Qualifications of Elders
When reading the New Testament one thing that immediately stands out is that an elder need not possess academic or ecclesiastical credentials. There is no requirement for theological degrees or ordination. An elder must have a good reputation with those outside the faith but he also need not have any particular political or financial standing.
The biblical role of an elder is primarily one of shepherding sheep. The Bible lists three main ways in which a shepherd ministers to lead the sheep. 1). Leading by example. A good shepherd does not herd sheep from behind but goes ahead of them so that they will follow. 2). Teaching. This does not necessarily mean public preaching. It includes the dispensing of wise counsel and warning the sheep of false doctrine. 3). Prayer. In Acts 6, the apostles encouraged the people to seek out godly men to serve tables so that they could devote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. There is no reason to believe that the elders of each local assembly were not encouraged to do likewise. The book of James specifically teaches that elders are to pray for the sick.
Sadly, many congregations have a distorted perspective when it comes to job description of an elder. In many churches elders are business administrators who develop programs and approve budgets. They play the role of corporate vice-presidents with the Senior Pastor being CEO and chairman of the board. They make sure institutional programs run smoothly and have very limited involvement in the personal lives of the sheep.
The leaders of most modern churches concern themselves more directly with the institution than with the people, and their leadership consists primarily of administration, decision-making, and opinion forming. The people’s lives are a private matter. The leader will counsel someone upon request. The leader will run a program for those who want something enough to sign up and participate. The leader thus provides services for some individuals when they express a personal interest. The authority of church leaders extends over the institution-the common activities-but not the lives of the church members.49
Two extremes must be avoided when seeking qualified men for leadership. The first is appointing men simply because they are good business men, have financial resources, or persuasive oratory skills. None of these things would disqualify a man for leadership but elders should not be appointed because of these without regard for biblical qualifications. The second is to add qualifications that the Bible does not demand.
We are so enamored of those qualifications which we have added to the apostolic that we deny the qualifications of anyone who possesses only the apostolic, whilst we think a man fully qualified who possesses only ours. A young student fresh from a theological college lacks many of those qualifications which the apostle deemed necessary for a leader in the house of God, the age, the experience, the established position and reputation, even if he possesses all the others. Him we do not think qualified. The man who possesses all the apostolic qualifications is said to be unqualified, because he cannot go back to school and pass an examination.50
Beyond the general description of an elder’s duties, the New Testament books of 1 Timothy and Titus provide a list of specific qualifications for men who are appointed to shepherd God’s people. The qualifications listed are the minimum standards of what an elder “must” be. All believing men should seek after these character traits for their lives. Not all will meet these standards and qualify for leadership. Being disqualified from leadership does not necessarily mean that a man cannot carry on a fruitful ministry for the Lord.
Sometimes translated “above reproach.” An elder must be of such character that no accusation can be brought against him.
Husband of One Wife
The phrase “husband of one wife” is “mias/3391 gunaikos/1135 andra/435”. (The numbers listed after each word are coded to Strong’s Concordance). It could be translated “man of one woman”. Some have attempted to translate it as “one woman man” but this is not precise. The numeral “one” (mias) is genitive as well as feminine. Since it is genitive it must be translated in the possessive sense. In an English translation this normally requires the use of the word “of". Since it is feminine it modifies the word “woman” or “wife”.
Men have advanced four different interpretations of what this may mean.
1. The elder or deacon must be married.
This is doubtful. The verse claims a man must be the husband of “one” wife not “a” wife.51 In New Testament culture most men were married. Paul was giving character traits. Neither being married nor remaining single is distinctly a character trait.
2. The elder or deacon, if a widower, cannot be remarried.
This view was held by some second and third century commentators. It is improbable that this was what Paul was saying. Paul not only permitted but encouraged younger widows to remarry (I Corinthians 7:39-40; I Timothy 5:14). If widows were allowed to remarry it would seem probable that a widower would be allowed to do the same. In the centuries following the Apostolic age, remarriage after the death of one’s spouse was seen as a weakness but not a sin.52
3. An elder may not be a polygamist.
Paul is definitely ruling out an elder being a polygamist. Is this all he is excluding? Some commentators claim this statement concerns missionaries going to a tribe that practices polygamy. When the people turn to Christ and want to appoint elders those men who are practicing polygamy would be disqualified from leadership. This may be an application, it is a doubtful interpretation. It is highly unlikely that Paul’s original intent was to deal with tribal polygamists.
Basic rules of interpretation should be applied to discover the meaning of Scripture:
A. Interpret in a plain and normal grammatical sense.
B. Interpret obscure passages in light of the clear.
C. Interpret historically and contextually with the original author’s intent in view.
D. Cross reference words or phrases with similar ones made in the same book.
Others stress the fact that Jews as well as other ancient peoples practiced polygamy. Was Paul dealing with polygamists who were candidates to be elders? Justin Martyr tells us that in the second century A.D. some Jews were still practicing polygamy but gives no mention of it occurring among Gentiles. Although Jews no doubt comprised a portion of the local assemblies, Paul was speaking primarily to Gentile Roman citizens in Crete and Ephesus.
The historian Will Durant tells us that polygamy was prohibited by Roman law by this time.53 Greeks and Romans practiced adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and concubinage. There is no evidence that they practiced legalized polygamy. They did practice divorce and remarriage. It seems more probable that Paul would deal with something that was a problem: divorce and remarriage; rather than something that was not: polygamy.
Clearly this is not a prohibition against bigamy or polygamy since these were not practiced among the Greeks and Romans. They had multiple women in their lives, but only one wife. It is a question of whether Paul is prohibiting digamy (being married twice legally). Personally I see the evidence as proscribing digamy for an elder.54
4. An elder or deacon cannot be divorced and remarried. This seems to be included in Paul’s prohibition. A.T. Robertson has argued against this view:
“Of one wife”, means one at a time, clearly.55
His view would allow a divorced and remarried man to be an elder or deacon. He gives no elaboration or proof of this view. Since this is an obscure passage, it would be wise to cross reference it with similar words or phrases made in the same book. In First Timothy 5:9, Paul gives instructions on who may be placed on the list of widows to receive financial support. He states that qualified widows must have been the “wife of one husband”. The original phrase is “enos/1520 andros/435 gunh/1135”. This is the same phrase, exactly reversed, as in First Timothy 3:2, 3:12; and Titus 1:6. The words “andros” and “gunh” have the same lexical roots as “andra” and “gunaikos” in I Timothy 3:2. The only variation is that “enos” is genitive masculine while “mias” is genitive feminine. Both words should be translated “of one”.
In dealing with widows, Robertson claims:
Widows must not be married a second time.56
This is inconsistent interpretation. Since “wife of one husband” excludes women who had divorced and remarried, “husband of one wife” would exclude men who had divorced and remarried. It is doubtful that Paul was excluding women who had previously been widowed and remarried. Remarriage after the death of one’s husband was not considered a sin. Paul actually encourages younger widows to remarry (I Timothy 5:14). It is improbable that Paul was dealing with polyandry, being legally married to more than one husband at a time. There is no record that this was practiced by women in New Testament times.
Some claim the use of present tense Greek verbs in First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 allows divorced and remarried men to be placed in leadership. The present tense is primarily used to show the idea of progress. It is generally, though not exclusively, a durative tense. It is used in First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 when giving the necessary qualifications for those who desire to be in leadership. It is erroneous to believe the use of the present tense allows divorced and remarried men to be elders or deacons.
The interpretation of First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 does not hinge on the use of present tense verbs. Rather, it hinges on the scriptural teaching regarding the permanence of marriage. The marriage bond is not dissolved by adultery, divorce, or any other thing short of death. The man who divorces and remarries, is actually taking a second wife. He is the husband of more than one wife until one wife dies. Those who claim that the list of qualifications only refers to that which is necessary for a man “right now” fail to realize that a divorced and remarried man is the husband of more than one wife “right now.”57
Some allow a man who was divorced and remarried before he came to Christ, to be an elder. It is assumed that God’s forgiveness clears the slate for the man to be in leadership. It is true that God forgives all sin and releases each believer from guilt and eternal punishment. There are consequences for sin in this life. If pressed to its logical conclusion, then all divorced men, who confess their sin of divorce and remarriage, may become elders. It would not matter whether it happened before or after conversion. An elder could divorce his wife and remarry. He could ask forgiveness and be reinstated to leadership. He could then divorce and start the cycle all over again.
The evidence shows that the consensus of Christian writers in the early church believed that remarriage after divorce, for any reason, was an act of adultery. It is no surprise that a majority of these writers would also prohibit divorced and remarried men from official positions of leadership in the church.
On this account the Sacrament of marriage of our time hath been so reduced to one man and one wife, as that it is not lawful to ordain any as a steward of the Church, save the husband of one wife. And this they have understood more acutely who have been of opinion, that neither is he to be ordained, who as a catechumen or as a heathen had a second wife.58
Augustine claimed that the man who had been married a second time, even while a heathen before his conversion, was not to be made an elder in the Church.
“A Bishop then,” he says, “must be blameless, the husband of one wife.” This he does not lay down as a rule, as if he must not be without one. But as prohibiting his having more than one. For even the Jews were allowed to contract second marriages, and even to have two wives at one time.59
The phrase “allowed to contract second marriages” distinguishes those Jews who divorced and remarried from those who practiced polygamy, “have two wives at one time.” Chrysostom knew that Jews not only practiced polygamy, but also divorced and remarried. Both actions would mean a man had more than one wife. Both would disqualify a man from leadership.
How detrimental to faith, how obstructive to holiness, second marriages are. The discipline of the Church and the prescription of the apostle declare, when he suffers not men to be twice married to preside (over a Church), when he would not grant a widow admittance into the order unless she had been the “wife of one man.”60
Tertullian correctly understands the relationship between the phrases “husband of one wife” and “wife of one man.” Although the context of this quote is mainly concerned with the remarriage of widows, it does show that Tertullian did not believe that the main purpose of these phrases in First Timothy and Titus were the prohibition of polygamy.
What if a man is divorced but has not remarried? “Blameless” includes anything in a man’s past or present that would bring his character into question.61 The elder must be one who “rules” his house well. If he cannot govern his own house, he cannot govern the church of God. Even if his wife was the ‘guilty’ party, Scripture states that the wives of leaders must be faithful.
The elder’s family can make or break his ministry. An elder must have his children in subjection. If a man’s children do not live with him because of divorce, how can they be considered to be in subjection to him? The family is a microcosm and testing ground for the ability of a man to lead in the local assembly. How can a man shepherd his wife and children if they live somewhere else?
God has high qualifications for elders. Those who are in leadership are to have impeccable character. The phrase “husband of one wife” prohibits polygamists, adulterers, fornicators, and homosexuals from taking part in local church leadership. It prohibits men who are given over to lust of other women. It would also prohibit men who have committed adultery by divorcing and remarrying.62 Those who claim an exception, if the divorce and remarriage happened before conversion, need to put forth exegetical proof.
An elder or deacon must not be open to blame in any area. He must shepherd his family well. If a man does not meet the standards given in First Timothy and Titus he is disqualified from leadership, irregardless of other talents, gifts, or qualifications he may have.
The word originally meant “wineless.” Paul told Timothy to “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for stomach ailments and frequent infimities” (1 Tim. 5:23). In context, temperate most likely means sober in relation to wine as well as avoiding other excesses.
Titus 1:8 also lists this qualification. Balanced thinking that is prudent, controlled, and reasonable.
Of Good Behavior
The word comes from kosmos and means that an elder must have an “ordered” personal life.
Also used in Titus 1:8. The root word means “brotherly love of strangers.” An elder is to have an open home to the saints, neighbors, and those he does not know. First Peter 4:9 teaches that Christians are to “be hospitable to one another without grumbling.” Part of brotherly love includes showing hospitality to strangers. In doing so some have “unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb. 13:1-2).
Able to Teach
He must be capable of instructing others and refuting error. The ekklhsia is built upon the written word of God. An elder must have a working knowledge of Scripture and the ability to communicate biblical truth. An elder does not need to be a polished public speaker. In a group situation or one-on-one he must be able to shepherd people with the word of God.
Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict (Titus 1:9).
This ability is not the gift of “teaching” (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Some in the congregation may have this gift and others will not (1 Timothy 5:17).
Not Given to Wine
Titus 1:7 uses the same term. Not indulgent in or controlled by the consumption of alcohol.
Titus 1:7 also uses this term and adds not quick tempered. An elder cannot be a bully or prone to settle disagreements through physical force.
Not Greedy for Money
Titus 1:7 also uses this term. The book of First Timothy also lists “not loving money.” The love of money is the root of evil. Some who seek it have wandered away from the faith (1 Timothy 6:10). An elder must not misuse funds of the local assembly or use his position for personal gain.
An elder must be forbearing, not determined to have his own way or just due.
This word could also be translated “peaceable” or “uncontentious.” A spiritually mature man realizes that arguing and debating solves nothing. Those who are interested in the truth may have questions but they will listen. Those who are not really interested will continue to argue.
Managing His Household Well
The rest of the verse in 1 Timothy reads: “having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?). Titus 1:6 reads: “Having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.”
Relationships in the home serve as a proving ground for an elder’s ability to shepherd the flock of God. An elder’s children must be faithful and not be rebellious. It is doubtful that the word “pista” means that they must be believers. This would place an impossible standard upon a father. Salvation is a supernatural act of God. It is the Spirit of God, not good parents that convicts and draws people to the Savior.
Therefore he must (the “must” of 1 Timothy 3:2 still governs this requirement as well) rule (lit., preside) over his family well so that his children are in a dignified subjection. Must his children be born again? The words in Titus 1:6., “who believe,” might indicate that, or it may mean that they must be faithful to the family, though not necessarily born again. This qualification assumes that an elder will not only be married but also have children of sufficient age to show their voluntary allegiance to the family. Of course the word “elder” signifies an older man.63
Not a Novice
A new convert is not to be appointed as an elder. This is because of the temptation of pride. Pride will destroy a man as well as hurt the assembly.
“A new convert” is a beginner in the faith, a baby Christian, a recent convert. No matter how spiritual, zealous, knowledgeable, or talented a new convert may be, he is not spiritually mature. Maturity takes time and experience for which there is no substitute, so “a new convert” is simply not ready for eldership.64
A Good Testimony Among Outsiders
Christianity is a living relationship with the Lord. It matters little what a man does on Sunday if his life does not reflect Christ Monday through Saturday. 1 Timothy specifically states that it is important that an elder maintain a good testimony “lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
A just man is morally upright in all his ways. He conducts himself according to biblical truth. Because he is just he is able to fairly and impartially make decisions.
A holy man is also “devout.” He is committed to godly character and conduct. He is loyal to the word of God and the people of God.
He is stable and able to resist worldly temptations and desires. He is self-disciplined and capable of managing his own life as well as the ekklhsia of God.
49 Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980) p. 124.
50 Roland Allen, The Ministry of the Spirit (London: World Dominion Press, 1960) p. 152.
51 D. Edmond Hiebert, First Timothy (Chicago: Moody, 1957) p. 65.
52 Shepherd of Hermas, comm. 4, ch. 4.
53 Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944) p. 396.
54 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 416.
55 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1931) p. 572.
56 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, p. 585.
57 Mal Couch, A Biblical Theology of the Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999) p. 176.
58 Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, section 17.
59 Chrysostom, Homilies on Timothy, Homily X.
60 Tertullian, To His Wife, chapter VII.
61 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon (Chicago: Moody, 1957) p. 3.
62 Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, p. 355. See also Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Pastoral Epistles (Chicago: Moody, 1982) p. 122-126.
63 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 417.
64 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, p. 203.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.