We have looked at the controversial 1 Timothy 2:8-15 passage but we need to make a couple of more observations about this letter as it concerns fictive family. What I have to say here is frequently not well received by my Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopalian friends nor by some of my more theologically conservative friends. So here goes.
I believe that one of most notable things about the New Testament is its silence on an important issue: Church structure. The Old Testament gives detailed instruction about the roles of the priests and Levites. There is detailed instruction about the construction of the Temple, the sacrifices to be offered, and how various ceremonies were to be conducted. But there is no such instruction manual anywhere in the New Testament. Membership, offices, or structures are not discussed. As a friend once said, “God’s instruction on church structure is so plainly spelled out in the Bible and that we have everyone from Roman Catholics to Baptists following the biblical manual.”
But we do have passages like the following one in 1 Timothy 3:
1 Timothy 3:1-13
1 The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. 2 Now a bishop (overseer) must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way -- 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil. (NRSV)
8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; 9 they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. 11 Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; 13 for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
There is a similar passage in Titus:
5 I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you: 6 someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. 7 For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; 8 but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. 9 He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.
These passages are not job descriptions. They are character descriptions. When we see the terms “bishop” (or overseer), “elder” and “deacon” used we are strongly tempted to do something we must resist. We tend to read 1,900 years of church history back into the content of these terms.
These fledgling Jesus communities needed mature people give some leadership. The Jewish synagogue had elders as leaders and likely the term was borrowed from that context. Elders (presbuteros) are first and foremost exactly what the term suggests: people advanced in age. Age in ancient culture was connected with wisdom and experience.
Overseer or bishop (episkipos) simply meant “superintendent” and to my knowledge had no particular religious connotation until it later morphed into a position within the church hierarchy. Deacon (diakonos) referred to someone who ran errands or did menial duties.
Other passages like Ephesians 4:11 talk of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers not as offices but gifts as given for functional assistance. Bishop/overseer is used seemingly interchangeably with elders in places and apparently some elders were devoted to teaching while others were not.
1 Timothy 5:17
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; …
So is a pastor-teacher different from an elder? Is a teaching elder different from a bishop/overseer? Where does a prophet fit in? It is true that 1 Timothy 3:1 speaks of “office of bishop/overseer” but there is no evidence of an office in our modern sense of the term. If these bishops were part of hierarchy in a chain of command, carrying out orders from superiors, then why are none of Paul’s letters addressed to such leaders, giving them directives?
The determining criterion for someone carrying out a function with regard to the community appears to have been character and gifting. No one exercising mature character and gifting is explicitly excluded from any particular function.
Some point to limitation of “husband of one wife,” as it is interpreted in some versions, as evidence that this work was limited to men, but this isn’t a prescriptive instruction. Neither Paul nor Timothy was married. It is a proscriptive instruction, prohibiting those who were remarried or polygamous. There is no prescription of men for these positions nor prohibition of women (or slaves, or gentiles or other social categories.) It does appear that it was assumed in such passages that the overseers are men but there is no theological justification for why it must be men or not be women. Character and gifting are the only determining factors.
The reason for this lengthy four post excursus on 1 Timothy is to show that the fictive family metaphor of all believers as siblings of each other and of Christ, with God as the paterfamilias, isn’t contrary to the teaching we find in the letters to Timothy and to Titus. While there appears to be a presumption of male oversight (or at least predominantly male leadership) in keeping with cultural convention, but there is no divinely ordered hierarchy or assignment of functions based on sex, ethnicity, or other human distinctions other than character and gifting. Indeed, we find women like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe and Nympha who were leading and teaching.