1 Timothy: What God Wants in Elders

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 8, 2004

1 Timothy 3:1-7

The Lord’s Day

August 8, 2004

I Timothy 3:1-7

“What God Wants in Elders”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

I invite you to turn with me to First Timothy, chapter
three, as we continue to work through this book. We’ve already noted that this
book, as well as Titus and Second Timothy, are about the priorities of a healthy
local church. Paul is setting forth not just his own opinions, but God’s view
concerning what healthy local church life looks like. What does life look like,
what ought life to look like in a healthy local Christian church? He’s telling
us about what our lives and our ministry ought to look like in the local church.
And we’ve seen various aspects of the ministry stressed by Paul so far.

Last week, Paul began to distinguish some of the
responsibilities of men and women in the local church. Now, today he turns his
attention …and we’ll see, as well, next week… that his attention is on the
officers of the church. But if you consider chapters three, four and five, the
issue of male and female in the local church and the respective responsibilities
of Christian men and women, that issue is never far from Paul’s mind. Paul is
concerned that there be an every-member ministry. Paul has no intention of
denying that, when he specifies specific roles for men and women in the local
church. But he’s concerned that men and women be focused upon the specific roles
and responsibilities that God has assigned to them. And so that’s going to come
up from time to time. It will come up in his description of the qualifications
for elders and deacons. It will come up as he describes the role of elders and
deacons, and women, in serving the mercy ministry needs of the local
congregation, in chapter four. And it will come up again in chapter five as he
continues in that vein, speaking about the work of elders.

So there are a variety of concerns relating to the
role relationship between men and women in the local congregation that continue
to echo throughout these passages. But today we’re going to be looking
especially at the subject of elders.

Now, you may be wondering: why, when there are
people who are without Christ, who haven’t heard the gospel, why would we spend
an entire message about elders? Well, there are four reasons at least, why we
would spend an entire message about elders in a sermon at First Presbyterian
Church. The first reason is, Paul talks about it in the Bible, in the passage
we’re about to read. And if we’re going to faithfully expound the word of God,
then we’ve got to talk about what the word of God talks about. That’s really
what expository preaching is. It’s making the subject of the sermon based upon
the subject of the passage before us. A lot of times a preacher will open up
the Bible, read you a verse, close his Bible, and then talk for a half hour, and
he might as well never have opened his Bible in the first place, because what he
says has absolutely nothing to do with the passage he read! But in expository
preaching, our goal is to preach what the Bible says. And so the first reason
we talk about it is, the Bible talks about it.

The second reason is this. Paul makes it
clear (you can check me on this) in Titus, chapter one, verse five, he makes it
clear to Titus that elders are to be appointed in every church started in every
city. So elders in churches are clearly something very important to Paul. He
thinks it’s important for the life of a local congregation. And for that reason
it’s appropriate for us to spend a sermon on elders.

Thirdly, in Ephesians four, verses eleven and
twelve, Paul makes it clear that Jesus gave officers to the church. Among those
officers are elders, pastors, and teachers. Now, when Jesus gives you a gift,
you need it. Jesus doesn’t give unnecessary gifts, and if He gave the gift of
officers to the church, He must think that His church needs officers.

And if Jesus thinks His church needs officers, then
it behooves Jesus’ Church to know why He thinks His Church needs officers. And
sure enough, in Ephesians 4:12,13 and following down, Paul explains at least two
reasons why we need officers. And that’s the fourth reason why it’s appropriate
for us to study this. Not only because Paul talks about it in I Timothy 3:1-7;
not only because Paul, in Titus 1:5, says that elders ought to be appointed in
every church; not only because in Ephesians 4:11ff Jesus gives elders as gifts
to the church; but because in that very passage in Ephesians 4, Paul tells us at
least two reasons why God gave elders to the church. One: for our
discipleship. Two: for God’s glory to be displayed in the church. And so, for
all those reasons it’s appropriate for us to think about the subject of elders.

Now, you may be thinking: “I’m not an elder, why do
I need to hear this?” Because in God’s wisdom and providence, it is His plan
that you–every communing member of this congregation–would have the
responsibility of adding your “amen” in the selection of elders in the church.
Paul and Jesus and Peter don’t spell it out exactly. We do it by voting. But
they do make it clear in the New Testament that it is the congregation that will
select the men who will serve as elders in the church.

The qualifications are set out in the Bible. The
elders of the church screen men for those qualifications, but ultimately the
congregation determines who those elders will be. Why? Because the
congregation is recognizing those qualifications in those men. So, at First
Presbyterian Church you actually have a chance to vote. So there’s one reason
why you need to think about this.

Now, there’s no officer election coming up at First
Presbyterian Church any time soon, as far as I know. We did talk about this a
couple of years ago, during the last season of officer election. But you know,
this is something we shouldn’t just think about in the few months prior to an
officer election. As members of this congregation, especially those of you who
are older, wiser members who have been around for many, many years, you ought
always to be looking around this church on Sunday mornings, and Sunday evenings,
and Wednesday nights and asking the question: has God gifted that man to be a
future leader of this congregation? And what are the evidences of that? You’ll
have to get to know people in order to be able to discern that. And there are
so many of us, it takes a while to get to know one another that well! So this
is something we ought to be thinking about all the time.

Now, if you are not a Christian and you’re here
today, I’m going to suggest to you that there’s actually something of great
importance that you can learn from this passage, and I’ll tell you at the end of
the sermon!

Meanwhile, before we read God’s word and hear it
proclaimed, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask Him to help us.

Lord God, thank You for Your word. It is given to us
for our edification, and even subjects that seem mundane–like officers and
elders in the church–You mean for Your glory and our good. Help us, we pray, to
benefit from the reading and the hearing of Your word, by Your Spirit, that we
might hear and spiritually understand and embrace the truth. We ask this in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God’s word:

“It is a
trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a
fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the
husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the
love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his
children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to
manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not
a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred
by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church,
so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Amen. And
thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add
His blessing to it.

In this passage, Paul gives us six qualifications
for elders. Let me just tell you what they are ahead of time, and then we’ll
work through the passage and discover them right out of the Scripture. The
first qualification is desire. The second qualification is character. The
third qualification is ability. The fourth qualification is family leadership.
The fifth qualification is maturity. And the sixth qualification is
reputation. Let’s look at each of these for a few moments.

I. God wants elders who want the
work, not just the status of an elder.

The first qualification, the qualification of
desire, is found in verse one. Paul says, “It is a trustworthy statement; if
any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
Now there are two or three things that I want you to see under this
qualification. The first thing you need to understand is, in this passage your
Bible translations may talk about this elder as an overseer, or a
, or a shepherd, or a pastor. They are different,
perfectly good translations of the Greek word which is translated in the New
American Standard Bible, which is our pew Bible and is the pulpit Bible–the
Greek word which is episkopos. Now, many of you will recognize that word
as the word from which we get “Episcopalian.” Now, that word is used by Paul to
relate directly to another word that Paul uses, the word presbuteros, or
“presbyter” or “elder.”

Now the first thing you need to understand, if you
look at I Timothy 3:1,2, is when Paul talks about bishops or overseers, or
, he means the same thing when he uses the word presbuteroi,
or elders. Elder and bishop are not two different offices. The bishop is not
the “big kahuna,” and the elder, the local church little guy who answers to the
big kahuna. Bishop and elder are the same office. Let me prove that to you.
Turn to Titus, chapter one. Look at verse five and verse seven. What does Paul
tell Titus to do, in verse five? By the way, all you have to do if you’re in I
Timothy, go to II Timothy, and then Titus is right there, right after it. Titus,
chapter one, verse five. Paul tells Titus to appoint what in every city?
Elders. There’s the Greek word presbuteroi, and naturally, it’s the word
from which we get “Presbyterian.” Appoint elders.

Now look at verse seven. What does he call these
elders in verse seven? He says, appoint these elders, episkopos, a
bishop, a shepherd, a pastor! Appoint elders, and here’s their qualifications.
And then he calls them bishops, or overseers, or guides, or leaders, or
shepherds, or rulers. Any of those translations catch some of what he’s getting
at in that word. But you see, Paul’s using the words interchangeably. You
could say that elder is the title, and bishop is the job description. What do
elders do? They bishop! They shepherd, they rule, they lead, they guide, they
teach. That’s what they do. The elders ‘bishop’.

Now this isn’t the only time Paul does this. Peter
also does this. But turn back to Acts 20. In Acts 20, Luke is telling us that
Paul called the elders of the church of Ephesus to come and meet him by the
seashore. And in Acts 20:17, we read, Luke tells us, that the elders, the
presbyters, the presbuteroi of the church at Ephesus came and met with
Paul at Miletus. But look down to verse 28, where he tells those elders who
came to meet with him…what? “Be on guard for the flock of which the Lord has
made you a…” what?…an overseer, a bishop, a pastor. There’s that word
again. So the elders are called bishops, or overseers, or
shepherds, or pastors. And Paul will do this regularly.

Elder is the title. He uses that phrase more
frequently. It was the term that Jews would have been used to. Jews had had
elders since the days of Moses. But the Gentiles would have been used to the
word bishop, and so Paul links those two terms as he talks to this
Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Gentile congregation, or this Gentile Christian
congregation, and he uses both of those terms. So when Paul speaks of
overseers, he’s speaking about elders. It’s the same office.

Now the other thing that you need to know when Paul
is speaking here, is that Paul doesn’t describe elders in terms of office or
status, but in terms of work
. Notice that Paul says that “if any man
desires this work….” Paul is concerned for the work, for the function
of the elder; not so much the status or the title, or the prestige of the
office. Paul’s concern in speaking of the qualification of desire is not that a
man would desire a status of authority and reputation, but that he would desire
a work.

Now let’s get back to the desire. That is the first
qualification: he desires this work. What is Paul saying? Paul is saying that
the first qualification of the eldership is that a man would desire to do the
spiritual work of a shepherd in the church. Not that he would desire to be
esteemed in the local congregation as one who is holding the highest rank that
the church has to offer. And it is a glorious thing, my friends, to be an

Woodrow Wilson, after his presidency, was asked what
the greatest honor had been in his life. You know what his response was? To be
an elder in the Presbyterian church. That was his response. He’d been
President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world. To be an
elder in the Presbyterian church, he considered to be the greatest honor and
privilege of his life.

That’s true. But the thing that Paul wants is not a
man to aspire to that honor, but to aspire to the work. He wants men who are
burning with the desire to shepherd the people of God. He wants men who want to
be pastors. All elders are pastors, not just preachers! Not just professional,
full-time ministers, but all elders are pastors.

So what are you looking for, when you’re looking for
an elder in the church? You’re looking for a man in this congregation who
wants to shepherd the souls of people.
Yes, they have to make hard
decisions about budgets and buildings. But you know what? They do that because
they love you. That’s the part of the job that they have to do. What they
really love to do is shepherd the souls of men and women, and boys and girls.
That’s their great desire. The other stuff they have to do: that’s their great
desire. The other stuff they have to do. We’d almost have to pay them to do
that other stuff, because it’s hard! But the thing that they really desire is
the pastoral, shepherding ministry.

That’s the first qualification for an elder.
He has to desire to shepherd the people of God. You can see that in a man. You
can see that in the way a man studies his Bible; you can see that in the way a
man studies to teach the word; you can see that in the way a man commits himself
to the life of a local congregation, in the way he attends church (Sunday
morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night)–you can see those desires expressed
outwardly in a man who desires to shepherd the people of God. He’s involved in
evangelism and discipleship, he is involved in preparing to shepherd the people
of God. So there’s the first qualification. He has a desire for the work of
ministry that is entailed in being an elder.

II. God wants elders who are godly
men, for holiness is God’s great qualification for an elder.

The second thing you see in verses two and
three, and that’s character. He has a godly character. This man is
characterized by godliness, or holiness. Look at verses two and three: “An
overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent,
respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but
gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” Paul expects elders to be
godly. They are men who are involved in a lifelong pursuit of holiness.

Now, what does holiness look like? Does holiness
mean wearing weird clothes and talking funny, and having mystical experiences,
and reading your Bible all day, and not working? What does holiness look like?
Well, Paul gives you a glorious and practical description of what holiness looks
like in verses two and three. And there’s nothing impractical or romantic or
mystical about this description of holiness. Here’s a holy man: he’s free from
scandalous sins and offensive habits that would lay him open to public
criticism; he’s the husband of one wife; that is, he’s a man marked by the
strictest marital fidelity. His marriage is biblical, heterosexual, monogamous,
and pure. He is a temperate, or sober-minded man. He’s possessed of a wakeful,
alert, vigilant habit of mind, and he’s opposed to all sorts of excess. He’s
prudent, he has mastery over his natural reactions. He’s got some
self-control. He’s respectable. He lives a life that bears up under public
scrutiny. He’s hospitable; that is, he’s possessed of that hospitality that is
required of all Christians. Elders are to take a lead in that. He’s not
addicted to much wine. He’s free from enslavement to or fixation with alcohol,
or, frankly, drugs or any other addictive stimulants. He’s not
pugnacious…he’s not a violent man. He’s not given to quarrelling, he’s not
quick-tempered. He’s a person who is characterized by moderation in his
dealings. You need to be that, when you’re an elder, because you have to deal
with some hot issues, and even friends can get you hot under the collar. And so
you need to be able to be a person that can handle that kind of a circumstance.
He’s not pugnacious, not a violent man. He’s not given to quarrelling. He’s
gentle, he’s meek and humble, and able to elicit a response of trust and respect
and affection from congregation members. He’s peaceable, he’s not quarrelsome.
He’s not quarrelsome in his patterns of speaking. He’s able to gently instruct,
Paul will say later on. And he’s free from the love of money. He doesn’t pursue
dishonest gain. He doesn’t love things and use God; he loves God and he uses

There it is. That’s holiness. Paul says look for
that in a man, and you’ll see the qualifications for an elder. You see, you
want elders who are godly and who are pursuing holiness, and Paul is saying
that’s what God wants for you. God wants godly character. So first, the desire
for this work, and then the godly character.

III. God wants elders who are able
to teach, that is, who are able to convey God’s truth to disciples.

Thirdly, however, Paul goes on to say (also
in verse two) that there is an ability that elders need to have, and that
ability is the ability to teach. Look at verse two: “An overseer, then, must
be….[very last phrase of verse two]…able to teach.” An overseer must be
able to teach. Paul only singles out one responsibility, or ability, for an
elder. He is able to teach. Isn’t it fascinating? He doesn’t say, ‘look, when
you’re choosing elders make sure that they are men of first-order leadership
skills.’ Now, we need some elders with first-order leadership skills, but Paul
doesn’t say that. Paul doesn’t say, ‘now look, when you choose an elder make
sure that he comes from the very highest social and professional classes in your
community.’ He doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say ‘make sure you choose
prominent men.’ Doesn’t say that.

He says choose men who are able to disciple. Now
friends, doesn’t that make sense? What task has Jesus given to the Church? To
do what? To disciple the nations. Doesn’t it make sense that those who are the
shepherds of the Church would be able to disciple, if the job of the Church is
to disciple the nations? And that’s the only ability that he says that this
elder is to possess.

Now, this doesn’t mean that this elder is great
behind a pulpit or a podium. Not every elder is. Not every elder in our church
is as good as Derek Thomas behind a pulpit or a podium. Thank heavens! Not
many of us would be teaching, if that was the requirement. My dad was scared to
death behind a pulpit or a podium. He would do it if you made him, and he’d do
a good job when he did it, but generally he’d rather work behind the scenes.
But give him a Coke and a package of peanuts, and sit him behind his desk, and
he could teach you more about life in fifteen minutes that a lot of people could
teach you in many hours. He was a discipler, naturally, but he liked to do it
behind the scenes, quietly–one-to-one, in smaller groups. The pulpit and the
podium was not his area of strength.

The elder is to be able to teach. That doesn’t mean
that they have to be great behind the podium. It means that they are to be able
to disciple the people of God in sound doctrine and living.

IV. God wants elders with godly
homes and families, and who are aiming for godly homes and families.

Fourthly, look at verses four and
five. Paul gives a fourth qualification. Not only is there to be a desire to
pastor; not only is there to be a godly character; not only is there to be an
ability to teach, but there is also to be family leadership. God wants
elders with godly homes and families, who are aiming for godly homes and
families in the church. Look at the words: “He must be one who manages his own
household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a
man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the
church of God?)”….

The point is this: Paul says one way you can tell
whether a man will be a good shepherd in the church of God is to look at how he
shepherds his family. If he is a good shepherd of his family, chances are he
will be a wise and good shepherd of the flock. And so look at how he shepherds
the souls of his wife and children. Look at how he gives spiritual leadership
there. Look at how he leads them in growth in grace, and attendance at the
means of grace, in the support of the church. You see, godliness in the cutch
begins with godliness in the home. And so discipleship in the church also begins
with discipleship in the home, and an elder whose home life and values accredits
his fitness as a shepherd, and reflects his commitment to Christian
discipleship, is an elder who will serve you well in the life of a local
congregation. So there’s the fourth qualification: that there would be family
headship character, that there would be family leadership ability. God wants
elders with godly homes and families.

V. God wants elders who are
spiritually mature and not recent converts (old
in the faith, but not necessarily chronologically old)

The fifth qualification is this. You’ll read
it in verse six: elders must be mature in the faith–maturity. So in addition to
desire and character (or godliness), and ability to teach, and family
leadership, Paul adds maturity. The elder must be mature in the faith, in view
of the unique pressures and temptations that elders must face. Paul says “not a
new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation
incurred by the devil.” Paul wants elders who are spiritually mature, not
recent converts. They are to be mature in the faith, even if they’re not that
mature chronologically. Paul doesn’t give a cut-off date. He doesn’t say
you’ve got to be at least twenty-eight, or you’ve got to be at least thirty, or
at least thirty-five, or forty. Paul doesn’t say any of that. But he does say,
“Look, when you choose an elder, make sure he’s spiritually mature. You
shouldn’t choose someone who is just converted.”

Have you watched with interest over the last fifteen
or twenty years in this celebrity of culture of ours, when a rock star or a
movie star or a politician, or someone of high social prominence makes a public
profession of faith in Christ…converts from paganism or from some other
religion, to Christ…immediately, what does the evangelical community do? We
make a super-star out of them. We put the up everywhere. We start sending them
around to preach and teach in the churches. And you know what we’ve seen happen
over and over? Somebody will make a big, splashy, public profession of faith,
go on a world tour with a ministry named after them…and in six months, or nine
months, or twelve months, or two years, fall into gross immorality, or even
renege on their profession of faith. And the Apostle Paul says, “Don’t do that!
Don’t take someone who has just converted and make them a teacher or discipler
of the people of God.” Remember all these qualifications listed in verses two
and three, you have to know somebody for a while before you can tell whether
these qualifications are there. And all those qualifications and character
qualities take time to cultivate. You’re not born with these qualifications
just oozing out of your pores. You have to cultivate these things. And so Paul
says, don’t put someone who is a novice, a neophyte, a new convert into the
office of elder. We need spiritual maturity in those who are the shepherds and
guides and guards of the church.

VI. God wants elders whose moral
reputation is good with local non-Christians
(and other churches’ members)

And then, finally, if you look at verse seven
you’ll see a sixth qualification. And that qualification is reputation.
Reputation with non-Christians, and reputation with those outside the church.
God wants elders whose moral reputation is good with local non-Christians, and,
frankly, with other churches’ members. Elders, you see, are to be men of
integrity, especially in the eyes of non-Christians, the non-church community.

Paul knows that the front line of evangelism as the
church goes into the world is not our strategy or our method, or our technique.
The front line of evangelism is our holiness. The thing that we lead with in our
witness to the world is our holiness. The thing which causes our message to be
most credible to the world is holiness, and so discipleship is the most
important thing you can do to foster evangelism in a local congregation.
Because it is when the church is most distinct from the world that the church
has most to say to the world, and where the world has the most respect for what
the church has to say.

If we go out into the world with all our strategies
and our techniques and our methods, and the world looks at us and says, “You’re
no different than me, what do you have to say to me?” We don’t have anything
else to say that they will hear. But if we go out into the world, different from
the world, yet concerned and caring and loving towards the world, Jesus promises
that the world will stand up and take notice. And so, Paul is concerned for
holiness in the lives of the local congregation as it is deployed in evangelism
and missions.

Isn’t it interesting that he would say, then, of
these elders who are going to be the shepherds of the Church: you’ve got to
display that kind of moral reputation, even to the pagans around you…even the
pagans. As much as they may not like you–and Paul had plenty of pagans who
didn’t like him–even those pagans can’t say anything about you in terms of your
reputation. They cannot undermine your public reputation. You are a person
possessed of evident godly character. You are above reproach, even with
unbelievers. And so Paul says the elders of the church ought to be like that.

Now, let me just conclude with two things:
to the members of the congregation, you need to be looking around and
asking yourselves, “Is the Lord raising up men, preparing some men for this
office?” Because one day–I don’t know, it may be a year, maybe two years, three
years, maybe four years–you’ll be asked to vote. And you’ll want to study and
make a wise decision about those who really have these qualifications. You need
to start thinking now. You need to start looking now. You need to start
looking at the commitments and the qualifications of these men, and praying,
“Lord, give us shepherds like this.”

Now, unbelievers, you may be saying, “This
message has absolutely nothing to do with me today. It’s all about officers in
a local church. I’m not even sure about Christianity, I’m not even sure about
the Bible.” Well, let me tell you something. The fact that Jesus would give
elders like this to the church is a witness to His love for and concern for
you. Let me tell you why. One of the most common objections to Christianity
that comes from those who do not embrace Christ by faith is that ‘the church is
filled with hypocrites.’ And isn’t it interesting that Jesus said to His people
that the people that are going to be leading the church in teaching, evangelism,
discipleship and witness to the world, are going to be people that the world
can’t say that about? You can’t say, “Well, you’re just a hypocrite,” because
they’re not. They’re different. The things that they say with their lips are
backed up by their lives.

And my friends, if you don’t know Christ, that is
a witness of Christ’s love to you.
Because Christ is saying, “I’m going to
put a man in your life who you can’t blow off. You can’t say ‘aw, that’s a
bunch of talk’–because his life bears a moral quality that proves that a divine
supernatural work of grace has been done in his life.” And so you’d better
listen, and listen good. You see, that’s love from Jesus Christ to you. And
it’s a love that is designed to remind you that the problem in this world is not
hypocrites in the church. The problem is you. The problem is all of us,
because we’re sinners, and we need a Savior. And these men, these elders, can
testify that they, too, were sinners, and Christ has saved them and changed
them. And their lives back up that message. Let’s pray.

Lord God, Christ is indeed the only sure
foundation. But in His mercy He has given us elders whose lives back up their
words. Bless our elders as they shoulder up that high burden and
responsibility. Give us more godly elders in this church in due time, in Your
own time. Help us to be wise to see who they are, and increase our witness in
this world. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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