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Qualifications to be a Church Leader (1 Timothy)

This is post 1 of 4 on the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, examining scholarship and showing these letters do not exclude women from being church leaders. The main idea of 1 Timothy is to encourage Timothy to recognize faith and godliness in others when selecting people to serve in ministry. He is to be an example of consistent faith and good conscience, to exercise his spiritual gifts, and to exhort believers to live in a way that credits the reputation of the community.

I have a separate post with details on 1 Timothy 2. I discuss 2 Timothy here. I examine Titus here.

1 Timothy: Who and When

The letter opens identifying Paul as the author and his spiritual son Timothy as the recipient. Today, the majority of scholars doubt that Paul actually wrote the letters to Timothy and Titus (1), pointing to some aspects of the letters that do not reflect Paul's authentic letters. These three letters are often grouped together and called pastoral letters because they are addressed to people with pastoral oversight of churches.

First, the vocabulary and writing style are different from Paul's authentic letters. More than one-third of the vocabulary is not in Paul's other letters(2), yet this vocabulary was widely used by second-century writers. For example, the term knowledge [gnosis] in 1 Timothy 6:20 was used in the second-century debate about salvation by divine gnosis or knowledge, yet the Apostle Paul may have died around 65 AD.

Next, the pastoral letters reference church structures and titles not in place until the late first century or early second century, well after Paul's death. In Paul's authentic letters, he refers to leadership according to gifts given by the Holy Spirit to serve as ministry co-workers, apostles, prophets, and teachers. Paul does not refer to offices or titles such as overseers, deacons, and elders.In Paul's day, Christian assemblies were based in home churches, yet the pastoral letters indicate an organized church hierarchy that came later. The pastoral letters are not listed in the biblical canon until after 170 AD(3)

The pastoral letters uphold the Greco-Roman pagan hierarchies and limitations on women and slaves. In contrast, in Paul's authentic letters, Paul refers to the pagan hierarchal codes limiting women and slaves, and he overturns them for those 'in Christ' (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 12:13) (4). For example, after Paul tells slaves to be respectful, he flattens the hierarchy by telling masters to likewise respect their slaves as brothers, keeping in mind that both serve the Master in heaven. After Paul tells all believers to submit to one another, as wives submit to husbands in the familiar pattern, Paul reinvents the pattern, by telling husbands to give wives the same care that they give to their own bodies. Paul's instruction echoes Jesus's instructions to do to others what you would have them do to you (Matthew (7:12). Restrictions based on class or gender seem to conflict with this golden rule.

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1 Timothy: who and when

The pastoral letters seem to prohibit women from ministry, while Paul gave advice to women who were speaking, praying, and prophesying in communal gatherings. Paul said a woman should have authority over what she wears (1 Corinthians 11:10). Paul commended female co-workers in ministry and leaders of church communities (Romans 16, Acts 16:13-15, 40, Acts 18:19-21). According to Ally Kateusz, early manuscripts showed Paul and Timothy commissioning women to preach and baptize, but these were redacted to hide records of the preaching of female apostles like Thecla and Irene (5). Kateusz suggests the pastoral letters could have been part of the late first-century debate about women (6) in ministry and leadership, written to combat records that Paul and Timothy supported women in ministry.

Lastly, the pastoral letters appear to say that women are saved through bearing children. In contrast, Paul's authentic letters repeat that salvation comes through faith, not by any human action (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 2:16, Philippians 3:9). While the pastoral letters appear to say that women must not teach or have authority over men, the authentic letters show Paul commending women in church leadership. Scholars debate why Paul's letters disagree: did his thinking change over time or do the pastoral letters mean something other than what first appears.

Being written by someone other than Paul does not make them invalid. Regardless of the author, the letters to Timothy and Titus are part of God's word in the canon of the Bible. Placing the date and time as potentially the early 2nd century gives us context to the debate and theology at the time of writing.

1 Timothy 1: Stop Exploitive, Abusive Behaviour

The letter is addressed to an individual, not the whole assembly of believers, it deals specifically with issues Timothy is facing in his role leading the church in Ephesus. The writer opens by reminding Timothy his main priority in Ephesus is to instruct certain individuals not to spread false teaching. It is not primarily about orderly worship, church structure and responsibilities for all churches.

1 Timothy 1
1 Timothy 1 concerns sexual abuse

The letter criticizes false teachers who are focused on godless myths, genealogies, and obedience to laws. The Law isn't needed for the righteous but for the unrighteous. When our faith changes our hearts, it changes our behaviours. The letter lists a few behaviours that show our hearts have not changed. Drawing from the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3-17), it lists unrighteous actions including: irreverence, murder, adultery, stealing, lying, giving false witness (perjury), and greed.

The writer varies the list, adding "whoremongers, sodomites, men-stealers, liars' (1 Timothy 1:9-10 Young's Literal Translation of 1898 (4)). It seems to copy from Paul's authentic letter to Corinth, which lists whoremongers, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, sodomites, thieves, and covetousness (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Young's Literal Translation (4)). Recent translations have used the word homosexual on this list; let's look at why that may be incorrect.

Homosexuality is not on the list of unrighteous actions

The list of unrighteous actions condemns exploitive, abusive behaviour as immoral - whether by heterosexuals or homosexuals. Whoremonger is a term meaning an adult male sexually exploiting an adolescent boy (7), or the dominant partner in using a prostitute. Idolatry can apply to worshippers of Aphrodite treating temple prostitutes as idols or it can apply today to treating sex as an idol. Effeminate refers to a male being passive in a same-sex encounter, being dominated or used like a female. Sodomy is connected to violent rape and gang rape of boys or men (Genesis 19:4-7, Judges 19:22-23). In ancient history, it was unrighteous to rape a male but acceptable to take advantage of females (Genesis 19:8, Judges 19:24). The writer lists men-stealers, which likely refers to the kidnapping or human trafficking of adolescent boys as slaves for prostitution. At the temple of the goddess Artemis (8) in Ephesus, there is no evidence of women temple prostitutes, but it was common to enslave young boys at brothels. The writer does not place blame on the prostitutes, who were likely minors or women (not legal persons). Instead, the writer criticizes people who kidnap, steal people, take charge of prostitutes or use prostitutes.

The writer seems to be calling out lustful men who lack self-control and sexually abuse (9) or exploit boys or prostitutes. In 1946, for the first time (10), the ideas of whoremonger and sodomite were combined and the word homosexual was introduced to English translations of these passages. However, the ideas in the passages condemn exploitive, abusive relations, and not faithful, monogamous homosexuality. Perhaps instead of judging a minority, this passage judges the majority. Perhaps it condemns both heterosexuals and homosexuals who are promiscuous, sexually abusive or exploitive or are involved in child prostitution or pornography.

Paul, or an imitator of Paul, says Paul trusted Timothy with instructions because of prophecies elders made about Timothy when they laid their hands on him and commissioned him for ministry. The instructions are given to help Timothy hold faith and good conscience, not like others who have ruined their faith because they did not listen to their conscience. The writer expresses gratitude that God entrusted Paul with the gospel, strengthened him and considered him faithful and suitable for ministry even though he had a history of attacking followers of Jesus. God showed Paul mercy, and he became an example for others who want to receive God's mercy. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" and Paul calls himself the biggest sinner of all. Maybe we should imitate Paul's attitude, eager to thank God for showing us mercy, slow to call out the actions of others.

The remainder of 1 Timothy does not refer to sexual orientation and quotes from scholars below are not comments related to homosexuality.


1 Timothy 2: Stop Arguing and Showing off, Let a Women Learn, Comfort her

Paul asks Timothy to pray for all people and ask elders to ensure believers can live peacefully. Such peace and godliness will help bring all people to come to the saving knowledge that there is one God, and one mediator between God and humanity: Jesus Christ who gave himself as a payment to give freedom to men and women.

1 timothy 2
1 Timothy 2 corrects men and women

Therefore, keeping in mind the goal of peace and godliness that will attract people to know God, Paul (or the Paul imitator) instructs three groups:

  • all men to stop the anger and arguing,

  • all women to stop displaying their wealth and instead display their good works,

  • one particular woman to learn the true message, stop teaching until she learns correct doctrine, not domineering another.

We learn in Titus that an elder's responsibilities are to hold to the true message, encourage believers, and refute false teaching. The passage in 1 Timothy 2 says to let a woman learn correct doctrine so she will not be vulnerable to false teachers. It says to comfort her so she will hold her faith in Christ and not be afraid of childbearing. Some translations of 1 Timothy 2:11 say women generally (plural) where the original is singular 'a woman'. Paul says to let her quietly learn the correct doctrine so that she can defend herself from false teachers.

Who is 'they'? (1 Timothy 2:15)

"and she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they remain in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety." 1 Timothy 2:15 Young's Literal Translation

There is confusion on who "she" is in 1 Timothy 2:15. It may be:

  • the woman Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

  • an individual woman addressed in 1 Timothy 2:11-12

  • women generally in 1 Timothy 2:11-12

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Card 48: Excerpt from The Sword a Fun Way to Engage

In my post about 1 Timothy 2, I look at the implications of these viewpoints. Seeing this passage as addressed to an individual woman is the only viewpoint that does not conflict with Paul's other letters.

In my book, The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says about a Woman's Role, flashcard 48 thrusts the Complementarian view that God put men in charge, and the Egalitarian defense that God put both in charge as co-rulers.

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Pexels photo:

1 Timothy 3: Church Leadership

The writer quotes a saying that if anyone longs to be a church overseer, it is a noble goal (1 Timothy 3:1). A translation that adds "man" and "he" is adding an idea that is not in the original Greek. For example, a less accurate translation would be "if any man desires to be a church overseer, he desires a noble task." Several English translations make this passage appear to exclusively address males, using ten or more male descriptions or pronouns. Women are only excluded from roles as priests, pastors, bishops, and overseers when we translate the Greek word [tis] meaning "all humans" or "anyone", as "men" or use a male pronoun. Marg Mowczko points out that there are no words in Greek indicating that only men can be overseers (11) or church leaders.

card 43
Excerpt from The Sword A Fun Way to Engage

In my book The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says about a Woman's Role, flashcard 43 thrusts the Complementarian view that an overseer must be a man, while the Egalitarian defence is that an overseer must be faithful in marriage (if married).

At the top of the list of qualifications to be a church leader, Paul, or an imitator of Paul, says the overseer must be blameless, the husband of one wife. The original 'man of one woman', if taken literally, would mean no single or remarried men could be overseers, bishops, or elders. In ancient Rome, a widow who did not re-marry was called the ‘wife of one man’.

Realistically, 'man of one woman' means 'faithful in marriage'. This does not prohibit female overseers, just as it does not prohibit male overseers who are single or married for a second time. It means that if they are married, they should not be adulterers but be faithful in marriage.

1 Timothy 3
1 Timothy 3 women or men may be qualified to ministry

The church leader must be able to manage their own household well (v. 4), which also does not exclude women. While most households had a male in charge, women were not excluded. There are several women in the Bible who are called heads of the house, including Lydia, Nympha, Phoebe, and Martha of Bethany. Paul tells women to be good household managers later (1 Timothy 5:14). Nijay Gupta, in Tell Her Story, reports that approximately 25% of households in the first-century Roman world were managed by a woman.

The church overseer should see that their children are obedient and respectful. This does not mean an overseer must have children, but if they do have children, their children should behave responsibly. Both the mother and the father are responsible for raising their children.

The list in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is not exhaustive but advises leaders should be sober, modest, honest, hospitable, and good at teaching. They should not be violent, greedy, quarrelsome or domineering. The list applies to both male and female church leaders or overseers.

card 44
Excerpt from The Sword A Fun Way to Engage

In my book, The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says about a Woman's Role, I show the Complementarian argument that deacons must me men and the Egalitarian view that deacons must be righteous.

The writer then says 'in the same way' or 'likewise' deacons must be honest, unselfish and faithful in marriage, worthy of trust and respect. Paul then goes on to say 'in the same way' or 'likewise' the women are to be honest and faithful in all things. He is addressing women who are deacons, not wives of deacons (1 Timothy 3:11). In his book, Tell Her Story, Nijay Gupta suggests the word deacon does not describe a servant or subordinate, but a person who provides ministries to the assembly. The characteristics to be a deacon are similar to those of an overseer, and they should have a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:8-10).

Paul concludes his instructions about deacons saying they must be faithful in marriage and manage their households well (1 Timothy 3:12). The writer explains that those who serve well will strengthen their faith (1 Timothy 3:13).

My biblical fiction, Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, tells stories of women in the Bible who were leaders at home and in the community. It shows women as faithful and devoted disciples, patrons, and apostles. It sets an example for women and men today to be free to follow God's call for their lives.

Paul hopes to visit Timothy but writes so that Timothy will know how to lead God's household, which is the church of God. Paul quotes another saying, this one that describes the great mystery that Jesus appeared in the flesh, declared righteous in spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on and taken up into glory.


1 Timothy 4: Godly Training Has Double Value

Again, the writer reminds Timothy that some will abandon their faith and follow false teachings from those who do not listen to their good conscience. Among these false teachers, Paul mentions those who forbid marriage and promote virginity or celibacy, possibly referring to the woman in 1 Timothy 2. Paul also criticizes these false teachers for telling people to abstain from certain foods and observe Jewish dietary laws. Paul says God makes all things good through prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5). He seems to be referring to Jesus's words that people are not made impure by the food that goes into their mouths but by the words that come out of their mouths (Matthew 15:11). In the same way, you can tell a good teacher not by their gender, but by their words and actions, the fruit of their heart (Matthew 7:15-20).

1 Timothy 4
1 Timothy 4: don't listen to false teachers

Paul encourages Timothy as a good minister, nourished on truth and following good teaching. He discourages Timothy from the godless myths and legal restrictions. Paul quotes another saying, that physical training has some value, but godly training has double value, both in this life and in the afterlife (1 Timothy 4:6-10).

Paul encourages Timothy to teach the truth entrusted to him, setting an example in word and in conduct, and not letting anyone look down on him because of his youth. He tells Timothy to keep publicly reading the Scripture, preaching and teaching. He reminds Timothy to use his gift, given through prophecy when the elders laid their hands on him. Paul encourages Timothy to be diligent and persevere, to save both himself and those who listen to him. All believers are likewise called not to neglect our God-given gifts, but to use them to bear good fruit.


1 Timothy 5: Women and Men Are Both Financially Responsible

Now, the writer gives specific instructions that Timothy treat the gathering of believers as his own family. Treat older men with respect, as if they were your father, treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters.

Older Widows: Recognize those who are in need. The widow who is really in need puts her hope in God and is celibate, fully dedicated to Christ. These widows should do good deeds, show hospitality, wash others' feet, and help those in trouble. If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should take care of their own family. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). Women and men are both financially accountable to God for their money management. These older women may have been church elders. They may have been an early beginning to a woman dedicated to spiritual leadership such as a nun or an abbess.

Younger Widows: Do not have them take a vow of celibacy because they may later want to marry and break their pledge. A young widow may learn to be lazy, spreading false myths or gossip from house to house, turning people to follow Satan. It would be better for them to remarry, have children, and manage their households so that they won't give a reason for our opponents to slander believers.

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1 Timothy 5: men and women are accountable

The writer acknowledges women who manage their own households, have assets or income and are not under the care of a male guardian. If a woman is taking care of widows, she should continue to do so, freeing the church to help the widows who are really in need. Female and male believers are held equally financially responsible for providing for their relatives (1 Timothy 5:8 and 16). In my career as a financial advisor, I saw it is essential for women to be educated not only in domestic management but also in managing assets, investments, income and budgets.

Elders and those who do public speaking and teaching should be paid, as workers deserve their pay. Here, the writer recommends that any accusations against an elder should be confirmed by two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). This verse has been used to shelter or hide abusive pastors or priests today since many sexual allegations do not have a witness other than the aggressor and victim. However, the very next verse exhorts Timothy to let everyone see that you discipline those who are sinning in order to keep others from impropriety. Timothy is not to prejudge or show partiality to protect the elder. The good works will be obvious, and bad works will eventually come to light (1 Timothy 5:17-25). This echoes Jesus's promise that everything that is hidden will eventually be found out, exposed in God's light (Luke 8:17).


1 Timothy 6: Run to Righteousness

Those who are slaves should respect their masters so that our teaching won't get a bad reputation (1 Timothy 6:1-2). This statement does not apply to wives obeying abusive husbands for the sake of the church's reputation. Wives are not slaves to husbands; in fact, women were often masters in charge of slaves and servants. Paul states otherwise that for those who are 'in Christ', there is no longer male and female. The goal is to keep God's name honoured and not reviled by unbelievers. It is better for the reputation of the Christian church to condemn abusers than to protect them.

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1 Timothy 6: those with more power must likewise serve those with less power

This passage is unlike Paul's references to slaves in other letters. Paul refers to the household code of slaves obeying masters, and immediately reforms saying that for those 'in Christ', masters likewise need to respect their slaves as brothers, since both serve the true Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9, Philemon 1:15-17). However, in 1 Timothy 6 and in Titus 2, the author seems to be telling slaves to obey their masters without a corresponding instruction to reform a master's behaviours towards slaves. This change could indicate the writer is not the Apostle Paul, or it could show a change in thinking from the early to the late first century. Apparently, some Christian slaves had been disrespecting their Christian masters, treating them as equal brothers, and their poor work ethic did not glorify God. In his other letters, Paul tells believers to work heartily, as for the Lord and not for human bosses (Colossians 3:23)

The letter tells Timothy to be alert for false teachers or anyone teaching something that doesn't agree with what Paul has entrusted to Timothy. False teachers think they will gain money from godliness, but true gain comes from godliness and contentment. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and some have turned away from the faith because making money has become their goal (1 Timothy 6:3-10). Tell the wealthy not to put their hope in their earthly riches but to hope in God who provides everything. Tell them instead to be rich in good works and generous with others. This mirrors James in telling us to show our faith through our actions (James 2:17). It also echoes Jesus in telling them to build up treasure in heaven (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

The writer warns about people who are conceited and obsessed with debates, creating jealousy, conflict, and verbal abuse. Timothy is to avoid godless discussions and false teachings, which can lead people away from the faith. Timothy is to run away from such things and instead run towards righteousness, faithfulness, and holiness. Timothy is reminded of his confession of faith in front of many witnesses to motivate him to obey what he has been taught (1 Timothy 6:11-16). The writer tells Timothy to protect the teachings that have been handed to him in trust and turn away from ideas that are falsely called knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20-21).



In summary, this is a private letter to Timothy, who is in charge of the church in Ephesus. It opposes sexually exploitive or abusive behaviour by heterosexuals or homosexuals. It encourages women to learn correct doctrine so that they are less vulnerable to false teachers and alleviates a woman's fears of childbirth and temptation to turn to Artemis for safety. It gives many characteristics to watch for in selecting good church leaders. It encourages women and men to be good managers of wealth, taking care of widows, and managing their households. It does not prohibit anyone from leading or speaking based on gender. It encourages Timothy to live in godliness, to stop the community from spreading false doctrine, and to teach them to live in godliness.


Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor

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