First Timothy 3 gives the qualifications for overseers. “Elder” and “overseer” are two descriptions of the same office of church leader. One emphasizes activity (overseer), and one emphasizes maturity (elder). One of the requirements for an elder is that he is “not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6, KJV).
In the passage, novice (KJV) simply means “recent convert” (NIV, ESV). The idea seems to be that elevating a recent convert would make him more susceptible to pride, whereas someone who has been a believer for some time might be less susceptible to this sin. The word condemnation in the KJV makes it sound as though a church elder could do something that would cause him to wind up in the same place of final condemnation as the devil—the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10).
The word translated “condemnation” in the KJV is simply the word for “judgment,” which may, in some contexts, mean final condemnation, but the word does not require that meaning. There could be other forms of judgment in view.
There are two ways that 1 Timothy 3:6 is normally understood, and the differences turn on the meaning of the phrase of the devil. The first understanding is that the “condemnation of the devil” is a judgment that is in some way similar to what the devil will experience. The second understanding is that the “condemnation of the devil” is a judgment at the hand of the devil, perhaps similar to what Paul means when he says that he hands an unrepentant man “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
The following outline seems to capture the various options for the meaning of 1 Timothy 3:6:
1. The elder commits the sin of pride in the same way as the devil, and he will be condemned to the lake of fire along with the devil. In this case either
a. The sin is so grievous that the elder loses his salvation OR
b. The elder was never a believer in the first place.
2. The elder sins in a way similar to the devil and will receive some sort of judgment for his pride, but it will fall short of the lake of fire, as the elder is a true believer and will ultimately be saved.
3. The elder will be “turned over to Satan” to receive the due consequences of his pride, but, since he is a true believer, he will ultimately be saved.
It is our firm conviction that Scripture promises that a true believer can never sin so grievously as to lose salvation; therefore, 1a is ruled out as contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible—Scripture will not contradict Scripture. If interpretation 1 is to be maintained, then 1b would be the only possible conclusion—the overweening pride of the elder would be a demonstration that he was not a true believer. However, interpretation 1b also seems suspect, as the passage describes him as a “new convert.” The thrust of the passage is that elevating a new believer too soon to a position of leadership makes him susceptible to pride. If he were an unbeliever, it is his unbelief that would condemn him along with the devil, whether he was proud or not. Thus, 1b, although possible, seems to be foreign to the context. If another interpretation fits well within the context, it is to be preferred.
Interpretation 2 rests on the fact that, since “judgment” can mean something less than final condemnation, it is possible for a true believer to come under judgment. Because of his pride, the devil was disqualified from his position as a messenger of God and his role of bringing glory to God. Certainly, a prideful elder would also be disqualified from those roles in the church. Therefore, interpretation 2 is a viable option that is not foreign to the context.
Interpretation 3 is also a viable option. The next verse mentions that the overseer must have a good reputation or else he may fall into the trap of the devil (1 Timothy 3:7). This seems to be clear that the devil is laying a trap for elders and would like to abuse them if at all possible. The emphasis in verse 7 might lend some contextual weight to interpretation 3—the context seems to be the devil’s interaction with the overseer. Scholars who disagree point out that in the New Testament it is God, not the devil, who metes out judgment.
In the final analysis, both interpretations 2 and 3 have exegetical merit, and, in some sense, both may be true—although perhaps interpretation 2 is the more likely. If a new believer is elevated to a position of leadership too quickly, he may become prideful and thus disqualify himself from that position, just as the devil was disqualified from his position.
In any case, the application of 1 Timothy 3:6 is the same. An overseer should be a mature believer, not a new convert, if for no other reason than it is not good for the new convert to face the temptations and/or spiritual attack that invariably come with being an elder.