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The Role, Work and Qualifications of Elders

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Wed. Oct 31st 2018
As the title suggests this lesson will briefly look at what type of men should have the important responsibility of church leadership.

Now that Paul has taught on the subject of the role of men and women as they relate to each other in the context of the church, he goes on to give more information about the qualifications for those men who will provide leadership.

He teaches that men, not women, are to aspire to spiritual leadership in the church and now he defines the character of those few who will fulfill that position in the assembly.

God has always provided leadership for His people, it is no different for the church. Elders are those who lead in the church and Paul will describe which men can aspire to this role in the body of Christ.

The preacher or the evangelist's role is to recognize and develop potential leaders in the church.

This is why Paul is teaching Timothy in this chapter: to help and guide him in his search for and in his development of men who will grow into leaders.

The Meaning of Elder, Overseer, Pastor

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
- I Timothy 3:1

Paul begins by commending those who would seek leadership roles in the church. To have this desire is good, he says, and the role itself is a good thing to want.

  • So many men feel unworthy, unprepared, too unspiritual to serve as a leader in the church.
  • Paul addresses this issue immediately by stating that to desire to serve this way is not necessarily motivated by pride. It is a good thing to have the feeling that you want to lead God's people.

To "aspire" means to reach out for. It seems that "if any man" was a "saying" in the early church. Something like "Praise the Lord." And Paul confirms that the saying is true and legitimate.

So the first qualification of an elder is to desire to serve in this role. If you have to be pressured, or if you serve out of guilt or without conviction, you show that you lack the first and most important qualification which is to desire to serve.

There are three Greek words used to describe the person and role of a church leader. All three words, however, describe the same person and the same role - just different facets of the man and his work.

1. PRESBUTEROS - Presbyter/Elder

  • Describes the man - a person of maturity.
  • Refers to a man of age. One who is older than others by comparison. (e.g. the elder son (prodigal parable - Luke 15:25).
  • Indicates the office or position of elder - I Peter 5:5. The context determines the meaning, whether it is maturity or office.
  • The Jews used the term "PRESBUTEROS" to describe the older men as well as the office of elder in Judaism within the synagogue and the Sanhedrin - Matthew 16:21.
  • The Gentiles used the word to describe a position held within the government of a town.

Both Jews and Gentiles therefore were well aware of the significance of this word in reference to a leadership position as well as the maturity of the one who held it.

2. EPISKOPOS - Overseer/Bishop/Superintendent/Guardian

  • The term "EPISKOPOS" describes the work or office which the elder exercises.
  • However, many times it refers to the person who does the work.
  • It suggests authority - the authority to lead, oversee, supervise, guard. I Timothy 3:1 and Acts 20:28 use this word. I Peter 2:25 uses this term in reference to Jesus ("...guardian of your souls").

In Philippians 1:1, Paul demonstrates that this role of "overseer/bishop" was a specific office in the church and not just a "leadership quality" of certain men in the congregation: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons..."

3. POIMEN - Shepherd/Pastor

  • This word describes the way the man actually did the work.
  • The word describes the attitude that the leader has in his work with the congregation under his care. (Matthew 9:36 - used for Christ; Ephesians 4:11 - pastor, one who shepherds.)

Most familiar imagery for both Jews and Gentiles of the day: a shepherd caring, guarding his flock.

Note that all three words apply and refer to the same person and the same office within the church. All English translations refer to the same person, the same role:

  • Presbyter (priest comes from this word).
  • Elder, overseer, bishop, superintendent, guardian, shepherd, pastor.
  • All these words refer to the same person in the Bible. For example, Father, Son, brother, husband, friend: same person.

In the New Testament, this person was always a man and always served in a group of two or more men for each congregation (see Acts 14:23; 15:2; 15:23; 20:17; 28; Philippians 1:1; I Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17; I Peter 5:5).

In other words, in the New Testament no church ever had a woman as an elder or pastor, and no church ever had only one pastor or elder, bishop - they always had two or more who would serve the local church.

Also, in the New Testament there is never a bishop/pastor/elder put in charge of more than one congregation - no pyramid organization.

Each congregation had its own elders who led locally but had no authority beyond their local congregation.

A good example of the three words all being used in the same sentence is:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
- Acts 20:28
  • Paul has sent for the PRESBUTOROS (vs. 17) to come to see him (the elders).
  • In verse 28 he tells the EPISKOPOS (overseers/bishops/guardians) to POIMEN (shepherd) the flock which is the church.

Three different words to refer to the same group of men to do the same work.

Mature men (elders) who had the responsibility and authority (bishops/overseers/guardians) to care for the church (shepherd/pastor).

The Work of Church Leaders

Before we go on to the following verses that describe the qualifications necessary for church leaders, we need to examine the work of leaders. In this way, the qualifications will make more sense.

1. Teach

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
- I Timothy 3:2

Paul says "apt" meaning skilled for teaching. Skilled at giving or providing instruction for others.

Since the church grows by its knowledge of God's Word in theory and practice, this ability is extremely important.

2. Protect

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
- Acts 20:28
  • An attitude of watchfulness over the church.
  • Watches mainly over false doctrine and practices in the church.
  • Titus 1:9 - An elder's method of defense is to know the Word himself and maintain this doctrine in the face of opposition, be able to refute false teaching if necessary.
  • Hebrews 13:17 - Watchman. Elders are responsible for souls. Their task and appointment is from God so they must be careful what they teach.

3. Lead

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
- I Timothy 5:17

They stand before the congregation not as kings but as shepherds.

1Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
- I Peter 5:1-5

Elders lead in Christ likeness. This means that their leadership is not only for budget matters but they lead in holiness, sacrifice, service, mercy, spiritual maturity, etc. How else does the flock learn and imitate these things unless there are some who lead them?

4. Pray and Minister to the Sick

14Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
- James 5:14-15

We are wanting our most mature spiritual members to pray and minister and these should be found among our elders.

James 5:14-15 could mean two things:

  • A prayer of faith can raise up the ill.
  • A prayer of faith can strengthen someone who has been weakened by the ravages of sin.

Either meaning is possible based on the Greek words. Use the one that fits because both are true and can apply. For example:

  • Acts 8:11-24 - Simon asked Peter to pray for his sin.
  • Acts 28:8 - Prayer and laying on of hands done for illness.

Anointing with Oil

  • Sacred custom among the Jews.
  • Kings anointed at coronation. That is "The Lord's anointed one" became synonymous with the term king (I Samuel 12:3-5).
  • The Jews believed that the anointing with oil carried with it a transfer of some of the holiness and virtue of the Lord in whose name the anointing was done.
  • They also thought that it imparted a special endowment of the Spirit (I Samuel 16:12-13).
  • In the same way as in baptism, the anointing with oil was effective because of the faith involved and not because the oil or the water itself had power.

5. Shepherd the Flock

3So He told them this parable, saying, 4"What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!' 7I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
- Luke 15:3-7

The church leader models his role after Christ. He is the source of protection, spiritual nourishment, guidance in the Christian way to the congregation. The "work of a shepherd" is what the qualifications in I Timothy 3:2-7 fit him for.

6. Discipline

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.10For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.
- Titus 1:9-11

Discipline means two things or activities.

  1. To give teaching and correction to one who is in error (I Thessalonians 5:12-14).
  2. To rebuke and admonish the disobedient, rebellious, divisive in the church (Titus 3:10; II Thessalonians 3:6, 14).

In every organization or family, someone needs to have the authority to protect against internal attack and danger. The elders serve this purpose in the church.

7. Mature the Saints

11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
- Ephesians 4:11-16

His role is to help the church grow up and increase in its ability to imitate and serve Jesus Christ, the head of the church. When Christ comes, He will complete the elders' task of transforming the church into what it was meant to be: the perfect body and complement to Christ Himself. For now, they provide spiritual leadership through teaching and example and guide the church so its activities are in line with overall Biblical teaching and principles.

Qualifications of Elders - I Timothy 3:2-7

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
- I Timothy 3:2

1. Above Reproach (Paul begins with positive attributes)

  • That does not mean sinless but rather a man who has made right to the best of his abilities the things that are wrong in his life so that these matters cannot be charged to him again.
  • He lives now in such a way that he will not cause shame on himself or on the church.

2. The Husband of one Wife

There have been many debates about this verse and what it means. For example:

  • A person who has only had one wife in all of his life and she is still alive.
  • A person who is not a polygamist although he may have been one in the past.
  • A person who is properly married even through he may have been a widower or a divorcee in the past.

The literal translation of the saying "husband of one wife is "a one-woman man." Paul could have clarified it by saying "a man who has never been divorced or widowed" but he chose this saying instead.

I think he was referring to "attitude" and not to "legal" status as to widow or divorce because all the other qualifications are about attitude.

A "one-woman man" eliminates polygamists and speaks to faithfulness as a husband (whether widowed or divorced previously). In other words, not a flirt, not one who is involved with other women even if he is married to one.

An elder must be devoted to the woman he is married to; I believe this is the point.

3. Temperate

  • One who thinks straight, sober minded.
  • Not going off on every idea, carried away by emotion.
  • Someone well balanced and not excessive.

4. Prudent

  • Balanced judgement, self-controlled, careful.
  • Someone not swayed by sudden impulse.

5. Respectable

  • Dignified (but not haughty or regal).
  • Inward moral excellence that shows itself in an outward orderly existence.
  • His behavior is consistent, diligent.
  • His conduct inspires respect from others.

6. Hospitable

  • Means "lover of strangers."
  • In New Testament times, hospitality to preachers and teachers who traveled from place to place to grow the church.
  • Not just one who offers food at home but someone who accepts those of different cultures, ideas, backgrounds, etc.

7. Apt to Teach

  • Means to be skillful in teaching.
  • One who gets results and grows in ability.
  • Not necessarily an orator.
not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
- I Timothy 3:3

8. Not a Drunkard (here he begins the negative attributes)

  • Wine was a common beverage (like water) in New Testament times so the point is not to abstain from wine (used with common meals).
  • The passage means that an elder is not addicted to wine (or to any other thing for that matter - no porn, video, etc. - in those days).

9. Not Pugnacious

  • A brawler, fighter, confrontational.
  • Someone who is aggressive, verbally abusive.

10. Gentle (Positive)

  • One who is not self-willed (my way or the highway).
  • Flexible, considerate of the views of other, yielding, not authoritarian.

11. Peaceable

  • Not quarrelsome or causing strife or division.
    Some, through gossip or attitude, cause trouble wherever they are.
  • Elders create peace and harmony, not trouble.

12. Free from the Love of Money

  • A person who does not judge everything from a money perspective.
  • The person who uses money but it is not the driving force in their lives.
  • Not addicted to making, spending and saving 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?),
- I Timothy 3:4:5

13. A Well Managed Home

  • Keeping his children under control and respectful of his leadership in the home.
  • He does this with dignity, meaning he is serious about his family and its conduct.
  • The true test for a good church leader is not if he is successful in business or rich and powerful (there is no mention of this in the Bible). The true test is how he has led and managed his home.
  • One who does a good job at home can be expected to do a good job with God's family, the church.
and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.
- I Timothy 3:6

14. Not a New Convert

  • A man with experience as a Christian since leaders are especially attacked by Satan in many ways.
  • Leadership in any position, especially the church can go to one's head and a leader who is proud becomes vulnerable to temptation. "Pride goes before destruction." Proverbs 16:18
  • Unfortunately, in the church when a leader falls he brings many souls with him. The danger is that he inexperienced elder would fall into pride and receive the same judgement as Satan who also fell because of pride.

15. Good Reputation Outside the Church

  • The elder represents the church so any accusation against him also falls on the church.
  • If a leader is disgraced because of his reputation he can be used as a pawn in Satan's effort to discredit the church.
  • There are other qualities mentioned in Titus but these are the ones Paul lists here.

This is not an exhaustive list (honest, kind, loving, etc.) but a kind of "snapshot" of the type of man who fills the role of elder, pastor, etc. Note that these qualifications (except for that of being a man, and married) are all qualities.

In other words, temperate but how temperate to qualify? gentle but how gentle to qualify to be an elder? These are qualities and attitudes that all Christians should have and cultivate. So how do we distinguish between different Christian men to choose leaders? The answer is that a potential leader has all of these qualities to the degree that they are visible to others. For example, a well-managed home. A potential leader has a home-life that others know and approve of. Hospitable. A potential leader is well known for his hospitality because many in the congregation have experienced it.

A potential leader's qualifications are obvious, visible and growing. You do not have to wonder if he is gentle or not confrontational because you have seen these qualities in him already. They may continue to grow, but they are already there.

Appointment of Elders

How are elders chosen and appointed? The only example and teaching we have in the New Testament concerning this is the following passage:

21After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." 23When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
- Acts 14:21-23

Paul appoints them through prayer and the laying on of hands. Fasting and prayer to seek the Lord's will to make the right selection. Laying on of hands to publicly authorize their new leadership roles. To confer authority.

For 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,
- Titus 1:5

The evangelist appoints them. The term "appoint" means to raise-up signifying to find, to train, to authorize.

Elders are not self-appointed nor chosen by a popular vote. They are selected, trained, appointed by evangelists and elders according to the teachings and qualifications found in the New Testament.

The beauty of the system is that in other passages the Bible says that elders appoint or commend evangelists into ministry to create an ongoing cycle of growth. Evangelist - elder - evangelist - elder, etc.

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Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University