By Chuck Sackett
Sam compassionately shepherded a congregation I’ll call Countryside Church, but a massive heart attack cut short his ministry, forcing him into an extended rehabilitation, and ultimately, retirement. The elders, assessing the situation, determined that Sam’s wife could live in the parsonage until he was released from the hospital. However, the church would begin searching for a minister immediately, so she needed to vacate the parsonage upon his release.
On the other side of the state, Doris served the children of a congregation I’ll call Community Fellowship. Her ministry was exploding with children. Tragically, her husband found her unconscious on the bathroom floor late one evening, victimized by a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to carry out her ministry.
Community’s elders met her at the hospital as the ambulance arrived; two men remained with her husband as Doris was admitted and assessed. In the ensuing weeks, Doris continued to receive paychecks while families were recruited to watch the couple‘s children and provide their meals. Volunteers carried out Doris’s ministry for eight months until she was able to slowly reenter her position.
Which team of elders handled their situation better—and most biblically? We know elders have authority to deal with such problems in the church. But what direction does the Bible give about how elders are to exercise their authority?
It’s difficult for anyone to ignore certain catchwords in the biblical text. After all, 1 Timothy 3 begins with requirements for overseers. He must “manage” his household while seeing “that his children obey him” (v. 4), because if he can’t “manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (v. 5).
Oversee and manage strongly connote control, supervision, and accountability. The vocabulary used to translate leadership texts exacerbates the issue: “If it is to lead, do it diligently” (Romans 12:8); “Who admonish you” (1 Thessalonians 5:12); “Have confidence . . . and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17); and “Direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17).
No one can deny a certain “up-frontness”
in being an elder in the church. Elders oversee (Acts 20:28), make decisions (Acts 15:22), and are entrusted with the church (1 Peter 5:1-4). But is it possible we might have stopped looking into the text too soon? Does Paul say more than we realize in these “management” references? Is the text more concerned about the manner of leading than the act of leading?
How to Manage?
Three key ideas require evaluation: manage, well, and care for. Twice, elders are told they “must manage” their household. But what does that imply? They are instructed to manage well. Is that a result or a process? And finally, manage receives clarification by the appositive phrase, care for. How does that impact our understanding of an elder’s role?
Manage (προΐστημι) means “to stand before,” implying a certain “up-frontness.”
And while the term includes an inherent authority, it must also include its fuller range of meaning: “to have an interest in, show concern for, care for, give aid.”1 This term provides a consistent commentary on the nature of a Christian father’s role within his family: “His leadership should be not dictatorial but caring and protecting.”2
The second term is well. Clearly, Paul qualifies the management of the household. He emphasizes not merely the success, having children who are submissive, but the manner of the management. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature places the emphasis upon “doing something in the correct way.” The correct way being “with all dignity.”
But most important is the phrase Paul uses to define “manage the household.” As he makes the connection to God’s household, Paul asks, “How will he care for God’s church?” (author’s emphasis). This term indicates compassionate action. Its only other use in the New Testament (Luke 10:35) says, “look after him” (author’s emphasis). The medical community outside the New Testament frequently used the term to indicate the care of the sick. As William Mounce says, “The overseer’s managing is to be characterized by a sensitive caring, not a dictatorial exercise of authority and power.”3
An elder, who was also my employer, asked me one day, “Did anyone tell you why you only put two pieces of wood in the planer at a time? [It’s because] a third piece can fly back at you . . . hard enough to kill you.” That’s management—biblically done; being up-front, but always with the best interests of others in mind.
1W. Arndt, F. W. Danker, and W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 870.
2W. D. Mounce, R. Martin, and L. Losie, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 46: Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000).
3Mounce, et al., Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 46. George Knight concurs in the New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Pastoral Epistles,
“. . . ἐπιμελέομαι (Luke 10:34f) means ‘care for’ or ‘take care of’ (with the genitive). The personal and thorough care given by the Good Samaritan, the only other New Testament occurrence of the verb, cannot help but serve as a pattern, even though the contexts differ.”
Chuck Sackett serves as minister with Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois. He is also a professor at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary and TCM International.