In this excerpt from his book "Biblical Eldership," Alexander Strauch examines the pastoral epistle 1 Timothy and explains the letter's teaching on eldership.
“What I say is true: Anyone wanting to become an elder desires a good work” 1 Timothy 3:1 (New Century Version)
First Timothy is one of the most relevant New Testament letters for understanding the mission, organization, and life of the local church. It demands reform, correction, and discipline for many of the problems that trouble churches today. This Spirit-inspired, New Testament letter confronts such highly contemporary issues as:
Furthermore, 1 Timothy is the most important letter of the New Testament for the study of biblical eldership. It contains more direct, detailed, systematic teaching on eldership than any other New Testament letter. It also addresses two topics that are closely intertwined with the study of elders--deacons (3:8-13) and women (2:9-15). For these reasons, the largest portion of this book’s expositional material centers around 1 Timothy. If we are to fully comprehend the teachings of this letter, however, we must first understand the disruptive situation in the church at Ephesus that prompted its writings.
The Historical Setting
For three years, Paul labored in the city of Ephesus and established a sound church (A.D. 53- 56). When he was about to leave Asia Minor, Paul summoned the Ephesian elders for a final farewell meeting (A.D. 57). Gathered with the elders on the shore of Miletus, Paul solemnly warned the elders to be on guard because savage wolves would soon come. Acts 20 records this apostolic sermon:
For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears (Acts 20:27-31).
Five or six years after this prophetic warning to the Ephesian elders, the church in Ephesus was caught in the deathly grip of false teachers. The letter of 1 Timothy seems to indicate that the heresy had erupted from within the church. Paul’s ominous words had come true: “and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things” (Acts 20:30).
We cannot be positive about Paul’s exact movements following his release from Roman imprisonment (A.D. 62; Acts 28), but we do know that he and Timothy visited Ephesus. Their visit was not pleasant. False teachers were poisoning the church with deadly doctrines. In order to stop these teachers, Paul took radical action. He excommunicated the two leading perpetrators, Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19,20). Paul then moved on to Macedonia, leaving Timothy in Ephesus to help the embattled church and particularly to stop the advancement of false teachings: “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1 Tim. 1:3).
Paul knew that Timothy faced a difficult assignment. He was keenly aware of the tough problems Timothy would encounter. Like tough, deeply rooted weeds, false teaching is hard to pull out once it has taken root. The opposition at Ephesus was fiercely argumentative (1 Tim. 6:3-5,20), so Paul wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to formally reinforce his verbal instructions to Timothy and to the church.
Given this background, it is easy to understand why a strong sense of urgency permeates the entire letter. “The church that Paul addresses,” writes commentator Philip Towner, “had been torn apart by the false teachers, and much of this letter is aimed at putting the pieces back together.”i The letter is all business. Biblical commentator and former principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, J.N.D. Kelly writes, “Throughout [1 Timothy] we get the impression of acute dissatisfaction with conditions in the Ephesian church.”ii Paul even omits his usual thanksgiving that is found at the beginning of most of his letters and does not conclude the letter with his customary greetings from other saints. First Timothy lacks the intensely personal elements found in 2 Timothy. Whatever personal elements exist relate to Timothy’s duties in Ephesus.
Although Timothy was Paul’s intimate friend and personal assistant, this letter is written in a formal, official, and authoritative manner. The opening words illustrate this point and set the tone for the rest of the letter: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior....” This is the only salutation in which Paul states that he is an apostle “according to the commandment of God.” Paul’s use of a formal salutation in a letter to a beloved friend prompts Patrick Fairbairn (1805-1874), a Scottish theologian and commentator, to write: “It was right, therefore, he [Timothy] should feel that necessity was laid upon him; that the voice which speaks to him is that not merely of a revered instructor or a spiritual father, but of a Heaven-commissioned ambassador, who has a right to declare the divine will and rule with authority in the Christian church.”iii As Christ’s ambassador, Paul was under divine orders. So, too, Timothy was under orders from God and Christ’s apostle to perform his duty faithfully in a time of crisis. The letter was meant, then, to authorize Timothy to act as Paul’s representative in Ephesus.
The church in Ephesus urgently needed corrective discipline. Senseless, destructive doctrines were being taught that disrupted the entire inner life of the church. Christians were acting unlovingly toward one another. Quite likely, unqualified men had become elders and fallen into sin. Some women were crudely flaunting their wealth and new-found knowledge. Exclusive ideas and fighting among men had adversely affected the church’s prayers. Needy widows were forsaken by their selfish families and forced to rely on the church for support. Sin was ignored. But worst of all, the gospel message and its reputation in the unbelieving community was seriously threatened. As a result of these problems, Paul spells out in the letter of 1 Timothy (1) how Timothy should faithfully execute his duties, (2) how he should handle the false teachers, and (3) how the local church should conduct itself as God’s household and the pillar and foundation of the truth...