Or, The role of overseers in first-century house churches
 
women church leaders, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, 1 Timothy 3

Tradução em português aqui.

I was recently asked if 1 Timothy 3:4a (KJV) is a command for men to rule their households, the implication being that women must not rule households and must acquiesce to male rule. I thought this question deserves its own blog post. And this is it.

In this article, I briefly look at the responsibilities of the Greco-Roman householder (the person in charge of a household) and how these responsibilities were applied in the church. And I argue that 1 Timothy 3:4a neither asserts nor implies that only men should be leaders of households. Rather, it states that church overseers should manage their households well, the emphasis being on “well” rather than gender. I also look at the kind of “managing” that is spoken of in this verse.

Householders as Patrons and Managers

In the first-century Roman world, the householder was often the most senior male of the family. However, women, typically widows or divorcees, could also be the householder (e.g., Lydia). The householder, whether male or female, was responsible for providing for all the members of the household. These members might include adult and juvenile children plus other relatives, as well as servants and slaves.

The householder was also responsible for making sure the day to day management of the household and any home-based businesses and industries were running smoothly.[1] Male householders were usually married, and a capable wife would do much of the actual household management (cf. 1 Tim 5:14). Nevertheless, according to cultural expectations, her husband still had oversight.

Furthermore, stewards could be employed to act as managers of large households. (Interestingly, in Titus 1:7, the overseer is described as being God’s steward.) On the other hand, small households, or small family units, did not necessarily need someone within the home to act as either patron or manager.

Overseers as Managers

In 1 Timothy 3:2-7, there is a list of moral qualifications of an episkopos. (Episkopos is variously translated in English Bibles as overseer, supervisor or bishop.) These qualifications do not refer or apply to men or to women more generally. Moreover, the qualification in 1 Timothy 3:4a, which literally says, “[his] own house managing well” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5), assumes a large household and not a small family unit.[2] (Note that there are no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7; there is no “his” in the Greek.)

This phrase is not saying that a person must rule their household, though some older English translations such as the KJV use the word “rule” in 1 Timothy 3:4-5.[3] What verses 4-5 mean is that if an overseer had their own household, they needed to manage it well (kalōs).

One reason for all the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, including the qualification of managing well, was to ensure the overseer would be a socially respectable person and not give the church a bad name to outsiders (cf. 1 Tim. 3:7 NET). A poorly managed home would bring dishonour to the householder and dishonour to the church, especially if the church regularly met in that home.

Overseers as Patrons

In the first century, Christian communities (i.e. churches) met in homes and functioned like families. And taking care of a church was much like caring for a family. (Christian men and women were brothers and sisters, and often close-knit.) If a person was unable to take care of their own household well, they would not be able to care for a church well. This was the primary reason an overseer must have been able to manage their own household well. But what did “managing” entail?

The Greek participle proistamenon in verse 4 and the infinitive prostēnai in verse 5 (both from the verb proistēmi) are translated as “manage” in most English versions. This Greek verb can have the sense of caring and providing for. Proistēmi occurs in Titus 3:8 & 14 in the context of good works. It may be that in all eight occurrences of proistēmi in the New Testament—in Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; 5:17; and Titus 3:8, 14—there is a sense of “caring” and “providing for” combined with a sense of “leading” or “managing”.[4]

Furthermore, all the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 are prefaced by the statement, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1b NIV). The Greek words translated as “noble task” in the NIV literally mean “good work” (kalon ergon) and refer to charitable acts and benefactions. “To aspire, then, to the office of bishop [or overseer] is to be desirous of acting benevolently for the welfare of others.”[5]

Women as Patrons and Managers

Interestingly, a related noun of the verb proistēmi is used in Romans 16:2 to describe Phoebe’s ministry. Phoebe may well have been the householder of the home where the church at Cenchrea met. What is certain is that she provided for many people, including the apostle Paul. Paul said of Phoebe that “she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom. 16:2 NIV).

Christian men and women with some wealth took care of churches in the first century, acting as patrons and managers.[6] Moreover, these people were usually the hosts of churches that met in their relatively spacious homes. These men and women with money were probably the church’s first overseers.[7]

Conclusion

The qualification in 1 Timothy 3:4a reflects the culture of the day and reflects the way the church functioned in the first century. But today, both culture and church-life are very different. Today, households (with more than one parent or one adult member) are usually not overseen by just one person. And most congregations are not small house churches that function like families. Furthermore, modern churches often pay their leaders, but in the first century, the wealthier leaders financially supported the church by hosting meetings and helping poorer members. And 1 Timothy 3:4 never did mandate that homes need to be led or ruled by a man.

More on the qualifications for overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 here.[8] 


Endnotes

[1] It is often stated that in the ancient world the male sphere was public and female sphere was domestic. But, in reality, the two spheres overlapped. In the Roman world, men could conduct business and receive clients at home; women could work, or engage in business or in public works, outside of the home.

[2] Kevin Giles observes, “The qualifications demanded of a bishop [or overseer] are ones that would describe a respected head of a large home.” Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 62. (Online source)

[3] In the highly stratified society of the ancient world, leadership was hierarchical and often patriarchal, and the customs of patronage gave the patron or patroness both prominence and power. But these social dynamics have no place in the church. Having power over or ruling over another capable adult brother or sister is unacceptable behaviour for a Christian. It goes against what Jesus taught.

[4] Proistēmi in the New Testament “seems to have the sense a. ‘to lead’ but the context shows in each case that one must also take into account sense b. ‘to take care of’. This is explained by the fact that caring was an obligation of leading members of the infant Church.”
Bo Reike, “Proistēmi ”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. 6, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, transl. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 701-703, 701.

[5] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 62.
Money may have been one of the main ministry resources of the first church overseers. In the context of Greco-Roman associations, the overseer (episkopos) was the financial officer. See James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 99. (Online source)

[6] 1 Timothy 3 does not explicitly state what the overseers did, or were to do, in the Ephesian church. Raymond Brown notes that “no cultic or liturgical role is assigned to presbyter-bishops [elders and overseers ] in the Pastorals.” “Episkopê and Episkopos: the New Testament Evidence”, Theological Studies 41 (1980), 322-338. (Online source) In fact, there is no evidence in the New Testament linking either overseers (episkopoi) or elders (presbuteroi) to worship. See James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church, 84f. (Online source) It is likely that overseers were involved in some spoken ministries in gatherings for worship and the Eucharist, etc. But other people would have also participated and contributed, sometimes spontaneously (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

[7] Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Nympha (Col 4:15), Apphia, the chosen lady, and possibly Chloe may well have been the overseers and patrons of the churches that met in their homes.

[8] The qualifications given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 seem to assume the overseer will be a man, but it does not state, in the Greek text, that an overseer must be a man.

Image

Fractio Panis (Breaking of Bread) is a third-century fresco in the Greek Chapel in the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. It was thought this fresco depicted a Eucharist, but it may depict a funerary banquet.


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