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Overseer, or Office of Overseer” (1 Tim 3:1)

I was going to take one more week off for a short summer break, but someone challenged me on one of my decisions in my commentary, so I thought I would enter back into the fray, so to speak.

In 1 Tim 3:1, Paul writes, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (NIV). The ESV shows the exegetical issue; “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Which is it, the overseer or the office?

The Greek word is ἐπισκοπή. I remember writing on this and concluding that the word referred to the office of overseer, and hence the ESV’s translation. (The RSV had, “If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.”) In fact, I remembered it as being a pretty easy and clear decision.

What was a bit surprising, then, was that BDAG isn’t that clear on the issue. It gives three meanings.

1. The act of watching over with special ref. to being present, visitation . The biblical passage is 1 Pet 2:21, which is not relevant to our discussion.

2. Position of responsibility, position, assignment. They reference Acts 1:20 where Peter says of Judas, “May another take his place of leadership” (NIV).

3. Engagement in oversight, supervision, citing our passage.

None of these three demand that Paul is speaking of an office (although I think they do suggest it), and so I wondered about my decision. In fact, I remember struggling with how a discussion of an office would fit the context of 1 Tim 3. All the emphasis in the following verses is on the character of the overseer, and only by implication the office. The parallel “deacons” in v 8 likewise refers to the person and not the office. Frankly, I liked the idea of this having nothing to do with an office since it would point to an earlier date and be another argument for Pauline authorship of the Pastorals.

But then I reread my commentary and I remembered the issue. Paul switches to the cognate ἐπίσκοπος in the very next verse, and this word in the NT refers to the person (1 Pet 2:25 uses it of the Lord), not the office (see BDAG; HW Beyer says it can refer to either the office or the person holding the office, TDNT 2:608). So why the variation if there is not a change (ever so slight) in meaning? And is “deacon” (v 8) parallel to ἐπίσκοπος (v 2) and not ἐπισκοπή (v 1)?

The added issue is that ἐπισκοπή is singular, suggesting Paul is not referring to one overseer but the office of overseer since he usually refers to church leadership in the plural. There is one office held by many people.

Towner argues that ἐπισκοπή is the office (page 246). Marshall says it refers to the “task or position of an overseer” (page 476, citing secular references to its use as an office).

I understand that there is a debate regarding church structure and if there are church offices in the NT. However, the lexical information here is strong enough to suggest that ἐπισκοπή refers to the office, and ἐπίσκοπος to the one holding the office.

In light of the American church’s general failure to raise up qualified leadership, and in light of the dysfunction and spiritual abuse that plagues so many of our churches, it is easier to understand why Paul has to remind the Ephesians that leadership is not inherently bad, and at the same time absolutely insists that overseers must (δεῖ) be qualified.

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