What God Wants in Elders

The Lord's Day Morning

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 bishop, 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 episkopoi, 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 episkopos 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 elder.

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 things.

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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