Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Before we examine the gifts which a man must possess if he is to be qualified to serve Christ and His church in the offices of minister or elder, we must pay attention to the biblical terms used to refer to these offices. These terms give a great deal of insight into the kind of man Christ calls to serve in church office.
In the Old Testament there is the word translated “elder.” While in some instances this word refers to old age, i.e., to elderly people,1 more often the word refers to the chief men, the rulers of the people.2
From these passages we may conclude that, at least from the time of Moses, Israel had elders over the nation, over cities and towns, over thousands, over hundreds, over fifties, and over tens. These elders judged and ruled in both civil and ecclesiastical (moral, ethical) matters. At least in ecclesiastical matters we may trace the origin of the office of elder to these elders in Israel.
In both the Old and New Testaments there is also the word translated “shepherd” or “pastor.”3 The shepherd tends or cares for the sheep. He guides them, feeds them, protects them.
In the New Testament there is the word translated “elder.” This word refers to aged men and women in some passages.4 More frequently the word refers to the office of elder in the church.5 While these men need not be the older or aged men in the congregation, they must be mature in the faith (I Tim. 3:6).
There is also the word translated “bishop.” The literal meaning of this word is “overseer” or “superintendent.” That this word refers to the elders of the church is evident from I Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:5-9 where both “elder” and “bishop” are used. The basic notion of this word, “bishop,” is that of oversight or rule.
In addition there are two verbs used which give us insight into the office of elder. There is the word which, in Hebrews 13:7, 17, means to lead, to go before, to have authority over. The other verb means to feed or nourish.6 The elder, whether he be a teaching (minister) or ruling elder, must provide spiritual nourishment for the people of God.
Holy Scripture has much to say on the subject of the gifts or qualifications an elder must possess. Of the many passages which speak to this subject two demand careful and detailed study. These are I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These passages speak of the following qualifications: blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to or lover of hospitality, apt to teach (“able to exhort and convince the gainsayers,” Titus 1:9), not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre, patient, not a brawler (“not given to riot,” Titus 1:6), not covetous, rules his house well, not a novice, has a good report of them that are without, not soon angry, lover of good men, just, holy, and temperate.
Five comments in general about these qualifications need to be made.
1)These gifts do not apply to the elders of the church exclusively. These must characterize all of God’s people. But these must be especially true of the elders.
2)While it is true that all of these qualifications must be evident in a man if he is to be an elder in the church, not all of the elders will possess all the gifts in equal or full measure. One elder, for example, may be more apt to teach than another. But all these gifts must in some measure characterize every elder.
3)Note the little word “must,” in I Timothy 3:2. Literally the verse reads, “It is necessary therefore that the bishop be blameless….” This same word is used by Jesus in John 3:7, where He tells Nico-demus, “Ye must be born again.” Regeneration is essential to salvation. Without this work of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart, he cannot even see the kingdom of God. Likewise these qualifications (the “must” applies not just to “blameless” but to all of the gifts) are essential gifts for the office of elder. Lacking them a man cannot and may not serve as an elder. Consistories and congregations must take great care in nominating and electing men for the office who possess these qualifying gifts of the Holy Spirit.
As complex as the application of such rules may seem under certain life situations, there is no excuse for our setting them aside or taking them with anything less than the utmost seriousness. The flock of Christ is too dearly bought for us to afflict it with the rule of men less gifted and diligent than the Word of God specifies!
It ought to be the constant prayer of the church that her Lord and Head will raise up such men to teach and rule his people. And let those who aspire to this office set foot upon that narrow path with fear and trembling. They are not, in themselves, sufficient for these things; their sufficiency can only be from the Lord, who dearly loves his bride the church.7
4)I Timothy 3:1 speaks of a man desiring the office of a bishop. While young men desire or aspire to the office of the ministry, we do not often think of men desiring or seeking the office of elder. This ought not be! We should think of men desiring this office. Young men who possess these qualifications ought to desire the office of elder. They ought to prepare prayerfully for the office by reading and studying the Holy Scriptures. They ought to study the confessions of the church. They ought to prepare for this office by reading good Christian books on the doctrines of Scripture, church history, the church order, and the work of the church in preaching, administering the sacraments, and exercising Christian discipline. They ought to cultivate and develop these gifts and be willing to serve as elders if called by Christ through His church.
5)Finally, these qualifications for the office of minister or elder are gifts from Christ, the King of the church. This truth has several implications. One cannot be taught these things. A man must, for example, possess the gifts for the office of the ministry of the Word or he cannot be a minister. No amount of seminary training can change this! The most that a seminary education can accomplish is to provide the basic tools necessary for the ministry and assist a man in developing the qualifications with which Christ has blessed him. That these qualifications are gifts of the grace of God means that Christ never calls a man to the office of the ministry or elder without also giving him the gifts and qualifications to serve in that office. Those who are called to serve as ministers and elders in the church may be encouraged by this. Apart from the grace of God the work is impossible, but with the qualifying grace of God a man is able to teach, preach, shepherd, and discipline the flock of God.
May God raise up young men in the churches, grace them with the qualifications to serve His precious, blood-bought saints as ministers of the Word and elders.
1 See Genesis 43:27, for example.
2 Exodus 3:16; 17:5; 18:12, 17-27; 24:1, 9; Numbers 11:16; Deuteronomy 25:7-9; Joshua 7:6; Judges 2:7; I Samuel 4:3; II Samuel 3:17; I Kings 8:1.
3 Psalm 23:1; Jeremiah 3:15; Ephesians 4:11.
4. I Timothy 5:1-2.
5 I Timothy 5:1-2; I Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:17,28; James 5:14
6 Luke 8:32; John 21:15.
7 Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church, p. 36.