THE QUALIFICATIONS OF AN ELDER


We had earlier written on The Office of an Elder. In that article, we noted that there is only one office of eldership, though the elders may have different functions, namely: Oversight, pastorate, rulership and teaching. What we may not have made so clear is that functionally there should be a distinction between teaching-elders and ruling-elders. Though all elders should be “apt to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), as far as possible, formal teaching and preaching should be carried out by the teaching-elders or pastors who are specially gifted by the Lord and ordained to the ministry of the Gospel. Or conversely, we must also allow for ruling-elders who do not “labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17). All elders ought to rule the church (Heb 13:7, 17), but ruling elders should not be called to preach except in circumstances of grave exigencies. Readers who are interested in the subject may consult James Moir Porteous, Jesus Christ King of the Church (The James Begg Society, 1999 [1872]). Pages 46–68 deal with the office of an Elder.


In this article we would like to elaborate a little on the qualifications of an elder, which are plainly laid down in the Scripture, namely in 1 Timothy 3:2–7, Titus 1:5–9 and 1 Peter 5:1–3.


A cursory reading of these lists of qualifications will reveal that the emphasis is clearly that of Christian character and piety. Indeed, we will have to admit that except for “apt to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) and “not a novice,” all the other qualifications are what should be expected of every Christian. Where we fail in any of these areas, we fail the Lord and sin against Him. But, of course, whatever faults may be borne by the church when found in ordinary members should not be tolerated in elders of the church, for they are set over the flock to be examples for all to follow (1 Pet 5:3; Phil 3:17). It is no exaggeration to say that, to a large extent, the spiritual condition of a church will depend on the influence of the officers in the church.


With that in mind, let’s look at the qualifications under each of the follow categories.


Reputation


An elder must be blameless or irreproachable (Grk: anepilêmptos: 1 Tim 3:2;anegklêtos: Tit 1:6). This does not mean that an elder must be guiltless or sinless. Indeed, anyone who claims to be guiltless or sinless or is not even cognisant of falling short of the glory of God should be disqualified from eldership (cf. 1 Jn 1:8, 10). What it does mean is that the elder or potential elder must be free from hint of scandalous sin or from any provable flaw in his character and Christian walk which may bring the office and the name of Christ to disrepute.


Related to this, an elder “must be of good report of them which are without” (1 Tim 3:7). This means that his testimony and witness among unbelievers, be it at home, in the office or elsewhere, must be excellent. The name of Christ is blasphemed when one who is of ill-report to unbelievers (not on account of his Christian convictions), is made an elder in the church. In many a circle today, anyone who is rich or powerful or doing well in his professional career will be offered eldership. This is done often to pay compliments to these successful men and to gain their support; but as the servants of Christ we must bear in mind that no wealth or social status can qualify a person for office in the house of God. Sadly, however, we have often heard of unbelievers and believers alike complaining about the unreasonableness and dishonesty of their Christian bosses, some of whom have been made elders in their churches.


Domestic Qualifications


Elders must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6). This qualification, in addition to 1 Timothy 2:11–12, would immediately disqualify women for eldership. But what does it mean to be the husband of one wife or a “one wife man” (Grk: mias gunaikos andra)? In the first place, it does not mean that all elders must be married, else we will have to conclude, based on 1 Timothy 3:4, that all elders must have children. Most likely, it means that a polygamous man would be disqualified as well as one who was divorced and remarried, especially, on unbiblical grounds.


An elder must also be “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity” (1 Tim 3:4). His children should be “faithful” and “not accused of riot or unruly” (Tit 1:6). Obviously, this does not mean that all elders must have grown-up children who are faithful believers. What it does mean is that, first of all, he must be a godly leader at home. Whether he has children or not, he should manage his household well, which include leading his family in worship and instruction, and in maintaining the Christian discipline of the home as much as he can. Secondly, it means that if he has children, that his children ought to be well-behaved, obeying him with proper respect, and loving the Lord or attending the means of grace diligently as befitting the age of the child. Thirdly, it does mean that it is not unreasonable for an elder to seek deposition from his office if he finds his family going astray on account of his neglect.


Mental Qualifications


An elder must be “vigilant,” “sober” (1 Tim 3:2), and “temperate” (Tit 1:8). The word rendered “vigilant” (Grk: nêphaleos) has the lexicon meaning of “temperate in the use of alcoholic beverages, sober, clear-headed, self-controlled” (BAGD). It is translated “sober” in 1 Timothy 3:11 and Titus 2:2. The word rendered “sober” immediately following “vigilant” in 1 Timothy 3:2 is a different word (Grk:sôphrôn), meaning “prudent, thoughtful, self-controlled” (BAGD) or “(1) of a sound mind, sane, in one’s senses; (2) curbing one’s desires and impulses, self-controlled, temperate” (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon). It is rendered “temperate” in Titus 2:2 and “discreet” in Titus 2:5. But the word “temperate” in Titus 1:8 is yet another word (Grk: egkratês) meaning “self-controlled, disciplined” (BAGD).


Putting all these somewhat related terms together, we see that the elder must have a sound thinking mind which is able to detect errors, well able to think rationally in the defence of the Gospel (1 Pet 3:15), not given to impulsive flights of fancy, not easily swayed by emotions and so able to judge all things objectively and rationally from the Scriptures. This qualification is obviously important in a church that seeks to maintain the truth in doctrine and practice. It would be sad if the elder does not understand the doctrinal position of the church and is unable to give a reasonable response to anyone concerning the practices of the church.


Such qualities of the mind are also useful when the elder is called to counsel members of the church whether they be undergoing trials or are possibly in need of chastisement. Without the ability to think soberly, there will arise a greater possibility of “[making] the heart of the righteous sad, whom [God has] not made sad; and [strengthening] the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life” (Ezk 13:22).


Personality Qualifications


An elder must also be of “good behaviour” (1 Tim 3:2). Actually, the meaning of the word in the Greek (Grk: kormios) in this context is not very clear. It is rendered “modest” in 1 Timothy 2:9; but its lexicon meaning is “well-arranged, seemly, modest” (Strong’s) or “respectable, honourable” (BAGD). Perhaps a suitable contemporary description would be that he must be a gentleman. He must be a man of decorum and principle, with a well-ordered life.


Similarly, he must “not [be] selfwilled” (Tit 1:7). In other words, he must not be wilful, self-pleasing, stubborn or arrogant. He must not be the kind of man who would demand his way in all matters without regard for the feeling of others or for the outcome of the decision. A man who is self-willed will not only fail to submit himself to the rule of Christ, but will not be able to work harmoniously with the rest of the elders in the Session or Presbytery. An elder should rather be one who would esteem others better than himself, with all lowliness of mind (Phil 2:3).


An elder must be “patient” (Grk: epieikês—1 Tim 3:3). In other words, he must be “yielding, gentle, kind.” Although, an elder must hate error, sin and hypocrisy wherever he sees it, and must be ready to rebuke without compromise when necessary, yet he must always deal with those involved with gentleness and kindness. He must rebuke and speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15; cf. Rev 3:19). As the servant of the Lord, he “must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24–25). Thus, he must not be “soon angry” (Tit 1:7). He must not be quick-tempered, hot-headed or easily irritable. His attitude must always be reconciliatory and restoring rather than provocative and intolerant.


Habitual Qualifications


An elder must “not [be] given to wine” (Grk: mê paroinos—1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7). In other words, he must not be addicted to wine or even allow himself to get drunk. It may be legalistic to say that only teetotallers may qualify to be elders, but it would probably be best for elders to avoid all social drinking as to not stumble weaker believers (Rom 14:21).


He must not be “greedy of filthy lucre” (Grk: aischrokerdês—1 Tim 3:3; Tit 1:7). In other words, he must not be “fond of dishonest gain” or be “greedy for money” (BAGD). Peter uses an adverbial form of the word (Grk: aischro-kerdôs) to contrast the desired qualification of having a “ready mind” or an eagerness to help without any concern for material gains (1 Pet 5:2). And Paul uses another word rendered “covetous” (Grk: aphilarguros—1 Timothy 3:3), but meaning literally “loving money,” to reinforce or emphasise the idea.


Although elders should generally not deal with the finances of the church, there may be occasions where large sums are involved and elders may be called to make crucial decisions or, as in the case of Paul, they may be called to convey certain sums to needy churches. Indeed, as a principle, “an elder had the right to act as a deacon, so long as his doing so did not impede the due discharge of duties peculiarly his own [though] a deacon, on the other hand, had no right to exercise the office of [an elder]” (Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church, 32).


Therefore, elders need to be men of integrity, free from avarice, especially when it comes to money. Moreover, as elders are called to rule the church and to make recommendations for appointments with impartiality, it is crucial that they may not be tempted by lure of material gains. Although it is no sin to be rich, let elders love the Lord with an undivided heart and be more concerned with laying up heavenly treasures than being rich on earth.


Relational Qualifications


An elder must be “given to hospitality” (Grk: philoxenos—1 Tim 3:2) or a “lover of hospitality” (Tit 1:8). Peter uses the same Greek word when he exhorts: “Use hospitality one to another without grudging” (1 Pet 4:9). The idea is that elders must always be ready to receive and entertain guests at home and in church cheerfully, generously and with all kindness. Many of us would remember for life an elder who cheerfully looks out for all new visitors, after worship, to serve them lunch and to introduce them to other members in the church. Such an elder (going beyond the bounds of his duties) would not only be greatly respected, but would be an example of hospitality to all.


Related to the need of hospitality is that a elder must be “a lover of good men” (Grk: philagathos—Tit 1:8). The Greek may also be rendered “lover of that which is good.” The elder must not only hate evil, he must love what is good. He must have a heart for truth and justice. When dealing with difficult persons and situations, he must be “just” (Grk: dikaios—Tit 1:8) or righteous and impartial. But especially, he must love and encourage all who follow Christ faithfully that they may abound in good work.


Conversely, he must “not [be] a brawler” (Grk: amachos—1 Tim 3:3). He must be peaceable, not contentious or quarrelsome. And so he must be “no striker” (GRK: plêktês—1 Tim 3:3; Tit 1:7). He must not be pugnacious and ready to deliver physical blows. He should never be found actually fighting. In the course of the duties of an elder, there may be occasions when he is provoked to wrath. Such situations may arise whether in counselling or in Session or Presbytery meetings. The elder must remain calm and peaceable. When elders who do not meet this qualification are brought into Session, church meetings will often be characterised shamefully by quarrels and fights.


Christian Experience


Foremost, an elder must be “holy” (Grk: hosios—Tit 1:8). He must be “devout, pious, pleasing to God, holy” (BAGD). Every Christian is a saint (a “holy one”) and is called to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet 1:16), but a different word (Grk:hagios) is used there, which usually means “consecrated to God” (BAGD). In a certain sense, therefore, though all saints have the same standard of holiness to strive for, namely the absolute holiness of God, yet more observable holiness is expected of an elder. He ought to be “undefiled by sin, free from wickedness, religiously observing every moral obligation, pure, holy, pious” (Strong’s).


Accordingly, an elder must “not [be] a novice” (1 Tim 3:6). In other words, he must not be a new convert. He must have sufficient years as a believer so that his knowledge of the Word of God may not be deficient compared to the members of the church. So that he may not be tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14). So that he has had time to grow in Christian maturity as he puts to practice all he has learned (cf. Heb 5:13–14). So that it may be known, to some degree, by experience that he will not be choked by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches (Mt 13:22), nor offended by tribulation or persecution because of the Word (Mt 13:21). And particularly, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim 3:6).


Last, but of great importance, an elder must be “apt to teach” (Grk: didaktikos—1 Tim 3:2). This does not necessarily mean that he must be able to teach in an official or public capacity. Rather, he must be a faithful and diligent student of the Word of God, knowledgeable enough, mature enough, and has enough ability of self-expression to be able to teach others, be it in explaining doctrines or correcting errors. Naturally, for him to function effectively in a particular communion in these days of theological confusion, it is necessary for him to know well, to believe and to be able to defend not only the Gospel, but the Confession of Faith of the church. He must, in other words, “[hold] fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit 1:9).


Conclusion


Concluding by way of summary, we note that anyone who is ordained to this office must, firstly, have the mind of Christ and be filled with the Holy Ghost that he may be full of spiritual wisdom and mature discretion. Secondly, he must be blameless in life within and without the church. Thirdly, he must be an example to the flock by his holiness in life. And fourthly, he must be sound in faith and able to defend all the doctrines and practices of the church that are consistent with our Confession of Faith. He must “take heed unto [himself], and unto the doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16).


A potential elder or even a serving elder may be discouraged by this high standard of qualifications advocated. But let him remember, first of all, that even the Apostle Paul himself did not feel sufficient to the tasks entrusted to him by the Lord (2 Cor 2:16c); but did confess that his sufficiency is of God (2 Cor 3:5). And did not the Lord encourage him with the words, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Although a man may be commended for desiring the office of an elder (1 Tim 3:1), no one can serve the Lord faithfully and effectively but one who is conscious of his inadequacy and reliance upon the Lord for strength and wisdom. So let us be provoked by these ideals to a holy discontentment of our own shortfalls, that we may strive for excellence in Christ, rather than being discouraged from serving Him. Instead of judging your own fitness, therefore, may I urge you, to submit yourself to the examination and deliberation of the church, should you be nominated to the office.


May the Lord grant us spiritual wisdom and discretion as we prayerfully nominate and elect the elders to oversee this church. The character and spiritual condition of the church will, to a large degree, depend on the elders who are appointed as the under-shepherds of the Lord Jesus Christ.


J.J. Lim