Elders: Specific Qualifications
We are reviewing the different roles in the church that carry specific responsibilities. We have begun by focusing on the role of the elders and said that they exercise the leadership of Christ in the local assembly. We have looked at some general characteristics concerning elders found throughout the New Testament:
- Elders accept only the Bible as God's word.
- They love the church.
- They know how to worship publically as well as privately.
- Elders work well with others.
- They understand decision-making.
- They are dependable.
- Elders are able to share their feelings with the congregation.
These were some of the general things about the kind of men who should be encouraged to serve as elders.
In this chapter I want to look at some of the more specific qualifications required for this leadership role.
Eternal and Cultural
When discussing the specifics of the eldership it is helpful to differentiate between what is cultural and what is eternal in the Bible. Some things that the Bible describes were done because of culture: the way they dressed and spoke, certain customs like the washing of a guest's feet and the wearing of veils.
The Bible comments on these, and we see people experiencing these things, but they were part of their cultural setting and not commandments that needed to be perpetuated beyond their cultural context.
For example, foot washing - hospitality: it was customary for a host to have a guest's feet washed upon arrival. This was necessary in that time since the roads were dusty and people wore sandals. So long as this custom was significant culturally it needed to be done as a sign of courtesy and mutual service. It is no longer relevant in our society; today we offer a beverage or take one's coat to hang as a welcome gesture. A sign of mutual service could be the offer to cook a meal for someone who is ill, etc.
Other things are eternal however, they may have been part of the Jewish culture or begun during that time but through teaching, command and example have become perpetual things in the Christian faith.
The different roles for men and women in the church are another example of things that have an eternal nature and are not subject to the changes in custom or culture. Many argue that male spiritual leadership in the church and in the home was a cultural thing unique to first century times. They say that in the modern era these biblical models of wives being submissive to their husbands and women not being allowed to serve in leadership roles in the church are outdated and culturally irrelevant. But the Bible teaches that this is an eternal model established in Genesis and reinforced throughout the New Testament (I Corinthians 11:2-77; Ephesians 5:22).
Some things were cultural and the Bible mentions them, and other things the Bible takes and makes permanent through teaching and example.
The reason I am saying all of this is because the argument to have women as preachers or pastors today is based on the idea that having only men as the leaders in the church was a cultural thing in Jewish society and should be abolished.
The answer to this, of course, is that in the New Testament every command, every teaching, every example and every reference to the leadership of the church refers to men.
- The word elder means older man.
- The person needs to be a husband, a father.
- All references where elders are the subject in the New Testament describes men.
The point here is that if this was only a cultural thing, the Bible would have left the door open for change, but it does not!
For example, it was the Jewish custom that women did not have the freedom to choose whom they wished to marry, but the New Testament, by not commenting on this, allowed the custom to die on its own and permitted women this freedom without religious interference. Paul comments on this custom in I Corinthians 7 but he does not command that the custom be perpetuated. With elders, however, it is different.
There are clear and specific instructions for men to form the leadership in the church, not women. We conclude from the specific nature of this teaching that this was one area that was eternal and not cultural.
Remember, the basic rule for accurate Bible interpretation is that we speak, teach and insist where the Bible does, and are silent when it does not. When it comes to elders it does speak and command and explain as follows.
There are two places in the New Testament where Paul specifically talks about elders and their qualifications.
I Timothy 3:1-7
Paul is giving instructions to Timothy about the church in general and how people should conduct themselves as part of that church, and in chapter three he lists some specific qualifications of those who would be church leaders.
1It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
The desire to serve as an elder is a good thing, and not to be interpreted negatively by others. It is not a sign of pride.
He also states that this is a man's role and that it is a specific task or "office." The original Greek does not have a word for "office" here. Another way of saying this would be, "... if any man desire the overseership, eldership, pastorate..."
Paul says this is a good work and the key word is "work." This is not an honor bestowed on a person, it is a task, a job, a ministry. It is a good one but at its base it is work.
The man aspires (or reaches for it) because he desires (or wants) to do it. He is not drafted, sold or pushed, he reaches for this work because he has a desire to do it.
2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Paul lists a variety of qualifications.
- Above reproach. A blameless character, nothing that is charged against him openly.
- The husband of one wife or as it is put in the Greek, "one wife's husband." This is the only reference to the sexual conduct in these qualifications so Paul is saying two things about this man in this area:
- He is saying that this person is a "one woman" man. He is not sexually promiscuous as were many of the Gentile converts from paganism. Many had sex with temple prostitutes and slaves but were married.
- He is barring polygamists from the eldership. There was the practice of cultural polygamy in those days and some of it overlapped in the early church before it died away. Paul was holding the leaders to the ideal monogamous form of marriage.
My argument here is based on Paul's previous statement that those who aspire to be elders should be above reproach. This is a reference to character, and so the following verses expand on what type of character traits this person should have. "Husband of one wife," therefore, refers to a man's character and not simply his legal status (i.e. married only once, divorced and remarried, widower, widowed and remarried).
- Temperate. Moderate, not an extremist.
- Prudent. Careful in words and actions.
- Respectable. Dignified and orderly.
- Hospitable. "Loves strangers," not just people in his house.
- Not addicted to wine. Not someone who loves strong drink, a drinker.
- Pugnacious. Someone with a quick temper, a chip on their shoulder.
- Gentle and not contentious. Yielding, not argumentative but peace loving.
- Free from the love of money. Greedy and materialistic.
- Manages household well. Knows how to meet the needs of his family (emotionally, physically, spiritually), and lead it.
- Not a new convert. A man of experience in the church, in the struggle with sin.
- Good reputation. Well thought of by all and worthy to represent the church.
Paul repeats some of the same ideas using different words and adds a few other qualifications in his letter to Titus:
5For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,
Note that Titus appoints (raises up) the local elders, where there are no elders.
6namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. 7For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, 8but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.
Above reproach and husband of one wife, same as I Timothy. Children who believe and are not accused of dissipation or rebellion. This all refers to the man's children. Do not select a man whose children are non-believers or who are living pagan lives or rebelling against their fathers.
This explains further the passage about ruling well over one's own household. While the children are with you and you have responsibility, if they live like pagans and rebel against you in your home, you are not a good candidate for the eldership.
Above reproach as God's steward. Faithful in the things of the church. Not Self-willed, quick-tempered, addicted to wine, pugnacious, fond of sordid gain, hospitable; these are all the same as I Timothy.
- Loving what is good. Loves righteousness.
- Sensible. Temperate, prudent.
- Just. Fair.
- Devout. Devoted, pious, gives importance to spiritual things.
- Self-controlled. Self-governed, not swayed.
- Holding fast the word. Faithful in maintaining the Bible as God's word and able to use it to build and defend the church.
Many qualifications usually discourage present elders, and make others feels completely unworthy of even trying to lead God's people. Remember a few things about these qualifications.
- They are eternal (meaning that in every generation God wants people like this) but they are not impossible. These are all human qualities that people possess to a greater or lesser degree. The church needs men who see these in themselves and are willing to serve.
They are mostly subjective in nature. Except for being a man and being married with believing children, these qualifications are not absolutes. Just how hospitable, devout, sensible, temperate do you have to be to be an elder? Who measures?
- God knows that we cannot be these things to a perfect degree, but should be qualified to a positive degree. In other words, these qualifications should be present to the degree that they can at least be recognized by others as positive things in us. We may not feel "good" enough or "just" enough, but if others in the church see these things in us it means they do exist to the degree that enables us to serve others as elders. That is why God has organized it in such a way that others select us and not we ourselves.
- These qualifications provide a framework for growth. There are many adjectives that describe how the Christian needs to be that are not mentioned in this list: zealous, kind, hopeful. These specific things are mentioned because the nature of the specific task of the elders requires that they possess and cultivate specific qualities if they are to succeed in the work of the elder, and avoid certain accusations that are especially easy for them to be subject to.
Elders need a blueprint for their own personal growth and the Lord provides it here in I Timothy and Titus.
- What is the difference between cultural customs found in scripture and those practices considered as commands?
- How do you understand I Timothy 3:1?
- Outline I Timothy 3:2-7 and explain each concept:
- Above reproach
- Husband on one wife
- Not addicted to wine
- Gentle, not contentious
- Free from the love of money
- Manages household well
- Not a new convert
- Good reputation
- What are the similarities and differences in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?