In the previous study, we observed the responsibilities of elders, namely, that they are commanded to lead (shepherd, oversee, and model) by devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Biblically, prayer and teaching are the two tasks from which elders cannot deviate. We know now what elders do, but how do we identify them? Within these seven verses of 1 Timothy, Paul provides for us the qualifications necessary for becoming a church elder.
BE MALE // 1 TIMOTHY 2:12
Before launching into Paul’s list of qualifications we must cover one that is implied here, elders must be male. While the implication is found in these verses, the justification is found in the previous chapter, 1 Timothy 2:12-14, which read, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
In this text, Paul lists two prohibitions for women: teaching and exercising authority over a man. Far more debate has gone into these verses than we will have time to cover here, and I will not even approach the debate over to what extent women are able to teach in church. Instead, let us focus on the issue of authority. Clearly, the point of these verses is that Paul is forbidding women from exercising authority over men, particularly through teaching. It stands to reason that if elders’ are responsible for leading (aka exercising authority) primarily through teaching and if women are prohibited from doing just that, then women are not eligible to be elders.
This thought obviously runs directly against the mindset of our present societal circumstances, but Scripture is our authority, not society. Furthermore, God through His Word always desires for women to flourish. The same cannot be said of society. We must, therefore, resist the impulse to believe that God desires to keep women in subjugation. This prohibition is not a matter of subjugation but of structure. The same God to who ordered the act of creation by days is the same God who established His church with two offices of leadership: elders and deacons. And that same God ordered Christ as the head of His church and placed husbands as the head of their household. This God-designed structure is the reasoning Paul appeals to in verses 13-14, by saying that Adam was created first and Eve was deceived first. Because elders are the spiritual fathers of the congregation, women are excluded from this office.
ASPIRE TO THE OFFICE // VERSE 1
Paul opens up his discussion of the qualifications for overseers by stating that it is noble to desire that office of leadership. We have already discussed the significance of the office of an overseer, or elder; therefore, let us address three other words here are crucial to understand: aspires, noble, and task. First, the words noble and task are placed together. Task, of course, is a duty or a job. It is a work that needs to be done. Tasks tend to feel quite menial and boring, if not difficult and laborious. Few people enjoy receiving tasks and managing to-do lists, but Paul says that this task is noble. It is beautiful, honorable, and good task, a work that is beautiful to God. Aspiring pastors, then, should note that the office of overseer is both glorious and arduous, wonderful and backbreaking.
The beautiful nobility of this task should also keep at a distance anyone who thinks little or lightly of it. Anyone who thinks eldership is no big deal is like someone who says that maintaining a healthy marriage or being a good parent is no big deal. Those who are married would respond with something like, “Then you’ve obviously never had a fight with your spouse over whether to watch Shrek in English or Spanish!” And parents might response with, “And you’ve certainly never tried putting pajamas on a sick 7-month-old who thinks that the clothing is killing her!” Like the weight of two sinners joining their lives together or those same sinners being responsible for shepherding the most immature yet formative years of their children’s lives, being an elder is filled with challenge and danger. As guardians of doctrine within the church, they will have to give account before God for both their teaching and the teaching that occurs under their watch. If that isn’t scary enough, keep in mind that the New Testament’s harshest words are reserved for those who promote false teaching.
If the work is difficult but noble, what does it mean to aspire for the office of a church elder? Phil Newton answers this question well:
With our legitimate concern about egotism and pride, it is easy to shrink from the idea of someone aspiring to the office of overseer. Yet Paul’s word for aspiring points to the idea of someone stretching out their hand to the office with a genuine desire to serve the people of God. Lest someone aspire to the office for the sake of a title, a quick look at the character qualifications should squash impure motives. (114)
But how should an aspiring elder seek eldership? What characteristics should he be striving for in desiring the office of overseer? Thabitit Anyabwile suggests four traits to look for in potential elders: 1) Men who are regularly attending the church’s services. 2) Men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church even though they don’t have the title “elder” or “pastor.” 3) Men who show respect and trust in existing leadership. 4) Men who show a desire over time.
HAVE GODLY CHARACTER // VERSE 2-3
Next, Paul introduces a number of qualities that we will tie together with the term godly character. Each of these characteristics is meant to identify the elder as a man who is walking in God’s holiness. It is also important to note that these are qualities that every Christian is striving to attain, but elders are called particularly, and imperfectly, to model them for the congregation.
First, elders must be above reproach. Literally, this means that he is not open to blame and is above criticism. The Greek word here is different than the one used in verses 6 and 7 of Titus’ first chapter, but the meaning is essentially the same: blamelessness. But can elders truly be without blame, with no reason for reproach? Obviously, this cannot be fulfilled entirely in this life because Christ alone is one who makes us blameless and above reproach (Colossians 1:22). Elders, therefore, should model growth in sanctification, leaving behind sin, but when they sin, elders still model being above reproach by exemplifying repentance for the congregation. Elders above all must model what it means to cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Elders must also be sober-minded, which means that he is watchful and restrained. Anyabwile says that they “are free from the excessive influence of passion, lust, or emotion. The Lord calls his under-shepherds to be sober in their desires, feelings, and attitudes” (67-68).
Similarly, elders are self-controlled. Pastors must be able to moderate themselves, not giving free-reign to their desires and wants. They should model self-control because it is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Rinne sums this thought well: “In short, a Spirit-filled man is a self-controlled man” (21).
Elders must also be respectable, which means being appropriate, modest, and proper. Respectable is also used in 1 Timothy 2:9 to describe how women should dress. Just as clothing should be appropriate and modest, so should the elder’s words and actions.
Elders are also commanded not to be drunkards. This characteristic ties directly into being sober-minded, but by rebuking drunkenness, Paul is particularly emphasizing the need for elders to be sober from alcohol. Drunkenness is explicitly condemned for elders (and all Christians) because it leads to violence, quarreling, and a lack of self-control. Of course, we should also be careful not to draw lines that Scripture has not drawn. Paul is not forbidding elders from drinking alcohol completely, only from being intoxicated by alcohol.
Elder must not be violent, but gentle. Violent could also easily be translated as being a bully, a person who hurts others in order to have his own way. Gentleness is presented as the opposite of violence. A gentle person is kind, considerate, and reasonable. He does not bully others to get his way; rather, he is ready to graciously hear what others have to say.
Elders must not be quarrelsome. Pastors should not walk around looking for conflict (there’s enough unavoidable conflict as it is!). They should be peaceable rather than divisive. Remember that Jesus blessed the peacemakers as those who would be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9), while Paul calls unnecessary divisiveness grounds for church discipline (Titus 1:10-11).
Finally, elders must not be lovers of money. Greediness has no place in shepherding God’s people. Unfortunately, to witness “pastoral” greed, we only need to tune into the latest television evangelists. Jude calls these kinds of false teachers “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 12). Instead of pouring out their lives to make the gospel known, they twist the Scriptures to support their own gain.
BE ABLE TO TEACH // VERSE 2
Of course, I passed over a few characteristics that we will give their own section now. The first that deserves its own placement is at the end of verse 2: able to teach. This is a significant qualification because it is what makes the office of an elder unique. All Christians should seek to known by the godly characteristics listed above. All Christians should long to have godly families, as we will see next. And all Christians should strive to grow in maturity and remain well thought of by non-Christians. All Christians are called toward those standards, but not all Christians are called to teach. Elders, though, must be able to teach.
In the last study, we saw that elders are biblically called to devote themselves to two tasks: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Pastors are commanded by the Scriptures to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2)! Teaching is a critical and primary function of how they lead. Rinne says, “God rules his people by his Word, so the leaders of God’s people have always been entrusted with communicating God’s Word” (46).
Practically, what does this mean?
First, all elders must be teachers, but not all teachers are elders. In a healthy, discipleship-rich church, there should be many more teachers outside of the elders, so we should never classify teaching as an elder-exclusive activity. But as the guardians of doctrine within the church, elders actively disciple teachers and vigilantly watch their teachings.
Second, not all elders will be called to preach before the entire congregation, but I believe that all elders must be able and ready to do so. Presbyterians, particularly, distinguish between two kinds of elders: ruling elders and teaching elders. They take this thought from 1 Timothy 5:17, which says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” While this verse does seem to indicate a pattern of churches appointing one of the elders to do the majority of the preaching, I do not think it is presenting two different types of elders. All elders are called to lead (or rule), and all elders are called to teach. In this way, the distinction between vocational and lay elders is not a distinct of type of responsibility but of responsibility amount.
SHEPHERD HIS FAMILY // VERSE 2, 4-5
I have grouped the next characteristics together under the title of an elder being a family shepherd. Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, but more immediately they are also called to shepherd their own families. Paul is very clear about why this is important: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” The ability of an elder to lead shepherd his family is directly tied to his ability to lead the church. Paul gives three characteristics of how that shepherding should be.
First, an elder must be the husband of one wife. This is a tremendously controversial and much debated statement. Most theologians agree that this verse is clearly demanding that elders be faithful to their own wives. Polygamy, adultery, and pornography are out of the question; he must be devoted to his wife. Controversy arises over the issues of singleness and divorce.
On singleness, some argue that Paul is demanding that elders must be married; therefore, single men are unable to become elders. This is poor interpretations since both Jesus and Paul were single, and Paul urged people to remain single in order to leverage their time for the kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:8).
In regards to divorce and remarriage, much prayer and wisdom is required. Many men who were divorced before they came to Christ have been needlessly excluded from leading. Grace should stand in those circumstances. But if a man has a pattern of divorce and remarriage, he should probably be withheld from eldership. Divorce and remarriage are messy circumstances in the first place and, when it comes to being an elder, they should be slowly and prayerfully considered.
Second, an elder must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive. Keeping children submissive does not mean ruling over them with an iron fist. That would be contradicting Paul’s command to fathers in Ephesians 6:4. Submission refers to the proper ordering or structuring of the household. Children are called to obey and submit to their parents, honoring them in the Lord. Does this mean that children are inferior to their parents? No, it simply means that God has ordained parents to be His representative authority to them. Parents guide their children as stewards of God; therefore, the only lasting authority that parents have is the Word of God, raising them in the instruction and discipline of the Lord (Ephesian 6:4). Likewise, elders are in authority to the congregation only through the Word of God. Mark Lauderbach says, “An elder with no Bible is an elder with no authority.” And the same could be said for parents.
Third, the elder must be hospitable. I placed this one under family shepherding because hospitality is a whole family effort. Hospitality literally means showing love to strangers. Hospitality is an act of love; therefore, it is a distinctively Christian characteristic. I read an online article last week in which a former Christian discussed what she missed about being a Christian and being a part of a church. One thing she pointed out was the meals that she received when she was very sick, which her non-Christian friends have never done. Christians are marked by hospitality, so an elder should model that hospitality.
BE A MATURE BELIEVER // VERSE 6
Next, Paul declares that an elder must not be a recent convert. Or conversely, he must be a mature believer. The Apostle’s reasoning for this qualification is to avoid save the man from developing a puffed up ego, falling into the sin of pride. That fear certainly makes sense. A young, immature Christian who is thrust into being in authority of the church is easy prey for pride.
The question, then, is what is a recent convert? What does it mean to be a mature believer? Truthfully, these questions need to be answer subjectively by necessity. In cultures where the gospel is just spreading and being a Christian is incredibly dangerous, men may become elders faster than in cultures where Christianity is the cultural norm. The main difference in those scenarios would be urgency. When becoming a pastor means placing a bounty on your head, most people will not see the office of an overseer as a place to power grab. Therefore, every culture must be wise and prayerful in defining a recent convert and mature believer.
How, then, might we define a mature believer in our present circumstances? Since Paul lists the primary danger here as pride, we can also conclude that mature believers are humble. Anyabwile lists six questions to ask:
Is the potential elder a new Christian?
If a man has been converted for some time, how spiritually mature is he?
To what extent is the man given to pride?
Is he gripped with a sense of his own inadequacy and need for God’s spiritual protection?
Is the man sensitive to criticism?
Is he able to submit to others (especially other elders) even when he holds a different opinion?
BE RESPECTED BY NON-CHRISTIANS // VERSE 7
Paul’s final qualification for the pastoral office is probably the most forgotten as well. Elders “must be well thought of by outsiders”. What does that mean exactly? First, outsiders here is referring to those outside the church, to non-Christians. Second, well thought of could also be translated as bearing a beautiful witness or testimony. Placing these ideas together, we see that elders must properly represent Christ to non-Christians. They must live out their witness well, so that they do not fall into disgrace. Knowing the main idea of this qualification, let’s address a few thoughts.
First, one implication of this command is that elders will have relationships with non-Christians. They are regularly engaging with outsiders. This can be with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Pastors must be connected to non-Christians.
Second, an elder should be respected by non-Christians. Is he respected by his neighbors? By his non-believing family members? By his coworkers? He should be.
Third, elders should display Christ to non-Christians. The prospective elder should constantly strive to make the grace, mercy, and love of God evident in his life and communicate the glorious truths of the gospel whenever the Spirit’s wisdom reveals an open door.
Fourth, elders should display Christ even when hated. Respectable character is, unfortunately, not always going to be met with respect. Jesus warned that the world has a tendency to hate Christians: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Elders, therefore, must be ready to stand with Christ, come what may. The respect of the world should never trump our standing with Christ.
THE REWARD OF BEING AN ELDER // 1 PETER 5:4
Let us conclude our discussion of elders by returning to verse 4 of 1 Peter 5, which describes the reward for being a faithful pastor. In this verse, Jesus is called the chief Shepherd, the supreme Pastor, and when He returns, elders who have been faithful stewards will receive the unfading crown of glory.
What exactly is this unfading crown of glory?
First, we should note that Peter does not mean the kind of golden crown of royalty that likely springs to mind; instead, he is referring to a wreath that would be placed on the head of triumphing generals and winners of sporting competitions. 1 Corinthians 9:25 makes this clear: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”
A crown, therefore, signifies victory, triumph, and honor. It symbolizes the race well run and the fight well fought. It is the hope of celebration following the exertion. And like a race, a competition, or a war, the pastoral ministry is strenuous. To intercede for others in prayer is to willful pour oneself out like a drink offering. To ascend to the pulpit and proclaim the Word of God is to apply a heavier standard of judgment upon oneself. To shepherd God’s people as God’s steward is to suffer rejection as we so often reject God. The work of an elder is heart-breaking labor. But the reward for faithfulness is participation in the glory of Christ that will be revealed to us. In other words, we are rewarded by experiencing the radiance of Jesus’ glory.
Brothers, that is a treasure that no moth or rust can destroy nor any thief break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20)! The unfading crown of glory is worth every pain, suffering, and heart-ache that this life can throw at us.