The Importance of Elder Qualifications
In James chapter 3, the brother of Jesus solemnly warns early Jewish Christians, “let not many of you become teachers . . . knowing that as such you will incur a stricter judgment.” Christ himself puts greater emphasis on this idea in Mark 9 when He states, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” Clearly there exists a principle that the greater the authoritative influence, the greater the judgment. In the context of the local church, those who teach, those who lead, and those who are ordained by God to exhibit authority are typically referred to as “elders,” “pastors,” or “shepherds.” Pastor and Bible teacher John MacArthur states, “It is the elders who are charged with teaching, feeding, and protecting the church, and it is the elders who are accountable to God on behalf of the church.” The model set forth in the New Testament for shepherding is not a picture of one man leading his own personal flock to greater godliness. Rather, it is a plurality of men leading a flock of believers they are merely responsible for. Ultimately, it is the “chief Shepherd” Jesus Christ whose flock is being cared for. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those who aspire to such a noble work as spiritual shepherding to understand not only the warnings given, but also the qualifications required for applying to such a position in the first place. Only those who have met certain requirements are ordained by God to be able to successfully carry out the office of the biblical elder. It is to this question of qualification that this study is concerned. What life-qualities must be present in order for someone to be recognized as a leader capable of teaching and exercising oversight in the context of a local assembly?
The most often cited passages containing qualifications required in order to be commissioned as an “elder” or “shepherd” come from three primary sources—I Tim 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9, and I Peter 5:1-3. All three passages contain overlapping qualifications sometimes using different words to refer to the same element, yet all three also contain aspects not present in the other two. This would imply that though these lists are requirements, they are not necessarily exhaustive in and of themselves. The list of qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus, written by Paul, are more extensive and parallel with each other than the short list found in 1 Peter. All three were intended to be applied in a real-world setting; 1 Timothy being written by Paul to Timothy, an elder in the Ephesian church, Titus, written by Paul to an elder in Crete, and 1 Peter, written by Peter to the persecuted churches in Asia minor. The method of this study is to systematize all three passages dividing the qualifications into two major categories: positive commands and negative commands.
What Elders Should Be
Alexander Strauch writes in his book Biblical Eldership:
The biblical image of a shepherd caring for his flock-standing long hours ensuring its safety, leading it to fresh pasture and clear water, carrying the weak, seeking the lost, healing the wounded and sick- is precious. The whole image of the Palestinian shepherd is characterized by intimacy, tenderness, concern, skill, hard work, suffering, and love.
Elders, are thus those men who love God’s people and have a desire to serve them through shepherding as an act of worship to God. The heart of an elder is summed up in 1 Peter 5:2-3: “Shepherd 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; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” While it may go without saying, someone who is an elder should desire to be an elder! Indeed, the first assumption made in the list of qualifications found in 1 Timothy is just this. “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” The Greek word for desire found here, epithumia, is also used negatively in Rom 1:24 to refer to the “lusts” of fallen men. It is used of Christ in a positive sense in Luke 22:15 to refer to the desire Jesus had to eat the final Passover meal with His disciples before His death. “Epithumia was defined by Aristotle as ‘reaching after pleasure’.” It can be translated as lust, desire, or passion. What this means for an aspiring elder is that he must first consider His calling and ask himself if he has a longing, desire, and passion to shepherd God’s flock. Though it is a hard task, it is a task that must please him personally—not someone else who may be pressuring him. John Calvin commenting on 1 Peter 5:2 wisely states, “They who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently. Hence he would have them to do willingly what they do, as those who are really devoted to their work.” As Strouch writes once again, “The best shepherds are those who genuinely love their sheep.”
After assuming the presence of a godly desire, the first character trait mentioned by Paul in 1 Tim 3 is that of being “above reproach.” Strauch points out that, “what is meant by ‘above reproach’ is defined by the character qualities that follow the term.” John MacArthur agrees stating, “That requirement encompasses all others. . . It means there must not be any great blot on his life that others might point to.” No one should be able to accuse an elder of a moral failure that shames the church. This cannot mean perfection, for if that were the case not even the apostles would measure up. But it can mean a mature moral purity. Oswald Sanders states it this way: “His character is to be such as will not leave him open to attack or censure.”
Interestingly, in both I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, being the “husband of one wife” is the very next phrase proceeding being “above reproach,” as if to suggest that the primary shameful accusation that can be made against an elder would be marital unfaithfulness. As Dr. Benjamin Merkle states, “A potential elder must be a ‘one-woman man,’ meaning he must honor, love, and be devoted to his wife and her alone.” This leaves no room for polygamy, adultery, pornography, or any form or sexual deviance in the life of a Shepherd. Some have tried to argue that this phrase necessitates that an elder can never have been divorced, even if such a divorce was sanctioned by scriptural guidelines, or happened before the point of salvation. This interpretation however seems to go outside of the bounds of the idea of a “one woman man.” “It is doubtful that Paul is holding elders to a higher standard of morality than he requires of all believers” since each character quality required in order to be an elder is also a moral imperative incumbent upon all Christians. The context of both 1 Timothy and Titus have to do with present character qualities, not moral behaviors existing in an individual’s unregenerate years.
If the list of qualifications presented in Titus 1 were to be chronologically followed, it could easily be said that being the “husband of one wife” is the most outward demonstration of being above reproach. This particular quality, along with, “having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion,” are under the banner of “family management.” 1 Timothy states it this way: “He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?).” Mark Dever explains the logic behind this important requirement when he says, “in 1 Timothy 3 [Paul] emphasizes how the elder deals with his family— because that reveals so much about him and how he would actually work as an elder.” Strauch further explains, “The key measurement when evaluating a man’s management of his household is his children’s behavior.” This does not mean that the father is seen as a “spirit-crushing tyrant who gains submission by harsh punishment,” since that would be in direct contradiction to another principle of compassion Paul lays out concerning fatherly character in Eph 6:4. In fact, the whole reason behind this requirement is for the purpose of compassion.
The verb that refers to the overseer’s care of the church (epimeleomai) occurs only one other time in the New Testament. Jesus described the conduct of the “Good Samaritan” toward the wounded man in this manner: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care [epimeleomai] of him.”
In the same way that the Good Samaritan cared for the wounded stranger, so should the elder evidence his care for his family as an example of the way he cares for the family of God. As a side note, there are some who believe this qualification suggests that an elder’s children must be believers. Dr. Benjamin Merkle shows why this view is untenable when he writes:
While an elder’s children must be obedient and submissive, the biblical qualifications do not include that his children must be believers. The Greek word sometimes translated “believing” in Titus 1:6 also can mean “faithful”—the latter meaning being confirmed by the parallel text in 1 Timothy 3:4. Requiring an elder’s children to be believers also raises many difficult questions and places a requirement on a father that he cannot control.
This would be a good time to also affirm that elders must be male, otherwise the fatherly responsibilities and male pronouns used in all three passages would not have any real meaning.
What follows in both 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 are positive and negative character traits that help flesh out the idea of being “above reproach.” The positive traits are as follows: temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, gentle, righteous, holy, self-controlled, having a good reputation with unbelievers, and holding fast to the Word—both to exhort and to refute.
Oftentimes the words Paul uses will only vary slightly in meaning with much in the way of overlap. The idea of temperance and prudence are actually very similar. Temperance, (nephaleos) found in 1 Timothy 3:2, conveys the idea of “abstaining from wine, either entirely or at least from its immoderate use.” This trait is really the positive side of not being “addicted to wine” as verse 3 states negatively. However, there’s more to this than just abstaining from intoxication. The very next word used in verse 2 (also repeated in Titus 1:8) is sophron, and means, “of a sound mind, sane, in one’s senses curbing one’s desires and impulses, self-controlled, temperate.” “Temperate denotes self-control, balanced judgment, and freedom from debilitating excesses or rash behavior.” A temperate man is a man who sanely and deliberately makes uninhibited decisions. He is balanced in his emotional and mental state. A prudent man can be thought of as a man who is “self-control[ed], particularly as it relates to exercising good judgment, discretion, and common sense.” Both convey very similar ideas and seem to closely parallel “self control,” which is translated from the Greek word, “egkrates,” meaning, “strong, robust, having power over, possessed of (a thing), mastering, controlling, curbing, restraining, controlling one’s self, temperate, [or] continent.” To boil these three elements down: An elder needs to be an individual who patiently and wisely considers the decisions he makes before-hand, not allowing his flesh to influence this process.
“Respectable,” is a simple term that really “means that [the elder] has [the] dignity and the respect of his peers.” The same Greek word, kosmios, is also used in 1 Tim 2:9 to refer to the manner in which a godly woman should physically adorn herself. Dr. Benjamin Merkle comments, “It is not enough to get his respect from his office. If others are to follow and emulate him, he must prove that his life is worth following.”
Being “hospitable,” according to 1 Peter 4:9, is a character trait every Christian is responsible to possess. Oswald Sanders observes:
This ministry should never be seen as an irksome imposition but rather as one that offers the privilege of service. The Shepherd of Hermas, a widely used book written in the second century A.D., mentions that a bishop ‘must be hospitable, a man who gladly and at all times welcomes into his house the servants of God.’”
In the days of the early church it was common for Christians who were traveling from another town to stay with Christians within the place they were visiting. Those who lead the flock were to be marked by such openness and self-sacrifice.
According to Alexander Strauch, epieikes, the word translated as “gentleness” cannot be adequately captured by simply one word. “No English word adequately conveys the fullness of this word’s beauty and richness. ‘Forbearing,’‘kind,’‘gentle,’‘magnanimous,’‘equitable,’ and ‘gracious’ all help capture the full range of its meaning.” A gentle man is one who “does not insist upon the letter of the law or his personal rights.” It is the opposite of being “pugnacious.” In the Septuagint, the same word is ascribed to God in Psalm 86:5. A gentle man mirrors the attitude of His creator by graciously overlooking the sins of others and giving every opportunity and benefit that can be afforded. Similar to this is the concept of being “peaceable” or “abstaining from fighting.” In context, this character-trait is not referring to a pacifism, otherwise the command to “refute those who contradict” would not have any meaning. Rather it is referring to the idea that a shepherd is humble and does not willfully look for a fight.
“The Greek word dikaios means ‘just’ or ‘righteous.’ To be upright or righteous means living according to God’s Word.” A just person obeys the Word of God. The word is used in John 5:30 as a character-quality present in the life of Christ. “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just [dikaios], because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” Someone who is just, having the Word of God as their standard, will by nature be “devout,” the next term used to describe the character of an elder in Titus 1:8. The NIV, ESV, KJV, and HCSB all translate the term “devout” as “holy.” A person who is devout is “undefiled by sin, free from wickedness, religiously observing every moral obligation, pure, holy, pious.” Again, this character-trait is one of the fundamental character qualities ascribed to God. It is a part of his “otherness,” and what makes Him “set apart.” Rev 15:4 triumphantly states, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy [hosios].” Another connected quality found in Titus 1:8 is the idea of “loving what is good.” “According to the interpretation of the early Church it relates to the unwearying activity of love.” Not only should an elder have a moral compass formed by the word of God and be set apart to God, but an elder should have a heart that loves to do the will of God.
In verse 1 Tim 3:7 Paul emphasizes the importance of a good reputation outside the walls of the church. Paul writes to Timothy, “And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” This particular quality is stressed by Paul’s use of the word “must” (dei). It is the same word used in Matt 16:21 to stress the necessity of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s emphasis of this character trait is similar to his emphasis on having a well-ordered family. Both serve as tests of authentication. It is in the context of the home and the outside world in which the “rubber meets the road” so to speak. Furthermore, disgrace is brought upon Christ and the church as a whole when one of the church’s leaders does not have a character that matches his profession. Strauch observes, “If a pastor elder has a reputation among nonbelievers as a dishonest businessman, womanizer, or adulterer, the unbelieving community will take special note of his hypocrisy.” It is no accident that “both the apostles Paul and Peter express deep concern that Christians [not just elders] have a good reputation before a watching, nonbelieving world.” This gets to one of the primary functions of the church according to Christ—to be “salt” and “light,”as seen in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul suggests it is the goal of Satan himself to foster a situation in which an elder will be disgraced in the eyes of the world. An elder has a target on his back, and cannot withstand the great temptations that exist unless his reputation is already in order in the eyes of the world. Mark Dever notes the reason for such a standard is that “Christians are supposed to be conspicuously holy, not for our own reputation, but for God’s.”
The last positive element to examine is perhaps the quality that most visibly marks the distinctiveness of the office of elder from the office of deacon in the life of the church. 1 Tim 3:2 puts it simply this way: an elder must be “able to teach.” The ability to teach is categorized as a special gifting given by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the church in Rom 12:7 and 1 Cor 12:28. Titus 1:9 expands this idea by stating that an elder ought to be “holding 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.” John Calvin comments on this verse observing,
The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both; for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable, and to refute the enemies of the truth.
An elder must take on the role of both teacher and apologist. Strauch comments, “This last requirement is more than just another personal character quality, it is a specific task the elder must be able to do: to teach correct doctrine and reprove false teachers.” If all the other qualifications define who an elder is, this last requirement defines what an elder does. The term “holding fast” [antechomai] is used in the gospels of Matthew and Luke to refer to a mutually exclusive devotion that ought to be given to God. It is an “unshakable, fervent conviction and commitment.” This means that elder must be solid theologically. The apostle Paul valued this particular aspect of eldership so much that he instructed Timothy to let “the elders who rule well . . . be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Those who labored in digesting and applying the word of God to the congregation were to be compensated. The image of the shepherd gets to the heart of what is meant by “teaching” and “refuting.” Alexander Strauch shows,“The importance of feeding sheep is evidenced by the fact that sheep are nearly incapable of feeding and watering themselves properly. Without a shepherd, sheep would quickly be without pasture and water, and would soon waste away.” Again Strauch observes, “Shepherds must also have courage to fight fierce predators.” A shepherd in the church emulates the “chief Shepherd,” Jesus Christ, by maintaining a firm conviction, stout resoluteness, yet humble gentleness at the same moment. He is one who takes his responsibility seriously because his responsibility is motivated by a love for Christ’s sheep. Because of his character he can, as Peter writes, “[prove] to be examples to the flock.” In order to prove that this type of leadership exists in the life of a potential elder, there are also negative qualities that can not be present in the candidates life.
What Elders Should Not Be
All the negative qualities elders are not permitted to be characterized by are mirrored by the positive qualities previously discussed. The chart below will help organize these traits showing that both lists are really two sides of the same coin.
It could be argued that every positive trait can be inferred from every other positive trait. In other words, a man who is gentle, will by nature also be hospitable. The negative traits given seem to mirror some positive traits closer than others, but in reality every single negative trait is a direct contradiction to every single positive trait. They are all examples, both negative and positive, of what it means to be “above reproach.”
In direct contradiction to the idea of having a proper desire and motivation for becoming an elder stands the imperative not to be “self-willed.” Paul expands this principle from Titus 1 in 1 Peter 5 by further qualifying that an elder should “not for sordid gain [become an elder] . . . nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge.” Titus 1 also includes the improper motivation of becoming an elder for “sordid gain.” In the KJV this phrase is translated “filthy lucre.” What Paul is essentially saying is actually quite simple. No person should be considered for the office of elder if they are seeking such an office for the purposes of either financial reward or to gain power. Both motivations would be selfish and would therefore not have the best interest of the sheep at hand.
A self-willed man wants his own way. He is stubborn, arrogant, and inconsiderate of others’ opinions, feelings, or desires. A self-willed man is headstrong, independent, self-assertive, and ungracious, particularly toward those who have a different opinion. A self-willed man is not a team player, and the ability to work as a team is essential to eldership.
One negative quality that has been controversial in church life since the prohibition era is the command not to be “addicted to wine,” found in both 1 Timothy and Titus. This command is the negative side of being self-controlled. It is rendered as “not a drunkard” in the ESV’s translation of 1 Tim 3:3. Dr. Benjamin Merkle wisely observes that “Paul does not say that it is wrong to drink alcohol. Rather, he is referring to the excesses of drinking too much alcohol and drinking it too often.” John Macarthur further comments: “The word translated ‘addicted to wine’ (paroinos) means ‘one who drinks.’ It doesn’t refer to a drunkard—that’s an obvious disqualification. The issue here is the man’s reputation: Is he known as a drinker?” If part of a man’s identity is that of being a “drinker” to such an extant that he gains a reputation for it, he may not be considered for eldership. This is part of maintaining the church’s reputation and avoiding even the “appearance of evil.”
Last, but not least, there are two elements that directly contradict the idea of being “gentle,” or “peaceable.” An elder must not be “quick-tempered,” or “pugnacious.” While both terms are similar to each other, being quick-tempered does not carry the violent connotation of being pugnacious. “A pugnacious man is a fighter, a bad-tempered, irritable, out-of-control individual. The Greek word is derived from the verb ‘to strike’ and suggests a violent person who is prone to physical assault on others.” Being “quick tempered,” (orgilos) refers to the idea of being “prone to anger, irascible.” A man who is quick tempered is in danger of being pugnacious, and a man who is pugnacious has already demonstrated that he is quick tempered. Neither quality reflects the tender care of a shepherd managing the flock of God.
It was the great Puritan Richard Baxter who famously proclaimed, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” The heart of the pastor is one that beats with humility and a true love for the people God has entrusted to his care. He knows that in a very real sense he is on par with the sheep he is exhorting, in as much need for forgiveness as they are. At the same time however, he also knows that it is his job to guide the people of God into the truth of God with gentleness and conviction. There are far to many examples in Scripture and real-life of men who were placed in leadership positions without the moral fortitude necessary to accomplish the task at hand. It is the will of God that only certain men, not superior men, but men uniquely gifted for the task of shepherding be placed into the position of the New Testament elder. It is the honor of God that is at stake and in so much as the flock of God submits to their elders they will be submitting to God. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.”