Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

Over-emphasized (?):  Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus

Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought

The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants.  Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.

It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹  I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud.  Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them?  Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles?  Put another way:  could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?

Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons.  From an institutional standpoint, I get that.  But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship.  A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive.  Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.

I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent.  Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power.  Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another.  Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones.  The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.

In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business.  Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation.  I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries.  By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.

Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?

I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight.  [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.]  I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture.  There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.

We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church).  I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice.  So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people.  I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view:   Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades?  More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?

In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.

B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17

¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance.  They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.



2 thoughts on “Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

  1. Steve 06/20/2017 / 2:37 pm


    Your “wondering out loud” echos much of modern scholarship’s view, as I’m sure you are aware. So…perhaps your concerns are accurate as the proponents for either a later writing date for the Pastorals and/or a non-Pauline author offer a number of well thought out arguments (similar in some ways to R Brown and like company’s approach to the Johannine writings). I’m guessing we will never know for sure this side of eternity. So–two follow-up comments:

    1–if we were to assume your theory of a later writing/author, it is striking to me that the primary identifying trait opposing their culture’s leadership style between “gospel-times” leadership guidelines taught/exhibited by Jesus and those found in the Pastorals is remarkably similar and consistent. Especially is this true–and counter cultural to first century thinking –with regard to the gentleness component of the leader in both writings (gospels/pastorals). This godly kindness trait of genuine concern reflects a shepherd’s heart typically (but not totally absent) uncommon among leadership circles of both Jews and Gentiles.

    If there is a movement in the later writings toward a more institutional type leadership style, it appears to me to be highly nuanced and guarded by this pastoral disposition of gentle leading and caring. As groups grow, and as they desire to be effective in their purposes/functions, so does a structure for leadership (see Acts 6). That’s not wrong, or “unbiblical”–it’s simply a reflection of some necessities of organization (Rom 12:8 and Eph 4:11f–the gifting of leadership as a community of faith expands). There was no need for this type “structure” in Acts 16:12f for the fledgling little group of believers then/there; however, a few years later as God had given growth, apparently there was a need (Phil. 1:1). I tend to see this — at least initially, as God’s provisional grace for a healthy, growing congregation. Can this morph out of control? Yep: (3 Jn 9-10), so I see the Pastorals/1 Peter as preventative descriptions given to growing churches who needed effective leadership that modeled The Shepherd’s style decades earlier.. Church history records the ongoing shift and, in time, abuse of that gift.

    2–This is the humorous part, in that I actually had a second comment that I thought was worthy of some consideration. Either the Holy Spirit decided otherwise and/or my noggin’s motherboard needs some upgrading. Whatever is the case, I for the life of me can’t recall it. So…if I do, I’ll come back and post it. Otherwise–just smile and be nice to the old guy…


    • Brian Casey 06/24/2017 / 8:47 pm

      Steve, I always take your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments well. I hoped in this post to have been clear in the “wondering aloud” elements as well as acknowledging my bias(es) against hierarchy, and it seems you have understood that intention as intended.

      Without attempting to delve back into what I’ve forgotten about Raymond Brown’s theories, I’d say I was generally supportive of his line of thinking. I seem to recall that he took a position that I’d place around 6 or 7 on a 0=conservative/10=liberal scale. There was another guy he referred to that was more like a 9. I have even less knowledge about the provenance theories around the pastoral epistles and have really never studied those letters as whole documents. I’d like to retain a wait-and-see, moderately open attitude toward most anything in those cases. With the gospels, it seems highly likely to me that they were all pieced together to one degree or another, over a period of decades, from the earliest oral traditions to the first written blocks to the full form to the “final” full form. And all of that is 90% acceptable to me at this juncture, and all that also has little if any impact on how authoritative and seminal I take the gospels to be (VERY!). I digress. A lot.

      With leadership questions viz. elders and deacons, I’ve never been in a church in which the elder and deacon roles (especially the elder ones), as lived out, seemed all that “biblical.” They rather seemed institutional and corporate in their constitution and their realities. Too much functioning as a group, for one thing. I’ll hasten also to say I can’t recall a bad-hearted elder in my adult years. They’ve all been good and decent men who wanted good things. I question the system — and, yes, the very need for “organization” itself. I’d have to say here that my wonderings about 1Tim and Titus emanate from pragmatics and my own personality type and cyncisms as much as from hermeneutics or even philosophy. How’s that for a confession?

      I think there is always a problem when power — real or perceived, accepted or rebelled against — comes from a *position.* Instead, influential leadership is better (and I’m sure you agree) when it comes from a person that deals relationally with others, using skills and abilities. (Those abilities don’t even have to be “spiritual gifts,” I’d say.)

      I haven’t gotten to your probe/question yet, so here is my response to that: 1. Your observation about similarity in character, when comparing “Jesus style” to “Paul-Timothy style,” is definitely on point. I will do well to recall that. 2. Beyond structure and organization, I think the part I never got to in this post is the “pat-answer” organizing principle seen in RM churches that check off boxes with their (a) elder and (b) deacon selection. Once they have those positions filled, a church may think it is good to go. The qualities listed in 1Tim and Titus are certainly admirable and important ones, but I’m not so sure a mere corporate board of elders is any better in Jesus’ or Paul’s eyes than a kind-hearted single pastor or a superintendent for building and grounds, two guys and a woman for teaching, and an administrative executor for programs. (Personally, I won’t prefer a group like that any more than a smaller group with elders and deacons, mind you!) Once again trying to quit rambling here. . . I wonder if Paul might have been just as pleased with other “leadership patterns” in congregational situations other than Ephesus or Crete. Could some of us have assumed too much patternism there — in two passages that were as much the result of culture and “organizational development” as it was of divine will? Moreover, if — and I do say if — the pastorals were not written until 150 or 160, would that fact not alter how we read them?

      Whew. If you’ve read this lengthy response, you’re a better man than I. And I already feel that you are just that. (Plus, my memory is surely worse, not better, than yours.)


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