Tuesday of Week 24 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Timothy 3:1-13

When Paul wrote this Letter to Timothy, the early Church was still developing the leadership and pastoral structures with which we are now familiar. Paul today has advice for “bishops” and “deacons” and lays down the criteria on which they are to be chosen. The actual structure of ‘bishop’, ‘priest’ and ‘deacon’ as we know it now had not yet taken form.

The Jerusalem Bible has a useful overview of the situation:

“The word episkopos (‘overseer’, ‘supervisor’ or ‘president’) had not yet acquired the same meaning as ‘bishop’ and seems sometimes to overlap with the presbuteros (‘elder’). In the earliest days each Christian community was governed by a body of elders (‘presbyters’, from which comes the English word ‘priests’), who were prominent and respected people in the community. This was the case both in Jerusalem and in the Diaspora (the communities scattered through East Asia and to the west) and it merely continued both the ancient practice of the Old Testament and the more recent practice of the Jews.”

These episkopoi who are not yet ‘bishops’ in our modern sense and who are mentioned in connection with the diakonoi (servants, attendants, assistants, deputies, ministers, ‘deacons’) seem, in some passages, to be identical with the elders. The Greek word episkopos (taken over from the pagan world probably as an equivalent for a semitic title) indicated the duty of an administrative officer, while presbuteros indicated the status or dignity of the same officer. The episkopoi in the college of presbyters may have taken turns to carry out their official duties of administration and leadership.

It is quite certain that Christian presbuteroi or episkopoi were not merely concerned with the practical side of organising things: they had to both teach and govern. They were appointed by the apostles or their representatives by the imposition of hands; their powers derived from God and were charismatic. The word episkopos eventually replaced analogous titles like proistamenos (official), poimen (pastor or shepherd), hegoumenos (guide or leader).

These heads of the local community who developed into our priests (presbuteroi) and bishops (episkopoi) were helped by diakonoi (deacons). The transformation of a local assembly ruled by a body of bishops or presbyters, into an assembly ruled by a single bishop set over a number of priests (a stage reached by the time of Ignatius of Antioch, died, about 107 AD) must have involved the intermediate stage when a single episkopos in each community was given the same powers over that local community which had previously been exercised over several communities by the apostles or their representatives like Timothy or Titus.

The overseers/elders were carefully chosen by the communities and hands were laid on them to indicate their appointments were blessed by the Holy Spirit. This is the beginning of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Paul himself was not a bishop; he was an apostle and evangeliser. And it is not certain that Timothy was a bishop; his work seems to have been more similar to that of Paul, an animator and visitor of communities scattered over the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.

In this Letter and in the whole New Testament there is as yet no mention of ‘priests’ as we know them now. As we saw, the word ‘priest’ is a corruption of the Greek word presbuteros or ‘elder’. We see these elders mentioned as leaders of their communities and even presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist. It would not be quite accurate to call them ‘laymen’ as distinct from ‘clergy’, because in the Church at this time neither term would have been used. The distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ simply did not exist.

However, there was another type of priest represented by the Greek word hiereus, from which comes our word ‘hier-archy’ (meaning, rule by priests). This was a word applied to temple priests, whether of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the many thousands of temples scattered throughout the Greek and Roman world. In the beginning, the Church did not have this type of priest, nor did it want to. And, the reason was clear.

For the early Christians, there was only one Priest in this sense and that was Jesus Christ himself. He was both the Priest (hiereus and not presbuteros) and the Victim of the sacrifice made on the cross, a sacrifice which in its infinite value replaced all other sacrifices before and after, a sacrifice that need never again be repeated. This is all beautifully laid out in the Letter to the Hebrews (see Heb 5:1-10).

Our Eucharistic celebration is a representation of that unique sacrifice on the cross, which was sacramentally anticipated at the Last Supper. The one who presides is now called a ‘priest’, of which the Latin translation is sacerdos, the equivalent of hiereus. But it is the bishop who is now regarded as having the fullness of priesthood. These developments took place in the Church over the course of centuries.

In today’s reading, Paul gives Timothy a detailed character-sketch of what the presiding bishop and the deacon should be. Many, but not all, of the requirements are just as valid today.

Regarding the ‘bishop’ or presiding elder, Paul says that to desire to fill this role is a noble thing and that is why he (it was always a man) had to be of impeccable character. He then lists the desired qualifications, of which, first and foremost was:

…a bishop must be above reproach, married only once…

This was to preclude any violation of God’s marriage law, whether through polygamy or marital unfaithfulness. As the bishops were, by definition, chosen from the older men of the community, Paul assumed they already would be married and have children. But an otherwise qualified unmarried man was not necessarily barred. It is also improbable that the standard forbade an bishop to remarry if his wife died. The most likely meaning is simply that a faithful monogamous married life must have been maintained.

The chosen man must also be:

…temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.

He must also:

…manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?

Furthermore, the prospective bishop:

…must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.

And finally:

…he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

It is quite a demanding list of qualities, even by today’s standards, and one that many bishops and priests might find it hard to meet.

Next comes the list of qualifications for a ‘deacon’ (diakonos). The word ‘deacon’ refers to someone who serves the community and in general is seen on a lower level than the presbuteros (priest, elder) or episkopoi (bishop). Authority and ministry in the community is always seen in terms of service rather than control. Jesus himself had said he came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:45). ‘Minister/ministry’, from the Latin minister/ministerium means one who serves and is the equivalent of the Greek diakonos/diakonia.

The men chosen in Acts 6:1-6 were probably not only the first deacons mentioned in the New Testament, but also the first to be appointed in the church. Generally, their service was meant to free the leaders to give full attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (see Acts 6:2,4).

As a person with responsibility in the community, the deacon (diakonos), too, has to meet certain standards. Paul says they:

…must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons.

Women too are mentioned at this point, but it is not clear whether Paul is referring to women deacons, as some would hold, or only speaking about the deacon’s wife. Paul in his Letter to the Romans writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae… (Rom 16:1)

However, it is also disputed as to what exactly her status was.

In any case, these women, deaconesses or deacons’ wives, are to be:

…serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.

Returning then to the deacon, Paul says he, like the ‘bishop’, must:

…be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well…

Finally, says Paul,

…those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

In more recent times, and especially since the Second Vatican Council, the concept of ministry has been broadened in our Church. It had become largely confined to the bishop and the priest. Now the order of deacon has been enhanced and certainly also includes married deacons. And there does not seem to be any intrinsic objection why women could not also be deacons, but some sadly see this as the thin end of the wedge leading to women priests.

In addition, other ministries have been introduced on a non-clerical level, such as Scripture readers (lectors and ministers of the Eucharist). Paul speaks of a wide range of ministries by which people could actively contribute to the life and work of the community and this vision is being restored.

It is for every Christian and every parishioner to ask themselves how they can actively and constructively contribute to the service of their community or parish. This is what gives life to a parish and draws people into it. And we need to pray and work for enlightened and practical solutions to the critical shortage of pastoral leadership in so many parts of the Church today.

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