Debates over congregationalism and elder rule usually end up, sooner or later, at 1 Timothy 3:4-5. In these verses, Paul states that a bishop must manage his household well, because a man who does not know how to manage a household will not be able to take care of the church of God. Among other things, a bishop’s children must be under control. People who believe that elders ought to make decisions for congregations love to point to these verses, insisting that the husband and father’s decision-making authority within his home, and particularly over his children, is analogous to the elders’ decision-making authority over the church.
Reasoning from 1 Timothy 3 supports a defective theory of pastoral leadership by drawing a false analogy with a flawed view of paternal authority. This argument breaks down in at least three ways.
First, it misunderstands the biblical role of leadership that Scripture assigns to a husband and father. It anachronistically reads the modern, suburban family into the New Testament notion of household. A New Testament oikos often consisted of more than a dad, a mom, and 2.5 children. While it would typically include both a husband and a wife, it often included other individuals. Not uncommonly, adult sons and daughters would be given separate apartments within the same household (the monai of Jn. 14:2). It could eventually include the spouses and children of these sons and daughters. Furthermore, it could include aged parents of either the husband or the wife. If a business operated from the home, the oikos might also include live-in employees or servants. In the wealthier homes, slaves could also be part of the oikos. Finally, it could include guests who were able to claim the rights of hospitality, perhaps for extended periods. The flexibility of a New Testament notion is glimpsed in the household of Lydia, who appears in the text with no husband or children, but whose entire household was baptized at the preaching of Paul and Silas—who then joined her household temporarily.
Given the complexity of the New Testament household, one can hardly imagine an effective husband and father leading by just imposing decisions. Different members of the household could claim their own rights and fulfill their own responsibilities. A guest might be a long-term member of the household, as Paul was with Lydia, without ever falling under the “chain of command” of the patriarch.
This presence of autonomous authority within the household constitutes the second flaw in the analogy between patriarchal authority and presbyterial authority. In the complex household of the New Testament, certain members could claim authority that came directly by divine institution rather than by delegation from the patriarch. For example, the apostle Paul assigns to wives the responsibility to “manage the household” (1 Tim. 5:14). The term is oikodespoteo, and even an English reader can recognize the two elements in the word. The term and its cognate noun were used variously in classical Greek to denote mastery over a household, headship of a family, ownership of a domicile, management of a household, or even a native (as opposed to foreign) ruler of a country. In the papyri the terms were used to refer to a steward of a household (who might be appointed by the owner), but it could refer to the owner himself. For example, Epictetus referred to God as the “master of the house Who rules everything” (Enchiridion 3.22.4). The noun is used for the “goodman of the house” (KJV of Lk. 12:39 and Mt. 24:43), probably the owner. It is also used of a lord or householder who commands slaves (Mt. 13:27; Lk. 14:21).
In other words, an oikodespotes exercises a sphere of authority. Sometimes that authority comes from ownership or position, and sometimes it comes through delegation. Significantly, 1 Timothy 5:14 does not present the wife exercising oikodespotein under her husband’s delegation, but under God’s. What this probably means is that a wife has a sphere of authority—actual, decision-making power—that comes directly from God and not by grant from her husband. Her responsibility is to govern the household. In a modern home, this responsibility would give her authority over such matters as meals, décor, and cleanliness. She can tell her husband to move the sofa. She can decide what color the walls will be, how to hang the drapes, and whether the home will have hardwood floors or wall-to-wall carpeting. She has the authority to order her husband to take out the garbage or to pick up his socks and put them in the hamper, and he needs to obey her.
Even though the text does not indicate that this household authority is mediated through the husband, a wise wife will exercise it deferentially rather than demandingly. Within his sphere of authority the husband will do the same. In any case, within a certain sphere the authority of the wife acts as a check upon and limitation of the patriarchal authority of the husband and father. His biblical leadership does not consist in simply telling his wife and children what to do. The Bible does give him real authority to make some decisions, but it does not give him the right to make every decision within his household.
To summarize, the New Testament household was so complex that a husband and father could not lead by simply making decisions. Not only that, the presence of other rights and authorities within the household debarred him from enforcing decisions in certain areas. Based upon these factors alone, any attempt to establish elder governance from 1 Timothy 3:4-5 must be seen as specious. If advocates of elder government had paid closer attention to the verse, however, these considerations would not even be necessary.
The common assumption is that Paul meant to draw an analogy between the authority of a husband and father in his home and the authority of the bishop in the church. This assumption is seriously flawed. Paul did not offer a comparison, but a contrast.
The husband and father “leads” (proistemi) the household, in which he does exercise some authority to make decisions. The bishop, however, “takes care of” (epimeleomai) the church of God, over which he is forbidden to exercise binding authority (1 Pet. 5:2-3). “Leading” a household and “taking care of” a church are not the same act and Paul nowhere intimates that they are done in the same way. In fact, he makes the point rather emphatically that the leadership of a household is easier than the care of a church. If a man cannot do the former (with considerable decision-making authority), then he will never be able to do the latter (with no decision-making authority over the church).
At the end of the day, the teaching in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 is more compatible with congregational polity than it is with elder governance. Pastors do have authority over congregations, but it is moral authority and not authority to impose decisions. It is authority to teach and to set an example. What should the exercise of this authority look like? That is a question that deserves a more extended answer.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
By Grace I’m Saved
Christian L. Scheidt (1709–1761), composite translation
By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;
My soul, believe and doubt it not;
Why stagger at this word of promise?
Hath Scripture ever falsehood taught?
Nay; then this word must true remain:
By grace thou, too, shalt Heav’n obtain.
By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Our works and conduct have no worth,
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone.
By grace! O, mark this word of promise
When thou art by thy sins oppressed,
When Satan plagues thy troubled conscience,
And when thy heart is seeking rest.
What reason cannot comprehend
God by His grace to thee doth send.
By grace! This ground of faith is certain;
So long as God is true, it stands.
What saints have penned by inspiration,
What in His Word our God commands,
What our whole faith must rest upon,
Is grace alone, grace in His Son.