A DANGEROUS THING
T. PIERCE BROWN
Alexander Pope said in the early 1700’s, “A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” The principle he was suggesting is probably true, but the problem is, all of us have to start at zero, and no one ever is possessed of much learning that does not first have a little. Furthermore, all of us have to stop somewhere, and since “shallow draughts” and “drinking largely” are relative terms, we simply have to do what we can, where we are, with what we have.
What caused me to start this article was that last night, one of our good Bible teachers was teaching from 1 Timothy 3:2 concerning the qualifications of a bishop. He had been told by some student of the Greek language that “dei” which is translated “must” in the KJV, is present tense. Therefore, he said, “It is necessary that the bishop CONTINUE to be the husband of one wife. Then, it follows that if his wife dies, he must resign.”
I come to a different conclusion about that, the reasons for which I shall discuss shortly, but regardless of whether I am right or wrong about THAT conclusion, the principle about which I am writing is far broader. The principle is: Rules of Greek grammar are not made by some scholars and imposed on the text. They are DETERMINED by what we find as we examine the way the language was used.
For example, I thought I learned in freshman Greek that the aorist tense describes “point action,” and therefore assumed that when we find an aorist tense, the action described by the verb was instantaneous, not continuous, linear, or repeated. By examination of the actual text over the past 35 years, however, I have found that is not EXACTLY the case. I discover that MANY times, the aorist describes an action which MAY CONTINUE for some time, or it may be repeated many times, but in every case I recall, it appears that the author is thinking of it as a whole, or completed unit, so he uses the aorist. Two of the many examples I have read are in Matthew 28:8, ” — and they ran to announce it to His disciples.” “Ran” is aorist, although the running may have continued for a considerable time. The aorist is used because the total action is considered as a whole, or point action; not that the total action took place instantaneously. In Acts 20:13, “We sailed to Assos.” “Sailed” is aorist even if it took them six months to get there, and they actually “kept on sailing.” He did not SAY, “They kept on sailing,” for he apparently was speaking of it as a “total event,” but it is not, in my judgment, adequately described by the term, “point action.”
In the same way, I discovered that although the present tense is used to denote continuous action, it may be misunderstood if one tries to make the text fit some rule of grammarians, instead of finding the rule by seeing how the tense is used in the text considered. For example, Matthew 7:19 says, “Every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.” If one ASSUMES that because “is cut down” and “is cast” are present tense verbs, a person keeps on cutting down a particular tree and casting it into the fire, he has a problem. It is surely evident that the continuous action is NOT that a man continues to cut down THAT PARTICULAR TREE and burn it, but that it continues to be a general truth that every tree that produces not good fruit is cut down and burned. That is the normal or customary thing.
Although I can not list any Greek scholars that say so, for my study has been largely in Bible rather than in the writings of Greek scholars, I would be very surprised and disappointed if SOMEONE in the scholarly world does not say something like I have said in a far clearer and better way.
Now, let us consider the case of “it is necessary” that a bishop be the husband of one wife. When we find many examples of similar construction such as in John 3:7, “Ye MUST be born again,” we cannot concluded that because “dei” is in the present tense, it means “Ye must KEEP ON being born again and again!” Rather, the meaning seems apparent, “It CONTINUES TO BE TRUE that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Similarly, I conclude that it will CONTINUE to be true that for a man to seek the office (or work) of a bishop in a scriptural way, he must have a wife. But as this is a CIRCUMSTANCE that enables him to BECOME qualified, and NOT a quality that he must keep to STAY qualified, I conclude that he may lose his wife without necessarily losing his qualification. Of course, losing a wife MAY cause him to lose, or contribute to his losing, the qualifications or qualities that make him a proper shepherd of God’s sheep, in which case, it is my judgment that he should resign.
If a man has proven himself to have the qualities which caused the holy Spirit to make him an overseer or shepherd of God’s flock, including the ability to control, properly discipline and take care of the needs of his wife and children, does the fact that his CIRCUMSTANCES change and his children grow up and leave home disqualify him? Keep in mind that the participle “having” as it talks about his children being in subjection to him is present tense. If that means that he must continue the CIRCUMSTANCES that qualified him in order to continue having the QUALITIES which fit him for the work, then he must resign when and if he has children who leave home or die! My study leads me to the conclusion that if a man loses the qualities which make him a fit leader to do the tasks to which the Holy Spirit appointed him, he should not be in that office — work. But the CIRCUMSTANCES which helped him develop those qualities do not have to continue. I believe David Lipscomb, great Bible scholar and Christian though he was, was wrong when he apparently ASSUMED that a man may gain the QUALITIES God wanted him to have in some other way than having a wife and family, such as being the director of an orphanage. One might ASSUME that one could gain those qualities by being a principal of a school, a guard in a prison, or a coach on a football team, but such assumptions are unwarranted, unsound, and dangerous. But gaining the qualities God decreed and continuing to have the circumstances that produced those qualities are two very different things.
So, my understanding is that the present tense of “dei” here, as in dozens of other cases, suggests that it was true then and continues to be so, that a man who does the work of overseeing must be above reproach. That is, he must have demonstrated his ABILITY and the qualities that make him the proper person to do the work God decreed for him. This includes the fact that he must have had a wife and family — not some contrived situation one ASSUMES to be similar. But the grammar does not, nor does logical analysis, suggest that he must continue in the CIRCUMSTANCE which helped create the qualifications in order to continue with those qualifications.
But the thesis of my article is not actually dealing with the eldership. It is dealing with the fact that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” and those of us who have only a smattering of knowledge in any field should not seal our conclusions in concrete before checking them as far as is humanly possible.