Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Of the several passages which speak to this subject, I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are the most comprehensive. These passages present the following qualifying gifts: 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,” Tit. 1:9), not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre, patient, not a brawler (“not given to riot,” Tit. 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, temperate.
The first group of these is largely positive. The list is headed by “blameless.” Literally this word means “not open to censure, irreproachable.” In all of his life there must be nothing worthy of censure, not even a hint of anything. The elder must be a man of unquestionable morality and uprightness.
He must be “the husband of one wife.” This does not mean that the elder must be a married man. Paul as an apostle was also an elder, and he was a bachelor. The point is that the elder must be beyond reproach in his marriage. He must be a good and faithful husband, married in the Lord. He must not be a fornicator or an adulterer. Rather, he must be chaste.
In addition the elder must be “vigilant, sober, and of good behavior.” Vigilant means the elder must be serious minded. He must as well be alert to the dangers which threaten God’s people. The elder must be aware of the temptations God’s people face from the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. Sober means of sound mind. The elder must not be swayed by sudden impulses. He must be discreet. The elder must always be ready and willing to listen to the people of God in order to form sound judgments. He must be of good behavior. This refers to orderliness, a well ordered life. The elder must live with decorum and modesty. His life’s affairs, his work, family, and finances must be in order.
Given to hospitality is another necessary gift for the elder. “A lover of strangers” is the literal meaning of this word. This does not mean merely that the elder’s house must be open to all, or that he must be willing to provide food, shelter, and fellowship to the needy. It means this too, but there is much more. A hospitable elder is one whose heart is open to the needy, the poor, the lonely widow or widower, the little lambs of the flock, the young man or woman in the church who has no friends, the sick, the sorrowing, the anxious, despairing, and fearful. Hospitality refers to a willingness to spend oneself and be spent for the saints. It is to be truly sympathetic, to “feel with” God’s people in their needs after the example of our merciful High Priest, Jesus (Heb. 4:15-16).
The elder must be apt to teach. He must be skillful in teaching, qualified to teach. This certainly implies that the elder has a calling to teach. He is a “pastor-teacher,” according to Ephesians 4:11 and I Thessalonians 5:12-15. The reference here is not merely to teaching catechism classes or leading Bible Study Societies, but in all his spiritual oversight of his fellow officebearers and the congregation the elder is busy teaching from the Word of God. Family visiting, sick visiting, comforting the sorrowing, counseling those with problems, ruling, governing the congregation, admonishing the wayward, exercising discipline — all of these functions involve teaching. God’s Word must be brought to bear in all these circumstances and to all of these needs. The elder needs teaching skills. The elder must develop this gift of teaching first by prayerful study of the Word of God itself, by a study of the doctrines of Holy Scripture as set forth in the Reformed confessions, and by a study of good, sound books.
The second group of qualifications is largely negative. The elder must not be “given to wine.” Literally the text reads, “not one who sits long at his wine.” He must not be a drunkard, one addicted to alcohol. Scripture does not forbid the moderate use of alcohol. Jesus made and drank wine. Paul in this same letter tells Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (I Tim. 5:23). But drunkenness is everywhere condemned by Scripture. Certainly one who is enslaved by this sin is not fit for the office of elder.
The elder must be “no striker.” A striker is a bruiser, always ready with a blow, contentious, pugnacious, or quarrelsome. Closely related to this is the “brawler” mentioned in the same verse. This latter was added no doubt for emphasis. It refers to a hardheadedness, unreasonableness, one who is always fighting. We ought to note that most brawling in the church is done with words. Samuel Miller comments in this connection, “… of all characters in a congregation, an indiscreet, meddling, garrulous, gossiping, tattling Elder, is one of the most pestiferous.”1 Such men do not seek the peace of Jerusalem, but in pride they seek themselves. The result is that the congregation is torn by schism and strife, confusion, and all kinds of evil. God’s people cannot grow in the knowledge of the truth and in the grace of the Lord Jesus in such an environment. Strikers and brawlers scatter the sheep and are not fit to rule and care for God’s precious flock.
The elder must also be patient. Here is the sharp contrast. The elder must be no striker or brawler, but he must be patient. The word itself means “seemly, suitable, equitable, fair, mild, gentle.” This kind of man is fair minded, willing to listen to all sides of a dispute. When convinced by the Word of God he stands without compromise, but when convinced by the Word that his position is in error, he readily admits he is wrong. Gently and with the longsuffering of Christ he leads and guides the sheep. Patiently he bears with the weak.
Neither must an elder be covetous, i.e., a lover of money. The love of money is the root of all evil.2 Riches and money in themselves are not sinful. To love money and to seek wealth is indeed very sinful. We are called to be good stewards of the Lord’s gifts. Our earthly goods must be used for God’s Kingdom. Certainly a covetous lover of money is unfit to oversee God’s church.
Verses 4-7 of I Timothy 2 list the last three qualifications. An elder must rule well his own house. He must be not a tyrant, but a faithful husband and father. He must be one who has his children in subjection with all gravity. An elder must not have unruly, disobedient children. The reason for this is that if one does not know how to rule his own house, he cannot take care of the church.
The elder must not be a novice. A novice is one newly planted in the faith, a recent convert. These are often full of zeal initially, but they have not yet been tested, proved in the battle of faith. They need experience. The danger of electing a novice is that he will become proud and fall into the condemnation of the devil. This is no doubt why Paul and Barnabas waited one year before ordaining elders in the churches established on their first missionary journey.3 Some churches have a rule that new converts or people coming from other denominations must attend services and participate in the life of the church for one year before becoming members.
Finally, the elder must have a good report from those who are outside of the church. “Good report” means a good testimony. An elder must not have a bad reputation in the work place or community. He must be known as a sincere, honest, and irreproachable Christian. If he does not have this testimony he falls into reproach and the snare (trap) of the devil. And this brings shame to the name of Christ and His body, the church.
1. Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder, p. 254.
2. I Timothy 6:6-19.
3. Acts 14:21-23 and I Timothy 5:22.