1 Timothy 3.1-8
As you know, we planted Église Connexion in September of 2014. God has been very good; so far we haven’t really had any big problems or tensions in the church, so my job as pastor of this church has been a great joy. But we’ve grown to the point where I could, if I wanted to, take on an inappropriate kind of authority—after all, I’m the only pastor of the church, I’m the only person who works for the church full-time, and being the sole pastor of a hundred people does one’s ego a lot of good.
But we believe that the Bible gives us safeguards against this kind of prideful power. This is why for the last year Arnaud and Paul have been going through a period of assessment and training to become co-pastors, or “elders,” of the church, along with me. And the basis on which they are assessed is the text we’ll be looking at today.
Two weeks ago we read 1 Timothy 2.8-15, in which Paul begins to describe what kind of woman of God should fill the church. And just to summarize, we established that there is one role in the church that God reserves for certain, qualified men—the role of elder, or overseer, which we’ll see today—and that in every other area we have a lot of freedom. Women are essential to the church’s thriving, and we want every woman in our church to know it, and to be encouraged to use their gifts in every way possible…which is, in fact, nearly every way imaginable.
In chapter 3, which we’re beginning today, Paul turns to the subject of what we commonly call church government, or the structure of leadership and responsibility in the church. He starts in verses 1-8 by discussing overseers, or elders, in the church; and then he moves on to deacons in verses 9-13. So we’ll be looking at the subject of elders this week, and that of deacons next week. Now before we get into all that, we need to take a moment to define exactly what it is an elder does.
1) What do elders do?
When we were looking at the subject of women in the church, we saw that there is one role that the Bible reserves for men—and not all men, but certain, qualified men—and we saw why that is. (We don’t have time to go back over all that; if you’re interested, you can find the sermon from two weeks ago on the church’s website.)
What we haven’t seen yet is what an elder does, and how to know a man is qualified to be one. Now, in this passage Paul doesn’t lay out all the details of an elder’s tasks, but we do know from other places in the Bible what the elders are called to do. Firstly, Paul summarizes the responsibilities of elders in chapter 5, in verse 17: Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. There are a lot of things we can see just here, but briefly, and first of all, elders rule, or govern, the church. This means it is their responsibility to lead the church in the way the Bible would have them lead it. The elders are the ones responsible for the spiritual health of the church: for making decisions related to that spiritual health, for exercising church discipline, and praying for the Spirit’s wisdom to guide the church faithfully. Secondly, elders preach and teach. It is their responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God to the people under their care. This is why at Église Connexion you’ll hear lots of different voices in lots of different contexts, but the preaching of the Word during corporate worship is always done by an elder or by someone in training to become an elder.
Next, it is their responsibility to care for the church of God. Paul says to the church in Ephesus (in Acts 20.28): Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. This is why, when someone is sick, or bereaved, or has a particularly pressing need, it falls upon the elders to care for them. (Not that others shouldn’t care for them, but the elders are called to be there on the front lines.)
And the Bible also tells us how elders should do all this. In Luke 22.26, Jesus says, Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. In 2 Corinthians 13.10 Paul says that God gave him authority over the church for building up and not for tearing down. So the authority God gives to pastors or elders in the church is a servant authority: it is not an authority which allows the pastors to dominate those in the church, but rather which will free them to serve them out of love.
The elders have a responsibility before God to do these things, and it is an incredibly serious responsibility. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells the Hebrew churches, Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account (Hebrews 13.17). That reality is a weighty and frightening thing for an elder to shoulder. So given the seriousness of this call, the question we’re asking today is, how do we know that a man is fit to do this work?
2) What are the qualifications for elders?
V. 1: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. So first off, this term “overseer” is synonymous with what Paul means when he says “elder” or “pastor.” In Acts 20.17-35, Paul refers to the elders of the church of Ephesus as “overseers.” In 1 Peter 5.1-2, elders are encouraged to “shepherd” the flock of God, which is of course the role of a pastor. J.B. Lightfoot wrote, “It is a fact now generally recognized by theologians of all shades of opinion, that in the language of the New Testament the same officer in the Church is called indifferently ‘bishop [overseer]’ (Gk. episkopos) and ‘elder’ or ‘presbyter’ (Gk. presbyteros).”
Secondly, many people who feel called to the pastorship hesitate to move forward with it for fear of appearing arrogant or prideful. But Paul encourages us to realize that it’s not a bad thing to aspire to this office: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. But there is a big “but”—simply aspiring to the office of overseer is not enough. There are some conditions. Every man who is elected to the role of elder must meet certain criteria. These are the characteristics that I was evaluated on when I went through assessment by Acts 29 before planting this church, and these are the characteristics that we’ve been evaluating Paul and Arnaud on during their assessment to become elders here. So what are the criteria?
2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach… This is a kind of summary term for everything that follows; it basically means that this man should be free of major character flaws that would be damaging for the church. It doesn’t mean he’s perfect—no one is, not even Paul—but he should be known for living a godly life.
…the husband of one wife… Now, he’s not just referring to polygamy here—he’s not saying, for example, that as long as you only have one wife, you can do what you want with her and with your own heart and mind. A modern equivalent of this term would be to say that he is a “one-woman man.” His heart and his mind are entirely devoted to his wife. She is his standard of beauty, inside and out, which means he’s not going to be looking around at other women like a farmer at an agricultural forum looking at cows. He’s a one-woman man. (So what about single guys? Arnaud isn’t married. Even if you’re not married, remember this: most of you probably will be one day, and when you are, that woman is your woman. You will have no other. So single men are exhorted to guard your heart and mind carefully, as if they were already married; God calls you to only have eyes for the woman he will give you.)
…sober-minded… This word speaks to the emotional life of the man. He’s a man who is not easily excitable, not easily provoked, but rather is poised enough to be led by the Spirit, and not his emotions. …self-controlled… This means that he should be able to focus, to not be easily distracted. He should be able to control his mind, control his tongue, control his behavior, to reflect the Spirit’s work in his heart.
…respectable… This means that his life is well-ordered; it’s not characterized by chaos. Have you ever known someone whose car was always a mess, who’s always late, whose conversations are always rushed, who always seems to be thinking about a million things at the same time, who’s just generally disordered? This is one area where I struggle (ask my wife). It’s not easy to respect a guy like that. To be respectable means that this guy has a good handle on his priorities, to the point that other people can see that even if he’s not perfect, he’s able to bear the weight and complexities of his life, which means he can bear the complexities of the church he’s called to lead.
…hospitable… This means that he is welcoming. He loves strangers. He’s not prone to cliques. He should have friends who aren’t like him. And he should genuinely be interested in those people. In other words, to be hospitable is to be like Jesus, who welcomed those who were wildly different from himself, who was “a friend of sinners.”
…able to teach… Every elder should be able to teach. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every elder will preach on a regular basis; but every elder should be able to teach. And this doesn’t necessarily mean teaching by standing up in front of people and laying out a sermon. My first boss was a guy named Philip who taught me immensely in informal settings: by inviting me and my wife to come to his house and watch him interact with his wife and kids, or by talking me through the gospel implications of whatever situation I was going through. Being able to teach means being able to sit down with someone and say, “Now how does the gospel come to bear on this situation?”, and being able to answer that question.
…not a drunkard… So this is someone who isn’t addicted to outside influences—whether alcohol, or drugs, or entertainment, or whatever. God gives us good things that can be release valves for us—playing with our kids, playing sports, making love to our wives… But our main release, our main need, our only addiction, if I could put it that way, should be Christ, and Christ alone.
…not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome… It’s amazing to see how many men are prone to ridiculous outbursts of anger. Now, I believe this extends to not just violence done with our hands, but also with our mouths. Remember what Paul said to the Ephesians (4.29)? 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. This is the kind of man he’s referring to. This kind of man can sit down with an unruly person, or wife, or child, and rather than reacting on his anger, can help that person see the root of his sin. He is gentle. His goal is not to beat down, but to help the person in front of him.
…not a lover of money… This is another kind of addiction, and there are few things that will ruin a man more quickly than a love of money. Why? Because it shows where his treasure is. Jesus said in Matthew 6.19-21, 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He knows how to love his wife as Christ loved the church; he knows how to sacrifice for her and provide for her; and he knows how to raise his children well. Now, I believe this is more than merely being able to keep your kids in line. I believe it because of what Paul said in Ephesians 6.4: Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In other words, kids may well obey their parents, but the kind of obedience we’re working for is joyful obedience, glad submission.
I’ll never forget one of the greatest lessons in parenting I’ve ever learned. A couple years ago we were hanging out with our friends the de la Hoydes, who are working for the church in Val d’Europe. We were walking to the park with them, and one of the kids (he must have been six or seven at the time) kept on running when Del, the dad, said to stop. Finally Del had to raise his voice a little to get his attention, and the kid threw a tantrum. And what Del did was amazing.
He squatted down in front of his son, calmed him down and said, “Jeth, do you think God loves you?” (This got my attention—it was not the kind of question I would have thought to ask a six-year-old in that context.) Jeth said, Yes. “Do you think God knows what’s best for you?” Yes. “Who did God give you as a daddy?” You. “Okay. So I want you to think about this. When you throw a tantrum because daddy told you not to run, you’re essentially telling God he made a mistake and gave you a bad daddy, a daddy who tells you not to run because he doesn’t want you to be happy. God gave me to you as your daddy because you need someone to take care of you, to help you learn what’s dangerous and what’s safe. And when you throw a tantrum when I tell you not to do something, you’re saying that I’m wrong to tell you no, and that God was wrong to give you a daddy like me.” (Jeth was very quiet—you could tell he was thinking this through very carefully.) Del said, “Now, is that what you really think? That God gave you a bad daddy?” He didn’t say anything, just shook his head. “So how can you show God that he was right, that you know he gave you a good daddy who loves you and wants you to be safe?” I can obey you.
Now, Del could have simply said, “Don’t run because I said so!” and then spanked his son. But he didn’t; he took the time to explain to his son what was at the root of his sin, and directed his gaze to Christ. He is not provoking his children to anger; but rather he is bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. He is keeping his children submissive, with dignity; he managed his household well.
6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. So it’s obvious (at least I hope it is) that an elder should be a converted Christian who manifests evidence of his faith in Christ. What he should not be is a recent convert. John Stott writes, “Although the modern western custom of ordaining people in their twenties straight from college has much to commend it, it also has its dangers, if they have had insufficient time since conversion to put down roots and to grow up in Christ.” The danger, according to Paul, is pride: that he may become puffed up with conceit. This pride was the reason why Satan rebelled against God, so if we continue in that pride we may well share in his consequence, and prove the reality (or no) of our faith. So an elder should be mature enough in his faith to have grown in humility, and to have proven that humility in the way he interacts with other Christians: he should have shown that his desire is not to further his own interests, but those of others.
7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Lastly, an elder must have a good reputation with people outside the church. We all represent the gospel to the world around us, and the pastors even more so. If they fall into disgrace, at least in the eyes of outsiders, so does the gospel. This is the snare of the devil—he works tirelessly to discredit the gospel in the eyes of unbelievers, and this is one of the main ways in which he does it.
3) Why does God want qualified elders?
So those are the things we look for in potential elders; it is on that basis that we assess them. Now, I’d like to take a step back for a moment and consider not only what the qualifications are, but rather the fact that God gives qualifications in the first place. This is not a role anyone can simply assume; biblically, no one can simply assert authority over the church to lead it.
The fact that Paul gives qualifications for eldership is incredibly significant. First of all, God wants the church protected—everyone in the church. The fact that there are qualifications for eldership means that you, ladies, are protected. Paul never suggests that women should generally submit to men. When we hear a word like submission used to speak about women, we hate it, because we’ve seen how often women have been abused by irresponsible, prideful, cruel men. So what we see here is that Paul shares our concern. If he’s going to tell a woman to submit to a man, he wants to make it absolutely, crystal clear that this man should be a man worth following. And he wants it to be clear that the other men in the congregation submit to the elders in the exact same way the women do.
Secondly, God wants the church to approve. The fact that there are qualifications means that an elder should not merely be called by God to this responsibility, but he should be elected and approved by the church. Think of God’s grace in this: you, the church, are never expected to simply take a man’s word for it that it really is God calling him to be an elder. I’m sorry, but the fact that you may feel a calling on your life doesn’t mean that your calling is legitimate—you might be wrong! It may not be God calling you to this work, but simply your own ego! And one of the safeguards God puts in place to make sure someone doesn’t lead the church by a mistaken calling, by pure charisma, just because he wants to, is this list of qualifications. You may say you’re called—great! Prove it. You are still subject to the church, who should be able to examine your life and see whether or not you’re actually equipped to do the work. So elders in Christian churches are not merely called, but elected and approved by the church.
Next, God wants the church holy. In 1 Peter 5.3, Paul tells the elders of the churches, Do not domineer over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. So guys, as we go through these qualifications, don’t think for a moment that you get a pass on these things just because you have no intention of being a pastor. The elders of the church are not merely leaders, but are meant to be examples for the Christians in their church to follow. In other words, our qualifications are your qualifications too. With the exception of the ability to teach, the qualifications listed here are not related to talent or ability, but to character. And those character traits are things God calls us all to.
4) What does God call you to do?
Now it may be easy to look at this text and say that this concerns us, the elders of the church. But this could not be farther from the truth. This passage is the Word of God, every bit as much as the Sermon on the Mount. So by detailing the qualifications for elders here, there are certain things God is calling you to do.
First of all, expect much of your elders. These qualifications are quite specific, and they don’t so much describe things the elders are to do, so much as what kind of men we should be. So hold us to this high standard; expect us to be this kind of man.
Second, pray for your elders and their families. The weight on your elders is immense: it is their responsibility to guide and direct and care for and teach all the people under their care. It’s a lot to take home with you. And inevitably, some of this burden will fall on our wives. Our kids will have to sacrifice their daddies on many weekends and evenings. The elders need your prayer; the elder candidates need your prayer; their wives need your prayer; their children need your prayer.
Third, trust your elders. This list of qualifications for elders is quite extensive, and like I said, they have very little to do with actual ability. The qualifications listed here are, for the most part, character traits; and this is telling. The Bible places a higher premium on obedience than skill; a man who is uncharismatic and unskilled, but who resembles Christ and is mature in his faith, is better equipped to lead the church of Christ than the most charismatic and skilled orator who doesn’t resemble Christ. So if the candidates for eldership have been found to meet these qualifications, then trust them; by their lives they prove that they know the Word of God and are equipped to lead.
Fourth, submit to your elders. I said this a couple weeks ago: if the men who are appointed as elders are the kind of men Paul describes here, and if they faithfully do all that the Bible calls the elders to do, the people in their congregation will have nothing to say. They’ll have no complaints, and no desire to undermine their authority; they’ll be thankful for it, and gladly support it.
God is not calling us to dominate or to selfishly manipulate you; rather, he calls us to serve you and work for you. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1.24, Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. If your elders live in a way which is contrary to the qualifications God has given for them, then their leadership should be called into question; but if they live according to these qualifications, it is easy to submit to such a man.
One more thing. Trust Jesus to lead your church well. Ultimately it is no one elder, or any group of elders, which leads the church, but Christ. The buck does not stop with us; Christ is the head of the church, not the elders. And this is our ultimate assurance. Men, no matter how qualified they are, are imperfect, and even the best of elders will do their work imperfectly. But Christ is perfect, and he is the head of the church, and he always leads perfectly. God remains 100% sovereign over his church, and he is a good God, so you have nothing to worry about. We will sometimes make mistakes, but he never does.