One of the more famous sections in Paul’s Pastoral Epistles is the list of qualities he provides for selecting Christian leaders to guide local churches. However we understand the meaning of the term “episkopos” in 1 Tim. 3:2 (I think the evidence points to a superintending function with focus on caring for, in the broadest sense, the congregation), Paul says that such individuals should display epieikēs before they are appointed. Paul uses this adjective also at Phil 4:5 and Tit. 3:2. It is also found in James 3:17 and 1 Peter 2:18. The corresponding noun epieikeia occurs in Luke in Acts 24:4 and 2 Cor. 10:1.
Paul links this term in this verse with the adjectives amachos “peaceable” and aphilarguros “not a lover of money” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10). But he contrasts it with mē paroinon “not a drunkard” and mē plēktēn “not a bully.” The Ephesian church must have had some colourful characters among its members!
This adjective epieikēs describes leaders who know how to wield authority with clemency, because they are seasoned and understand how to lead (Plato Leg XII 597a). Its usage in the speeches of Isocrates, a 5th century Athenian rhetorician/lawyer, characterizes individuals as respectable and moderate (e.g. 15.4). Sophocles uses it in one of his tragic plays Oedipus Colones 1127 to describe a person who is “pious towards the gods, with a spirit of decency (toupieikes) and one who tells no lies.”
In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) this adjective is applied to God himself. Ps. 85(86):5 describes Yahweh as “kind and gentle (epieikēs), and abounding in mercy.” In Daniel Azarias, one of the men thrown by Nebuchadnezzar into the fiery furnance, appeals to God for help, believing that he will “deal with us in fairness (kata tēn epieikeian sou) and in your abundant mercy” (3:42). Daniel urges Nebuchadnezzar to confess his sins “so that equity (epieikeia) might be given [by God] to you” (4:27(24)LXX). Human leaders also express this quality. Artaxerxes claims that he “always acts in moderation (epieikesteron) and with kindness” (3:13b). When Antiochus writes a letter to Judeans announcing that his son Antiochus has been appointed king, he commends him as “accommodating himself to you mildly (epieikōs) and with kindness” (9:27). The wicked seek to test “the righteous one” to learn “how reasonable (epieikeian) he is” (Wis 2:19).
Josephus similarly applies this term to human leaders. Negatively he assesses the reign of Jehoiakim (Ant. X.83) as “neither reverent toward God nor kind (epieikēs) to man.” Conversely, Josephus praises Hyrcanus (Ant 15.182) because he “seemed to have been mild (epieikēs) and moderate in all things….” He compares Samuel in his leadership of Israel (Ant 6.92) to “a kind and gentle (epieikēs) father” who will intercede with God on their behalf. He applauds Moses for giving laws for “the equitable treatment (epieikeias) of aliens” Ap. 2.209).
E.A. Judge in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. 4, p. 169-70 indicates that epieikēs describes a gentle person who wields authority with clemency — moderating one’s own behaviour for those less fortunate. It should be construed with the term prautēs, “meek.” Within the Christian sphere this kind of leadership is based on the principle of agapē. “There is a sense of condescension, human or divine” in its use. Paul in 2 Cor. 10:1 refers to the “meekness and gentleness/clemency (epieikeias) of the Messiah” as the basis for his apostolic appeal to the Corinthian believers. Thrall, 2 Corinthians 8-13, 602 concludes her discussion of this noun’s usage here by suggesting that its refers “to divine mercy which Paul himself has experienced…, and which should be reflected in the attitude of Christ’s apostle.” Tertullus, the lawyer prosecuting the case against Paul before Felix, appeals to the governor’s “kindness” (epieikeiai) for a favourable hearing.
So when Paul uses epieikēs to define an essential quality for individuals serving in key church leadership roles, he selects a term with significant history and a generally understood meaning, particularly as it applies to leaders. The essential idea being communicated is that such people have demonstrated the ability to apply authority in a gracious or merciful manner. They understand human nature, the reason for guidelines, and the balance between what is good for the community and what is good for the individual. “Mildness” or “gentleness” may be helpful glosses, but I think they do not capture the linkage with the exercise of authority that this term seems to carry. Perhaps “fairness” or “equity” might communicate more adequately the quality of character that Paul discerns as essential for aspiring Christian leaders. We should also remember that such a quality is not “hoped for” but one that actually has been clearly shown, particularly within the context of household leadership. Given its placement in Paul’s list in 1 Tim. 3:3 between prohibitions of drunkenness and bullying and affirmations of peaceableness and lack of greed, one can discern how essential this quality is for leaders. It means that they will not be abusive, will act with self-control, and will not be influenced by promises of financial gain in their decisions or actions. They act in the interests of the community and the individual, not it their own interests.