Characteristics of Elders (Post 9)

In the last post, we looked at the essence of what Elders do: oversee the ministry of congregations, setting an example for all and ensuring that they hold to the truth of the gospel.

Because of those aspects, the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and Titus will address character and ability to instruct others.

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

This section starts with a statement: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Some translations of the Bible like the ESV will say ‘the office of overseer’, but a word for ‘office’ is not in the Greek New Testament. Rather it is the bias of the translators (right or wrong) that overseer is an ‘office’ or position primarily. I believe that this text in 1 Timothy shifts the emphasis away from office (a word added to these translations) and toward the function of oversight. Congregations would know who their elders were, but the essence is of a noble task not a noble position or title.

This section goes on to paint a picture of sorts of the kind of person the overseer is: worthy to be looked up to as a wise, faithful, mature follow of Christ who understands and walks in the truth.

‘Faithful to his wife’ – A more literal reading of this phrase is ‘one woman man.’ Scholars have explored several possibilities that Paul could have had in mind including only having one wife vs. two or more, not re-married after the death of a spouse or, most commonly, ‘faithful to his wife.’ While multiple marriage was not very common, sexual promiscuity for men particularly was prevalent in the Roman world.

Interestingly, this is the only aspect of this passage that actually specifies men. Throughout our English translations we see ‘he’ but this is not in the Greek, rather it’s implied (which makes decent sense), particularly in light of the ‘one woman man.’

Notice several of the other important but often overlooked qualifications given.

  • Temperate
  • Self controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • not quarrelsome
  • not violent by gentle
  • not a lover of money
  • good reputation outside

While each of these could lead to lengthy biblical discussions, there is an overall picture presented of the kind of person – shaped by the way of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.

I’d like to reflect on two additional aspects listed in this passage.

An overseer must manage their own household and children well.

Why? Because if someone isn’t effective at overseeing the people in their own household, how will they be able to oversee a greater number of people in a congregation? For someone to be entrusted with more, they must prove themselves to be trustworthy with what they already have responsibility in.

What does it mean to be ‘able to teach’ (verse 2)?

We sometimes assume that this means that one is a gifted teacher who is able to craft an impressive 3 point, 30 minute sermon or compelling small group study.

Given that our current expressions of ministry didn’t exist in the same way in the first century house churches, I think it’s much more likely that the idea here is that elder/overseers need to be able to explain the way of Jesus to those in the life of the church and correct those who have inadequate or faulty understanding.

Remember that passage from Hebrews?

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” Hebrews 5:12

Those who are overseers must not be those needing milk. They shouldn’t be new converts. They ought to be those who are mature enough in character and in the foundations of the faith to be able to teach it to others.

Elders need to be able to do with people something like what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos:

“He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:25-26

The list of necessary elder/overseer qualities in Titus 1:6-9 is extremely similar to that in 1 Timothy 3. One aspect given more specific guidance comes at the end of that section and probably gives us a good idea of what Paul means by ‘able to teach’:

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9

Again, I believe we see a wonderful portrait of those who are responsible being on the team overseeing – shepherding – the church.

They exemplify Christlike character and the fruit of the Spirit (similar to those chosen in Acts 6:3). They are the kind of people new believers and young Christians can aspire to be like as they grow in their own understanding of the kingdom and discipleship to Jesus.

Overseers are people who can make sure that people are loving and serving one another in humble love in the life of the church. They can address the kinds of issues that Paul often did in his letters but right in the moment and from a context of regular relationship.

They can pull people aside as they are beginning to teach and share the gospel with others and help them understand more fully and faithfully the message.

Elders know the Lord and the Word and at times they will need to step in more boldly in response to false teaching, prideful arrogance or patterns of consistent sin in someone’s life.

As we start to wrap up this series, the next post will look at what questions we might ask as we discern whether only men should be included in this group of overseers/ elders or if it is appropriate to include mature, godly women as well. I will make the case that whichever of the two directions a church or denomination chooses, the functioning of the life of the church in practice should be similar, based on the picture we’ve seen of New Testament ministry.

Author: Dan Masshardt

Husband, Father, Pastor...

2 thoughts on “Characteristics of Elders (Post 9)”

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