When you hear the words “church leader,” I wonder what comes to your mind.
Unfortunately, the words probably have negative connotations for many people today. After all, it’s the scandalous shepherds who get all the media attention these days. We don’t often read a story in The New York Times about a pastor who has served in a congregation faithfully for thirty years. We don’t see reports on CNN about the churches with wonderful children’s ministries, where godly men and women are introducing children to Jesus. No, these stories are far too “dull.” We hear about the cases of sexual abuse and misappropriation of church funds. And so, sadly, church leaders have for many people become paradigms of hypocrisy.
For others, church leaders are a laughing matter, the butt of a joke. This is no doubt related to the way pastors are portrayed in movies. Whether a drunken friar (Robin Hood), a creepy demon fighter (insert your favorite horror movie), or a lively mega-church pastor played by an ex-country-music star (Four Christmases), the clergy of the cinema don’t exactly demand to be taken seriously.
But in the midst of all this, the Apostle Paul speaks, and he does not allow us to have a low view of church leadership. Despite the failures of certain individuals in the ministry, and despite the way the world portrays the church offices, the task of church leadership, Paul says, is “a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). It is a task that is pleasing to God.
In 1 Tim 3:1-7, Paul provides fourteen qualifications for pastors/elders. Paul has little to say in this passage about the responsibilities of elders. But, based on other NT texts, we can sum up the work of an elder in four words: feed, lead, protect, and care. Elders minister the Word of God to the people; they guide the congregation to participate in God’s plan for the world; they do what they can to keep the congregation safe from false/destructive teaching; and they love, pray for, and encourage the members. In Peter’s words, the elders “shepherd the flock of God that is among [them]” (1 Pet 5:2). But we need to be very clear about one thing here. Elders shepherd the church under the authority of Christ. The church does not belong to the elders. Christ is the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4) who gives under shepherds to his church (Eph 4:11). So if you want to know who “runs the show” or who “calls the shots” in the church, the answer is Jesus.
With that said, let’s look now at 1 Tim 3:1-7. Here, Paul gives us a lengthy list of qualifications for elders. I don’t think this is meant to be an exhaustive list. The NT has other things to say about elders. What is most interesting about this list is that it is not really a “to-do list”; rather, it is a “to-be list.” For the most part, Paul is not here telling elders what tasks to perform; he is telling Timothy what types of people to look for as he installs elders in the city of Ephesus. The idea seems to be that if you get the right kind of person in place as an elder, he will know what needs to be done in the house of God. So, what is “the right kind of person”?
The Summary Requirement (vv. 1-2a)
1 If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach,
As I said earlier, Paul speaks highly of eldership: eldership is “a good work/noble task.” Paul probably is thinking here of an “aspiration” or “desire” that comes from the Holy Spirit. We sometimes refer to this as “the call.” It is the Spirit of God who indicates individuals and gifts them for pastoral ministry. Such noble work calls for worthy workers: “Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach.” The idea is that an elder must present to the world at large a Christian life that furnishes no grounds for accusation. He is to be a model for others to follow.
Six Positive Qualities to Display (v. 2b)
First, an elder must be “the husband of one wife,” or the better translation is “a one-woman man” (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα). This qualification has been interpreted in a number of ways. 1) Some interpret the phrase as a requirement: all elders must be married. This interpretation fails to do justice to the term “one.” 2) Some interpret the phrase as a prohibition of polygamy. This is highly unlikely, however, since monogamy was the norm in the Greco-Roman world. 3) Some argue that the phrase is intended to exclude from eldership those who have remarried after a divorce. But this interpretation stands in tension with those NT texts that seem to allow for divorce under certain circumstances (e.g., Matt 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15). 4) Most likely, Paul is speaking here of marital fidelity. A man must over time prove himself to be faithful to one woman. I don’t think this qualification automatically excludes all men with a divorce in their past, but it does exclude those who have not been faithful in their marriages.
Second, Paul says that an elder must be “temperate” or “sober-minded.” He must be a clear thinker, one who possesses the discipline to refrain from any excess that would dull his alertness to spiritual matters.
Next we find the closely related terms “self-controlled” and “respectable.” The idea here is that an elder must have command of his emotions and behavior. He must not be controlled by harmful desires, whether for sex, money, fame, or power, and he must be known for his respectable conduct.
Fifth, an elder must be “hospitable,” a “welcomer” of people of all kinds. His life and home are open to those in need.
Sixth, Paul writes that an elder must be “able to teach,” or “an apt teacher” (διδακτικός). This is the only qualification that is related to a specific giftedness. An elder must be a skilled teacher of God’s Word, a competent communicator of the gospel.
Four Negative Characteristics to Avoid (v. 3)
First, an elder is “not a drunkard.” The word Paul uses here is a compound of the preposition παρά (“by”) and the noun οἶνος (“wine”); the picture is one of a person who spends too much time sitting beside his wine. An elder must be free from addictions.
Second, an elder is “not violent but gentle.” An elder reacts to disputes in the church and in his own family with calmness and gentleness. A hot-headed church leader is a contradiction.
Similarly, Paul next says an elder is “not quarrelsome.” Elders are to be known as the peacemakers, not the troublemakers. The idea of “quarreling” refers not so much to physical fighting (though that would certainly be included) but to a propensity for arguments. In the words of that wonderful, practical theologian, Johnny Cash, elders “don’t take [their] guns to town.” They are not always loaded up and ready for a dispute, on the lookout for an argument to win.
Finally, an elder is “not a lover of money.” He is not greedy, stingy, or even financially ambitious. This is the very opposite of what we find in 1 Tim 6:10: “By reaching for riches, some have been led away from the Christian faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Three Final Qualifications, Each with Elaboration (vv. 4-7)
4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
The final three qualifications have to do with family (vv. 4-5), humility (v. 6), and an elder’s reputation in the community (v. 7). An elder must “lead” or “direct” his household. He must be a good steward of all the people and resources the Lord has entrusted to his care. Specifically, he must ensure that his children display consistent (though certainly not perfect) obedience and respect.
In v. 6, Paul explains that an elder “must not be a recent convert.” An elder must have ample time to grow, to mature in the faith, so that he will not become prideful, for “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18).
Lastly, in v. 7 Paul says that it is necessary for an elder “to be well thought of by outsiders.” He must have a good reputation, not only in the church, but also in the entire community. He must be a positive example for the watching world.
As we come to the end of this list of fourteen qualifications, it is important for me to say that no elder will ever be “perfectly qualified.” There is only one perfect pastor: Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, who laid down his life for his imperfect flock (elders included!). No elder, no under shepherd, will ever meet these qualifications perfectly. Paul’s point is that people who exhibit these characteristics in high and increasing measure should be leaders who fill the office of elder.
In closing, let me encourage churches to stay committed to the biblical qualifications for church leadership. As people step forward, desiring to be leaders in the church, we need to make sure that these people are measured by 1 Tim 3. The question is not: Is this person charismatic? The question is: Is this person a competent communicator of the gospel? The question is not: Is he the former manager of a Fortune-500 company? The question is: Does he manage his own household well? Leadership in God’s church is a noble task. But it is God’s church. He tells us who is fit to lead.