Formations 09.13.2015: Servant Leadership

1 Timothy 3:1-13

A sailor washes a child’s feet before giving him a new pair of shoes during a Continuing Promise shoe giveaway, Kingston, Jamaica.

A sailor washes a child’s feet before giving him a new pair of shoes during a Continuing Promise shoe giveaway, Kingston, Jamaica.

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” Since then, the concept has been much discussed in the business world—if not as often put into practice. As columnist Teri Simon explains,

In the essay, Greenleaf outlines two contrasting leadership styles. In the first style, a servant is aspiring to serve others and as a result takes up a leadership role. In the second style, the leader wants power to acquire material possessions or simply to dominate others. Greenleaf defines the first as the servant leadership style. Servant leaders consciously choose to lead as a way to serve the development of others. They act as humble stewards of their organization and achieve results by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.

Christians should aspire to be leaders like that, because that is the kind of leadership that Jesus himself modeled when he washed his disciples’ feet. And make no mistake: all of us are leaders in some capacity. If we aren’t (official, titled) leaders in our workplace, we can still be leaders among our peers. And we can and should certainly be leaders in our homes and families, our neighborhoods, our classrooms, and among our circle of friends.

Today’s text does not explicitly describe “servant leadership,” but it does point to the importance of a leader’s character. Almost all of the qualifications in this classic text about church leaders have to do with a person’s character or witness. Choosing someone who demonstrates Christian character is more important than choosing someone with desirable skills or who brings the right kind of references.

Paul urges Timothy to work at getting the best leaders in positions for which they are suited. In all of this, character matters perhaps more than we realize.


• When have you observed a true “servant leader” in action?
• When have you felt that a leader genuinely took your needs to heart?
• What makes good character so crucial for a leader? For a Christian generally?
• How can churches ensure that they have the best leaders possible?

Reference Shelf

Function or Office?

The English word “bishop” is derived from a Gk. word (episkopos, “overseer”) which originally designated persons who provided protective care and which later denoted certain secular offices. Though it possessed no specifically religious meaning, the term was often applied to the gods in ancient Greece (Homer, lliad 22.254-55) and occasionally to officials at cultic temples (InscrGr 12.1.731.8). The LXX uses the term sixteen times, employing it as a title for military commanders (Judg 9:28; 2 Kgs 11:15) and other over seers (Num 4:16; Isa 60:17), including two instances where the word characterizes God as the judge of human iniquity (Job 20:29 LXX) and the witness to truth (Wis 1:9).

The NT refers to bishops or overseers (episkopoi) on five separate occasions. At 1 Pet 2:25 (KJV) the phrase “shepherd and bishop” of souls is used to describe the salvific role of Christ, who has the ultimate responsibility for his flock. Elsewhere, the term is applied to church functionaries. References to elders and presbyters as overseers (episkopoi, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Clem 42-44) and Paul’s epistolary address to “bishops” in the plural (Phil 1:1), however, suggest that the term more commonly described a function within the first-century church rather than a formal, ecclesiastical office. First Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9 list among the numerous qualifications for a bishop the traits of dignity, temperance, hospitality, sobriety, and holiness.

Clayton N. Jefford, “Bishop,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 116.

Bishops and Deacons

“Bishop” translates episcopes, which is related to the term episkopos (lit., “over- seer”). While episkopos refers to a person, episcopes may refer to either an office or function. In Acts 1:20, it is used to describe the responsibility of caring for people and protecting them. Here, as in other instances, it is used to describe the position or function of a church leader. There is, however, no unanimity regarding responsibilities involved. Some restrict it to those who are responsible for the care and management of a particular church or congregation, while others see it as referring to the oversight of several congregations. One must also consider the relationship of this term to the “elders” mentioned later in 1 Timothy 5:17 and Titus 1:5. Some see these as two separate offices with the bishop ranked higher than the elder and having the authority to appoint elders. They see in the Pastorals the beginnings of the emergence of the “monarchical episcopacy” that would come to dominate and in which the bishop was considered as having supreme authority over the Christian community both in matters of teaching and the appointment of church leaders (cf. 1 Clem. 42:4, 5; Ign. Eph. 5:3; 20:2; Did. 15:1). We must be careful, however, not to read back into the New Testament later ecclesiastical developments. In fact, based on Titus 1:5 and Acts 20:17 and 28 (where the assembled “elders” are referred to as “overseers,” using the Greek term commonly translated “bishops”), it would seem better to see the two terms as interchangeable.

If this is the case, then the functions of the “elders” may be taken as the functions of the “overseer/bishop.” These would include the nurture of the members of the congregation(s) (1 Pet 5:2), visiting and praying for the sick (Jas 5:14), protecting the members of the congregation from enemies (Acts 20:29-31), and living exemplary lives (1 Pet 5:3). In this passage, Paul is not concerned to describe the duties and responsibilities of the overseer/bishop. He simply affirms that the work is “a noble task” (lit., “a good work”) worthy of aspiration and then proceeds to focus on the qualifications for this work in vv. 2-7….

Paul turns now to the qualifications for deacons. The English word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant” or “helper” and is sometimes translated “minister.” Paul frequently uses this term to describe himself and his coworkers (see, e.g., 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; Rom 16:1; Col 1:23; 4:7). It is used of Timothy in 4:6. This suggests that it is not seen so much as an office, but a function within the life of the community of faith. With the passing of time, however, it came to refer to a specific office in the church (1 Clem. 42:4ff.; Did. 15:1; Herm Vis. 3.5.1; Ign. Magn. 2.1).

As with overseer, Paul gives no definition of the specific role(s) of the deacon other than that suggested by the term itself. He assumes that his readers will know their function. His concern is with the qualifications that ensure the faithful fulfillment of that function.

W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy–Titus, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 149, 152.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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