Serious IssueI’m very impressed that Paul used the same phrase to introduce the characteristics of those who would be elders and deacons in the church as he did to emphasize some of the foundational teachings of the Christian faith. This points out how import it is to make sure that the people who serve in these capacities are indeed measured by these standards. If our salvation, our hope, and our eternity are introduced with these words, then introducing our leaders’ qualities should not be taken lightly but with great respect. That may be why Paul said that a person who want to fill this office desires a noble task as the NIV says. It isn’t a job to be taken lightly.
This list of qualities isn’t just for elders. I want to be able to say these things for myself, whether I ever become an elder or not. They are characteristics that any disciple of Christ should want to have.Elder, Overseer, or Bishop
Whether we call the person an elder, overseer, or bishop is of little importance. Some make a big deal out of using the proper name for the position. In doing so, they heap undo attention on the wrong part of the verses. In some cultures, the name may convey the wrong idea. Those who have grown up in the Catholic faith may be very offended if a layperson in the church were called a bishop because they have a certain concept of a bishop being a highly exalted role with exceptional holiness and power in the church. While he does oversee several congregations, he also has special duties that no one else can perform. This is significantly different than the layperson described in these passages. Yet, there are others who think we are not being true to the Word unless we call the layperson a bishop. The proper Greek translation is most often rendered as overseer, but I’ll use the word elder just because that’s my culture.
An elder must first of all be beyond reproach. That means that no one should be able to criticize him and say he has done something wrong. I fail on the first one attribute! Is it possible for anyone to live a life where no one would criticize him? Look at Jesus’ life. He had critics all over the place. They blamed Him for breaking the Sabbath, disrespecting the traditions of the elders, associating with sinners, and many more things. Personally, my aim is this: Acts 24:16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (NIV) That means I have to go to God and ask for forgiveness when I’ve done something wrong. I need to go to a person I’ve offended and ask for forgiveness. I need to make restitution when that is part of the process of making something right. If I must do this because I’m saved and it is the way a saved person should behave after sinning. If I do this in humility then others may consider me beyond reproach. However, if I’m doing it in order to be saved, impress people, or become an elder as a position of power, then I’m not beyond reproach.
Husband of One Wife
An elder must be the husband of one wife. For clarification, this means that an elder has to be a man. It doesn’t mean he has to be married. There are many arguments that get started over this requirement. Some say that means that an elder must never have been divorced and married another woman. Some say that it is OK if the previous marriage and divorce occurred when the man was not a Christian. Some say it is OK if the man was a Christian but the divorce was biblical, meaning the woman left because she was an unbeliever or committed adultery and married another man. Some say that any of these would disqualify a man because they believe that once married always married and even if the previous wife has remarried the man has two wives. Whew, did I miss any conditions?
The whole divorce remarriage thing is way too complicated to go into here so I’ll just say what I think. The Bible says married to one woman. I don’t think it Paul was trying to address all the possibilities but was referring to the current martial state of the person who is considering as an elder without regard to his past marital situations. The primary reason I believe this is because I know God forgives all sin, even adultery. If the person is now living a life honoring God after having confessed and repented of sins regarding previous marriages, there should not be a problem. However, if there was a previous marriages, and there is still a living ex-wife, then there is a huge possibility that the ex may have something to say about the person being beyond reproach. In this case, those considering the person for the office should contact the ex and make sure that she isn’t going to bring up something that will bring shame on the church. If she is still bitter and angry, then the man is not qualified to be an elder. It may not be his fault, but being beyond reproach is an extremely high standard.
Temperate – Self-Controlled
A couple of words are used next to expand on the inner character of a man worthy of being an elder. NASB uses prudent instead of self-controlled, but it all comes down to the same thing. When I think of a temperate person, I think about weather. A temperate location is an area that doesn’t see extremes in temperature. I shouldn’t see 120 or -60 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 or -51.1 Celsius). In the same way, if I’m temperate, I will not show extreme swings in moods, behavior, or even passions. A temperate person is one who is restrained in his behavior and attitude. It is very similar to being self-controlled. These are fruits of the Spirit Eph 4:30-32 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV). A person can’t be temperate or mild without the power of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is grieved when I don’t get rid of all things that are the exact opposite of the qualities I need as a Christian. Temperate and self-controlled people do not stew in bitterness or lash out in anger. They don’t want to get even when a wrong is done to them but are forgiving. If these extremes are observed in a candidate for elder, then he should be disqualified.
When it comes to governing the church, a temperate person is required so that his projects and goals are not random or incomplete. A person may be very passionate about a ministry and work to establish it. However, if he is not temperate or prudent, he may not follow through or let it drop as a new passion develops. As a result, time and effort is wasted by many. If I’m led by the Holy Spirit, then I would expect to complete the work that He has given me. If I’m not led by the Holy Spirit then it is very likely that my goals keep changing and my effectiveness is diminished.
If I’ve met the previous standards, why wouldn’t I be respectable? Prov 18:13 He who answers before listening — that is his folly and his shame. (NIV) This is one example of a person who loses respect. He is a know-it-all, and for some reason can’t seem to hold his tongue so that he can hear another person before speaking. Some are not obvious, they appear to be listening but are really formulating what they will say when the other stops. While the person may be very educated and a beyond reproach, he drops a notch in respectability when he doesn’t listen to others. He doesn’t process what the other person said and is only interested in giving his opinion or demonstrating his superiority.
Prov 15:2 The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (RSV) Another person that drops in respectability is the one who doesn’t know when to stop talking. The wise person will speak his mind and have a good discussion. When the points have been made, he will be at peace. The fool loses respect because he is the one that always has to have the last word. He needs to be affirmed that he is right, in authority, or some other need. He keeps talking and talking and talking. It may even be very good useful information to start with, but I lose respect for him when I can’t make a comment without him making a comment on my comment and expanding on it. It is difficult to end a conversation with this person and feel like they have heard you.
Eph 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (ESV) A person who is normally beyond reproach can easily fall from respectability when there is foolish talk. Some men find it OK to be a bit crude in their language when women aren’t around. They wouldn’t dream of using the same kind of language around women. So why is it OK among men? Maybe it isn’t even crudeness but sharpness that is the issue. An otherwise respectable person can lose respect when he is often short, snappy, or uses clever put-downs in conversation.
1 Peter 4:9 Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. (NKJV) Some people are more hospitable than others. I don’t feel like I’m much of a hospitable person. Perhaps it is because of my social upbringing or lack of social skills. However, that doesn’t excuse me from being hospitable when the opportunity arises. This verse is in the form of a command. As with many of God’s directives, it isn’t just about doing something. It also requires the correct attitude. If I welcome people in my home and attend to their needs, making them feel at home but wish they weren’t there, I’ve missed the whole concept of hospitality.
Able to Teach
At first, I thought this is one of the attributes of an elder that may not apply to every Christian. I was stopped in that thought as soon as I remembered each of is a teacher in one role or another. Consider parents. Prov 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (NASB) Parents are instructed to teach their children. Titus 2:4 says that older women are to train younger women.
Matt 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (ESV) If I want to be a disciple of Jesus then I need to observe the commands He has given. One of those commands is to teach others. I may not be called to a formal teaching position, but the fact remains that people all around me observe me and in many ways, I teach other.
One warning remains though, for those who do want to be in a formal teaching position (and this is what an elder should be expected to do). James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. (RSV) When I teach, I need to make sure that what I say is correct. James was concerned with those who are formally teaching, but I think this applies to any teaching. As a parent, I can’t teach my children false doctrine, inaccurately about Scripture, or poor social skills. If I’m discipling an individual, I need to make sure that what I teach is correct.
Not Addicted to Wine
I would think that this would be obvious. However, it was something that Paul had to include. Many churches have asked their pastors and elders to agree to abstain from all alcohol if they want to serve. The reason is to make sure there is never a reason to offend or tempt someone who has a problem with alcohol. Personally, I believe this to be a good policy for all Christians.
Since there is not a prohibition in Scripture against alcohol, I have come to this conclusion based on the following two verses. Eph 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. (NIV) 1 Thess 5:19 Do not quench the Spirit, (RSV) I have noted that one glass of wine or one beer affects me, even if it is only slightly. I can sense that my brain isn’t working as well as it does without the alcohol. This deadening of my senses, without a doubt, quenches the Holy Spirit even if it is minor. It is no wonder that alcohol used to be called spirits. Do I want to yield myself to God’s Spirit or the spirits of alcohol? When I asked myself that question, the answer was clear.
Not Pugnacious (Violent) but Gentle
Hi, my name is Elder Sam and if you don’t like it, I’ll punch you in the nose. I can see why this was listed together with not being an alcoholic. The attitude and tendency for violence quite often go hand in hand with alcoholism.
However there are many areas where violence might show up even without an addictive background. It might be wise to commute to work in busy traffic with an elder candidate. That should show if he has a tendency toward road rage, swearing at other divers, or aggressive driving habits.
Prov 3:31-32 Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways, for the Lord detests a perverse man but takes the upright into his confidence. (NIV) There are some people who think that a man must be aggressive to be a real man. They believe turning the other cheek is a sign of weakness. God makes it very clear that He detests a person who gets what he want by aggression and violence. An upright person is just the opposite and God takes him into His confidence. A violent person doesn’t learn from the Word of God, but the upright will know and understand God.
Gal 6:1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (NKJV) Gentleness is the mark of a spiritual Christian, especially an elder. Elders often have to deal with wandering sheep and restore them. It is easy for me to want to come down hard on a person who has sinned. However, that is not the right way according to Paul. Gentleness doesn’t mean weakness either.
A contentious person has to argue about everything. I think he is related to the person who has lost respect because he doesn’t listen or has to have the last word. Eph 4:3-6 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all. (NLT) If I follow this clear teaching, then I’m not going to start arguments rather, I’m going to be looking at ways to build unity among believers. Of course, there will be some who don’t agree with sound doctrine and there will be disputes when that happens. That’s where gentleness comes into play again.
Free from the Love of Money
1 Tim 6:9-10 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (RSV) I’ll have more to say about these verses when I get to chapter six. However, just reading these verses shows how an elder must be free from this temptation. Elders often are in charge of finances in the church. Many a Christian leader has fallen because they were drawn into the temptation to use the church funds for their own use.
There are still more qualities of elders (or any of us) in the next verses. As I’ve gone over these, I can see where I have room for improvement. I pray that as I continue, I’ll be able to come closer to Jesus and what He wants me to be.