Previous article in this series: March 15, 2013, p. 279.
God tells His church what kind of men may, and what sort of men may not, hold the office of elder.
That He does this is reasonable. Because the office of elder is found in God’s church, God may dictate who holds the office. In addition, the office itself is God’s institution. And through the body of elders in a congregation, Christ Himself rules the congregation on God’s behalf.
We do well, then, to pay close attention to the qualifications of the office.
First, by so doing we show that we have a high view of the office. For the church to put into the office anyone, without regard to whether or not he is qualified, is to have a low view of the office itself.
Second, by so doing we show that we have a high view of the church. Our high view of the church leads us to desire that her leaders be qualified men—the well-being of the church itself depends on it. How often in the Old Testament did the whole nation of Israel or Judah suffer because her kings and judges were ungodly men! Solomon put it this way: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (). The apostle Paul suggests the same thing when he concludes his list of the qualifications of elders and deacons in with these words: “that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (v. 15). If the people scoff at the qualifications for the office, and ignore them when putting elders into office, they are not behaving as they ought in God’s house; and if they persist in this, eventually the church will no longer be the pillar of truth.
Third, by taking heed to the qualifications of the office of elder, we show that we have a high view of Scripture—for, of course, it is in Scripture that God tells us what these qualifications are. For the church to put in office those who are not qualified according to God’s written word, or for the church to explain the scriptural qualifications for the office of elder as being not relevant for us today, is to have a low view of Scripture. In which churches does one find women in the office of elder (or deacon or pastor)? In those churches that have already decided that much of Scripture is time-bound and culture-bound—it was meant for people far away, long ago. The believer who says that Scripture is authoritative for us, “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (), thereby says that all of Scripture speaks to all of God’s people in every culture, era, and circumstance—also in the matter of who may hold the office of elder.
Finally, by taking heed to the qualifications of the office of elder, we glorify God and Christ. Christ is the one who ultimately calls men to the office of elder and puts them into office. Indeed, He uses the church as a means to this end. But by these qualifications He draws the church’s attention to those men whom He has raised up for the purpose of serving in this office.
I Timothy 3 and Titus 1
The two places in Scripture in which the qualifications for the office of elder are set forth at length areand . Let us quote both of these passages—but put them side by side, better to compare them.
Because the same apostle penned these words by the inspiration of the same Spirit, we are not surprised to find similarities between the two lists:
- Both emphasize, above all, that the elder must be “blameless.”
- Both speak to the matter of his family life—his being the husband of one wife, having faithful children, and ruling his own house well.
- Both refer to the godliness that must be evident in his personal life, positively and negatively. The lists do not use identical terms in every instance, but they treat the same basic ideas.
- Both emphasize the love he must have to other saints and humans by the phrase “given to hospitality” ( ) and “a lover of hospitality” ( ). Titus alone adds “a lover of good men” (8).
- Both emphasize the need for him to teach. says he must be “apt to teach,” while refers to his being able to exhort and convince the gainsayers.
- Either explicitly or implicitly, both indicate he may not be new to the Christian faith. says “not a novice,” while indicates that he has been taught the faithful word and holds it fast.
- alone speaks to the good report he has of those outside the church.
The Old Testament
Because the office of elder has its roots in Old Testament Israel, the qualifications for judges in the Old Testament are also relevant.
In our first article on the history of the office, we briefly referred to some Old Testament passages in which these qualifications are set forth. We do so again, to demonstrate that the qualifications for the office of elder in the New Testament church are essentially the same as those for the elders in Old Testament Israel.
When Israel for the first time was given a body of men to assist Moses in judgment, as Jethro had advised, Jethro specified what kind of men Moses should appoint: “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness” (). The wisdom of providing such qualified men was not merely earthly, political wisdom; Jethro himself was a godly priest, and he understood how best to ensure that God’s people Israel prospered. Later Moses himself refers to this event, and to the kind of men whom he set over Israel, when he says, “So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known…” ( ; emphasis mine, DJK).
When Moses told Israel, in his farewell speech, that one day she would desire a king, he specified that this king must be one whom Jehovah would choose. At the same time, he told Israel what kind of king they must seek: he must not be a stranger; he must not multiply horses, wives, silver, or gold to himself; he must know God’s law, and learn to fear Jehovah and keep His law (). As the elders are kings, these qualifications are to the point; and they are reflected in the Word of God that requires the elders not to be a novice, not to be covetous, to be the husband of one wife, and to be blameless and godly.
When Jehoshaphat set up judges in Judah, after the pattern of the body of judges that Moses gave Israel he charged them that they fear Jehovah, guard against covetousness, and do their work faithfully and with a pure heart (). These words regard what the judges must do, and how they must do their work; but one who does one’s work well manifests himself to be of good character. In other words, by implication Jehoshaphat is telling them what kind of men they must be.
The High Standard
These qualifications set a high standard for the church as she seeks out prospective elders in her midst.
This high standard does not imply that there are two standards of godliness in the church—one for Christians in general, and another for elders or prospective elders. The standard for godliness that these qualifications set forth are no different than the standard to which all children of God must adhere. In other words,and set forth the kind of character that every Christian man must have.
Even though the standard for godliness is no higher for elders than for other Christians, the qualifications given do narrow down the list of prospective elders to only some men in the church. Some Christians are women; they may not be elders. Through no fault of their own, but due to the way God has worked in their lives, some men will be novices; they are to be excluded from consideration for the office of elder. Others will not have the natural ability to teach; God does not intend them to hold the office. Still others are not living the kind of life a Christian man must live; their sinful nature shows itself in the form of covetousness, brawling, or keeping the bottle too close. Many of these do recognize their weaknesses and fight against them and are not properly the objects of church discipline; at the same time, they are not to be put in the church as elders.
The reason for this high standard is simply this: Christ, the King of the church, is blameless, perfect in His devotion to God, and sinless in His love for His people. These elders represent Christ and do His work. So they must be Christ-like.
This does not mean that they are entirely without sin. No man is. But being Christ-like, these elders love God’s law and strive to keep it. When they sin, they (by God’s grace) confess their sins, fight against them, and trust that Christ’s blood has covered their sin in God’s sight. They do not excuse their sins. And although they are not without sin, they are not guilty of any gross, deliberate transgression of God’s law that would bring dishonor on God’s covenant and give occasion to the church’s enemies to blaspheme.
The purpose of this high standard is to emphasize that the church is the body of those redeemed by Christ, called to glorify God by obeying His law. The men who rule the church must be leaders and examples in this regard. In them the congregation—and even those who are outside the church—must see the power of God’s grace in Christ transforming sinners into saints and restoring to these sinners the image of God.
The faithful church must, and will, honor this standard. Her Councils will do so as they seek out men in the congregation to hold the office of elder. Her male confessing members will do so as they vote from the nominations given by the Council. Her officebearers will do so as they exercise Christian censure among themselves in accordance with Article 81 of our Church Order—one way in which officebearers hold each other accountable to God’s Word. And her Consistory will do so, if it ever must undertake the sad task of suspending or deposing an officebearer from his office.
What great things God has done for us; what precious gifts He has given us! We have a place in His house and family! God give us grace to behave in His house as we ought in every respect—also in regard to the qualifications for elder.
2. A bishop then must be
the husband of one wife,
of good behavior,
given to hospitality,
apt to teach;
3. Not given to wine,
not greedy of filthy lucre;
not a brawler,
4. One that ruleth well his own house,
having his children in subjection with all gravity;
5. (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
6. Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
7. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
6. If any be
the husband of one wife,
having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.
7. For a bishop must be
blameless, as the steward of God;
not soon angry,
not given to wine,
not given to filthy lucre;
8. But a lover of hospitality,
a lover of good men,
9. Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.