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Who Can Be an Elder?

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

New Testament Elders: God's Shepherds

Part 2: Who Can Be an Elder

Who can be an elder in the church?

In our first post, we looked at what an Elder is according to the Bible. In this post, we want to ask the question, “Who can be an Elder?

This is a crucially important question for the Church to answer for a number of reasons…

  • First, the Bible commands churches to have Elders (Titus 1:5); and to submit to, and follow their Elders (Heb. 13:17). So, the expectation is: Churches will have Elders.

  • Second, in His Word, God gives an extensive list of qualifications for who can serve in the office of Elder. So, the expectation is: Churches will do the hard work of making sure any man serving meets the qualifications.

  • Third, the Bible is full of examples of what happens when unqualified, ungodly people get into positions of leadership over the people of God. Things never go well. So, the implication is: Pay attention and learn from the mistakes of others (1 Cor. 10:6)

Therefore, churches should do all they can to ensure they have qualified Elders in place, leading the way.

  • So, who can be one of these Elders? Let’s consider what the Word of God says…

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul writes,

  • The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (English Standard Version)

And in Titus 1:6-9, Paul writes,

  • ...if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (English Standard Version)

So, who can be an Elder?

The first thing we note is that Elders are to be Men. We see this in several places in the Timothy and Titus texts, with both texts making it quite plain that an Elder will be the husband in a marital relationship (should the Elder be married), and with the usage of the masculine pronoun, “his/him,” (examples: 1 Tim. 3:4; Titus 1:9).

  • Additionally, in 1 Timothy 3, Paul has just concluded a portion of teaching (2:8-15) in which women are prohibited from authoritative teaching in the church (teaching is the primary task of the Elder). This does not mean women are barred from any and all teaching opportunities; rather, in context, Paul is saying that women are not permitted to serve in the role of Elder; one who teaches with the authority of God. Paul grounds his command in God’s creation order (1 Tim. 2:12-15).

  • Lastly, we note that Paul gives Timothy specific instructions to raise up other Elders. Paul writes, “...and what you have heard from me through many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who are well-qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). The implication is that Timothy will be raising up other qualified men who may serve in the Elder role.

Now, we must consider the qualifications that Paul gives in both Timothy and Titus. The list is extensive.

  • As we consider this list of qualifications, it is important to recognize that the overwhelming burden of this list lies on the man’s character, and not on the man’s skill. An Elder should be skilled at what he does, but these qualities reveal that God is far more concerned that His shepherds are men of godly character far more than men of great skill.

First, things that MUST NOT be true of a man serving as an Elder.

  • Paul’s point is not that these negative qualities make an Elder less effective, but that the presence of such qualities disqualify a man from the Elder office.

-An Elder must not be…

  • Overbearing/arrogant. An Elder must not be a man who dominates others.

    • Speaking to Elders, the Apostle Peter writes, “I exhort the Elders among you...shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight...not domineering over those in your charge, but being an example.” (1 Pt. 5:1-4)

  • Quick tempered or easily angered. Elders can often find themselves in situations that can easily provoke anger; An Elder must be in control of his anger.

    • The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19)

    • Sadly, stories of Abusive pastors have been on the rise and seem to be increasingly becoming a problem.

  • A drunk or violent/literally, one who strikes (two things that often go together).

    • In other words, an Elder will not have self-destructive addictions.

    • He will be filled with the Spirit of God (Eph. 5:18)

  • Greedy; does not pursue dishonest gain. Not controlled by money.

    • An Elder must love the Lord more than worldly treasures.

  • A recent convert to Christianity. It is unwise for a Church to entrust the authority of an Elder to a recent convert, or an immature man because of the damage that can follow.

-“In this list of five vices, Paul has singled out ways in which a man may be gripped by sin: Pride, anger, drunkenness, dominance, and wealth. Being controlled by any of these disqualifies a man to “oversee” the people of God.” (George Knight III).

Now, let’s consider what MUST BE true of an Elder…

And Elder must be...

1 - Godly in his home.

- An Elder, if he is married, must be committed to his wife; His sexuality must be pure.

  • This does not mean that an Elder must be married (neither Jesus nor Paul were married). Paul’s concern is that if he is married, he is in a God-approved union, and that he is faithful in that union. The fact that this requirement is in both lists (Timothy and Titus) highlights the fact that the usual life situation of an Elder will be marriage.

  • We also need to note that Paul is not giving an all out prohibition against divorce; that is something more modern people have read onto the text that Paul does not imply. “If Paul wanted to say “never divorced,” he could have said so. But he didn’t. He said a man must be a “one-woman man” (to translate the Greek literally). And unless you want to say that Paul also meant to rule out the remarried widower, then the requirement that a man is a “one-woman man” means that he has a reputation for being a faithful husband to his wife.” Therefore, the more appropriate application here is this, “does [the] would-be elder have a reputation, right now, of being a faithful husband?”

-An Elder must be a godly father — An Elder’s leadership of his children will not result in perfect children who automatically love the Lord, but in respectful/faithful children.

  • To expect an Elder’s children to automatically follow Jesus departs from the NT. Elsewhere, Paul clearly teaches that salvation is a work of God, and God alone (Eph. 1; 2:1-10; Phil. 1:6). Paul would have to disagree with himself to say that a man is only qualified to be an Elder as long as he has ensured his children are saved.

  • Paul’s word “believers” (Titus 1:6) is the Greek word “faith”—and like with marriage, the implication is not that the Elder will have children and that they will be Christians. Paul states that an Elder’s children, if he has them, will not be open to the charge of rebellion. The point is that if the Elder has children, and they reside in his home, he will parent them in such a way that they remain faithfully submissive to him. In other words, his parenting will not drive them to rebellion or insubordination.

  • This is further supported as we consider the 1 Timothy text where we read, “He must manage his household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive” (v. 5). And Elder’s parenting will not produce little Christians without fail. Rather, his parenting must produce a healthy home.

“The Bible regards the home as the training ground for Christian leaders. A man who cannot lead his home cannot lead the church.” (G. Knight).

  • A church, therefore, MUST evaluate a man’s home: His marriage, his parenting, and his leadership if he aspires to the office of Elder. If his home is in disarray, he is disqualified from the office for he will bring what exists in his home into the church.

2 - Elders must lead Godly Lives.

-An Elder must be above Reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6): Paul lists this quality once in 1 Timothy and twice in Titus, and the meaning is that an Elder is not genuinely open to attack or criticism regarding his Christian life in general, or regarding the specific qualities Paul lists here.

  • Paul says an Elder must be above reproach for he is to be God’s steward of God’s Church. That is, the Elder is to manage the household of God—and this requires true godliness.

  • Hospitable: He will love strangers and open his life to them. Elder hospitality means, “Central to an Elder’s life is a real devotion to the good of others and a willingness to be inconvenienced for others.”

  • A lover of Good: An Elder will be a virtuous man; a well-behaved man. He will love what God loves.

  • Sober-Minded: The Elder must be a wise, and prudent man. One who is not sober (inebriated) is not in control of himself . A sober minded man thinks and acts clearly, and with wisdom.

  • Self-controlled and Disciplined: This will be the way of life: He will not live to excess.

    • We see this positive response to the negatives listed earlier. Not only will an Elder not be quick-tempered, a drunkard, and greedy for gain, postiveily, he will be self-controlled.

  • An Elder will practice self-control as a way of life.

  • Upright and Holy: 1 Jn. 3:7, “The one who practices righteousness is righteous.

    • An Elder will live in accordance with the Law of God.

    • He will be a picture (imperfect) of the Psalm 1 tree.

  • Well-thought of by outsiders: We all know men who change based on who they’re around. Paul says that an Elder must be honest and genuine; he must not be a hypocrite. (1 Tim. 3:6).

3 - Elders must be Able to Teach the Word of God.

-Elders must Teach Sound Doctrine.

  • This is the primary task of the Elder; and for a man to accomplish this task rightly, he must meet the character qualifications given. But why? Why must a man meet the character qualifications before he may teach the Word? This is not how the world works.

  • The office of Elder is given the authority to say, “Thus saith the Lord;” the Elder is called to teach the Bible with the full authority of God. For man to do this well and effectively, God says the man must first be a godly man. And it is that godliness that will guard and protect the authority given to him. He will not abuse that authority if he is controlled by godliness.

-An Elder must know and teach sound doctrine so that he is equipped to Rebuke and Correct those who oppose sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Literally translated, “that he may expose those opposing sound doctrine.

  • Rebuking false teaching is necessary (2 Pt. 2:1); but for such rebuking to happen authoritatively and with the appropriate pastoral nature, it must be done by a godly Elder who holds courageously to the Word of Truth.

Next up… Part 3, “What does an Elder do?”

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