Looking for Shepherds: Biblical Qualifications for Eldership
One way to know how much God treasures his people is to listen to what he says to our leaders. Here’s Paul’s words to the elders at Ephesus:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. —Acts 20:28–30
The church is God’s flock, precious and purchased. Shepherds are part of how he guides and guards his flock. Shepherding is a noble task, but but shepherding is not for everyone.
It’s this kind of lofty command that led our elders several years back to examine the Bible’s teaching on eldership more closely—what an elder is, what elders do, and who should be an elder. We were convinced that more unity and depth on these questions would make for a happier and healthier church and, as a result, a more vital witness to Christ in our community. That study led to a retooled process for identifying and appointing elders which we summarized in a previous article, “How We Appoint Elders Together.” The purpose of this post is to drill down more specifically on the matter of qualifications for eldership. This will help all of us identify and pray for our elders here at Heritage.
We’ve taught on these qualifications for eldership before on a Sunday morning in a sermon, titled, “Profile for a Church Elder,” from 1 Timothy 3:1–7. This article won’t cover any new ground in the Bible, but it should help us take new ground in our gospel mission. Joyful and unified elder appointments are no small part of that.
Who We Need Our Elders to Be
If I was writing the New Testament letters I would have included some detail in the process of appointing elders. But the Holy Spirit knew better. The balance of our material on this topic focuses not on how we appoint elders but on who we appoint to the office. This makes good sense given the job of shepherding. Elders are examples to the flock, they lead, they feed, and they guard the flock. They do all of this with their teaching and with their lives. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1Tim. 4:16).
Two New Testament passages outline the qualifications for an elder. This is a good place for us to begin.
“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.” —1 Timothy 3:1–7
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—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.” —Titus 1:5–9
Four initial observations orient us to the rest of the list.
First, it’s not only okay for men to desire this office, it is good for them to do so. It is a “noble task” and men who aspire to this task desire a good thing (1Tim. 3:1). Following Paul’s example, we do well to stir men up to serve in this office and affirm the desire when it emerges. There will always be mixed motives and even evil motives. Yet at a basic level we are not reflexively suspicious of a man’s desire to serve in this office.
The second observation is related to the first by way of complement: aspiration is good but it is not enough. Because of the nature of shepherding the flock of God, the man must also meet certain qualifications before he may be considered for this role. These are a protection to himself and to the flock. The congregation, led by their elders, should heed Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1Tim. 5:22).
A third observation brings focus to the entire list to follow. Paul begins with a summary qualification to interpret the whole: “an overseer must be above reproach” (1Tim. 3:2). This is not about perfection but about public reproach. It is interesting that two lists are mostly the kinds of things that should characterize all Christians. These are virtue lists not unlike others we find in the letters written to churches in general. For example, Galatians 5:22–23, Philippians 4:8, and 2 Peter 1:5–7 cover similar ground. An elder is simply a mature Christian and an example to the flock.
A fourth observation is that these qualifications assume that the office of elder is a role held by men. This is not arbitrary or a dig on the ladies. Women are indispensable to the ministry and mission of the church, sisters by adoption, co-heirs in Christ, members of the body, and gifted by the Spirit. Nevertheless, eldership is an office with a unique place in God’s plan for his new creation people, an expression of authority and Word leadership rooted in Adam’s unique role from creation (1Tim. 2:12–14). For more on this topic specifically, listen to our sermon, “Women of the Word,” from our series through 1 Timothy.
The qualifications for elder are mostly straightforward. But there are several points that need some explanation and agreement for the sake of our unity as a church. What follows here is a simple exposition of the qualifications anchored in 1 Timothy 3 as we understand them here at Heritage: things to look for, things to look out for, and things to look into.
Things to Look For
The first qualification to look for is sexual and marital devotion. He must be “the husband of one wife” (3:2). Literally translated, he is to be a one-woman man. The placement of this command near the head of this list is instructive. The elder must not be given to pornography. He must not be a flirt. He should have eyes for his wife alone if he is married. This expression does not mean that a widower or a divorcee is disqualified from the office, granted that a divorce is not a cause for reproach. “One-woman man” would be an unnatural and an unclear way for Paul to speak if he intended to exclude divorced men. With a divorcee, his situation is a matter of credibility and a variety of factors will come to bear on that: the circumstances of the divorce, how public was it, how long ago it was, how it is understood in the community, etc. As with the rest of the qualifications, we are not given a litmus test but a judgment call. What about men who have never been married? While marriage is normative, neither does this exclude single men, Paul himself being single.
Second, we must look for self-mastery, expressed in three additional qualifications. The “sober-minded man” is stable, attentive, and alert. The “self-controlled” man is disciplined, not driven by fleshly desires but able to control himself by the Spirit. The “respectable” man has mastery over his mind and life, accruing respect from those who watch him.
Finally, we must look to the man’s ministry. The “hospitable” man is a welcoming presence, using his time and his home as a means of ministry. He must also be “able to teach,” the chief qualification that distinguishes an elder from a deacon or any other mature Christian man or woman. If you prick him, does he bleed the Bible? This man should be competent in handling the Word, making the Scriptures clearer for hearers and not confusing. “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” (Tit.1:9). Can he do both of those things with studied clarity and settled confidence? This does not mean he must be able to preach for forty-five minutes on a Sunday or even excel in public classroom teaching settings specifically. Nevertheless, Bible-handling is basic to the role because the Bible is how a shepherd guides and guards the flock.
Things to Look Out For
While there are plenty of good things to look for in a potential elder, there are also things to look out for. First, we must consider if he is “a drunkard.” This question does not concern whether he drinks alcohol, but whether he drinks too much alcohol. He must control and not be controlled by his appetites.
Second, this man must not be combative, “not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” Consider the force of his words, the volume of his words, the tone of his words, and the consistency of his words. Is the kind of person that starts fights? Not unrelated, he is actually a physical brawler?
Finally, he must not be greedy or “a lover of money.” This does not mean that he cannot be wealthy. Rather he must not love money to the extent that he gives all of his time and attention to getting money. He must not gain his money through shady or underhanded dealings. This man must love God rather than money.
Things to Look Into
Due diligence requires that we look into several things when considering a man for eldership. The first is his home. The church is like a family whose leadership involves nurture, order, and care. If a man can’t take care of his home, then we should not expect he can faithfully care for the church. For a point of evidence, does he “manage his own household well”? If he has children, are his children submissive? This does not mean that his children are perfect or necessarily converted, but that the man fosters a godly atmosphere of parental discipline. On that point about the conversion of his children, Paul did write to Titus, “his children are believers” (1:6). However, this can just as well be translated, “his children are faithful,” and so this is just another way of saying what Paul writes to Timothy concerning submissive children. Could a child’s behavior disqualify an elder? Yes, and that would depend on the age, the story surrounding a child’s disobedience, and whether this man’s management of his home is a reproach.
A second thing to look into is his experience. Simply, is he an experienced Christian? He must not be a new Christian. New believers do not mature evenly. They may excel in sexual purity but not in humility, or in humility but not in sexual purity. This is something Satan will exploit in someone who is made an elder too quickly.
A third and final thing to look into is his reputation. An elder with a problematic reputation with outsiders will fall into disgrace. Having his name smeared, he will fall into the Devil’s trap and harden his heart.
Pray, Watch, Wait
The process of raising up, identifying, and appointing elders is an ongoing process. Use this post to help you pray for our leaders and to watch out for who the Holy Spirit might appoint an elder among us. Why not pray this way for your sons? Why not pray this way for your husband?
Given the importance of qualified leadership to the church’s health, why not meditate some more on this topic with the help of a good book? Here are some books we’ve worked through as elders and/or deacons in recent years. For a slower journey through these qualifications, pick up a copy of Thabiti Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. For a basic introduction to biblical eldership read Jeramie Rinne’s, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus. For a detailed analysis of every relevant text concerning eldership, read Alexander Strauch’s, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership.