Choosing Qualified Elders

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1 Timothy 3:1-7

INTRODUCTION: Please turn with me in your Bibles to the book of 1 Timothy. We are continuing our study through the book of 1 Timothy, and today we begin chapter 3. Our message series is called “Doing Church Together,” and chapter 3 talks about church leadership, specifically, instructions for choosing qualified elders and deacons . Today’s passage looks at elders and is found in verses 1-7.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 – Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (NIV)

Every church, every government, every business, and every home needs good, strong leadership in order to succeed. So how do you choose leaders for the church? What qualifications should you look for in those who serve the church as leaders? If a person has been successful in business, perhaps running his or her own company, does that mean they would also make a good leader for the church? What are the qualifications for church leadership?

We find two basic offices for the church in the Bible, elders and deacons. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul tells Timothy and the church what are the qualifications for those who would serve in these two offices. We will look at the qualifications for elders this week and the qualifications for deacons next week. And you will see that there are some similarities between the two lists as well as some significant differences.

Verse 1 serves as an introduction to the section on elders in verses 1-7. So, let’s look at verse 1 together as an introduction to our message this morning as well. “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” (1 Timothy 3:1)

This is the second of five “trustworthy sayings” that we find in Paul’s pastoral letters. We looked at the first one back in 1:15. We said then that these sayings seem to be distillations of Christ’s teachings that were passed around in the early church before the gospels were written. It is hard to find a direct reference in the gospels for this particular saying, but it could find its origin in such sayings of Jesus as in Luke 10:7, where Jesus spoke about the importance of the work of the ministry and told his disciples as he sent them forth to preach, “Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.”

Paul uses the word “overseer” in verse 1 rather than the word “elder.” This is a word that has sometimes been translated “bishop,” but that can be confusing with newer forms of church government today. “Overseer” is a much better translation.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the word is used interchangeably with the words “elder” and “pastor.” (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-2) Each word adds its own shade of meaning to the office of church elder. The word “overseer” speaks of the elder’s leadership and authority over the church. The word “shepherd” or “pastor” (same word) speaks of the personal care that an elder gives to the people within the church. And then the word “elder” speaks of the wisdom and maturity that an elder brings to the position.

An elder is one who oversees and shepherds the local church. When Paul uses the word “overseer” here, he is talking about church elders, but emphasizing their role as leaders, as those who give oversight over the church body. And he says it is a good thing to desire to be an elder, for a person to set his heart on being an overseer. That phrase “sets his heart on” translates a word that means to reach for something, to stretch yourself out towards something, to aspire to something. If you have the desire to stretch yourself, to grow as a Christian to the point where you could serve the church as an elder, Paul says that is a good thing. You desire a noble task. This faithful saying affirms both the position of elder in the church and a person’s desire to serve the church in that capacity.

Anyone can desire to be an elder. Paul says that is a good thing. But not everyone can be an elder. Just wanting to be an elder is not enough. The oversight of God’s church is a significant responsibility, and there are certain qualifications a person must meet in order to be an elder. So what are they? Paul gives us five basic qualifications in this passage.

I. An elder must be a man of godly character. (verses 2-3)

First of all, an elder must be a man of godly character. We find a whole list of character traits in verses 2-3. As we go through these traits, I want you to notice something. The elder is not called to a different level of character than other Christians. Not everyone is called to be an elder, but everyone is called to godly Christian character. The character traits listed in these verses should be present in every Christian’s life. However a person must demonstrate actual progress and maturity in these areas before he can be an elder.

Let’s take a look at these character traits. Verse 2 says first of all, “Now the overseer must be above reproach.” The phrase “above reproach” translates a word that means you “cannot lay hold of.” In other words, you have got nothing on him. No accusation you make can stick. There are no skeletons in the closet. The elder is above reproach and deservedly so.

Think of Daniel in the Old Testament. “The administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.’” (Daniel 6:4-5) Daniel was above reproach. The other administrators tried to find some charge to bring against him, but no matter how much they dug they couldn’t find any dirt. They finally had to convince the king to make up a law against prayer and then charge Daniel with that.

As we enter a new election cycle, I wonder how many of the political candidates wish that they were above reproach like Daniel. How would you like hundreds of journalists digging around in your past trying to find some charge to bring against you? Politics is not for the faint of heart, and neither is church leadership. An elder must be above reproach.

Secondly, Paul says the elder must be “the husband of but one wife.” The Greek here is literally, “He must be a one-woman man.” This qualification tells us two things. First of all, the elder must be a man. As we will see next week, both men and women may serve as deacons, but only men may serve as elders. Why is that? Well, it goes back to what we saw last week in studying 1 Timothy 2. There is a God-ordained order in gender, and we must respect that order in both the church and in the home. Just as husbands have been given the role of spiritual leadership in the home, so male elders have been given the role of spiritual leadership in the church.

So, first of all, the elder must be a man. Not only that, he must be “a one-woman man.” What does that mean? Well, it has been interpreted in various ways. Some see this as a prohibition of polygamy, others as a prohibition of remarriage, and others as a requirement of marital faithfulness. Given the context of godly character in these verses, I would suggest the third interpretation makes the most sense. We find a similar phrase applied to widows in 1 Timothy 5:9, except instead of “a one-woman man,” the phrase there is “a one-man woman,” that is a woman who had been faithful to her husband while he was alive. So it would seem that Paul is talking about faithfulness in marriage.

This, of course, would rule out polygamy as well, but not necessarily remarriage. For example, the Bible gives a person the freedom to remarry after the death of a spouse. There is no reason why this should disqualify an elder from serving. What about divorce and remarriage? Some churches automatically disqualify a divorced man from serving as an elder, but I do not think that is what Paul is getting at in this verse. Paul is talking about marital faithfulness.

Now there are many times when divorce is a matter of marital unfaithfulness. If a man has been unfaithful to his wife either in marriage or through divorce, then he should not serve as an elder. But there may be times when the man has not been unfaithful, and yet his wife has divorced him. Or times when the divorce is long in the past and, regardless of who was at fault, the prospective elder has moved past this event in his life and grown to spiritual maturity. I don’t think there is anything automatic here. You have to balance present marital faithfulness with past mistakes and God’s grace and forgiveness. I do think it is wise for someone who is recently divorced to take a breather from church leadership, both to work on personal recovery and so as not to bring unnecessary reproach on the church.

What about the man who is not married? Paul has both a high view of marriage and singleness, and especially singleness which frees a person up for ministry. So not being married would not disqualify a man from serving as an elder. However, the single man would also have to show the highest integrity and honor in his relationships with women.

The next three words go together – “temperate, self-controlled, respectable.” Taken together they paint the picture of a responsible, self-controlled, orderly, level-headed man. These are all important qualifications for spiritual leadership.

The elder should also be hospitable and able to teach. We will address the “able to teach” part separately, but let’s just look at the hospitable part for now. The word itself literally means “friendly to strangers,” that is to those outside your immediate home or family. Elders should show hospitality not only in their homes but in their whole manner. They should be welcoming of church members and visitors as they serve the local church in leadership.

Verse 2 states positive qualifications for elders. Verse 3 is phrased in the negative. Here are four disqualifications for elders: “not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” The elder should not have a problem with alcohol, anger, or greed. Instead, the elder should be gentle and patient. You can’t lead people without gaining their trust, and these negative characteristics would make it awfully hard to lead people in the church. As far as money, the elder must not only have a righteous attitude towards money as an example for the church, but also because he will be making decisions to spend money wisely or recklessly on behalf of the church. He must be a good steward of the church’s resources.

Once again, these are Christian virtues that should be practiced by all Christians. Elders do not have a higher calling in these areas, just a higher accountability. You are not disqualified from being a Christian if you struggle with any of these areas. But you would be disqualified from being an elder. Now an elder does not have to be perfect in all these areas to be an elder. If you had to be perfect, then we wouldn’t have any elders! But an elder should have recognized spiritual growth and maturity in each of these areas before he may serve as an elder.

Now, we spent the most time on character, because that is really the key when it comes to spiritual leadership in the church. Did you notice when we read about the selection of elders in Exodus 18 earlier today, that the qualifications were all based on character, too? God is not looking so much for men with business experience or management skills, although those all may be helpful, as he is looking for men of godly character.

II. An elder must be able to teach. (end of verse 2)

The second qualification we skipped over at the end of verse 2. An elder must be able to teach. What kind of teaching must the elder be able to do? Titus 1:9 says the elder must “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” So it is not that the elder must be able to teach anything, such as auto mechanics or computer programming. The elder must be able to teach the Word of God and at the same time guard the church against false teachers and false doctrine. Remember, one of the reasons Paul wrote this letter to Timothy was because of the false teachers at Ephesus. An elder must be able to teach the Word of God.

By the way, this is one of the things that distinguishes the elder from the deacon. We will see next week that the deacon is not required to have teaching ability. That’s because teaching is not part of the deacon’s job, whereas it is vital to the elder’s job. The elder’s function is to provide biblically based oversight and teaching for the local church body.

III. An elder must manage his own family well. (verses 4-5)

The third qualification is this: An elder must manage his own family well. Look at verse 4-5. “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)”

Once again, this does not mean that an elder cannot be unmarried or not have a family. It just means that for those who do have families, one of the testing grounds for their ability to lead the church is their ability to lead their family. This is part of the resume that a prospective elder brings to the job. So what do you look for in a prospective elder’s home? You look for the following things. Does he manage his family well? Does he exercise godly leadership in the home? Do his children respect and obey him? If a man’s family is out of order, he should not serve as an elder. If he can’t take care of his family, how can he take care of God’s church? Notice it is not his church or the elders’ church that he is serving. It is God’s church. An elder takes care of God’s church. He should always remember that.

What about the man who is exercising good and godly leadership in the home but happens to have a rebellious child? Does one rebellious child disqualify you from eldership? Once again, you need to look at the whole situation. What is the age of the rebellious child? How do the rest of the children behave? Are there extenuating circumstances? One rebellious child may or may not disqualify you as an elder, but it should cause you to prayerfully consider whether or not you should take some time off from eldering to focus on your family at this critical time.

IV. An elder must not be a recent convert. (verse 6)

Two more qualifications: verse 6: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” The word translated “recent convert” here means “newly planted or newly sprung up.” Someone who has just come to faith often has a lot of enthusiasm and excitement for the Lord. That is great! That is fantastic! But it should not be mistaken for spiritual maturity. If you put someone into leadership too quickly, they may not be mature enough to handle it. They may become puffed up with pride. Pride was the devil’s downfall, and it has been the downfall of many a leader as well. We should be discipling new believers, not throwing them into leadership. Give them time to mature and to learn God’s Word and to grow in their understanding of God’s grace in their lives. Then see if they are qualified to be elders.

V. An elder must have a good reputation with outsiders. (verse 7)

And then finally, an elder must have a good reputation with outsiders. Look at verse 7: “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” The word translated “reputation” in verse 7 means “witness or testimony.” The elder’s life, marked by the godly character traits discussed earlier, must be a positive witness to the community.

The church’s reputation rises or falls with the reputation of its leadership. An elder ministers to the flock, but he represents the church to the outside world. If he does not have a good reputation in the community, he should not serve as an elder. His bad reputation will become the church’s bad reputation. The devil would like nothing more than to discredit the church through its leaders, because he knows it is one of the most effective ways to keep people from coming to Christ.

CONCLUSION: If you aspire to leadership in the church, you desire a good thing. These are qualities that all of us should strive for, whether we ever serve as elders in the church or not. A church is only as strong as its leadership. Therefore, a church should choose its leadership wisely and carefully.

© Ray Fowler

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