The Role, Work and Qualifications of Elders

As the title suggests this lesson will briefly look at what type of men should have the important responsibility of church leadership.
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Now that Paul has taught on the subject of the proper role of men and women in the church, he goes on to describe the qualifications necessary for leadership in that same body. He begins by teaching that men, not women, are to aspire to spiritual leadership in the body of Christ and 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 today. Elders are those who lead the church and Paul will describe which men can aspire to this important role.

The preacher or evangelist's task is to recognize and develop potential leaders for the church. This is what Paul is teaching Timothy in this chapter: helping and guiding him in his search for and development of men who will eventually grow into church leaders.

The Meaning of the Terms 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 position itself is a good thing to want.

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

To "aspire" means to reach out for. It seems that the phrase he quotes, "if any man..." was a familiar saying in the early church. It was similar to modern expressions such as, "Praise the Lord" and Paul confirmed that the saying was true and accurate. Therefore, the first qualification of an elder was the desire to serve in this role. If a man had to be pressured, or if he served out of guilt or without conviction, he showed that he lacked the first and most important qualification for this task which was the actual 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

  • This term describes the type of man - a person of maturity.
  • It refers to a man's age. One who is older than others by comparison (e.g. the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:25).
  • It also indicates the office or position of elder - I Peter 5:5. The context determines the meaning, whether it is referring to one's maturity or office (position/role).
  • The Jews used the term "PRESBUTEROS" to describe the older men as well as the office of elder within the synagogue and the Sanhedrin (ruling council) - Matthew 16:21.
  • The Gentiles used this same word to describe a position within the local government of a city or town (i.e. the city elders).

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

2. EPISKOPOS - Overseer/Bishop/Superintendent/Guardian

  • The term "EPISKOPOS" describes the work or office which the elder exercises.
  • However, at times it refers to the person who actually 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 simply 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).

It was the most familiar imagery of leadership for both Jews and Gentiles of that day: a shepherd caring for and guarding his flock.

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

  • Presbyter (the term priest comes from this word).
  • Elder, overseer, bishop, superintendent, guardian, shepherd, pastor: In the Bible (New Testament) all of these words refer to the same person. For example, the same man can be a father, son, brother, husband and friend. These words can describe different aspects and relationships of the same man. In the same way, the New Testament writers used a variety of words to more fully describe the men who served as leaders in the church.

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, churches described in the New Testament never had women as elders or pastors, and no church had only a single pastor or elder leading it (as we see today), they were always described as having two or more men who served as leaders in the local assembly.

Also, in the New Testament there was never a bishop/pastor/elder put in charge of more than one congregation. The idea of a pyramidic organization as we see in many modern religious denominations today was foreign to the New Testament image of the church. Each congregation in the New Testament had its own elders who led locally but had no authority beyond their local congregation.

The following verse is a good example of these words all being used in the same sentence :

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 (verse 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 that leaders were called upon to perform.

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 to 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
  • Pastors have an attitude of watchfulness over the church.
  • Bishops mainly watch and protect the church against false doctrines and practices that go against God's word.
  • Titus 1:9 - An elder's method of defense is to know the Word himself and maintain sound doctrine in the face of opposition. As mentioned before, he must be able to refute false teaching if necessary.
  • Hebrews 13:17 - Elders are watchmen, responsible for souls. Their task and appointment are from God so they must be careful in what they teach and how they live.

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 exercised over budget matters but also seen and felt in holiness, sacrifice, service, mercy and spiritual maturity. How else does the flock learn and imitate these things unless there are some who lead in 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 want the most mature spiritual members to pray and minister to us, and in most congregations these individuals are usually found among the elders.

James 5:14-15 could mean two things:

  • A prayer of faith can raise up those suffering from various illnesses and injuries.
  • 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 used in the passage. We can use the meaning 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 the laying on of hands was done on behalf of someone who was physically ill.

Anointing with Oil

  • Anointing with oil was a sacred custom among the Jews.
  • Kings were anointed at coronation. This is how the term, "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 holiness and virtue from the Lord in whose name the anointing was done.
  • They also thought that it imparted a special blessing of the Spirit (I Samuel 16:12-13).
  • In the same way that the faith of the individual being immersed was the active ingredient in the rite of baptism, the anointing with oil was effective because of the faith involved and not because the oil itself had special 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 and thus becomes the source of protection, spiritual nourishment and guidance in the Christian way for 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 or divisive ones 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 external attack or the danger of internal rebellion. 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

The elder's role is to help the church mature spiritually as it imitates and serves Jesus Christ, the head of the church. When Christ comes, He will complete the elders' task of transforming the church into what it was designed to be: the perfect body and complement to Christ Himself. For now, these men provide spiritual leadership through their teaching and example, and guide the church so its activities are in line with overall biblical 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)

  • This term does not mean that this person is without sin 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 now lives in such a way that he will not cause shame on himself or 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 at present even though he may have been unmarried (i.e. widower or divorcee) in the past.

The literal translation of the saying "husband of one wife" is "a one-woman man." Paul could have said, "..a man who has never been divorced or widowed," in order to eliminate men with this type of marital history from being considered, but he chose this saying instead.

In my opinion, I believe that he was referring to this person's "attitude" and not to his "legal" status (i.e. widower, divorcee or remarried etc.). I do so because all of the other qualifications he mentions concerning this individual refer to his attitude and character. The term, "one-woman man" therefore, eliminates polygamists and also speaks to his faithfulness as a husband (whether widowed or divorced previously). In other words, not a flirt, not one who is improperly involved with other women even if he is married to only one. How a man conducts himself with women who are not his wife would seem to be a more relevant trait contributing to a man's work as an elder than whether or not he was a remarried widower or divorcee. I believe Paul's point is that a church leader is devoted to the woman he is married to, and other women not only respect that about him but feel safe when around him especially in situations when his wife is not present.

3. Temperate

  • One who thinks straight, sober minded.
  • A person who is not easily influenced by every new idea or carried away by emotion.
  • Someone who is well balanced emotionally and not given to excesses in his appetites.

4. Prudent

  • He has a balanced sense of judgment, is self-controlled and careful.
  • Someone not swayed by sudden impulse.

5. Respectable

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

6. Hospitable

  • The word in the original Greek language, translated into the English word hospitable, meant "lover of strangers."
  • In New Testament times, hospitality offered to preachers and teachers who traveled from place to place exercising their ministry was critical in the development and growth of the church. Hospitality was not simply a social grace, it was an important ministry that contributed directly to the growth of the assembly.
  • This quality of character referred not only to the generous offering of food and lodging to strangers but also described a person who accepted those of different cultures, ideas and backgrounds with grace and kindness.

7. Apt to Teach

  • The word refers to one who is skillful in teaching.
  • A person who gets results and grows in his ability to teach others.
  • It does not necessarily mean that one had to be an orator or academic to lead. Many simple men of limited education have a gift for communicating with others in a way that enables them to understand clearly the things of God.
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 was not to abstain from wine (which was widely used with meals).
  • The passage means that an elder is not addicted to wine (or to any other thing for that matter - porn, video, etc.).

9. Not Pugnacious

  • This term refers to a man who is a brawler, a fighter or is easily confrontational.
  • Someone who is aggressive or verbally abusive cannot and should not lead in the church.

10. Gentle (Positive)

  • One who is not self-willed (i.e. my way or the highway).
  • A person who can be flexible, considerate of the views of others, yielding and not authoritarian. After all, church leadership is communal by design and requires those who can work with and through a group.

11. Peaceable

  • Elders should not be quarrelsome by nature or known for causing strife and division. Some, through gossip or a combative attitude, cause trouble wherever they are.
  • Elders bring and maintain peace and harmony, not trouble.

12. Free from the Love of Money

  • A person who does not judge everything based on money.
  • An individual who uses money but it is not the driving force in his life.
  • Someone who is not addicted to making, spending or saving money at all times.
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 are priorities for an elder.
  • He does this with dignity, meaning that he is serious about his family's conduct.
  • The true test for a good church leader is not if he is rich or successful in business (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 which is 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 being a Christian since leaders are often attacked by Satan in many ways.
  • Leadership in any position, especially the church, can go to one's head and because of this a leader who is proud becomes vulnerable to temptation. "Pride goes before destruction" Proverbs 16:18.
  • Unfortunately, when a leader in the church falls he often brings many souls with him. The caution is that the inexperienced elder who falls because of pride will receive the same judgment 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 as well.
  • 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 the letter to Titus but these are the ones Paul describes here.

This is not an exhaustive list (we could add honest, kind, loving, etc.) but a "snapshot" of the type of man who should fill the role of elder, pastor, etc. Note that these qualifications (except for that of being a man and married) are all qualities of character and thus subjective in nature. This often makes the selection of one man over another a challenge because the church has to make a value judgment in choosing the best man for the job.

For example, in deciding if a man is suitable for the eldership, the preacher or existing elders must ask themselves the following question: "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 in order to choose those who will lead? The answer, I believe, is that a potential leader has all of these qualities to the degree that they are visible to others. For example, in the case of 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 already experienced it.

In other words, 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. He qualifies, therefore, because the characteristics described in the Bible for such men are already visible in him to a lessor or greater degree. This follows the biblical guidelines for choosing men who possess the basic qualifications of leaders but leaves room for natural spiritual growth which these brothers will experience because of the nature of their work as church leaders.

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

Here, Paul appoints leaders through prayer and the laying on of hands. The fasting and prayer to seek the Lord's will in making the right selection, and the laying on of hands to publicly authorize these men in their new leadership roles.

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

According to Paul's instructions we see that the evangelist is to appoint them. The term "appoint" means to raise-up which would include the process of finding, training and then authorizing these men to serve in this position.

Elders are not self-appointed nor are they chosen by a popular vote. They are selected, trained and appointed by evangelists and elders together when the church is simply adding new elders and not appointing them for the first time as was the case for Titus. This is done in accordance 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 (I Timothy 4:14). This creates an ongoing cycle of growth. Evangelists appoint elders - elders appoint evangelists - evangelists appoint elders, etc.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some reasons men may not feel qualified to serve as elders and how does Paul address this issue in I Timothy 3:1?
  2. What are the meanings of the three terms used to describe an elder and how are they related?
    1. Presbuteros
    2. Epsikopos
    3. Poimen
  3. Why is the following statement true?
    • "A woman, no matter her desire, knowledge, and skills cannot serve as an elder."
  4. How do we know that a congregation must have more than one elder and why is this important?
  5. Explain the following responsibilities of church leaders.
    1. Teach
    2. Protect
    3. Lead
    4. Pray and minister to the flock
    5. Anointing with Oil
    6. Shepherd the flock
    7. Discipline
    8. Mature the saints
  6. Explain the importance of each of the qualifications of elders. (I Timothy 3:2-7)
    1. Above reproach
    2. Husband of one wife
    3. Temperate
    4. Prudent
    5. Respectable
    6. Hospitable
    7. Apt to teach
    8. Not a drunkard
    9. Not pugnacious
    10. Gentle
    11. Peaceable
    12. Free from the love of money
    13. A well-managed home
    14. Not a new convert
  7. What other qualifications of elders beyond those in I Timothy 3:2-7 would be appropriate to consider?
  8. Defend or refute the following statement:
    • "Elders should be appointed by ministers and not by elders."
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