(Recently I briefly addressed my congregation concerning the qualification of elders. I had previously preached through the book of Titus very slowly, and pounded the section on elder qualifications, found in Titus 1:5-9, into dust! I summarized what kind of men Jesus says are fit to be elders of His Church. I wanted to remind my congregation of the high standard for any man who aspires to the office of elder. After the service, several asked for a transcript of what I said, but since I didn’t stick strictly to my notes, I thought it would be helpful to write a more expanded version in a blog post that would be more helpful.)
The Need for Biblically Qualified Elders
The vast majority of big problems in the church are the result of unqualified or disqualified leadership. Too often the Bible is ignored, glossed over, and men who should never be appointed to the office of elder, are appointed. They may not have the necessary gifts, training, theological and biblical fitness, availability, spiritual maturity, reputation, or past history of ministry faithfulness. They might not even be believers!
Too often worldly standards are used for choosing elders. “He is a nice guy.” “He is a successful businessman.” “He faithfully serves in this area or that.” “He has a nice family,” “He gives a lot of money to the church,” etc. Churches must look at the Scriptures and obey exactly what the Word of God says, and what Jesus requires for those who are undershepherds of His Church. Unqualified or disqualified elders put Jesus’ bride, the Church, which He purchased with His own blood, in peril (I Pet. 1:17-19; Acts 20:28). If a formerly qualified elder, disqualifies himself and remains at his post, he is sinning, Christ, the head of the Church is dishonored, and the church is harmed. As James bluntly puts it in James 4:17, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
The reason local churches go liberal and die is because of unqualified or disqualified leadership. “Like people, like priest” (Hos. 4:9). A congregation never rises above the level of its leadership. If the eldership isn’t obeying the Word of God, then how can the congregation be expected to obey the Word of God? All they have to do is say, “Well, the elders aren’t . . . so why do I have to . . .” If the elders are in rebellion against the Word of God, how can the people in a local church be expected to obey the Scriptures? They can’t, and won’t. You won’t find a church that is seriously devoted to prayer, if its elders aren’t seriously devoted to prayer. You won’t find a church that faithfully engages in discipleship, if the elders aren’t faithfully engaged in discipleship. Congregations follow their leadership, usually several steps behind, for good or for bad, and that is why there must be biblically qualified elders in every local church.
What Christ Requires of all Elders
When Paul begins his list of elder qualifications in I Tim. 3:1 he says, “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” Being an elder is so much more than merely a title or status symbol, the ability to be in the know, the power to make decisions, etc. Being an elder is a position of servant leadership, a work. Elder qualifications are listed in I Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, and the qualifications include, not only character qualities, necessary giftedness and training, but also a consistent pattern of past ministry service. The terms elder, overseer, and pastor or shepherd are used interchangeably to describe the same office (Acts 20:17, 28; I Pet. 5:1-2). The pastoral epistles, I & II Timothy and Titus, are written to church leaders for the purpose of letting them know what Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, requires of them (I Tim. 3:15). Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-35 is also a good place to gain wisdom as to what it means to be an elder in a local church. Paul calls the Ephesian elders to meet him at Miletus. He reminds them of his example and then exhorts them in following his example in shepherding God’s flock. Taking note of what he says, repeats, and never mentions is very informative. It is clear from Paul’s words and example that an elder is to be primarily concerned about teaching and discipling people in the Word of God. This matches up with what Paul wrote in the Pastoral Epistles as well.
As Paul begins the lists of elder qualifications in both I Tim. 3 and Titus 1, he says, “a man must be” certain things before being appointed to the office of elder (I Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7). He uses a present, active, indicative verb, which means, must be right now and continue to be. The necessity of a man being everything an elder must be and do before being appointed is made even clearer in Titus 1:6 where Paul writes, “if any man is.” He again uses the present active verb tense and doesn’t say, “if any elder is” but any man who is being considered for the office of elder is presently, right now, and continuing to be. . . Then in Titus 1:7 he says, “For the overseer must be. . .” This is why you never appoint a man to the office of elder thinking that the appointment will make him elder qualified. It won’t. You appoint men who are already, in character and action, doing everything an elder is required to be doing, then you appoint the man to the office. Being appointed to the office of elder doesn’t instantly transform you into something you never were before, it merely makes you more responsible before God. A man must be doing elder type work, before being appointed to the office of elder.
The purpose of this article is not to go into exhaustive detail about elder qualifications, but to summarize elder qualifications and emphasize that elders must be servant leaders who lead by example, are gifted for the office of elder, trained, and possess the necessary godly character before being appointed as elders of Christ’s Church.
A Man’s Faithful Example
Remember, we are talking about what a man “must be” before being appointed to the office of elder. A man must demonstrate a pattern of faithfulness in managing his home, parenting his children, have a good reputation at work and both inside and outside the church. He must be above reproach, have Teflon character, so that no legitimate accusation of ungodliness or failure to do what elders must do can stick to him. This doesn’t mean elders never sin, never blow it, never get carnal, but refers to the pattern of a man’s life. What is a man’s life characterized by? We all have our bad moments and we don't want others to characterize us by our worse day of the year. When the elder qualified man blows it, he repents and confesses his sin quickly, and strives to do better immediately after those bad moments, which are exceptions in his life. There also may be shorter seasons, where he isn’t teaching, discipling, practicing hospitality as much as usual, or maybe even not at all, but the overall pattern of his life is that he does all that elders are required to do. He is in godly character all that elders must be. He must meet the qualifications of an elder as the normal pattern, not the perfection of life.
A Man Must Be Leading The Church in Prayer
Men who are being considered for elder need to be men of prayer and show a pattern of leading the church in prayer. When Paul is addressing corporate worship in I Tim. 2:1-3, he says prayer should be made “on behalf of all men,” especially the leaders of a nation. Paul uses the word anthropos, a word that can refer to men only, if the context demands it, or men and women in general, all people. This is how Paul uses it in I Tim. 2:1 when he says we should pray for “all men,” in vs. 4 he uses the same word saying God desires “all men” to be saved, and in vs. 5 he uses it again saying that Christ gave himself a ransom for “all men.” Anthropos is used repeatedly, but in vs. 8, where he addresses the need for men to pray in corporate worship services, he uses the word aner, which refers to males only. This fits with what Paul teaches elsewhere (I Cor. 11:1-3; 14:34-35; I Tim 2:11-12), that men, males only, are to teach, lead, and exercise authority in the church during corporate worship.
When the Church was newly born at Pentecost and it was discovered that some of the Greek widows were being overlooked, the Apostles found faithful servants, men who were filled with the Holy Spirit, to make sure the Greek widows’ needs were met. Peter explains why the Apostles were not going to drop what they were doing in order to serve the widows. He says in Acts 6:2-4, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
Any faithful person can serve tables, but only a few in the church are gifted, trained, and able to preach and teach the Word of God with clarity and accuracy. Therefore “it is not desirable” that the few who are gifted and trained to preach and teach, neglect the task of preaching and teaching, in order to do what many in the church are able to do i.e., serve tables. Peter then sums up the primary duties of an elder, “but we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Notice the first priority of the Apostles was “prayer.” Elders must lead the church as men of prayer. The Apostles were chosen, trained, and sent out by Christ to pray and preach the gospel. The Apostles were the first elders in the first century church (I Pet. 5:1; II Jn. 1; III Jn. 1). Men must demonstrate that they are men of prayer, leading by example in prayer, before being appointed to the office of elder.
A Man Must Be a Gifted Teacher
If you aspire to be an elder, you must be a gifted, trained, experienced teacher of God’s Word (Acts 20:20-21, 24-25, 27, 31-32; I Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). You must have a solid enough grasp of the Bible in order to be able to “exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). I have known men who were not gifted or trained teachers who were appointed to the office of elder. I have known men who could not exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict who were appointed to the office of elder. If you assigned them to be teachers of a healthy Bible study, their “teaching” would kill it.
Some have reasoned that being “able to teach” (I Tim. 3:2), merely means being able to explain basic biblical truths to someone. It can’t mean that for several reasons. First, because if that were so, all deacons would be elder qualified as well, and they are not. Secondly, Paul in the Pastoral Epistles and in Acts 20:17-35 makes it clear that an elder must be a man, gifted by the Holy Spirit to clearly communicate the Word of God in an engaging way so that people in the church are blessed and built up. Third, as an elder you must be a “workman, who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the Word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). And finally, you must know the Bible well enough to handle and clearly teach the deep things of God, for you must be able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). If the Holy Spirit has not gifted you to be a teacher, you can never be an elder. We have no control over the spiritual gifts we receive. We are given our spiritual gifts at salvation, by the Holy Spirit, and have no say in the matter (I Cor. 12:7-11).
But even if a person is gifted by the Holy Spirit to preach or teach, they still need a lot of training in how to study the Bible (hermeneutics), gain mastery over Bible content and theology, and in “handling accurately the Word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). The training and study needed to get to the place where you can “exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9) takes years. Frankly, many men are unwilling to do what it takes to handle the Word of God with precision, even if they are gifted. Yet, adequate training is necessary to go along with the spiritual gift of teaching, in order to be an elder. Before a man is appointed to the office of elder, he should be well known in the church as a gifted, trained, teacher of the Word of God. He will express his teaching gifts in a variety of ways, some better than others, e.g., preaching and/or teaching, discipling, counseling, refuting error, etc., as a regular pattern of his ongoing ministry. The Word of God is the primary means through which God’s grace flows to the church and the elders of a local church are the primary conduits that the Word flows through to the congregation.
“Why,” you might be wondering to yourself, “does God require all elders to be gifted, trained, and seasoned teachers of the Word of God?” Because when a man studies the Word of God, as he digs into the Word, the Word digs into him. Before a man works God’s Word into others, God’s Word must first work on his own heart. Study requires prayer, reading, meditation, searching, consulting scholarly resources, etc. As a man labors in his study, the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to work on his own soul first, humbling him, showing him his own sin, his own faults, his own shortcomings. This way, when he is teaching, he teaches, preaches, counsels, disciples as a sinner, humbled by the Word of God, teaching other sinners who need humbled by the Word of God. He is forced to synthesize the truth, summarize it, package it, and consider how it practically applies to his own life and the lives of others. That entire process is necessary for all elders, as it makes them spiritually-oriented men, who know their own hearts, and the spiritual needs of others in their congregation. Having elders who are constantly studying to teach allows the church to grow spiritually and protects it from becoming worldly and being run as a business.
The Summary Profile of Men To Be Considered as Elders
- Men who have a history of leading the congregation by example in their commitment to pray.
- Men who have a history of being gifted, trained, teachers, disciplers, and counselors of the Word of God, who know the Word of God and theology well enough to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict.
- Men who have a history of regularly practicing hospitality, who are often having people from the church into their homes in order to minister to them, so that the flock can see how they live, how they manage their household, and if their children are under control with all dignity.
- Men who are known to have excellent marriages, happy wives who are thrilled with and in love with their husbands.
- Men who are doctrinally and philosophically unified with the current leadership of the church, especially what is coming from the pulpit. Elders cannot lead the church in multiple and conflicting directions. Though there will always be some doctrinal diversity among the congregation, there must be close doctrinal and philosophical unity among elders in order for them to lead the church. Since the greatest influence of the Word of God comes from the pulpit, the eldership must be aligned with what is being preached. They must have biblical unity, which is being of “the same mind and same judgment” (Rom. 15:5; I Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:4-6; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-2).
- Men who are committed to the church for the long haul. Seminary students, men on temporary work assignment, might be elder qualified, but because they are planning on leaving, it may be unwise to appoint them to the office of elder and have them make critical decisions for the church they are planning on leaving. It is usually best to let them serve and teach as they are able, but not as elders.
- Men who are humble. Elder qualified men are content at serving. They don’t need a title, but “humble themselves under the mighty hand of God,” so that God, in His providence, “can exalt them in due time” (I Pet. 5:6). If appointed to the office of elder, they have sensitive consciences in relation to their responsibilities. If they realize they are no longer able to do the work of an elder or that they have become disqualified, they humbly step down, out of love for the Lord, a desire to obey the Word of God, and in order to be good examples to the flock. They are elders because they desire the work, not because they want power, position, title, or prestige.
- Men who have an unflinching commitment to obey the Word of God, even if it brings persecution, slander, mocking, and reproach. Though humble and meek, an elder qualified man understands that the only way to love God and give Him glory is to obey the Word of God.
Situations to Consider
- What if a man is already an elder, but is not doing the work of an elder? He needs to step up to the plate and start doing elder work, or step down. God’s Word is clear. All elders “must be” men who are doing the work, or they are not “above reproach.” At times an elder may not realize he isn't doing the work required of elders. In this case, he should be confronted in the fruit of the Spirit. He can either humbly step down or step up to the plate. If a man knows he isn’t doing elder work, isn’t gifted, trained, or qualified to be an elder, but continues on as an elder, that man should definitely step down from being an elder. He knows the right thing to do, but is not doing it, which is sin (James 4:17). It reveals he wants to be an elder for the wrong reasons e.g., power, position, boasting, to be in the know, to have control, etc. Most men who are elders, but not doing the work, fall into this second category. It is very difficult to feign ignorance about the work required of you as an elder when you know what the Bible says, have elder qualifications set before you upon appointment, and see other elders doing the work.
- What if a man is already an elder, but situations arise that prevent him from continuing to do the work of an elder? A man who loves the Lord and the church will humbly step down if he realizes he is no longer able to do the work of an elder. He will serve where and when he can, but he will step down from being an elder, so as not to disregard the Scriptures before the congregation.
- What if a church is small, a new church plant, or does not have elder qualified men? A church should not be planted unless there is at least one man who is qualified to be an elder to shepherd the flock and still, it would be wise to have other elder qualified men to help hold him accountable and to make critical decisions. Sometimes churches will find themselves in situations where they don’t have qualified men to appoint to the office of elder. This is often due to the failure of the previous leadership to disciple men. I have talked to churches who have no elder qualified men and are looking for an elder qualified pastor-teacher. What should a church like that do? First, the men who are deacon qualified, if there are deacon qualified men in the church, should study the Word of God, especially the Pastoral Epistles, and remind themselves of the kind of man Christ says is fit to have as an elder of His Church. They should look for healthy, vibrant, Bible preaching and teaching churches, with biblically qualified elders, who are doing the work of an elder, to assist them in finding the kind of man God says they need for their church.
Contrary to what most search committees think, there is only one kind of man for a local Church, an elder qualified man, God’s man, the man described by the Word of God, that is the only kind of man that Christ wants as an undershepherd for His Church. Too many churches harm themselves trying to find a personality type, rather than biblically qualified man to lead them. Ideally, there should be a plurality of elders, but if there isn’t a plurality of elders in the church, the men who are deacons can assist their only elder until other qualified men can be trained up. Qualified elders, who are doing the work of an elder in other churches, can also be asked to assist, do pulpit fill, and help make critical decisions for a church while the current single elder is training future elders, a process which usually takes years.
- How can lay elders, who need to work, maintain their own spiritual lives, love their wife, and parent their children find the time to do all that God requires of elders? The fact of the matter is the church has to become your life if you want to be an elder. You often have to give up or severely narrow down what you do in your free time, reducing the time spent on hobbies or giving them up altogether. You have to sacrifice sleep, say no to many things that others in the church might enjoy, and discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (I Tim. 4:7). You must maintain a strong marriage, parent your children well, maintain your household with excellence, and find time to go to meetings, study, teach, pray, disciple, counsel, confront people in sin, practice hospitality, etc. It is not easy. I have known avid golfers who stopped golfing to be elders. I have known men who quit higher paying jobs that demanded much of their time, for a lower paying job that freed them up to be elders in the local church. This is why few men meet elder qualifications. It is a sacrifice and hard work! It is why elders are to be highly esteemed, honored, and held in high regard (I Tim. 5:17; Gal. 6:6; Phil. 2:29; I Thess. 5:12-13).
The high calling and honor of being an elder has nothing to do with the size, influence, or popularity of a given local church. What makes being an elder important is the greatness of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, who is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. It is a fearful and humbling responsibility to be undershepherds of the Lord of glory. And any man worthy to be appointed to the office of elder will have a holy fear and reverence for the work that he is being asked to perform. You must become a churchman, a man given to your local church to be an elder. The health of every church is derived from the quality of its elders. For this reason, God’s standard is very high.
Every elder must be a servant leader who can say with a clear conscience, “Follow me as I follow Christ, manage your home like I do, love your wife like I do, parent your children like I do, serve the church, exercise your spiritual gifts, be devoted to prayer, like you see me doing.” Elders are shepherds who walk ahead of the sheep, leading by example. They don’t drive the sheep with threats and intimidation like butchers on their way to the meat market.
As the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Or as the author of Hebrews says in Heb. 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” Elders will “give an account” to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself for how they submitted to and bent their backs to the work of an elder. Being an elder is a scary, demanding, and humbling business! Elders are undershepherds of Jesus' Church!