Aspiration is natural. It is probably as natural as the consumption of food and drink and psychically almost as necessary. Hope for an improvement of one’s lot or for the acquisition of some status makes the world go ’round. I hadn’t thought about it, but I suppose I’m a kind of an aspiration free-market “capitalist” — especially in the face of the alternatives. People seeking better for themselves is frequently productive of good, not only for themselves, but for others: material goods, accomplishment, invention, employment of gifts for the common good, and so on. Yet, it is not hard to see that, as with all human appetites, aspiration is also the site of incalculable sin and grief — personal self-destruction and corporate disintegration.

Because it is the habit of pious Christians to conceal their ambition under more noble guises (“Who, me ambitious?”), there is a verse in the Bible that long vexed me — maybe not for what it says, but for what I thought it was saying. I took it to be both disarmingly candid and problematic for 1 Timothy 3:1 to say, “Whoever aspires to the office of bishop (or “overseer”; episkopē) desires a noble task” (NRSV).[1] As a person conditioned to be dishonest about my own ambitions, I found a certain refreshing validation of aspiration in that text. “Look, if you’re going to have ambition, God bless you for wanting this rather than some of the other alternatives.”

At the same time, I had a hard time squaring that candid realism with another New Testament text in James, memorable not only for sharing the same address (3:1) but for expressing seemingly the opposite sentiment: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (NRSV). So I puzzled like a rabbi, wondering which of these expressed the true view of the matter or how we might somehow hold them together. Should we covet Christian responsibility or should we humbly eschew it? It strikes me that, in a worst case scenario, the humble and circumspect will heed James 3:1, and the ambitious and self-promoting will heed 1 Timothy 3:1. James manages to discourage the kinds of leaders we need, and 1 Timothy emboldens the vain and ambitious. There is perhaps even some evidence that this is what happens. Whether these verses are to blame is another question.

What shall we say, then? Perhaps not many should become Christian teachers, but teachers are needed. Indeed, that gift is distributed among others for the good of the Body (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). So “not many” can’t mean “not any,” and one could argue that James is less interested in thinning the teacher herd than in warning presumptive scribes about what they’re signing up for.

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In fact, upon closer examination, it turns out that, far from an antinomy, 1 Timothy 3:1 ends up saying nearly the same thing as James 3:1 — that is, with would-be “bishops” substituted for would-be teachers. To say that the “work” (ergon) of an episkopos is a good (kalos) work, is not quite the same thing as saying that the desire for that task is itself “noble.” Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Chances are, in any given instance, that the desire is mixed and confusing and that probably God only knows its true character. What is good, indeed “noble,” is the important work of caring for souls and defending and propagating the faith. Would you desire this, Paul says, you desire a noble work, irrespective of the character of your desire, which is an important but different question.

Indeed, only this understanding of 1 Timothy 3:1 adequately prepares us for what follows (3:2–7; cf. 3:8–12), in which the qualifications for the noble work are delineated. There is not an incidental, but rather a deep, intrinsic relationship between the “noble work” and the — pray God! — noble persons called to such work. That link in verse 2 is inadvertently minimized by an otherwise defensible but insufficiently robust translation: “Now a bishop must be above reproach …” (e.g., RSV, NRSV, NIV). I suggest the train of thought is better captured this way: “It is essential, therefore, that the bishop be above reproach ….”[2] It is because the work is good, noble, and supremely important that the qualities next described are not merely desirable but essential. It is because the desired work is a matter of such grave importance, that only persons of proven irreproachable character should be considered for the “office.”

It turns out, then, that those longing for acclamation or whatever prestige might accompany an office rather than motivated by an obedience to do the work — most of it altogether un-glamorous — eliminate themselves when measured by the personal character that service requires. Self-aggrandizement won’t mix with “above reproach” (v. 2); that sort of agonism runs contrary to the spirit of the peaceable, non-pugilist, unmotivated by love of money (v. 3), where conceit has no place (v. 6). It turns out that “he desires a noble work” is a lot like “let not many of you become teachers,” after all.

I’ve been running an unscientific, informal poll for several years, and it is disappointing to find out that apparently neither 1 Timothy 3, nor James 3:1, nor Titus 1:5–9 very often show up in discernment processes. Maybe these texts play a more formative role than I’ve been told and my sample is contaminated, but it is not hard to imagine why these texts might not factor prominently in the selection of clergy. The standards here expressed are unrealistic or outmoded or even cruel. It is sometimes complained that words like “irreproachable” imply a standard too high to be reasonably expected even of clergy — “we’re all sinners, after all.”

Or the “husband of one wife” (whatever that means) is liable to make divorced or even single persons second-class citizens in the household of God. The business about “managing his own household” is a heaping helping of patriarchy. The thought that a wayward child might disqualify a candidate for holy orders seems at best unfair, if not even regressive. Whatever utility such lists might have held in their original contexts — in the emergence of, heaven, help us, Frühkatholizismus? — this sort of bourgeois moralizing constitutes a period piece. And so it is set to the side.

I don’t pretend that there are not serious —I would say, interesting — questions of biblical interpretation to address should these sorts of texts enjoy fruitful appropriation in the Church. But, choosing not to avail ourselves of that wisdom, we fill the vacuum with go-getters and well-meaners and managerial fashions. Having nothing by which to hold them in check, we ennoble ignoble desires. And too often too many get what they want.

Garwood Anderson’s other posts may be found here. The featured image of a papal mitre is by Flickr user Riccardo, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 


[1] I take it as uncontroversial that ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος can be used as interchangeable terms in the NT era. See Tit. 1:5, cf.1:7; Acts 20:17, cf. 20:28; for a survey of usage see R.E. Brown, “Episkopē and Episkopos: The New Testament Evidence,” Theological Studies 41 (1980), pp. 322–38.

[2] Thus taking οὖν as truly inferential (i.e., a “therefore” and not merely a transitional “now”) and δεῖ in a strong sense (= “it is necessary” rather than merely “fitting”).

About The Author

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is the President and Provost of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he also holds a chair as Professor of New Testament.

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Many years ago, I brought the matter of my own ambition to my spiritual director. He was quick to observe that there is such a thing as *holy* ambition (zeal for the cause of the gospel) and that no ambition is pure (either holy or unholy), but invariably mixed, because … you know … sin and all that. Nonetheless, God can exploit even the unholiness in our ambition for the ends of his kingdom. And on the issue of discernment, it’s my long observation that discernment begins with desire (indeed, ambition). It doesn’t end there (one hopes), but it begins… Read more »

For further reflection, Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica II-II, q.185, a.1: “Three things may be considered in the episcopal office. One is principal and final, namely the bishop’s work, whereby the good of our neighbor is intended, according to John 21:17, Feed My sheep. Another thing is the height of degree, for a bishop is placed above others, according to Matthew 24:45, A faithful and a wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family. The third is something resulting from these, namely reverence, honor, and a sufficiency of temporalities, according to (1 Timothy 5:17), Let the priests… Read more »