This week, we continue to discuss Biblical eldership in preparation for implementing our new church constitution.  We have been laying the foundation for this by looking at the New Testament record to explore what Biblical eldership is.  Along the way, we have made several observations.  First, we have seen that there are four terms in the New Testament used interchangeably for the elder:  pastor, bishop, overseer and elder.  These mean essentially the same thing. We have see that having one pastor or elder is not consistent with the New Testament which indicates eldership is always plural.  Team leadership is essential to provide the healthy accountability, balanced and adequate leadership the church of Christ so badly needs.  We have seen that biblical elders, rather than being authoritarian, are servant leaders who lead in humility, not power hungry arrogance.  We discussed the important issue of authority as it relates to eldership and saw that elders should have “substantive, but not unlimited authority.”  This authority is necessary because the eldership is invested with the tremendous responsibility of the spiritual well being of their flock.  They will have to answer to God for that in ways no one else will.  Therefore, authority is necessary and we saw from Hebrews 13:17, the response of the flock, when the leadership is biblical is to “obey their leaders.”

            We have seen eldership is not a denominational issue.  A few weeks ago we saw that eldership can be traced back to the roots of our Baptistic heritage, even the Swedish Baptists who provide the heritage of the Baptist General Conference.  We also examined how churches and denominations that once maintained a biblical eldership could have moved to a solo elder system with a deacon board, which is often called upon to perform elder-type responsibilities. We also asked the question, “How many elders a local church should have?”  The only two scriptural stipulations were:  1.) There should be no more elders than those who WANT to be elders and 2.) The number of pastor elders is dictated mostly by the number of men who biblically qualified to serve as elders.  It is disastrous to have an eldership made up of people who are unqualified to be elders.  Frankly, if that is done, a church is better off not going to eldership.  Paul’s overwhelming priority in the two places in sacred scripture where he addresses the eldership of the church is the qualifications for eldership.  That ought to tell us something about where God’s stress is on this entire issue of eldership. 

Before we get into the specific qualifications Paul lays down for elders, we want to state that one of the biblical truths we at Mount of Olives have written into our Constitution is that elders will be men only.  This question of gender and roles in the body of Christ is a huge area of concern in the church today and we could easily spend weeks on this larger issue of biblical manhood and womanhood which underlies this issue of a male only pastor-eldership.  In fact, a few years ago we did indeed spend several weeks on that topic.  Because that series of messages was only taped and not manuscripted we are working now to get those messages into manuscript form and they will be made available soon.  This gender issue is a very important and needless to say, controversial area within the church today and we don’t want to skirt that issue so we will make those manuscripts available as soon as we can.

With that in mind, let’s read the qualifications for BIBLICAL ELDERSHIP as it is found in First Timothy chapter three verses 1-7. Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.  2Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  3not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  4He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.  5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)  6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  7He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap. 

            We’re going to treat these one at a time, but we will not be spending a huge amount of time on any one qualification.  Paul’s intention is not to scare people with these necessary qualifications, but to give people a clear understanding that the qualifications required for eldership are quite substantial.  Let’s look at verse two.  The first qualification in verse two says the overseer must be above reproach.”  The application of this is the elder must not live in any way that would bring reproach or a bad name to the church.  Is there something about the way you live your life that would cause others to look down on the church as they associate you with the church?  Notice this.  Right here on the front end, Paul is concerned not only about the private life and behavior of the prospective elder but also about their public reputation.  The reason for this is because this office, even for those elders who are not preaching and teaching is public in nature.  Paul is aware of the truth that if you are a pastor-elder people will come to identity you with the church and the church with you.

            The next qualification is perhaps the most controversial and that is, the elder must be the “husband of but one wife.”  The original language places emphasis on the word translated “one” which is why the NIV translates it, “but one wife.”  Paul places stress on the fact that the elder is to have only ONE wife.  What does that mean?  There are some who argue that this is Paul’s way of excluding polygamists from the eldership.  That viewpoint is not convincing for this reason. If you look two chapters later in 5:9 Paul uses a parallel phrase referring to widows.  The NASB and practically every other translation renders this verse more literally and it says, “Let a widow be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man,” [NASB] That construction in the original language is parallel to the phrase used to refer to the elder in 3:2 as “the husband of but one wife.”  We know that this parallel usage in chapter five about widows cannot refer to a woman having more than one husband because women in this culture simply didn’t have more than one husband.  Polyandry—having more than one husband wasn’t practiced.  So we know from that parallel construction in 5:9 that Paul here is almost certainly not issuing a prohibition against polygamy.

            We also know from other references in Paul that he is not excluding a man who was remarried after his first wife had died.  In First Corinthians 7:39 he says to widows, “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”  There, and in other places Paul gives his blessing to remarriage after the death of a spouse.  So we know that this stipulation in First Timothy chapter three that an elder must be “the husband of but one wife” refers not to polygamy or remarriage after the death of a spouse.  That means the most likely meaning of this qualification, which our church constitution reflects, is a man who wants to be an elder should not be remarried after a divorce.  The issue is not the divorce, provided he did not instigate it, but the matter of having had two wives.  This is consistent with the restrictions Jesus lays down in Matthew chapter five, Mark chapter ten and Luke chapter 16.

            Next, Paul says the elders should be temperate.  To be temperate is to be self-controlled.  The pastor elder should not be a person who allows himself to be controlled by his appetites—whether for food or leisure or comfort or sex or any other passion that would compete with his hunger for God.  Later, in verse three Paul gives a specific expression of this temperance when Paul says the elder is “not given to drunkenness.”  The elder should not allow alcohol to control him.  Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.  This is not a prohibition against alcohol per se but against allowing alcohol to control you through drunkenness.  Related to this is what the NIV in verse two translates “self-controlled” but is more literally, sensible or prudent or reasonable.  The elder is to have good judgment.  John Piper describes what this qualification for eldership looks like, “[This] implies seeing things as they are, knowing yourself well, and understanding people and how they respond…there are no gaps between what you see in yourself and what others see in you.”

            The next quality required of an elder is he must be respectable.  This word connotes that he should be a man who understands social boundaries and doesn’t cross them and that quality engenders respect from others.  To form it as a question, “does he behave in a manner that compels respect from others?”  This doesn’t mean he is a dull, lifeless “stuffed shirt” of a man, but he simply understands where the lines of biblical propriety are and doesn’t cross them as a rule.  This quality is followed in verse two by hospitable.  The word in the original literally means “one who loves strangers” The elder must be kind and open to visitors.  Does he reach out to make strangers more comfortable?  Is his home a place that is open to visitors or is it a fortress to keep people out?  Not all elders must have the gift of hospitality—that is, have a special anointing to entertain others but they must be hospitable.  The next quality is the one that most clearly separates the elders or overseers from the deacons.  That is, the elder must “be able to teach.”  This quality is fleshed out in Titus 1:9 where Paul says of the elder, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

         The elder must “hold firmly” that is, with much conviction the sound doctrine the apostles taught and is contained in the word.  The reason for this is twofold.  First, “so he can encourage others.  Sound doctrine encourages, it doesn’t divide!  Second, so he can “refute those who oppose it.”  If a member of a church is confronted with false teaching by a cultist or some other enemy of the truth, that member should have full confidence that any of their elders will be able to not only steer them toward truth but also successfully dispel the false teachers.  This doesn’t mean the elder is required to be a great speaker—not everyone is gifted in public presentation, but he must be able to teach people the truth and guard God’s people from error.

After the issue of drunkenness is mention we see three qualifications for an elder that are very closely related.  Verse three says an elder must “not be violent but gentle, not quarrelsome…”  By “not violent” Paul is saying the elder must not have a problem with his temper.  Everyone gets angry and sometimes it is justified, but the elder must not be a hothead, someone who is easily riled.  Instead, he is to be “gentle”—he is to be tender.  He saves his toughness for occasions when that is an expression of love.  Also related to this, the elder must not be quarrelsome.  Some people just love a good scrap—not an elder. He seeks to reconcile, not divide.  He doesn’t delight in getting into verbal battles with people.  He is not a peaceKEEPER who always seeks to avoid conflict at any cost, but he IS a peaceMAKER—one who reconciles, not divides.

            The elder is “not a lover of money.”  The elder can’t be bought—he isn’t impressed by someone else’s bottom line and he is not motivated to gain wealth for himself.  He puts God first and money is only something he manages for the glory of God.  His treasure is in God, not in material wealth.  It is God, not money that primarily influences his decisions about his job, his home, and his purchases.  The next quality of an elder is the one Paul devotes the most space to.  Verses four and five says, “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)”  For Paul, this is self-evident.  He makes the obvious observation that if a person cannot responsibly manage the people under his own roof, how should he be expected to help govern the church of Christ?  It’s been said, “The home is the proving ground for ministry” and that is true.  His children should submit to him and that submission should be rooted in respect for him and his position in the home.  If your children don’t submit to you, it means they don’t respect you or your authority.  This doesn’t mean the elders should seek to have “trophy children” and for any parent to pursue that is misguided.  It DOES mean the children as a general rule do what you ask them to and show you respect.  Related to this is a similar qualification in Titus 1:6 which says, “An elder must be…a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.”   The second half of the verse speaks directly to the behavior of the elder’s children.  Piper again says, “The children are not to be guilty of “wild living” or uncontrolled behavior.”  That would reflect poorly on how the elder manages his home.  This isn’t a call for perfect kids; it’s a call for potential elders to keep their kids under control.

            The tricky part of the verse here in Titus is that the elder must be “a man whose children believe.”  Think about that.  What do you do in the case of a pastor whose child is wayward?  There are pastors who are clearly anointed for ministry and who have faithfully taught their children the truth but their children walk away from the church.  What do you do about that?  More importantly, think about this related question.  If you can absolutely 100% guarantee that if you teach your child the truth and live the truth that they will always walk with God, you have just taken salvation out of the hands of God and placed into the hands of the parents.  God had two children in the garden, put them in a perfect, sinless environment.  He gave them perfect parenting and both of them rebelled against him.  If it were true that all faithful elder’s kids ended up as believers then all you have to do to be part of God’s elect is be born into the home of a qualified elder! 

Some people in the church support this viewpoint that if you do a good job of parenting your kids are absolutely guaranteed to follow God by citing Proverbs 22:6.  Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”  The fatal error in claiming that verse as an unbreakable promise is it fails to recognize that this promise is a proverb.  As any good introductory hermeneutics class will tell you a proverb, even an inspired proverb in the word of God is by its genre, a truism.  That is, it is generally true.  It is generally true that if you raise your kids in the word that they will not turn from it when they are old.  That’s a proverb.  Just like the proverb in Proverbs 10:3 that says, “The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry” is generally true.  But what do you say to that devout, believing mother in famine-wracked Central Africa who has just buried her second believing child who starved to death?  It’s a proverb—it is generally true.  That doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s the inspired word of God—it simply means that we must interpret scripture thoughtfully, taking into account the genre of literature we are dealing with.

So what is the answer to this dilemma about the elder’s children who must believe?  The problem is solved when you translate the Greek word “pista” which is translated in the NIV and other translations as “believing” and instead translate it as “faithful” or “trustworthy,” which are perfectly legitimate translations of that word.  We see this understanding of this same Greek word in 1 Timothy 3:11 as it relates to deaconesses or wives of deacons.  It says, “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.   Same word.  The scholars tell us there are at least eight other places in the Pastoral Epistles where this word carries this meaning of “trustworthy.”  Whether they are regenerated is up to God ultimately but the children of an elder should be responsible and reliable.  That’s the meaning here.

            Another qualification for eldership in this text is in verse six where Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.”  One of the biggest abuses a church can perpetrate on new converts is to place them in positions of responsibility before they are ready.  If you try to build something with freshly cut lumber it will probably bow or crack because it must be seasoned before it can be used.  The same is true for new converts.  This is perhaps more of a temptation today than ever before because the church has been influenced by the world so as to be easily seduced by a person’s talent and personality rather than judge someone soberly according to their moral character.  For a church that has been influenced that way it is easy to see a talented or highly personable new convert and rush them into positions they are not prepared for.  The result Paul tells us is that “he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.”  Satan is grotesquely arrogant—he thought he could challenge the omnipotent God and come out a winner.  That’s arrogance!  Paul says that if you put a new convert in leadership too soon he may become conceited and eventually come under the condemnation of God.  Do you hear that?  The church can actually contribute toward someone’s eternal condemnation simply by putting unseasoned, immature (though perhaps very talented) people into the eldership.  This is only another argument for extensive training for the eldership to bring the needed seasoning to a man aspiring to eldership.

                Finally, Paul concludes his treatment here in First Timothy with, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.”  Again, we see Paul’s stress on the reputation of the elder—in this case with the world outside the church.  This doesn’t mean that the world openly embraces this elder as one of their own.  We in the church are to be like Jesus is, a “friend of sinners” but we are not to be friends of the wicked world system that controls the sinner.  What Paul is getting at is the elder must be a person who is viewed to be ethical, honest and upright before the world.  I’m reading a biography of John Adams and the one thing that was universally said of him by friend and foe alike is that he was a man of integrity.  The world should view the elders of Christ’s church as men of integrity.

            As we have said before, Paul also treats the qualification for elders in Titus chapter one and they largely overlap with this list here in 1 Timothy three.  Let me quickly go over five others that we have not touched on here.  In verse seven of Titus one, Paul says an elder should “not be overbearing.”  This means the elder should not be arrogant.  He should see be a servant, “considering others better than himself.”  He should not be hung up on himself.  Verse eight says an elder should be “one who loves what is good.”  His life should be spent in doing good--first for God but also for others and when he sees good in others, he should admire the virtue, not resent it or be jealous of it.  Verse eight also says the elder is to be “upright or just.”  The elder cares deeply about people being treated fairly—he should work toward that goal.  The elders should also be “holy and disciplined” according to verse eight.  These are devout people who love God and work hard to know him more.  Their pursuit of God is marked by intensity and effort—they are committed to the spiritual disciplines, which draw them closer to God if done with the right heart.  Finally, in verse eight, the elder should be “self controlled.”  We’ve already mentioned self-control but this word in the original has a different connotation even though it’s translated the same way in the NIV.  This quality has to do more with self-control on the sexual front.  This man isn’t inflamed by lust—doesn’t dabble on the Internet or engage in any other pornography.  He is a man who keeps his eyes in check—who fights hard against being enslaved to lust.

         This description of an elder is, as you may have picked up on is not the description of a superman—only a man who is mature in Christ and that should be the goal of all of us, not just potential elders.  If you feel called to be an elder, don’t allow this list to beat you up.  Instead, let it be a godly challenge for you to be the mature believer God calls all of us to be.  Go through this list prayerfully and ask God to show you where you need work.  Apply yourself with diligence—talk to one of the pastor-elders here and allow them to help prepare you for this ministry to the church of Christ.  May God grant all of us the grace to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”(Eph. 4:13b)


Page last modified on 3/9/2003

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