Qualifications of Elders
It is our desire that we be very careful to nominate men who are qualified. It is said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore, it is paramount that we nominate men not because they are “successful” or popular, but because they are mature, spiritual, gifted, Scripturally qualified and Christ-like.
Biblically, the focal point of all church leadership is the elder. It is the elders who are charged with teaching, feeding and protecting the church, and it is the elders who are accountable to God on behalf of the church.
What is the Role of an Elder?
As the apostolic era came to a close, the office of elder emerged as the highest level of local church leadership. Thus, it carried a great amount of responsibility. There was no higher court of appeal and no greater source to know the mind and heart of God with regard to issues in the church. An elder’s primary responsibility is to be caretaker for the church. That involves a number of specific duties.
Perhaps the most obvious is the function of overseeing the affairs of the local church. First Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” The Greek word translated “rule” in that verse is used to speak of the elders’ responsibilities four times in 1 Timothy, once in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 (where it is translated “have charge over”) and once in Romans 12:8, where ruling is listed as a spiritual gift.
As rulers in the church, elders are not subject to any higher earthly authority outside the local assembly. Their authority over the church is not by force or dictatorial power, but by precept and example (Heb.13:7). Nor are the elders to operate by majority rule or vote. If the same Spirit guides all the elders and all have the mind of Christ, there should be unanimity in the decisions they make (1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:3, Phil.1:27; 2:2). If there is division, all the elders should study, pray, and seek the will of God together until consensus is achieved. Unity and harmony in the church at large begin here.
The elders are responsible to preach and teach (1 Timothy 5:17). They are to determine doctrinal issues for the church and have the responsibility of proclaiming the truth to the congregation. First Timothy 3:2, listing the spiritual qualifications of the overseer, gives only one qualification that relates to a specific function: he must be “able to teach.” All the other qualification are personal character qualities.
Titus 1:7-9 also emphasizes the significance of the elder’s responsibility as a teacher: “The overseer must … be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Already the threat of false teachers was so great that a key qualification for leadership was an understanding of sound doctrine and the ability to teach it.
The elders are a resource for those who seek partnership in prayer. James wrote, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14).
Acts 20:28 says that another function of an elder is shepherding: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer, to shepherd the church of God.” That involves feeding and protecting the flock. Verses 29-30 emphasize that the protecting ministry of the overseer is to counter the threat of false teachers.
The elder is to act as a caring and loving shepherd over the flock, but never in Scripture is it spoken of as “his flock,” or “your flock.” It is the “flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2) and he is merely a steward – a caretaker over the possession of God. Elders, as the spiritual overseers of the flock, are to determine church policy (Acts 15:22); oversee (Acts 20:28); ordain others (1 Tim. 4:4); rule, teach and preach (1 Tim. 5:17); exhort and refute (Titus 1:9); and act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Those responsibilities put the elders at the core of the New Testament church’s work.
Understandably, elders cannot afford to allow themselves to be consumed with business details, public relations, minor financial matters and other particulars of the day-to-day operation of the church. They are to devote themselves first of all to prayer and to the ministry of the Word, and to select others to handle the lesser matters !Acts 6:3-4).
What are the Qualifications of an Elder?
The single, overarching qualification of which the rest are supportive is that he is to be “above reproach.” That is, he must be a leader who cannot be accused of anything sinful. All the other qualification, except perhaps teaching and management skills, only amplify that idea. An elder must be above reproach in his marital life, his social life, his family life, his business life and his spiritual life. “The husband of one wife” (lit. “a one-woman man”) does not mean simply that he is married to one woman – that would not be a spiritual qualification. Rather, it means an elder is to be single-minded in his devotion to his wife. If he is not married, he is not to be a flirtatious type. “Temperate” speaks of a balanced, moderate life. “Prudent” is another word for “wise.” “Respectable” means he has dignity and the respect of his peers. “Hospitable” means that he loves strangers – not necessarily that he has a lot of dinner parties but rather that he is not cliquish. “Able to teach” means “skilled in teaching.” In addition, he is not “pugnacious” (not one who picks fights or is physically abusive), but “gentle,” “uncontentious,” and “free from the love of money.”
All those must be proved qualities and abilities, and the first place he must manifest them is in his home. He must manage his own household well and keep his children under control with dignity. “Household” in verse 5 probably refers to an extended household, including servant, lands, possessions, and many in-laws and other relatives. Those were elements of a household in the first century, and a great deal of leadership skill and spiritual character were required to manage them well. If a man could not manage his household, how could he be charged with managing the church?
The qualifications of an elder, then, go far beyond good moral characteristics. An elder must be demonstrably skilled as a teacher and manager. If anything in his life signifies a weakness in those areas, he is disqualified. If he is in debt, if his children are rebellious, or if his business affairs are not above reproach, he cannot be an elder.
He clearly cannot be a new convert, for it takes time to develop spiritual maturity and to examine a man’s life and evaluate his qualifications. In addition, elevating a new convert to a position of leadership can tempt him to become conceited. To wrap all that up, an elder must have an impeccable reputation with those outside the church (1 Tim. 1:7) as well as those within.