The Character of an Elder

Sermon by David Strain on November 21

1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9

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Two weeks ago we began to think about the theme of the Bible’s teaching on the subject of the eldership, in preparation for our forthcoming elder election that will take place, I hope you remember, in a congregational meeting after Sunday School before the 11 o’clock morning service on December 5. There are thirty-six men whom you have nominated from the congregation, all of whom have undergone a course of study and training and have been examined by our elders and are now seeking the guidance of God, discerned through the vote of this congregation, as to whether they are being called into this sacred office. In your bulletins you’ll see all thirty-six names of the nominees listed, and I commend them to you for your prayers.

Part of my objective two weeks ago was simply to establish the Biblical doctrine of church government by plurality of elders. We saw that in the New Testament elders were called by the congregation itself and they served together in a college of elders – the Bible word is a “presbytery” – to oversee the ministry of the church at different levels, congregationally in the local church, regionally, and nationally. And my concern on that occasion was to afford you confidence, in the light of holy Scripture, that the government of the church by a plurality of elders is not an indifferent matter determined by nothing more than use and want or by mere tradition or purely on the basis of pragmatic concerns. No, this is a thoroughly Biblical idea. This is the form of government for the church, instituted by Christ, in His holy Word.

But of course that lends the whole business of selecting new elders, which is the process in which we are currently engaged as a congregation, that lends the whole process a profound solemnity. Doesn’t it? A gravity that I think we all ought to feel very deeply. Choosing new elders is a sacred responsibility entrusted to you as the communing members of this church. But upon whom should you rest your choice? What are you looking for, exactly, in a new elder? What qualifies a man for the office and ministry of an elder in the church of Jesus Christ? That’s the question to which I want to direct your attention this evening, and the New Testament answers it by pointing us not first of all to the gifts and abilities of these men so much as to their character. The way you know if a man is qualified to be an elder is by assessing his character. In a moment we are going to read the two passages of Scripture that provide for us the list of character qualifications for the eldership in 1 Timothy chapter 3 and in Titus chapter 1. You can find them both on page 992 and then 998 respectively if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Do go ahead, if you would, and turn there with me. Page 992 first of all. First Timothy chapter 3, verses 1 through 7.

To simplify things just a bit, as we look at these two lists I am going to group the teaching of the apostle under four categories. There are four areas of life in which a man must be qualified if he is to serve as an elder. So we’ll see first of all that an elder must be qualified in his personal life, in his private life. Secondly, he must be qualified in his domestic life. That is, within his marriage and in his family. Thirdly, an elder must be qualified in his public life. That is to say, in relation to those outside of the church. And finally, an elder must be qualified in his pastoral life. That is to say, he must exercise already, even prior to being identified and ordained as an elder, he must be exercising a ministry of shepherding and care and service in the congregation. Okay, so as we assess and as we look at the candidates that are before us, this is what we are looking for – character qualifications in the private, domestic, public, and pastoral dimensions of each man’s life.

Before we get to all of that, before we pray and read the passage and consider those four themes, let me just start by sounding an important warning that I think will be helpful for us all to remember. As we consider these two passages of Scripture and we begin to look for these qualities in our candidates, let’s be careful, shall we, to guard our own hearts so that we do not slide from a gracious and prayerful assessment of a candidate’s fitness for office in the light of holy Scripture into a kind of callous, judgmentalism that looks for flaws and delights to gossip about someone else’s sin. Remember, please, that almost none of the graces and qualifications listed by the apostle Paul that we are about to read in these two passages are the exclusive preserve of elders. In fact, the standard of life to which elders are called is not a different standard than the life to which every single Christian is called. It is simply the universal standard of Christian godliness, of Christlikeness. And so before we seek to take the speck from our brothers’ eyes, let’s be sure we’ve heard Jesus’ warning and have first taken the log from our own. With that said, let’s turn our attention to God’s Word. First Timothy chapter 3, beginning at the seventh verse. Before we read, let’s pause and pray and ask for the Lord to help us. Let us pray.

Almighty God, we pray now that You would speak Your Word in power in the blessing of the Holy Spirit to all our hearts that by it You might bless Your church and grow us into the likeness of Your Son, the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

First Timothy chapter 3, beginning at the first verse. This is the Word of God:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

And then turn forward with me to the letter of Paul to Titus chapter 1, Titus chapter 1, beginning at verse 5:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you – if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

Do please keep your fingers in those two portions of Scripture and be ready to refer to them. It will help you to have the Scriptures open before you as we listen to God and to the teaching of His Word.

There used to be two white, wooden rocking chairs on the back porch of my home. I think it was about two summers ago maybe, Sheena, two summers ago when, a very pretty day, I took one of the rocking chairs out onto the lawn to sit in the sun for a little while. And I rocked back and then I rocked forward and then I rocked back one more time, and to the amusement of my darling wife, the whole thing collapsed beneath my girth and I was left flailing around in the grass! We are about to examine the character qualifications for holy office in the church of Jesus Christ. And I feel pretty confident in guessing that everyone who examines himself honestly in light of the Biblical qualifications that we’ve just read together, will at some point or another begin to wonder whether he could ever hope to bear their weight or whether, like my nice white rocking chair that summer day, he will not collapse under an intolerable burden of expectations and obligations. Who can measure up? Surely this is a burden no one can hope to bear.

That’s why the introductory language of 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 1 is so very helpful. Paul uses a formula, a phrase there. He uses it four times over in Timothy and once more in Titus. He says this is a “trustworthy saying.” You see that language in 1 Timothy 3? “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, or elder, he desires a noble task.” So clearly, longing for this, wanting to do it, aspiring to the work is part of what is required of an overseer. But don’t miss that introductory formula. It’s only been used once before in 1 Timothy and so now this is the second time he uses it; it should ring a bell and take us back to 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 15 where Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy” – there’s the formula – “and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

And here’s why that’s so very helpful. Before we can embrace the second trustworthy saying about aspiring to sacred office, we need to be sure we have thoroughly embraced the first trustworthy saying – “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Before we can or should aspire to the office of overseer, of elder, and certainly before we can have any hope at all of living out the godly graces listed as qualifications for office, we must believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ who came to save sinners. And that means that an elder is a saved sinner; not a perfect saint, not even a deserving servant, not the cream of the crop who has beaten out all of the competition in some sort of ecclesiastical meritocracy. Saved sinners being sanctified – that’s what an elder is.

And so brothers and sisters of First Presbyterian Church, before anything else, as you look for new elders you need to be asking, above everything else, “Is he a Gospel man?” Is he a Gospel man? Does he know himself to be a sinner saved by grace? Does he cling to Christ? Does he reflect the tone and the tenor of Paul’s first trustworthy saying and readily declare, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and I feel myself to be foremost amongst them”? And to you, elder candidates, let’s be clear. The lists in Timothy and Titus, they will be a crushing burden to you that you could never hope to bear, never measure up to, unless this is already true of you. How can you, how can any of us, face the call to exemplary holiness and piety without feeling instant defeat and shame as we look at our own hearts? Only by resting upon Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners, all who are converted, remember, will be consecrated. All who are saved are being sanctified, and the grace of God in the Gospel is the engine, it is the fuel of your growing holiness. There is no other path to godliness but by the grace of God in the Gospel of His Son. So you must be, you must be Gospel men. Are you Gospel men? That’s the foundation. I want to be sure we have it well laid.

An Elder Must be Qualified in His Personal Life

And now we can take a look at the first category of character qualifications that Paul mentions must be present in an elder’s life. They are the qualifications of the man’s personal life, his private life. Here I am thinking about someone’s self-governance in their private attitudes, in their affections and in their actions. And so Paul says, 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 2, that an elder is to be “sober minded,” that is, he is not given to unrealistic extremes or to poor judgment. There is a gravity and a due sense of consequence to the way that he participates in the leadership of the church and the shepherding of the flock. And then Paul adds that he is to be “self-controlled,” that is, he is a person marked by growing self-discipline, self-regulating, in growing conformity to the commands of holy Scripture. He holds himself in check.

And to that, Titus adds that he must not be arrogant. Pride is, without a doubt, the greatest enemy of faithful ministry, which is why when Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:7 he says, “He must not be a recent convert or he may become puffed up with conceit, with arrogance, and fall into the same condemnation as the devil.” A recent convert to Christ, a baby Christian, will likely lack the well-developed spiritual maturity necessary to squash the constant temptation to see a call to serve as an elder as a kind of personal promotion, as a well-deserved moment of recognition for, you know, being a great guy. And Paul abominates that attitude. And he affixes to it a grave warning. Do you see it in 1 Timothy 3:7, the warning? If you become puffed up in self-congratulatory pride at having become an elder, you are in grave danger of falling into the same condemnation as the devil. What an indictment of a Christian leader that would be! To be engaged in Gospel ministry and be condemned under the same sentence as Satan himself for overweening pride.

Brother elders, fellow pastors, elder candidates, men training for Gospel ministry, please understand that the work to which you are called is no substitute for godly character. An unholy man engaged in holy work will still be condemned and his ministry, no matter how outwardly faithful it will have been, is no protection for him against the divine sentence when it falls. Ministry is no substitute for mature, Christ-like godliness.

Then finally under this heading of a candidate’s personal life you’ll notice that in both Timothy and in Titus, Paul mentions that the man must not be a drunkard. The word literally means, “not lingering beside wine.” So yes, let me qualify that, yes, in 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul actually tells Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach. Yes, Jesus, at the wedding at Cana made mature wine for the celebration. The Bible does not prohibit the moderate and prudent use of alcohol. That’s true. But the Bible absolutely prohibits drunkenness. And an elder must never be a drunkard. And that connects in obvious ways, doesn’t it, to the previous requirements of sober-mindedness and self-control. These are the inner attitudes necessary for the outward habit of sobriety and temperance. The elder’s personal life – do you see how Paul speaks about it?

An Elder Must be Qualified in His Domestic Life

But then there’s also the elder candidate’s domestic life, in the second place. His personal life; what about his domestic life? Both Timothy and Titus say that an elder must be the husband of one wife. That does not mean that the elder must be married. We ought not to adopt a standard for ministry that would exclude Jesus and Paul, and perhaps even Timothy himself from serving amongst the elders. That would be absurd. Neither does “husband of one wife” mean that if a man has been widowed and remarried or Biblically divorced, according to the stipulations of Scriptures and later remarried, that he cannot serve as an elder. If Jesus and Paul permit divorce and remarriage without sin in the cases of adultery or desertion, those are the Biblical requirements, then it does not seem reasonable to narrow the qualifications for office to exclude something that is not in itself sinful. I still think the well-known paraphrase of J.B. Phillips strikes the correct tone. When Phillips says that an elder must be “a one woman man, a one woman man,” the point is marital fidelity, chastity, purity, and devotion. He’s not a flirt. He’s not got a roving eye. He’s not a porn addict. He’s not a philanderer.

Then additionally, 1 Timothy says he must “manage his own household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive. For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” Titus further adds, “His children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” Now again we need to clarify. The word translated “believers” there, “His children are believers,” probably should be better translated, “His children are faithful,” because the standard is not that an elder’s child must be converted. If it was, it would be imposing a qualification upon the man he would have no power or possibility ever to accomplish. It is entirely outside of his grasp to ensure that his children are converted or not. Saving faith is the gift of a sovereign God. And yes, while faithful parenting is ordinarily the principle instrument the Holy Spirit of God will use in the conversion of our children, it’s not an automatic process, as some of you have learned to your great heartbreak. Many godly parents, and you probably know some of them, have endured the heartache of well-raised, well-taught, well-loved children rejecting the faith in which they have been instructed and following instead the ways of the world. Are those parents then disqualified from the office of elder on that basis alone?

I actually think that a closer look at the balancing clauses of 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 6 help make clear what Paul is really after here. First Timothy 1 verse 6, if you’d look there with me. An elder’s children are to be believers, or better, are to be faithful, “that is, they are not to be open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” He’s not talking about whether they are truly born again or not; he’s talking about their general submission to and support for and participation in the life and teaching ministry of the church where their father is serving as an elder.

Now the reason all of this matters, of course, is spelled out for us, isn’t it, in 1 Timothy. “If someone does not know how to manage his own household well, how will he care for God’s church?” Why is the quality of a man’s marriage or the conduct of his children part of the data that are you are to consider as you assess man’s fitness for the ministry of the eldership? Why is it any of your business? Well, the answer is that the Christian family is a little church, and every believing husband and father is to be it’s shepherd and it’s pastor and it’s elder. A Christian family is a little church, and a husband and a father is it’s shepherd and pastor and elder. And if a man does not shepherd his own home, his wife and his children, with tenderness and faithfulness and purity and wisdom, if he doesn’t pray with them and for them, if he does not preach Christ to them and open the Bible with them, if he doesn’t pastor them, what right have we, any of us, to expect that he is able to shepherd or pastor the whole church? The family is the primary proving ground for Christian ministry. The family is the primary proving ground for Christian ministry.

An Elder Must be Qualified in His Public Life

So the elder candidate’s personal life. The elder candidate’s domestic life. Thirdly, notice what Paul says about the elder candidate’s public life. Once in 1 Timothy 3, twice over in Titus 1, Paul says an elder must be “above reproach.” Do you see that phrase? “Above reproach.” That doesn’t mean that he is without sin. It means there are no legitimate grounds for public scorn in his life. There is nothing in his conduct or in his history that can reasonably bring disrepute on the name of Christ or undermine his public witness or the witness of the church with which he is associated. In many ways, you could actually argue that the rest of the lists in 1 Timothy and in Titus are really just expositions of this one qualification. They tell us what it means to be above reproach, although clearly some of the specifics pertain more obviously to the elder’s relationship to the public, to those outside, than to others.

So for example, Paul says in 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 2, 1 Timothy 3:2, an elder must be “respectable.” Do you see that phrase? That’s more than simply being above reproach. Being above reproach is a negative qualification. There’s nothing against him. But to be respectable is a positive qualification. Not only is there nothing against him, but the people who know him respect him. His public conduct, his treatment of others, elicits their admiration and their affirmation and their respect, their confidence. That’s why Paul says in both Titus and in Timothy, the elder “must not be violent but gentle, must not be quarrelsome.” He’s not a hot-head. He’s not prone to fits of rage. He doesn’t hold grudges. He does not take revenge. He has no taste for contention and squabbling and defending his own opinions at all costs. He is not “quick-tempered,” as Titus 1 puts it. And neither may he be “greedy for gain,” that is to say he is not out for himself. His business dealings, his personal finances, his honesty in borrowing and lending are all unimpeachable.

In sum, Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:7, “he must be well thought of by outsiders so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Disgrace – that’s the trap the devil has set for every Christian leader, disgrace. And one important guard against it is a good reputation with people outside the church. Remember, Paul was writing in a pagan context, deeply hostile to the Christian faith. Believers were almost universally viewed with profound suspicion. If you are well thought of, even by such otherwise hostile opponents to the Gospel, well then you will be well guarded against the snare that the devil has set against you. Kent Hughes actually renders the phrase translated in our version as “well thought of,” he renders that phrase as, “having a beautiful witness.” A beautiful witness. I think that’s helpful, don’t you? Do you have a beautiful witness in the community? In your workplace? With those who know you? Do those who know you see something of the loveliness and attractiveness of Jesus Christ in your character? A beautiful witness.

An Elder Must be Qualified in His Pastoral Life

The elder’s personal life. The elder candidate’s domestic life. His public life. Finally, notice what we learn here about his pastoral life. And let me say before we go any further what I hope is already obvious. Paul presupposes that elder candidates already have a pastoral life. That is to say, they are already exhibiting the gifts for and are already in some measure engaged in ministry and service. There is a very real sense in which the work of the elder does not start after ordination to office. They ought not to become elders if they are not already eldering in some way. And so as you pray, and you look for men for the office of elder from among the candidates before you, ask yourself, “Are these men eldering already? Are they shepherding? Are they teaching? Are they leading? Are they counseling? Are they praying?”

Did you notice that there are really only two areas of ministry mentioned when Paul talks about the qualifications for office in Titus and in Timothy? First he says, “An elder must be hospitable,” and secondly, “He must be a teacher of the Word.” Hospitality there involves the simple sharing with a genuine welcome of your life, your home, and yourself with others. Hospitality. The word that’s translated “hospitality,” “philoxenos,” means “love of strangers;” a bit like “xenophobia” means “fear of strangers.” “Love of strangers.” One way to identify that in a possible elder’s life is to watch whether and how they pursue new faces at church. Do they hang back in the shadows? Do they only talk to the people they know? Are they looking to get in and get out with as little contact as is humanly possible? Are they genuinely glad to meet new people? Is a new face with whom no one is speaking, to whom no welcome is extended, is that an emergency in their minds? An unwelcomed stranger – that should be an emergency in a Gospel church.

Romans 12:3 actually urges all Christians – this is the phrase – “to seek to show hospitality.” The language is important. Not just to show hospitality, you know, when it’s convenient, when it’s easy, when it doesn’t cost you anything. But to “seek to show” it, that is, to pursue showing hospitality, to look for ways to do it, to get creative about it, to make it a priority in your life. A welcoming church without welcoming elders is an impossibility. So elder candidates must be hospitable.

And they “must be able to teach.” What does that involve? Listen to how Paul elaborates on it in Titus 1:9. Titus 1:9. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine, and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Being able to teach starts, did you see this, not with your ability to speak and hold forth in public. That’s not what Paul means. It’s not being a raconteur, you know, having the gift of the gab. That’s not what he’s after. Rather, it begins, being able to teach begins with a firm grip of the truth for yourself. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy Word as taught.” He is not a theological innovator. His attempts to explain Christian truth are not his best guesses, blind stabs in the dark. He is a well-taught man and he holds the faith once for all delivered to the saints, cheerfully and tenaciously. That means that theological ignorance, indifference to doctrine, contentment with the superficial answers to life’s big questions, those are disqualifying characteristics, disqualifying characteristics.

But a love of sound doctrine is a necessary mark of a faithful elder, and he must love it not only for the benefit he derives from it, but in order to perform two vital ministry tasks. First, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. That doesn’t always mean, you know, that he is able to teach an adult Sunday School class or to expound the Bible at length in front of a crowd. But it does mean, at a minimum, that he must have a sufficient fluency and familiarity with all the doctrines of holy Scripture so that he can explain them to someone in the congregation, say, in their living room at home, in the regular course of his pastoral duties. The Word of God, remember, is the rod and staff by which Jesus the Good Shepherd guides and defends His sheep. And an undershepherd, another elder, a faithful elder, must know how to wield that rod and staff in a way that puts the flock in mind of the tender care of the Good Shepherd Himself.

But it doesn’t stop there, by the elder teaching others sound doctrine. He must also, notice, “be ready to rebuke those who contradict it.” Elders are not to allow error to flourish. They are not to allow lies to be propagated as if they were truth. They will never be able to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine, of course, if they do not know sound doctrine. And here again is the great value of our own church’s confession of faith and catechisms. Elders should know the doctrinal standards of our church and love them as a pattern of sound words that guide us in safe paths and provide for us in clear, succinct language, accurate and useful summaries of Biblical truth.

And so these are the qualifications you are to look for in the candidates’ personal lives, in their domestic lives, in their public lives, and in their pastoral lives, in their ministries. One of my mentors, Dr. Harry Reeder, the pastor of Briarwood PCA in Birmingham, Alabama, likes to say that “Elders are supposed to be thermostats and not thermometers.” “Elders are supposed to be thermostats and not thermometers.” They set the spiritual temperature of the church, they do not simply reflect it. In giving us these two lists, Paul is helping us to identify who among us are thermostats, who will raise the spiritual temperature. So you should be asking yourself as you pray, as you think about the candidates on our list, “What kind of congregation will we become if the character of this man became determinative of our character as a church? What would happen if this church imitated this leader? Will I be more like Jesus? Will this church become more like Christ if we were to follow this man’s example?” How you answer that question will help you determine for whom you should cast your vote on December 5. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, as we survey these two lists, albeit very briefly, we, all of us, recognize the sting of Scripture’s rebuke. We see all the ways in which, at least some of the ways in which, we have fallen short of the standard of godliness. And so we bow before You and we begin by asking for forgiveness and for grace. Have mercy on us. Thank You that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. We praise You too for the elder candidates that have been nominated for office in our congregation, for their gifts and their graces and their willingness to serve. We pray for each of them that You would work through this process to make them more like You, more like Christ, that their characters would be shaped and molded till they mirror His. And we pray that on December 5 that You would guide us as a congregation and raise up laborers for the harvest field who will set the spiritual temperature at a high point in the way that they go hard after likeness to Jesus in their own life, in their family life, in their public life, and in their own ministries. We pray, O God, that You would not give us the leaders we deserve, but give us men of God who will shepherd us in such a way that we are put in mind of the Good Shepherd Himself. For we ask this for Your praise and glory in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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