October 20, 2020

Elder Qualifications: Difficult Issues in Translation and Interpretation


Temple of Artemis, Ephesus

I have been having a wonderful experience leading a small group through the Sermon on the Mount.  We got side tracked a couple of weeks ago when we started talking about how we interpret the Bible, and so we spent one evening going through Michael Patton’s Biblical Interpretation in a Nutshell  This is an excellent resource and is really worth reading.

In short, Michael Patton shows how the process of interpreting starts with understanding what the text meant to the ancient audience, extracting the timeless truth being taught, and then applying that truth to our circumstances today.

This process is not without its pitfalls.  Many will read the same text and come to different conclusions as to its meaning to the ancient audience.  This of course then leads to a different formulation of the timeless truth, which then leads to a different application.

I would like to walk us through one passage which has had many different interpretations, in order to show how difficult this process can be, and to maybe give a slightly different take on the passage.

The passage that I would like to look at is 1 Timothy 3.  The list of qualifications for Elders and Deacons:

3 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full[a] respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

8 In the same way, deacons[b] are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

11 In the same way, the women[c] are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

What you may not have realized is that I may have already influenced your understanding of this text.  How?  I called it a list of qualifications.  When we read this text in just about any translation we read a comma delimited list:  distinct items, separated by commas.

One of our problems in reading Koine Greek is that it has no punctuation.  So the translators have to supply it for us.  This can result in different understandings of the text.  For example, Bruce Metzger points out that in Revelation 5:1 the scroll held in the right hand of God can be understood as either “written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals” or “written on the inside, and sealed on the back with seven seals.”

Why is that important here?  What if the text in 1 Timothy 3 is not a list but a primary point with a series of secondary points?  What if we understand that the first phrase should not be followed by a comma, but a colon?

We would then read the start of verse two as:  “Now the overseer is to be above reproach:…”

Is the primary concern of this passage about being above reproach?

Several things tell me that in fact it is:

  1. The importance of being above reproach or its semantic equivalents is repeated over and over in the passage.  Above reproach (vs 2), worthy of full respect (vs 4), a good reputation with outsiders (vs 7), not fall into disgrace (vs 7), worthy of repect (vs 8), nothing against them (vs 10), worthy or respect (vs 11), trustworthy in everything (vs 11).

  2. The concept is the first one introduced in each of the first three sections.

  3. It also serves as a summary statement at the end of the first section.  That is, not only must the overseer be above reproach (inside the church) for all of the first set of items.  “7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace…”

  4. Opening and closing a section with a summary statement or parallel summary statements in stylistically quite common among Hebrew scriptural texts.  While Paul was not writing in Hebrew, he was well versed in the language.  (For those who have had to write essays for School, we do the same thing in our language.

  5. All of the items listed in this chapter could quite easily fall under the category of being “above reproach.”

  6. The context supports it.  Paul begins his instructions on behaviour in the previous chapter.  2:8:  “ Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.”  The “therefore” here is very important.  As a seminary professor once said to our class, “Whenever you see a therefore, you need to find out what it is ‘there for’.  The reason for the therefore can be found in the first four verses of chapter 2.  “ I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

So if I was to summarize all of chapter two and chapter three into one summary timeless truth it would be this:  “God wants all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth so therefore…  you had better act in a way that is above reproach.”

When we do this, not only do the sub points become secondary, they are given clarity.

Let us look at the second item for example.   The Greek is literally “of one woman, a man”.  Translators have a great difficulty with this one.  Consider these:

  • Faithful to his wife (NIV)

  • The husband of one wife (KJV) (ESV) (ASV) (NET)

  • Married only once (NRSV)

  • Be faithful in marriage (CEV)

  • Committed to his wife (The Message)

  • He must have only one wife (The Living Bible)

  • A one woman kind of guy (Seminary professor translation)

You will note that the translations vary in their emphasis.  Some are very male centric, some try to balance the idea of maleness with the idea of faithfulness, and some completely make the text gender neutral.  Some focus on the concept of “one” wife, while that emphasis is dropped from other translations.

It is no wonder then that interpretations and application are all over the board.  Interpretations range from:

  • Elders must be men.

  • Elders must be married (and therefore not single, divorced or widowed.)

  • Elders must be married to one person (As opposed to multiple people. This issue has come up in African situations that I am aware of.)

  • Elders cannot be remarried (whether widowed or divorced)


  • Gender and marital status is not what is being discussed here.

  • It is about the type of person you are in relationship commitments.

  • Elder’s must be faithful to their significant other.

What I would argue here is that all these interpretations fail to see the proverbial forest for the trees.  The timeless truth that is being communicated has to do with the importance of being above reproach, but more specifically, being above reproach so that it does not become a hindrance to the gospel. (God…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.)  The question we need to ask ourselves then is not so much what it meant to above reproach so not to hinder the gospel in the ancient culture (although that has some bearing), but what it means to above reproach so not to hinder the gospel now.

Let us take the issue of whether or not the intent was to restrict eldership to men.  In that culture would women in that leadership position have been a reproachable hindrance to the gospel?  Quite possibly.

I have not touched on historical/cultural issues here, but here is a quick quiz for you?

  1. Where was Timothy when 1 Timothy was written?

  2. What do we know from scripture about this location?

  3. What do we know from other sources about this location?

  4. How might that impact our understanding of this passage?

Short Answers:

  1. Ephesus.

  2. Acts 19:21-41.  Ephesus housed the Temple of the Goddess Artemis.

  3. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and had tremendous influence in the region.

  4. This can impact our understanding of the passage in many ways.  One of the best books on the subject is:  Paul, Women Teachers and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of First Timothy 2: 9-15 in Light of the Religious and Cultural Milieu of the First Century.  It is out of print and hard to find, but worth the hunt.  (The picture by the way is that of the Goddess Artemis)

If we are to properly apply this passage we must ask a slightly different question:  What does being above reproach for the sake of the gospel mean in our society today?  How would it apply to our elders?   Would restricting eldership to men be above reproach and help to advance the gospel, or would it be reproachable and serve to hinder the gospel?  I would argue that the latter is true, and that restricting women from leadership positions is now considered very reproachable, and I have personally seen how it has hindered the gospel.  In this case, because of the timeless truth that is being communicated, our application might be very different to the first century application.  Not being faithful to your partner, on the other hand could be considered just as reproachable and a hindrance to the gospel today as it was in the time of Paul and Timothy.

There is so much more that I could say on this topic and I have just begun to scratch the surface.  I am very interested in how my ideas resonate with you.  Let the (cordial) debate begin!

Final note: I do need to give credit to Miguel Ruiz, as the idea for this topic came from a facebook discussion that we had on a facebook post he had made. His perspective may differ.