Previous article in this series: January 1, 2014, p. 159.
Having emphasized in previous articles that elders must be male, we turn now to examine the qualification of the office of elder that governs all others: his blamelessness.
The Fundamental Qualification
This qualification of blamelessness is first.
It is first in order. In both Scripture passages in which the qualifications of the office of elder are listed, “blameless” begins the list.reads: “A bishop then must be blameless…”; and says, “If any be blameless….”
It is first in order, because it is first in priority. That an elder be blameless is the fundamental qualification of the office. This is also why the word “blameless” appears twice in the list in Titus 1—in verse 6, and again in verse 7.
The other qualifications for the office of elder flow out of this one. The negative qualifications (see below) indicate sinful conduct that would make the elder blameworthy. The positive qualifications show how blamelessness is to manifest itself in an exemplary way in the life of the elder.
What, then, is blamelessness?
In I Timothy 3:2, the Greek word translated “blameless” means “cannot be laid hold of.” In Titus 1:6 and 7 a different word is used, one that means “cannot be called to account.” The two words have a different emphasis: that used in I Timothy 3 suggests that no other person—whether in the church or without—would have reason to charge the elder with a grievous fault, while the word used in Titus 1 indicates that no authority (such as the consistory) would have reason to investigate an elder because of charges brought against him.
Essentially, however, the idea of both words is the same. To be blameless is to be free from any grievous fault or sin that would cause the church to lose respect for the man, give the ungodly reason to blaspheme, and indicate that the man is not morally fit to hold office in Christ’s church.
Being blameless is not the same as being sinless. No elder is, or will ever be, sinless.
Nor is being blameless the same as being free from criticism. Sadly, some people will be quick to criticize their elders—either one elder in particular, or the whole body of them.
The blamelessness of the elder of which God’s Word speaks is a blamelessness, not according to the standard of the people’s expectations, but according to God’s qualifications for the office.
Sins That the Blameless Elder Is to Avoid
The addition of the list of “nots” in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 gives us a concrete idea of some of the sins that make the elder blameworthy.
Sitting long at his wine
He must be “not given to wine” (; ).
More literally, the Greek word thus translated tells us that the elder must not be the kind of man who sits alongside his wine, or sits long at his wine. Of course, what is here said of “wine” must apply to every other alcoholic beverage as well. The elder may drink a wine or a beer or a cocktail on occasion; Scripture does not forbid God’s people ever to drink alcoholic beverages. But the elder must not be the kind of man who, at every turn, has an alcoholic beverage in his hand.
The reason for this qualification is not difficult to understand. First, too much alcohol affects one’s ability to make good judgments. Both in his personal life, as well as in the office of elder, he is required to make good, sound judgments. And second, drunkenness leads to immorality. If the elder will be above reproach, he must not let down his guard against sin.
Striking, brawling, quarreling, soon angry
The elder must be “no striker” (I Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7). A striker is one who is ready in an instant to fight with his fists. The elder must have the ability to restrain his hands.
He must also restrain his words. The elder must not be contentious, always ready to fight with words. This is the idea of “not a brawler” (I Tim. 3:3). True, he must be a soldier; the good fight of faith he must fight against the devil and the powers of darkness. But he must not be the kind of man ready for a fight to advance himself, defend his cause, or get his way. And he must understand that the good fight of the faith is fought not with hands and angry words, but with the sword of the Spirit ().
And he must restrain his heart. At the root of the sins of striking and brawling is a heart that is “soon angry” (Tit. 1:7). The kind of man who is quickly moved to anger at a word he did not like, or the tone of other’s voices, or their failure to do what he thought they should do, is not a candidate for the office of elder.
Some who are prone to quarrel think that this stands to their advantage, if elected to be elder: they are ready to tackle issues, to straighten those who are crooked, to set right things that are wrong in the church. Their mistake is to forget that the imperfect church on earth must still dwell together in peaceful unity, and that a sinful way of addressing a problem is no better than the problem itself.
The work of the elder is to build up the church and to promote God’s glory in all he says and does. Quarreling and fighting do not accomplish this goal.
Greed for filthy lucre, and covetousness
Blamelessness also regards the elder’s view of money and possessions. He must be “not greedy of filthy lucre” and “not covetous” (I Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7).
Filthy lucre refers to money or possessions that are obtained in a dishonorable way. Prohibited are stealing in every form, gambling in every form, and being interested in any opportunity to make a quick dollar, even when it involves shady practices.
Again the inspired apostle states the heart-sin that is at the root of greed for filthy lucre—covetousness, lust, desire for what God was not pleased to give.
Covetousness and greed for filthy lucre must not characterize the elder, because they indicate that he seeks himself. The elder must be one who serves Christ’s church willingly and readily. He must deny himself, be ready to go without, for the sake of others.
To Titus only, and not to Timothy, Paul says that the elder must be “not self-willed” (Tit. 1:7). Literally, he must not be a “self-pleaser.”
Self-will can be a matter either of one’s goal or of one’s method, or of both. A man can make pleasing himself the goal of his life—he exists for his own happiness. Or a man can pretend he has other goals (God’s glory and the church’s well-being, for example), but in aiming toward those goals he does things that still appear to be to his advantage. Either way, his self-will comes out in arrogance, tyranny, manipulation, or in some other way.
The office of elder requires men who do not please self, but who will deny themselves for others. In this way
The elders give evidence that they serve Christ, their King and the church’s King. And in this way the elders show that they truly seek the good of God’s flock.
Positive Expressions of Blamelessness
The positive requirements for the office set forth ways in which the elder’s blamelessness is to show itself positively.
We will not examine each of these now. Those that relate to the elder’s family life, to his relationship to others, to his ability to teach, and to his being not a novice, we wish to treat in more detail in the future. For now we focus on the man’s personal spiritual characteristics. The bishop must be . . .
- “vigilant” ( ). This English word has the idea of being watchful. The Greek word that it translates refers to temperance. Primarily it refers to the temperate use of alcohol. Rather than sitting long at the wine, the elder must be vigilant. But temperance with regard to drink implies an ability to control oneself with regard to all immoderate use of earthly things. This is a fitting qualification for an elder: his mind must be on spiritual things, and he must be an example of godliness and modesty regarding his use of earthly things.
- “sober” (I Tim. 3:2; ). Referring to one who is of a sound mind, this word develops further the idea of vigilance. Not only with regard to his use of earthly things, but also with regard to all of his choices and decisions, the elder must show that he is of a sound mind. Physically and mentally, he must have a healthy mind; but even more, he must be spiritually sober and sound. One who acts impulsively, without considering the wisdom of a course of action, is not a good candidate for the office of elder.
- “of good behavior” (I Tim. 3:2). The elder must be “orderly,” to give a more literal idea of the Greek word. The point is that he must conduct himself in accordance with who and what he is: as a child of God, his conduct must glorify God; as an elder, his conduct must bring honor to his office.
- “patient” ( ). He must be fair and gentle. This word is inserted in the middle of the list of “nots” (“no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous”). It emphasizes that the elder must be the very opposite of a brawling man—a gentle man.
- “just” (Tit. 1:8). The word means “righteous,” and refers here not to his experience of the imputed righteousness of Christ (though an elder certainly must have that), but to his own punctual obedience to the law out of gratitude. If he will be blameless, the elder must have a high regard for God’s law, and strive to keep it in the power of Christ.
- “holy” (Tit. 1:8). Again, while the elder must be a saint in whom God has worked the grace of sanctification, this is not primarily the idea here. The word here translated holy refers to one who is pious. Such an elder regards all of his obligations before God, and seeks to carry out those obligations in the service of God. The word is to be taken with the previous word “just,” and indicates that the elder’s life is not to be one of merely outward obedience, or a keeping of the law only so far as the letter of the law requires; his is to be a complete, heartfelt obedience in all things.
- “temperate” (Tit. 1:8). The Greek word here translated indicates that the man is to show his strength by controlling himself. This is the chief way in which a man shows that he possesses the power of Christ: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” ( ). By contrast, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” ( ).”
God willing, next time we will turn to those qualifications that regard the elder’s family life.