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Qualifications of an Elder

June 9, 2024 Speaker: Jim Davis Series: Timothy: The Household of God

Passage: 1 Timothy 3:1–7

So, in this passage, Paul is telling us something about church leadership. If there is a city that would benefit more than Orlando from understanding and embracing this passage, I’m not sure which it would be. Many of you remember when three pastors of prominent churches in Orlando stepped down for moral failings in one year. Two of them ended up losing their lives because of their moral failings. Just this month, I know of two churches whose pastors had to be removed because of moral failings and, sadly, one of those took his life. 


It’s very common when I ask people in Orlando who used to go to church, but no longer do, why they stopped, I’ll hear, “I went to church almost every Sunday, but then so and so happened.” And they will name some tragic story of a pastor in Orlando. There are a few common themes with these tragedies, but I’ll give you two of them. First, these leaders were isolated. They were not surrounded by elders and friends who could encourage and correct them. Second, their churches outgrew their character. 


This passage speaks to both of those issues and is a passage the whole church needs to take seriously. Not just me. Not just the other elders, but the whole church because it impacts all of us. And all of us choose the elders in this church. 


Who has been at a church with elders? Deacons who run the church? Pastor CEO? This passage helps us to better understand God’s design for church leadership. I want to look at this passage and answer three questions about church leadership. First, why we have church leadership. Second, who is the church leadership. And third, what qualifies those in church leadership? 


  1. Why we have church leadership


Why do we have church leadership? Why can’t we just ‘be the church’ without all this organized religion? Well, the answer is in verse 5: For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, (and here it is) how will he care for God’s church? 

Did you catch that? The goal of church leadership is to care for God’s church. The heart of leadership isn’t control, power, or wealth, although we have certainly seen it perverted that way at times. The heart of church leadership is to care for the people of God. 


I have a friend who is a retired Presbyterian pastor and whenever someone he knows is considering being an elder, he always asks them, “Who is in charge of the church? If you can answer this question almost every other piece of leadership will work itself out.” So, who is in charge of the church? Jesus! Jesus is the head of the church and Jesus is in charge. Not the elders, not the deacons, not the staff, and not even the congregation. It’s Jesus’ church. Ephesians 5:23 says, ...Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.


And because Jesus cares about His church, he has decided that there should be leadership to care for His church. Jesus’ church is not some social club to further your business or provide your kids good clean fun. Jesus’ church exists to worship God and usher in His Kingdom on earth. Jesus cares about His people and His mission. So, he places people in positions of leadership to care for His church while He is not physically with us. 


If you have smaller kids at home and you go out to dinner, do you just leave them at home alone? No! You love them so you choose someone to care for them who has exhibited a desire to do so and seems to have some natural sense of responsibility and experience. That person isn’t there to create new rules, lord over them, or certainly not to abuse them. You have chosen this person to care for the people you love the most in the way you want while you are physically absent. Now, I’m not saying all of you are babies and the elders are the babysitters. I give this analogy thought to communicate the heart of church leadership: love and care. 


So, we have church leadership to care for the household of God. But to what end? What are these leaders tasked to do? It’s not to rule over you however we want. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians gives us the task of church leadership: And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ - Ephesians 4:11-12 The leadership of the church exists to care for each one of us (me included) and to equip us for the work of the ministry.


Before I move on, I want to speak to those here who would be pro-Jesus, but anti-organized religion. I know that there are some understandable and often painful things that can happen to bring someone to this opinion. At best you might have seen very contentious, self-serving, or hypocritical church leadership. At worst, you might have seen or even experienced abusive church leadership. And if that’s you, I want to say how sorry I am. That is not the design and those leaders will stand accountable for the way they led Jesus’ treasured possession. And I want you to hear the words of St. Augustine who said, “Never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” 


Jesus did organize His church. Here are a few verses outside of our current passage that speak to the organized part of Christianity. 

Hebrews 13:7, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life and imitate their faith."
Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account."
1 Thessalonians 5:12, 12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Ok, so that is why we have church leadership, now, who exactly is that leadership? 


  1.   Who is the church leadership


The organized leadership Paul is writing about in this passage to Timothy is the office of overseer. Now, someone may wonder at this point if we are off to a bad start already because we don’t have an office called overseer at OGC. Actually, we do. There are two words in the New Testament used interchangeably for the same office. One word is translated as elder and the other is translated in two ways: bishop or overseer. Both of the Greek words and all three of the English words refer to the same office. There are multiple places you can see this in Scripture, but here is one in Titus: This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in 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. 


17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called ithe elders of the church to come to him…(Then, ten verses later, this is what Paul said to these elders) 28 lPay careful attention to yourselves and to all mthe flock, in which nthe Holy Spirit has made youo overseers, pto care for qthe church of God, - Acts 20:17,28


The word ‘elder’ has its origins in Jewish society which is why you read about elders in the Old Testament. The word overseer or bishop has its origins in Greek society and it comes from municipal officials or supervisors of cities. One word refers more to the role and the other refers more to its function. 


I don’t know how many of you have noticed in college football over the past six years or so, the cool thing for an announcer to do is to call a quarterback a play caller. It’s like some of these announcers don’t even know the word quarterback anymore. It’s the play caller. These are different words that clearly mean the same thing. Quarterback speaks more to the role and play caller speaks more to the function. So, you have this office of elder that can also be called overseer or bishop. One office and the purpose of this office, as we have seen, is to care for the flock. The primary way elders care for the flock is through prayer and teaching the word. 


So, how does this play out here? Our elders meet twice a month formally plus a handful of special meetings during the year to do three things. First, we pray for every member of this church. We go down the membership roster and make sure that each member is known to at least one elder. We’re not perfect so there are times when we don’t know how someone is doing and we make sure one of us gets in touch with you to see how we can be praying for you. Secondly, there are, on occasion, tricky issues we need to prayerfully address. If someone is in gross, unrepentant sin, we need to talk about how we can gently and lovingly call this person back to repentance. Then, thirdly, we need to think through how to best platform evangelism, discipleship, and worship. So, this involves conversations about hiring and organizing employees, decisions about our facility, and adjusting our practices to see this church flourish. 


When you select an elder, you are asking that man to make decisions that will cause the church to prosper. Some of those decisions are fun and some are not. But we do this because those who serve in this office answer to a higher authority. Look at Hebrews 13:17 again: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. 


This raises two common questions. First, what, then, is a pastor? The word pastor comes from Biblical commands to shepherd the flock. Like overseer, it speaks more to the function of the office. It also is interchangeable with elder, bishop and overseer.  Second, why are elders only men? Well, I answered that question two weeks ago so if you weren’t here, you can go online and listen:) And if you have questions we can talk.


So, what then qualifies a man to be an elder. This is the last part and the majority of what’s in our text. What qualifies those in church leadership to serve as an elder? I’m going to pull a Scott Swain and have ten points in my last point. But, I will move through them quickly. 


III.  What qualifies those in church leadership?


Paul says that an elder needs to be above reproach and then gives ten areas to look at that flesh out or define what above reproach means. Ten areas to look at when we consider who we are going to choose to be elders in this church. First, we need to look at the man’s marriage, if he is married. Paul says that an elder needs to be the husband of one wife. What this means has been debated a good bit over the years. Paul is clearly excluding a type of man by this statement. But who is he excluding? Is it single men? Is it polygamists? Is it divorced and remarried? Is it widowed and remarried? The easiest way to understand what Paul is saying is that an elder should not be recently guilty of any kind of marital infidelity. If he is married, he should be devoted to his wife in every way. He should be a one woman man.


Now, I say recently guilty because I know men who have not lived up to this qualification, but repented, invested in their marriages and over a long period of time, became shining beacons of what marriage can and should look like and who served faithfully in the office of elder. I know a man in his 60’s whose marriage failed in his early 20’s and he came to Christ, remarried, and two decades later served faithfully as an elder in his church. An elder can be divorced and remarried, but there needs to be a lot of repentance, time, and ideally geography between the first marriage and the second. 


The second area is self-mastery. An elder should be sober minded, self-controlled, and respectable. It doesn’t mean that an elder is perfect but it does mean that they display the fruit of the Spirit. That they are transparent with an appropriate number of people. If elders are going to lead other people, they need to be able to lead themselves. 


Area three is hospitality. Hospitality in the household of God is required for all Christians, but especially elders. Now, I will say that there is a contextual piece here that made hospitality so important. In that day, there were no hotels and the roadside options that existed were grimy and dangerous. Christian travelers needed places to stay and Christians were to be willing to inconvenience themselves and take in other Christians. I think hospitality today absolutely means having others in your home for a meal, but I think it means even more than that. What are you doing for people who have material or social needs? Are we welcoming  missionaries in our homes when they are visiting? Are we inviting single people or people far from family in our homes on holidays? How are we caring for senior citizens in our church? My friends Mike and Lucy Aitcheson for many years would always have a seminary student live with them at no cost. I know a family that was in a difficult spot and the mom needed to go back to grad school and a Christian family took her 3 small kids and watched them every time she was in class for two years! That’s the kind of hospitality we should be striving for and looking for in our elders.


The fourth area is the ability to teach. This is actually the only skill qualification mentioned. Every other quality is more about who you are rather than what you can do, but an elder needs to be able to teach the Bible. Now, I do want to say that teaching is different from preaching. Every elder is qualified by virtue of the office to preach on Sunday, but preaching and public speaking isn’t what Paul is talking about. He’s talking about the ability to sit down with another Christian and disciple them. He’s talking about the ability to walk with someone through challenging circumstances and apply the Bible appropriately to their lives. They should be so familiar with the Bible and shaped by it that teaching it almost seems to come naturally to them. 


Fifthly, an elder should not be controlled by alcohol. John Stott says that it’s not a coincidence that drinking follows teaching because the two don’t go very well together:) An elder should not have to drink every night to go to bed. He should not drink so much that his ability to make decisions are impaired. I don’t know how much science was in Paul’s mind, but God knew that alcohol is a depressant and if we drink too much or too often, it changes the way we interact with the world. Just two drinks on a weekend are proven to increase anxiety in a person throughout the week. Now, I don’t think Paul is requiring total abstinence here, but I do think that there are good and wise reasons for some people to go that route. Paul here, though, is requiring moderation, which is a demonstration of self-mastery. 


The sixth area is temper and temperament. An elder should not be violent, but gentle. He should not be quarrelsome. He should know the difference between primary issues, secondary issues, and tertiary theological issues. He shouldn’t want to quarrel about end times, old earth or new earth, or who wrote the book of Hebrews. Not that we shouldn’t study those things, but an elder should know the difference between the things we can agree to disagree on and the things we can’t. He should know the difference between eternal truths which never change and the application of wisdom which will change from person to person. He shouldn’t want to quarrel about philosophies of schooling, politics, or sports.


As to temper, there is something called the window of tolerance and an elder should be able to stay in that window. The window of tolerance, if you think about a scale from one to ten, one is calm, but not alert. Basically shut down. Ten is alert, but not calm. Basically angry. Heart rate is elevated, voice and gestures are raised. The window is that area between 4 and 6 where you are calm and alert. You don’t have to walk on eggshells around this man. This man has a good handle on his own wounds and isn’t easily triggered by others. He seeks peace and does not provoke disunity. This is the opposite of the men Paul has been describing up to this point. 


The seventh area is their attitude toward money. In chapter six, Paul is going to call the love of money the root of all kinds of evil. There is a long history of bad men trying to make money off ministry. That still happens today. But, I can tell you that any man seeking to make a living in the Reformed Baptist tradition is very likely not picking their theology from a financial motivation:) Peter urged the pastors to be ‘not greedy for money, but eager to serve.’ And loving money can go two directions. If you walk into someone’s amazing house and think, “Man, this is what I really want. I’ll never be happy until I have this house or that pool or that lake” then money has a hold on your heart. But, if you walk into that same house and think, “I hate this opulence and resent the people who live this kind of life” then money has a hold on your heart too. 


But a greedy person doesn’t always use his money on extravagant houses or cars. Sometimes they use it on extravagant savings. They care more about their retirement accounts and portfolios than being generous with others. They can’t give money away because they only think what that money will be worth in 20, 30, or 40 years. They’re not tempted by the idol of convertibles, but of compound interest. An elder should be someone who is content and generous with what he has. Someone not likely to make unethical decisions to get what he doesn’t have. Someone who can care and love those with much and those with little. Someone who can steward the money that is given by the church well. 


Area 8, his domestic faithfulness. An elder is to manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. This is another debated qualification. Does this mean that the children of an elder have to be believers? I think the most logical way to understand this command is simply that an elder has to make his home a priority and sacrificially love his wife and children (if he has them) in a way that gives those in the church confidence that he would care well for them. Paul is making a clear connection between the pastor’s family and the household of God. He actually uses the same Greek word for both. But, I’ve seen great parents whose children don’t believe. As parents, we are responsible for a lot, but at the end of the day, only God can change a heart. But, there are times where it’s clear that a man either neglects his household or Lords over it and that’s not someone we want as an elder. There are also times when a man seems to be doing a great job at home, but things still aren’t going well so it’s wise for him to spend his time there instead of elder meetings. 


Area 9 (we’re getting there), spiritual maturity. Not a recent convert. It seems like Paul is wanting a church to wait until a man’s humility is as clear as his zeal. Paul says that if an elder is immature and prideful, they can fall into the condemnation of the devil. This means that whatever judgment is passed on the devil for his pride will also be passed on proud elders too. So give the man time before adding more temptation to his life. 


Then, lastly, area 10: outside reputation. This doesn’t mean that the outside world is going to agree with them, but it does mean that they will respect and appreciate them. I have a friend who is a pastor in central FL and he has so invested in his city that the city council (who are not all Christians) are begging him to run for mayor. Everyone sees his doctrines playing out in his life. And here Paul gives us the second reference to the devil: So that he does not fall into disgrace or into a snare of the devil. The devil’s trap is different from his judgment. One commentator said, “In his malicious eagerness to discredit the gospel, the devil does his best to discredit the ministers of it.” 


To serve as an elder, there must be two important things present. First, an internal aspiration. This is why Pauls says that if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. But the desire for the office should never come without the desires for its qualifications too. Then, secondly, an external confirmation. It means that the household of God will see these qualities in you and affirm the desire God has been giving you. 


That is what it means to be above reproach. And every man who serves as an elder knows he is serving the One who lived these qualities out perfectly, deserved the highest esteem from us, yet got our scorn. Deserved the highest praise from God, yet got his wrath that we deserve on the cross. Jesus, the chief Elder, gave himself as a sacrificial shepherd to bring us, his sheep, into the household of God. So, we the church choose elders who will live out and embody the qualities Jesus desires for the household he loves and died for. And we who hold this office will endeavor to care for and love the church until the entire church is in glory with our chief Shepherd.

More in Timothy: The Household of God

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