Qualifications of Elders
Reprinted from The Spiritual Sword
David R. Pharr
New Testament Times
The first reference to elders in the Judean congregations is in Acts 11:30, when Paul and Barnabas delivered into their hands the funds provided by Antioch. When these elders were selected is not recorded, but little more than a dozen years had passed since Pentecost. Even in so few years there were men who had matured sufficiently to be made overseers. More impressive is the record of elders being appointed in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch on Paul’s return itinerary of his first missionary journey. “And when they had ordained them elders in every church . . .” (Acts 14:23). Only a few months had passed since these congregations had come into being. We are also impressed with Paul’s urgency that Titus was to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). This urgency seems much in contrast to the procrastination and barriers which hinder some present day congregations from setting things “in order.” The point to be made is that in New Testament times, even in young congregations, it was possible to find qualified men.
We do not fault those who conscientiously insist on a strict application of the biblical qualifications. But one’s subjective reservations on a point should not be allowed to rule the church. Also, it is a perversion of the Spirit’s purpose when one presses extreme applications of the qualifications as a tool for his own agenda.
A Beginning Text
Typically, discussion of the qualifications of elders are expected to go directly to the lists in Titus 1 and II Timothy 3. It might be better to begin in Matthew 20. James and John with their mother came to Jesus to ask for chief seats, “the one on the right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.” This not only showed selfish ambition on their part, but also aroused like attitudes on the part of the others. “And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren.” Whether apostles or elders (or anyone), it is a grievous mistake to think any position in the church is for power and prestige.
“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28). The first principle of leadership is the spirit of servanthood. When the eldership is viewed politically, with exaggerated emphasis on its authority, or with distorted notions of the prestige involved, jealous rivalry and private agendas will corrupt the selection process.
On the other hand, neither goodwill nor indifference should allow into the office men who have not demonstrated they are scripturally qualified. Regardless of what a congregation might do, it is only when his requirements have been met that the Holy Spirit makes them overseers (see Acts 20:28). It is never right to ignore what the Bible demands, even when other factors seem much in a brother’s favor.
For example, one may be respected as a capable Christian business man. Such a person may have definite leadership skills, one who knows how to get things done. But if he otherwise fails to meet the biblical requirements, he is not qualified.
Closely related would be consideration of how much money one contributes. Men of generous means are appreciated. But even if he might provide for most of the church’s financial needs, this is not the Lord’s criteria for becoming an elder.
In some cases family connections seem to carry more weight than do the Spirit’s guidelines. It is good to have one’s immediate and extended family in the church. A man who is respected among his own relatives has much to commend him for pastoral service. What is not right is when one is chosen simply because there are enough relatives to force his acceptance. Further, one whose course is shaped by pressures from his kin will be more a hindrance than a leader.
In the politics of the world personality is a major factor. A candidate with a pleasing personality may win an election regardless of other qualifications. A good personality is certainly not objectionable in the church. In fact, one who works with people needs his actions and speech to be “with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). And without a favorable disposition a man will be less effective as a pastor. Here again we have something which has much to commend it, but which does not in itself make one qualified. The selection of elders is not a popularity contest.
Maturity in Character and Ability
The lists in I Timothy and Titus are different only in wording, not in substance. A novice cannot be an elder and there are also family considerations. Otherwise, developing the listed character traits should be the purpose of every Christian man and woman. In fact, on every point it would be easy to list texts which call for like qualities in all Christians. Let none imagine that character flaws ought to be tolerated as long as one is not an elder. Perhaps one of the shortcomings of many class studies on these texts is that members give strict attention to how the points must apply to a prospective bishop without considering how so much also applies to themselves.
The texts in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-11 should be compared with each serving as commentary on the other. The qualifications listed can be summarized as all the essentials of Christian character in a man who is spiritually mature and who has demonstrated his leadership ability in his own family.[i]
To be “blameless” means “without reproach” (ASV), not subject to legitimate accusations. “Vigilant” in the KJV is “temperate” in the ASV and others. Great harm can be caused by rash and imprudent actions, so an overseer must be sober-minded, judicious. “Of good behavior suggests a well-ordered life. Men cannot be “examples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:3) unless their lives are exemplary. “Given to hospitality” implies more than willingness to open one’s home; it suggests such approachableness that makes others welcome in all circumstances.
An elder cannot be a drinker, or one who is violent (“no striker”), or one who loves money, or who is quarrelsome (contentious), or who is covetous, or who is self-willed. Self-willed overseers are likely to be “lords over God’s heritage” (I Pet. 5:3). As Titus 1:7 says it, a bishop must see his position “as the steward of God.” The church is not the private domain of elders (or anyone else). It is God’s church, God’s money, God’s goal’s, God’s instructions, and for God’s glory. Qualified men should “desire the office of a bishop,” but the desire must be for the good that can be done, not self-promotion.
Some men are quick tempered. As we think about the pressures and criticisms elders face, we realize why it important that one be “not soon angry.” Instead, he must be gentle, a peacemaker. He loves good things and good people. In his dealings with others he is “just.” Before God he is “holy.” In regard to self he is “temperate” (“self-controlled” ASV). He must have a good reputation outside the church as well as within.
It is required that an elder be legitimately married. It was not necessary to explain what common sense would assume, i. e., the obvious necessity that the wife should be respected for her Christian character and good works (cf. Titus 2:3-5). Further, he must have faithful (believing) children, children whose reputation will not be an embarrassment to their father and the church. (The concern is not the number of children but their behavior.) The importance of considering a man’s family is explained: “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” It seems evident that this applies to a father’s history with his family as well as his current influence in the home. It is not necessarily concerned with what adult children might do when no longer under his supervision.
A specific danger is named regarding the appointment of a novice. The point is that as pride led to Satan’s usurpation of authority, so might the novice fall victim to how he perceives his own eminence. The instructions to Titus also remind of the need for such maturity and experience “that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers.” A new convert would not have this ability. This corresponds with the expectation that an elder be “apt to teach.” Whether he teaches in public or privately is not the issue. Obviously some are going to be more capable than others (I Tim. 5:17). It is not correct, however, to justify an elder’s ignorance of the scriptures with the excuse, “He just teaches by his example.”
Then and now “there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers.” Paul specifically named “they of the circumcision.” Today the church is threatened by various errors from within and without. Elders must be well-grounded in knowledge, as well as have the kind of commitment to truth that can be described as “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught.” They must have the courage of scriptural convictions–courage to answer and oppose those “whose mouths must be stopped.” It should be remembered that being on guard against false teachers was especially emphasized in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-31). Coffman’s comments are on target: “The church today is beset with every conceivable fad, fancy, fiction and nostrum that the devil himself can invent; and, for dealing with such things, the church of all ages needs stable, sober, orderly, right‑minded men who have the courage and ability to protect and nourish the flock of God."[ii]
When men are selected by conscientious and fair application of the biblical requirements, the church will have an eldership worthy to be followed. What the church will not have is an eldership which will have no shortcomings, which will make no mistakes, and which will never fail in their duties. In short, they will not be perfect men. As with all Christians, however, it is expected that they continue to grow.
Commenting on Paul and Peter’s instructions about elders (Acts 20; I Pet. 5), Basil Overton observed that they were addressing men who were already elders. The point is that though already overseeing their congregations, there were still things they needed to learn. “Therefore, brethren, if elders are otherwise qualified do not be too hasty to ignore them on the ground that they do not know all about how to be elders! Help elders grow as elders."[iii] It is faithfulness, not perfection, that commends them to the work.
[i] For more detailed study of qualifications and duties, Bobby Duncan, The Elders Which Are Among You, (Huntsville: Publishing Designs, 1989).
[ii] Burton Coffman, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus & Philemon, (Austin: Firm Foundation Pub. House, 1978), p. 177.
[iii] Basil Overton, from a Gospel Advocate article, date unknown.