When Paul left Timothy in Ephesus, he either left a letter with him or sent a letter to him in order to help his young apostolic coworker. (1 Timothy) In part of that letter, Paul wrote to help his friend understand who should be recognized (or appointed) as elders among the church. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
In this section, Paul describes what kind of person should be an elder. There are many different descriptions within this short passage. But, for this post, I want to focus on one sentence (in two verses):
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:4-5 ESV)
This passage is often presented as an indication that elders are “managers” over the church. However, the verbs used indicate something different.
To begin with, there are two important verbs used in this passage: “manage” (in vs. 4 & 5) and “care for” (in vs. 5).
First, the verb translated “manage” comes from the Greek verb προΐστημι (prohistemi). This verb has a wide range of meanings, including “be over,” “superintend,” and “managed” and also “aid,” “care for,” and “give attention to.” So, as the ESV translates it above, this verb can definitely mean “manage.”
In the passage above, the verb προΐστημι (prohistemi – “manage”) demonstrates the relationship between the elders and their families, especially their children. Again, in that context, “manage” would work.
Next, the verb translated “care for” comes from the Greek verb ἐπιμελέομαι (epimeleomai). Unlike the verb above, this verb has a much more narrow range of meaning: “to take care of a person or thing.” This verb cannot mean “manage.”
The verb ἐπιμελέομαι (epimeleomai – “take care of”) is only used in one other passage in the New Testament – in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan:
He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:34-35 ESV)
It’s clear from the context above what “take care of” means. It means “to render aid” or “offer support”… it does not mean “manage.”
Now, remember, Paul is making a comparison. He’s comparing a person’s relationship to their family and suggesting that the familiar relationship will be an indication of their relationship with the church. Paul describes the familial relationship with a verb that could mean either “manage” or “care for.” But, he describes the church relationship with a verb that could only mean “care for.”
Regardless of what Paul is saying about the elders’ relationship with their family, he is definitely not saying that the elders are to “manage” the church. Instead, he is saying that elders are to “care for” the church, much like the “good samaritan” took care of the wounded traveler.
By the way, there is another Greek verb that falls within the same semantic domain (meaning) as the verb “care for” (ἐπιμελέομαι – epimeleomai). Which verb is that? The verb that is usually translated “shepherd,” which is also often used to describe elders.
[I wrote a similar post about 3 1/2 years ago called “Manage his own household?” However, the Greek fonts became corrupted during a database upgrade, so I decided to rewrite the post here.]