that would, according to accepted customs and practices of the wider community, normally be expected to preside over the meal assemblies of the church. Indeed, there may be specific people in mind that are subtly addressed and ruled out as overseers by what is here insisted upon. We may think this harsh, but the primary concern is the strengthening of the church body, and those who are possessive of honor outside the church are those that most need to understand the humility and the embracing of shame demanded by the kingdom of God. One way to for such people to experience shame is for their honor to mean nothing inside the church.
Conversely, it might very well be the case that Paul is less concerned with making sure that the most holy or least sinful person (by our popular and not overly helpful way of thinking) is overseeing the church’s gathering (again, this is not about an overseer in the way we are programmed to think), and more concerned that those that would normally be considered less honorable are the ones that take up this function, thus making the point that those that society considers to be more honorable are to be subject, at least inside the assembly that is supposed to represent the kingdom of God to those that are considered less honorable by that same society. This subjection is not one of a heavy hand, but it is a subjection rooted in the counter-cultural egalitarianism of the church. It is by these instructions then, the culture is countered, and Timothy and the church are forced to broaden their scope and manner of thinking.
The directive is expounded upon, and we can be further convinced that there are, in fact, specific individuals in mind as we go on to read “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:5-7). It is helpful to look at these as being person-specific, directed towards an individuals or small group of individuals, rather than as ideals left up to subjective analysis. Since we are not talking about pastors or church leaders in the traditional sense of the term or those that meet specific qualifications as determined by a council of elders, but rather, those that are overseeing the meal-based gathering of the church in the home of one of the believers, functioning as the host of the meal (with this rotating regularly so that one person does not accrue undue honor or prestige), we can glean the principle and make the application that is so very prevalent in the Pauline corpus, which is that of equality amongst believers and the need for the church to be strengthened, with self-sacrificial love and the preferring of one another (eschewing honor and embracing shame, as demanded by the cross) the transcendent ideal to be embodied in the assembly. We can be assured that hierarchical structures, which, in that day, were thoroughly wrapped up in the very competition for honor that is rejected by the church of the crucified Messiah, is nowhere in sight in this treatment of the qualifications for those that aspire to the position of overseer.