Word Study

προΐστημι (proistemi)

προΐστημι (proistemi)

Why study this word?

An examination of various English translations can help determine which Greek words deserve closer study. A survey of translations shows some dispute over one particular term in 1 Timothy 5:17. A number of translations, dating back to the the KJV, refer to the elders who “rule” well (KJV, ESV, NASB, RSV). Other translations refer not to ruling, but to leading. The LEB refers to the elders who “lead” well, while other translations use some form of the word for leadership (CSB, NET, GNT).[1] Then some translations refer to church leaders who are good at their jobs without specifying what that job entails (NLT, CEV, ISV).[2]

The Greek word underlying all these translations is proistemi (προΐστημι). In 1 Timothy 5:17, this word modifies or describes the elders who are worthy of double honor.[3] Paul says that these elders are doing what they are doing “well,” so whatever proistemi means, the implication is that church leaders who are adept at doing it are worthy of special honor from the church. Consequently, a good understanding of the exact meaning of this term is crucial for anyone serving in church leadership.

What can this word mean?

Many words have a range of possible meanings,[4] so the first step in determining what a word means in a given passage of Scripture is to determine all the things that the word can mean. According to one of the most widely used Greek lexicons, proistemi can have two possible meanings: 

  1. to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head
  2. to have an interest in, show concern for, care for, give aid[5]

Since proistemi is only used eight times in the New Testament, some attention must be given to sources outside of the New Testament. Proistemi is a compound word, made up of a preposition that means “before” and a verb that means “to stand,” “to place,” or “to put.” 4 Maccabees, a book written near the time of the New Testament, uses this “literal” meaning of something being set before someone (4 Macc. 11:27).[6] But most of the uses of this term fit one of the two meanings listed above, especially the meaning of exercising a position of leadership. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the word was used to refer to a servant who was in charge of the house of Amnon (2 Sam. 13:17), while in Amos 6:10 the word refers to the “leaders” of a house. A study of other Greek literature from around the time of the New Testament also demonstrates this range of possible meanings. Josephus, a first-century author writing in Greek, used the word to refer to “the governors of the assembly,” “the heads of the tribes,” and the “governor of a nation,” to cite just a few examples.[7]

But the word could also be used of showing concern for someone or giving them aid. This might be the implication of the word in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 when Paul told the Thessalonians to respect those who were over them in the Lord. Here the emphasis seems to be not just on the fact that these men were leaders but that they labored to care for the Thessalonian church. Biblically speaking, the exercise of a position of leadership and demonstrating concern and care for others are obviously connected. So as to the uses of this word in the New Testament, the question is not as much what does the word mean in a given context, but what is the greater emphasis intended in a given context. The word could be used to stress an established position of leadership, or the term could be used to stress concern and care for others, perhaps especially from one in a position of leadership.

What does the word mean in this passage?

Given the specific form of the word in 1 Timothy 5:17, the emphasis of the word seems to be on the first definition, exercising a position of leadership. While this does not exclude the idea that leaders are meant to demonstrate care for the church, Paul’s focus in 5:17 seems to be on the fact that these men have an established position of leadership in the church. Paul is not speaking generically of any prominent people in the church, but he is speaking specifically of the recognized leadership of the church, who are active in providing guidance to the church and in teaching the church sound doctrine.


            [1] “The elders who are good leaders” (CSB), “the elders who provide effective leadership” (NET), and “the elders who do good work as leaders” (GNT). The NIV translation, “the elders who direct the affairs of the church well,” likely fits within this category as well.

            [2] “Elders who do their work well” (NLT), “Church leaders who do their job well” (CEV), and “elders who handle their duties well” (ISV).

            [3] In 1 Timothy 5:17, the form is “προεστῶτες,” a perfect active participle. The participle is articular, which indicates that the word functions as an adjective modifying the word for elders.

            [4] To use a simple example in English, the word “bank” can refer to the edge of a river or a financial institution. Only context will help the reader determine what the word “bank” means in a given sentence. 

            [5] W. Arndt, F. W. Danker, W. Bauer, & F. W Gingrich, “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.” 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 870.

            [6] See also the Greek version of Isa. 43:24, which refers to someone standing before God in their sins.

            [7] Josephus’s Antiquities, 5.111, 9.144, and 3.212.

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Genre Analysis
Historical Context
Literary Context
Translation & Notes
Exegetical Outline
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