The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1)
With these words, Paul begins his address to Timothy, his disciple, about the office of an elder, or overseer, and in the next words, the old apostle lays down the qualifications that should determine if a man is called and qualified to the position. Before we go to them, let us provide a brief background of the term, often fallen into disuse in many churches today.
You probably know the common term used today: pastor (ποιμήν). It is a Latin word borrowed in English that literally means shepherd. This word actually occurs only ONCE, in Ephesians 4:11, which says,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds (ποιμήν) and teachers ( διδάσκαλος ).
The more common term in the Bible for the position, though, is elder (presbuteros, πρεσβύτερος) or sometimes, overseer (episkopos, ἐπίσκοπος). The elder/overseer then is responsible for a twofold responsibility: to shepherd, or pastor the flock, and to teach the flock. Oversight, or supervision, is one of the functions of an elder, according to Paul, when he spoke to the elders of the church in Ephesus, saying, 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. (Acts 20:28).
Of note also is the normative practice of having more than one, that is, plural elders, in the early church. We see this pattern in the following verses:
And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church (singular), with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (plural) in every town (singular) as I directed you (Titus 1:5)
A plurality, or a team, allows several shepherds to bear the burden of pastoring collectively, providing care not only for the members of the local church, but also for each other. It allows a demonstration of mutual accountability among them, between them and the local church, and between them and the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:4), who alone owns the flock (John 10:11,14, 27). This does not mean that a single elder church is wrong, but it puts a heavy burden squarely on the shoulders of a single person, and we will see what the charge of an elder is in later sections.
The qualifications of an elder are both simple and difficult. Simple, because they do not require advanced degrees or highly specialized knowledge, yet difficult, because they involve the very character and being of a person.
The two main texts that describe them are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1:
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)
12 verses cover those words, but contain a full-orbed description of a mature Christian leader, with a responsibility not only over the lives, but over the souls of people. Let us unpack them briefly:
a. If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1) – an Elder must voluntarily desire to serve in the capacity and not be compelled to do it.
b. above reproach, upright (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus -1: 6-8) – an Elder must be blameless, meaning their reputation must not be tainted by scandal or wrongdoing.
c. husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6) – an Elder, if married, must be known to be faithful to their wives.
d. sober-minded/not a drunkard/not quick-tempered/disciplined/self-controlled (1 Timothy 3:2-3, Titus 1:7-8) – an Elder must not only be temperate in disposition, but known for sound and careful judgment, and not rashness. He must not be a drunkard, as this leads to debauchery (Ephesians 5:18), and becoming a stumbling block to others (Romans 14:21)
e. respectable/disciplined/holy (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8) – an Elder must have an orderly, well disciplined life that demonstrates his devotion to God.
f. hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8) – an Elder must be known for welcoming people, even strangers, into his home and his life with warmth and care.
g. able to teach/ 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.(1 Timothy 3:2, 2 Timothy 2:24, Titus 1:9) – this is the only non-character qualification. An Elder must be able to lead, preach, teach, handle the word of God correctly (1 Timothy 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:15), and be able to defend the faith when necessary (1 Peter 3:15)
h. not violent (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7) – an Elder must not be prone towards physical or even verbal violence, whether publicly or privately.
i. gentle/kind to everyone…correcting his opponents with gentleness/patiently enduring evil (1 Timothy 3:3, 2 Timothy 2:24-25) – an Elder must exercise forbearance and patience, and be graciously inclined to forgive, even when provoked.
j. not quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:3, 2 Timothy 2:24) – an Elder must not be contentious and divisive, or engaging in arguments for its own sake (2 Timothy 2:24-25) and must seek to preserve unity and peace within the church.
k. not a lover of money/greedy for gain (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7) – an Elder, as a servant of Christ, must be free from the temptation of doing things for the sake of money or personal gain. As Paul also warns: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:1)
l. must manage his own household well (1 Timothy 3:4-5, Titus 1:6) – an Elder, if married, and has children, must be an exemplary pastor and leader of his own family, and cares for them in a manner that encourages and draws respect from others. Care for the family then becomes a model for his care for the church: for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?(1 Timothy 3:5).
m. not a recent convert (1 Timothy 3:6) – an Elder must be mature, and ministry requires wisdom, experience and understanding.
n. not puffed up with conceit/not arrogant (1 Timothy 3:6, Titus 1:7) – an Elder must be humble and not blinded by pride, remembering that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). He must at times not only gently instruct, but also be willing to be corrected and rebuked.
o. thought of well by outsiders(1 Timothy 3:7) – an Elder must guard his reputation and character, not only inside the church but even before others who are not believers. Paul reminds us to “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.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
p. a lover of good (Titus 1:8) – an Elder must be known not only for the company he keeps but the things he set his minds on (Philippians 4:8).
We can see that from the at least 16 qualifications identified, only one has to do with “academic” requirements. The rest are character qualifications. This emphasizes that an elder is someone whose life is worthy of emulation by the church. Indeed, as Hebrews exhorts us, we are to Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:9)
A common misconception is that a pastor works only on Sundays, and for a faithful elder, nothing could be further from the truth! We can examine the calling of an elder in two bodies of texts; Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5:
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:17-35)
By exhortation and the example of his life, Paul charges the elders of the Ephesian church, pointing out the gravity of their calling. By his years of sincere, selfless labor, Paul sets the standard for all elders, which is summarized in the careful attention that the elder is to give to both himself and those in his care. Echoing this are the words of Paul to Timothy: 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. (1 Timothy 4:16) Watch yourself, he says, that you may live a life worthy and consistent of your calling, in line with the qualifications of the position, and strive to be an example that points to Christ. Watch your doctrine, the content and application of your teaching, and guard that you keep yourself faithful to Scripture, so that you may defend the faith you have also received and instruct others to do the same.
He also calls them to be alert because of the dangers that face the flock, both from without and from within, when people introduce dangerous heresies (twisted things). Paul calls such people fierce wolves because of the way they will brutally harm the flock. The contrast between the predator and prey is highlighted to dramatically illustrate the inherently adversarial relationship between believers and false brethren.
The second set of exhortations come from Peter the apostle:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:1-5)
Once again Peter echoes the same Pauline exhortation, painting the picture of a humble and faithful shepherd, who is known for loving care for his flock, rather than a manipulative, tyrannical and domineering leader. The elder labors under the premise that this is not his flock, but Christ’s, and he is answerable to Christ for how he has led His people.
To those who are considering to be elders, or feel called to be elders, or serve in this capacity, these words are a sober reminder of the gravity of the calling. This is not something to be taken lightly, or unwillingly, and not something handled frivolously, or for selfish gain. God loves His sheep with an inexhaustible love, and as such, He demands that those He entrusts them to reflect, however dimly, the same self-sacrificing, Christ-centered, love that He shows His people. And make no mistake: God will judge those who shipwreck the faith of these tender souls by their own incompetence and arrogance.
It would be better to not rush lightly into becoming an Elder, for an unqualified person, no matter how brilliant, no matter how eloquent, and no matter how charismatic, would provide harm, not good, if he should be installed in such a position. The words of James and Paul come to mind :
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others (1 Timothy 5:22)
The elders of the church deserve support from the church that they serve. This is not in the sense that they are hired hands (cf. John 10:12-13) or employees, to be hired and fired at will and whim. Rather, this follows exhortations made by Paul that are grounded in practicality:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
A faithful elder needs to eat, and needs to support his family, while also ministering to the needs of the church. This includes studying, preaching and teaching, counselling, training, settling conflicts, visiting people, leading Bible studies, and a host of other pastoral responsibilities that require much time and effort, and a congregation that recognizes this should be mindful to consider the needs of their elders and even their families. This is an act of love and honor from the flock that elders have diligently ministered to.
Paul also addresses these to the Corinthians churches in 1 Corinthians 9:1-14, ending with the conclusion that In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
This is the right of a qualified and faithful elder, according to Scripture, yet there are also those who, by themselves, willingly waive their right for such support. Paul himself says these words:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:15-18)
Unfortunately, it is a sad reality that not all who bear, or who have borne, the title have remained qualified. In fact, it may be surmised that the fierce wolves and men speaking twisted things may very well be people with some authority in the church, and may come from among your own selves. (Acts 20:29-30). Peter likewise warns: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1)
We are likewise reminded of the likes of Diotrephes from the words of the apostle John:
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10)
Paul addresses how this is to be handled:
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. ( 1 Timothy 5:19-21)
The first is a warning against frivolous accusations: slander, gossip and insinuations without proof are not to be entertained.
Then, when, after proof has been provided and the person is unrepentant, Paul says rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear as a deterrent and as a negative example. Indeed Paul did the same to Peter, when the latter behaved hypocritically:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Yet Paul also calls for impartial examination, to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not jump to conclusions. Ascertain the facts and weigh the evidence. Decide based on facts, not on past or present association, friendship, debts of gratitude, or selfish, personal gain.
When this results in repentance, as in the case of Peter, then all is well, but when it does not, we can only imagine how John finally confronted Diotrephes.