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Some Thoughts on Elders: Qualifications (1/)

In my podcast Exploring Faith, Pursuing Grace, I asked my listeners to give some thoughts on what I might do an episode on. One of the questions was about elderships. All of the elders I have known and personally served under have been genuinely good guys who have honestly tried to follow God in their lives. From Robert and Terry to my step-dad and Granddaddy to Thom, Gary, Marty, and Brad, I can see how God has shown up in each of these mens’ lives in one way or another.

Unfortunately, though, being a good guy does not necessarily make one a good elder, and so I empathize with all of those who have been burned by elderships. The second group I mentioned, my Dad and Grandaddy, for example, gave me an ultimatum to resign, agree with them on their interpretation of Scripture, or resign. This was tough, and they were doing what they felt like God would want them to do. And I feel that this is true with many elderships I’ve heard of. Most want what is best for the churches they oversee, even if that doesn’t always manifest itself in good decisions based on love and healthy interpretations.

So when we talk about elderships, so many of my listeners have their horror stories, and I’m sure some of you do too. And I think one of the reasons for this is how we think about the “eldership.”

When we think about the eldership, we think about a group of at least two guys who have complete control over everything that goes on in the church. They control the finances, hire and fire the ministers and other staff, make decisions about the direction of the church, and handle disciplinary issues. If they are lucky, they might have deacons serving under them who will handle some elements of these roles, but they ultimately have the final say since we are to “obey them that have rule over” us.

Qualifications

These elders typically approach meeting some interpretation of the qualifications listed in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 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?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 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.

1 Timothy 3:2–7

namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 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.

Titus 1:6–9

Look back over these two lists and pay attention to the parts that are bold. You’ll notice that these qualities are more or less found in both lists. And while arguments could be made that the parts in normal text could be implied by the other, such as it being impossible for a new convert to have already proven themselves to be above reproach as God’s steward (which could be a reference to someone who regularly teaches the mysteries of God: 1 Corinthians 4:1-2), it’s obvious that the lists do differ. For example, the passage in Titus say that the children ought to believe while the passage in Timothy simply says that the man must rule his own house well.

But I think you’ll agree that if Timothy and Titus look for men like this to serve as elders in their respective missionary fields (Ephesus and the island of Crete), then the candidates they find will look extraordinarily similar.

Just because Timothy is told to find someone who is gentle doesn’t mean that all of Titus’s elders will be harsh.

I think this captures an important point about these two varying lists: these are not meant to be a checklist which one must perfectly meet to be considered an elder in the church; instead, it is the spirit of the qualities that one must embody to fill this role. What Timothy and Titus are basically looking for are older Christians to be models for the younger Christians as well as teachers, spiritual directors, and able to resolve conflict in a humble, gentle way.

The Purpose Behind the Search for Elders

Ephesus

One thing that stands out to me about the passage in Timothy is that Ephesus, where Timothy was serving, already had shepherds (Acts 20:17-38, esp. 28). So why does Paul give Timothy a list of qualifications or qualities? First, notice that Timothy is just told to look for these things if someone desires the office of an overseer while Titus is to actively appoint elders in each city.

The reason that Paul gave Timothy his list of qualities is because apparently there were some who were seeking to take over the church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 2:12). You had a group of people who were teaching strange doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3), and you had women who were spreading myths related to the Artemis cult (1 Timothy 1:4, 4:7). So not only does Paul give Timothy qualities to look for in an elder, but he also gives him qualities for deacons and deaconesses (1 Timothy 3:8, 11), and he also gave qualifications for older widows who would receive compensation for their service to the church (1 Timothy 5:1-19).

On this last point, I want to point out a few things. First, the qualifications for the widows who would be put on the list look very similar to the ones for the elders in 1 Timothy 2. Second, notice that the reason why Paul had to give qualifications for this list is because there were obviously some who were taking advantage of the position. Third, this entire section is an inclusio, which is a section bracketed by parallel statements. This might show up in an entire book of the Bible, a section, or just a few verses. But notice the following:

The section begins with command to “not sharply rebuke an older (Presbyterō ) man (1 Timothy 5:1).” The King James Version says, “Rebuke not an elder.” In verse 2, the passage says, “the older women (presbyteras) as mothers.” Again the King James says, “the elder women as mothers.”

The section ends with this statement: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19).

Between these two sections are the qualifications previously mentioned. Those who met them, like in the case of the elders, would be put on a list where they would receive financial assistance from the church (see 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Crete

The situation in Crete was a little different from the one in Ephesus, and it is neatly explained by Paul at the beginning of his letter:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you…

Titus 1:5

But why? Paul explains,

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.

Titus 1:10–11

Paul didn’t need plant managers just because; he needed strong leaders to counter the rebellious men who were teaching myths and trying to create a following for their own gain. So, he told Titus that the elders must, “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” (Titus 1:9).

So Timothy was to evaluate individuals who desired the office in a collection of house churches that already had leaders while Titus was to actively seek out and appoint leaders to counter the corrupt leadership that was attempting to take over the churches throughout Crete.

Paul also gives Titus the qualities that every older man (presbytas) and older woman (Presbytidas) should demonstrate as leaders in the church:

Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

Titus 2:2–5

So the purposes behind the qualifications in both Timothy and Titus had many similarities, but there are also a few minor difference. There are differences among the qualifications, even though they produce basically the same kind of leader. And there are differences in the setting and the need for elders in their particular situation. So, lets’s focus on one quality that will be important for us in future studies when we evaluate whether the idea of an “eldership” in the way we typically think of it is even biblical.

Pugnacious

An elder is not to be pugnacious.

I love this word. To be honest with you, I had to look it up since I’m used to the KJV “not a striker.” To be pugnacious is to be a bully. Some versions translate this as “violent” or “a striker.” The BDAG, a Greek lexicon, defines this word as, “pugnacious person, bully.” I think this quality is one that may be the one most missing in elderships gone bad, and it’s something that is emphasized in both Jesus and Peter’s teaching on leaders in the church.

Speaking to elders, Peter wrote,

…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.

1 Peter 5:2–3

This is similar to what Jesus had told Peter before,

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28

Both Jesus and Peter agree, elders are not to rule under compulsion, and they are not to be lords over their flock but to lead by example. In other words, they aren’t to be bullies who use scare tactics and positional authority to get their way, shut out those who disagree, and pressure people into following them.

Even elderships who do not behave this way still might hold this card in their back pocket. As long as them church, mister, teacher is behaving like they want, then they may seem pleasant and kind, but everyone gets the sense that if things don’t go their way… they just might become a bit pugnacious.

More to Come

Okay! So that’s about it for today’s article. I hope you picked up on something new or maybe gained a little more insight into some of these passages. Now, I want to talk about the legitimacy of the modern eldership, look more into how elders are to lead, perhaps explore some of the qualities, and answer questions you might have.

But here’s the thing. I’m terrible at series. I always get bored before I finish and want to move on to something else, so I need your help. Leave a comment asking for more or asking a question, send me a message, or just like this post on social media or WordPress to let me know there are people out there interested in more info.

Thanks for reading,

Daniel

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