“Church leadership is a peculiar thing. It often attracts those with mixed and sometimes downright sinful motives. The seeming prestige of leadership attracts some. The lure of power attracts others…Some, I think, like the idea of having access to the secrets of others and access to the mysterious inner workings of the church.”These are all vain pursuits of course, but it does leave us with the question. Who or what kind of person, what kind of quality, or what kind of characteristics should be present in those who lead the Church? When looking into the qualifications of the New Testament elder, you may be surprised to find that the Bible has a lot to say about this. And they’re the opposite of what most people think they are. Perhaps you think those who’ve been faithful members the longest should qualify? Perhaps you think those who’ve given the most money to the church qualify? Perhaps you think it’s the faithful Sunday school teacher, or soup kitchen coordinator who qualifies? Perhaps you think those who lead their own business out in the world qualify to lead in the Church? These things make sense right? Wrong. What then are the qualifications? 1 Timothy 3:1-7 gives us the qualifications for this office and no surprise, they all have much to do with the Gospel.
First, the Elder’s Desire
1 Tim. 3:1 says, “The saying is trustworthy: if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” The office desired here in v1 is the office of overseer orepiskoposin Greek (meaning bishop), which throughout the New Testament is synonymous with the Greek word presbuterous(meaning elder). To desire this office is a noble (good, beautiful, pleasant, or excellent) desire. This brings up a question: why would one someone see the office of elder as a noble, good, or beautiful task when it involves so much labor, stress, exhausting work? Well, it’s a beautiful and noble task because it’s Gospel work, and nothing is more noble or beautiful than the Gospel. Therefore the desire to be an overseer or elder is a good desire. Peter said it like this in 1 Pet. 5:2, ‘Shepherd the flock of God among you, not out of compulsion but freely…’ (or willingly). These two passages both speak of the same thing – when it comes to being an elder you’ve got to want it, and those who want it, want a beautiful thing. Or we could say, there are no elders in the New Testament who take up the office of elder disinterestedly as if they felt it an obligation or a cold duty. No, an elder has to deeply want to be an elder.
I’ve often found that it’s this inner desire for the role of elder that keeps me going in hard and difficult times. I recall one particularly hard season of ministry that was so difficult I developed a twitch. And being someone who can fall asleep in seconds as well as someone who can sleep through a hurricane I found sleep a hard thing to find in this season. You know what kept me going during that time? I know God has called me to this work, therefore, I deeply want to do this work. That knowledge keeps me going and gives me a confidence in the dark days that often accompany this work.
Now, this doesn’t mean that just because someone desires to be an elder or sees eldering as noble and beautiful is reason enough for them to become one or begin campaigning for become one (as we’ll see shortly in the other qualifications).This does mean that if the desire isn’t there, you shouldn’t be an elder.
Second, the Elder’s Life
Paul continues in his words to young Timothy saying this in 3:2-3, “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Rather than instructing us to look for those who are gifted leaders, the Bible again and again puts the emphasis on the character of a man, not his ability. 10 of 10 times it would be better to have a godly man who must learn how to lead as an elder than a charismatic leader who’s spiritual life resembles a train wreck. ‘Above reproach’ is the main call in these verses. This means the elder must do nothing that contradicts the Gospel, and must do everything that commends the Gospel.Being above reproach means the elder lives a life that’s above accusation, unblamable, one that you cannot lay hold of and charge with sin. Now, be sure that the call to being above reproach doesn’t imply that elders must be sinless, if that we’re the case no one but Jesus could be an elder. The call of being above reproach is a call to be an example of Christlikeness to the Church. Which makes the elder a living model of how to be a Christian. So…when the elder encounters the grace of God and is thankful we see how we’re to rejoice and be thankful. When the elder prays we see how we’re to pray. When (not if) the elder sins and repents we see how we’re to repent. When the elder worships, gives, serves, works, loves, and leads we see a real life example of how we’re to worship, give, serve, work, love, and lead. The high calling in the life of an elder is this: do you want to see what Jesus is like? Look to your elders.
Above reproach means not only seeking to avoid evil, but also seeking to avoid the appearance of evil. This is what the word blameless is getting at. Picture this: suppose I’m driving down US-19 and need to make a U-turn because I’m stuck and traffic and don’t want to be late to a meeting. Then suppose I see that my only option to around anytime soon is the empty parking lot of a strip club. What do I do? Do I turn in and turn around? Of course not! I wait in traffic for the next possible spot to make the U-turn! Now, if I made a U-turn in the parking lot of such an establishment and someone who knows me sees my truck, how will they interpret my actions? They’ll perceive that I frequent such places, conclude that I’m a hypocrite, tell all their friends, get an awful taste for Christianity, and likely never return to our church. It is true that perception is not reality, reality is reality, but perception does matter. If I give the appearance of evil, as an elder, I am not living a life that’s above reproach.
Perhaps think of it like this. We are surrounded by a world that says no to nothing…surrounded by a society that holds itself back from nothing…and surrounded by people who give themselves to anything and everything. Contrast all this to the elder, who must be, “…sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not a drunk, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” This meaning is plain to see isn’t? The elder must be able to recognize ungodliness and renounce ungodliness. But saying no to sin isn’t all there is, the elder must endeavor towards and embrace godliness. Which means in a world that says no to nothing, the New Testament elder will stick out like a sore thumb.He is not to be characterized with things like: insults, boasting, disrespect, combativeness, argumentativeness, domineering, explosiveness, or addictions to substances or money. Rather the elder is to be a peacemaker rather than a fire starter, a gentle giant rather than a proud talker, a tender warrior rather than a troublemaker, a lion-hearted and lamb-like leader rather than a totalitarian general. The elder is to be like Christ. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of wrong, the charges didn’t stick because He was above reproach. When dealing with the proud He was straightforward and clear. When dealing with the sick or sinful He was gentle. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of His sheep, and is in Himself the model for all under shepherds, for all elders.
Third, the Elder’s Teaching
1 Tim. 3:2 lists a qualification we sometimes forget. Right there in the middle of the verse it says “…able to teach…” It’s at this point we come across of the most untaught truths on elders. Many people think the pastor is the CEO while the elder’s are his board of directors or trustees, wrong. In the New Testament there’s not an office of pastor, we only find two offices: elder and deacon. And the biggest difference between the two is that elders are to be ‘able to teach.’ This means, elders are pastors and because they’re pastors they’re teachers. That elders must be able to teach means at least, 2 things. First, elders must participate in the teaching ministry of the church. As you can imagine many elders shy away from this because they think their amateurs because they don’t usually have a seminary degree, or are too busy throughout the week to prepare a full and complete message. No excuses. It’s the elders of each congregation who are entrusted with teaching that congregation the truth. This means the most important teachers and pastors in your life aren’t the ones you listen to online or the ones you go see at conferences or the ones whose books you read, no. The most important pastors in your life are the ones you see and hear from each week of the year. Whether it’s a Sunday sermon, Bible study, prayer meeting, membership class, private discipleship relationship, or any other venue, it’s the elders who teach the church.
Second, elders must protect the teaching ministry of the church. In the qualifications given for an elder in Titus 1, Paul tells Titus this in 1:9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Able to give instruction…able to rebuke those who contradict. The elder must recognize truth from error, and when he sees error he must warn the church. This is why Paul called out many people by name in his letters, to protect the sheep. This is frowned upon today. Sadly, it’s commonly held that those who call sin sin and warn those in sin to leave that sin are the ones who destroy the unity of the Church. Yet do you see here in these qualifications that it’s the elder who protects the unity of the Church by doing this very thing? Is it loving to see someone wander off into error and not warn them? No, if you love someone you’ll want to warn them. So the elder must know the real thing to be able to smell a counterfeit easily. Therefore elders protect the church by not only living lives that are above reproach but also by teaching in a manner that’s above reproach as well
Fourth, the Elder’s Family
1 Tim. 3:4-5 says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” v3-4 teach us that a man’s private family life tells us much about who the man really is. The elder must be a ‘one-woman man,’ a devoted husband, faithful to his wife, loving and caring to his wife, respected by his wife. He must serve her as Christ serves him, care for her as Christ cares for him. He must lead her to a holy life and progression in it. He must be willing to lay down his life for her at any moment. As the husband, he must love his wife with an exclusive love, similar to the love God has for His people. His wife must feel treasured, adored, and prized by him. Similarly, the elder must also be a devoted father, a loving father, who wields a strong yet caring hand, who recognizes that the children are not his friends but his children and not the center of the family. His children must respect him, obey him, and show him regard in all matters. As parents submit to God, his children must submit to him. It’s his calling to teach his children the Scripture, when they rise, lie down, walk, and go throughout life. And he must not only teach his children the truth, he must show them the truth by his life effectively saying ‘Do you want to know how do life? Watch me.’ Bottom line: if the elder is to be a pastor within the church, he must first be a pastor within his home.
A comparison may be helpful for you: compare the business world with the church. It’s seen as normal in our culture to separate ones public life and private life. When a leader in the business world is evaluated he is examined solely on his performance or his sales numbers, not on his marriage, kids, or family life. The business says, ‘Who cares what he does at home, as long he’s bringing in high numbers.’ It’s not like this within the Church. If a man is a very successful leader in a business while he leads his family very poorly, that same man would be disqualified for leadership within the church, simply because he leads his family poorly. Why? How he treats his bride will tell us how he will treat Christ’s bride. How he treats his children will tell us how he will treat God’s children. While the world overlooks the family life and only looks at a resume, the elder’s resume is his family.
Fifth, the Elder’s Maturity
1 Tim. 3:6-7 says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” The elder must be a mature man, not a new believer, or an immature believer. There is no age one must reach in order to be an elder, we look to the spiritual age, not physical age. But the warning is clear: if a new believer, or an immature believer is made an elder, he’ll quickly become puffed up with pride and will fall into the condemnation of the devil. If a new believer is made an elder it’s highly likely he will see the office of elder not as a noble task but a badge of honor. This implies the elder is a man who presses into personal growth and sanctification, who studies the Scripture, who seeks to know God better and better each day. And notice that this maturity must not only be evident to the man himself in private but it must be evident to those who do life with him, believers and unbelievers. The elder is to be a man who is thought well of, who is respected, who lives out the gospel in the church and out of the church. If your neighbors see you only as ‘that angry guy on the corner’ you’re not an elder.
Sixth, the Elder’s Maleness
Perhaps you’ve picked up on it by now but let’s just make it plain because of all the confusion surrounding gender today. Rather than being a general rule for all women in all places the context around this passage makes it clear that there are two things, and two things only, here that are prohibited from women: to teach and to have authority. Notice that these two things are also the same two things that distinguish the elder from the deacon. So the argument for Paul here is that elder should be men, why? If you look closely you’ll see that Paul’s reasoning for this comes from creation in Genesis 1-2. Adam was created as the head of the Eve. Thus Adam was to be the head over his wife, which means he was to be the source of authority, protection, and provision for her. When he failed at this and blew it in Genesis 3 with his sinful passivity it was Adam that God called to give an account, not Eve. Follow this through to Christ and the model we’re given in Ephesians 5. There we see that just as Adam was the head of Eve, Christ is called the head of the Church and all the same things are present there. So for the Church Christ is the source of authority, protection, and provision and where the first Adam failed the last Adam gloriously succeeded. So Paul brings all of this forward and says the pattern continues. Within the family it’s to be a husband’s loving sacrificial headship and a wife’s loving submission in which the wife and the children experience protection and provision. The pattern also continues within the Church with a male elder’s loving sacrificial headship and a member’s loving submission where the congregation experiences protection and provision. And if a congregation fails to do this, who does Hebrews 13 say will be called on to give an account as Adam did before? The elders.
So to end let me just say this. The calling and office of the New Testament elder is a high and holy one, that no man is able to do alone. Which is why there must be a plurality of elders rather than just one in each congregation. Of this plurality Jeramie Rinne speaks righty when he says, “When a plurality of elders exist rightly it’s harder for one man’s views to dominate…The gentler elders temper the fiery elders. The activists move the analyzers toward actually making decisions. The big-faith elders keep decisions from being exercises in risk management while the practical elders prevent stupid decisions from happening under the pretense of trusting God. This sort of mutual balancing creates an environment that’s hard for egotist’s to survive.”This has certainly been true for us here, and I praise God for it.
Taken together the lives of the elders are vastly important because overtime what the elders are personally is what the church will become corporately. As goes the leaders so goes the people. So if the character of the elders beautifully adorns the gospel to the congregation it means the congregation will beautifully adorn the gospel to this lost city, and in this there is much hope!
It’s worth noticing that 1 Timothy 3 ends with Paul giving a summary of the Gospel saying in 3:16 “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” A few verses earlier he said the Church is the pillar and buttress of this gospel truth. Question: why end a passage about the character of elders (v1-7) and deacons (v8-13) with a summary of the gospel? Answer: to show that the heartbeat of elders and deacons is to love the Jesus of this Gospel and to live out His Gospel in all of life, by leading under the authority of Christ, caring for the body of Christ, teaching the Word of Christ, and modeling the character of Christ.