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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Biblical Elders

Have you ever read the biblical qualifications for church leadership? The list is not lightweight.
1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 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? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Tim 3:1-7).

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you -- 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:5-9).
I am not alone in my concern today that church leadership is not lining up very well with biblical requirements. As a prime example, just about everyone knows about the concept of the "PK" -- the pastor's kid. The children of the pastor in many churches will often be the most disruptive kids around because, as we all know, a pastor's job is tough and time consuming and he doesn't get much opportunity to deal with his kids. But there is no question that a leader in the church must "know how to manage his own household" specifically in terms of well-behaved children.

But I'm not writing this to complain about pastor's kids. I'm writing this about the listing of requirements. First, it should be noted that these lists are not intended as qualifications for Christians. Just like a "computer programmer" needs to have a special skill set that not everyone requires, "elders" need to have special qualifications. Still, these qualifications leave me with questions.

There are peripheral questions for me. How would you define "self-controlled"? Is a pastor who eats too much lacking in self-control? (It's an easy question since I know of so many overweight pastors.) How would you quantify "arrogant"? That's tougher, since simply holding a view of Scripture can be classified as "arrogant".

From there, it only gets tougher. What, for instance, are we to make of "the husband of one wife"? Some have argued that it is "one wife at a time" (as opposed to polygamy). That would qualify most anyone. But clearly the Bible is talking about managing households and such, so that seems unlikely. The more conservative side says it means "one wife ever". That would automatically exclude a divorced person from being in church leadership. But what if that divorce took place in his youth, before he knew Christ? Would this preclude him from serving in that capacity? And, of course, it would seem to clearly exclude single men from being church leaders. Aren't many youth pastors single? And if "the husband of one wife" is the standard, what about widowers? Or widowers that remarried? It all seems very convoluted. Now, I know that the original text can be read "one woman man", and that would seem to resolve a lot of these questions, but then we're back to the "How would you quantify 'arrogant'?" kind of question. Is he a one-woman kind of man?

What do we conclude about "his children are believers"? One view argues that all of the children of any given leader must be faithful believers in Christ. Another perspective holds that they need to be well-behaved. The term doesn't necessarily have to read "believers", but can be read as "faithful". So which is it? And how do you know? For instance, as a silly question, how many infants are "believers"? Wouldn't that disqualify any man with an infant? And, really, can a father -- any father -- be responsible to raise believers? That is, can a father make his children believers, or is that God's work in their hearts and their subsequent decision?

Imagine a pastor that had two sons. One was "the good son", going to church and leading Bible studies and doing all the good things expected of him and the other was "the renegade son", running off with wild women and mimicking the prodigal son in a marvelous way. As it turned out, decades later, the good son announced that he was an atheist and the renegade son became a pastor. So, here they are. Is the pastor-son now disqualified by the divorce he had in that wild time? Is the father of the two sons disqualified because of the renegade son who repented or is he disqualified by the good son, still well-behaved but just not a believer?

Tough questions. Sometimes I ask myself tough questions. Easy answers aren't always forthcoming. So here's the final question. Should we, then, just decide to ignore these qualifications like some seem to be doing these days?


Jeremy D. Troxler said...


I've been following along with your thread on "objective", "subjective", "relative" but haven't commented because I didn't want to cut and paste what i'm contending elsewhere.

However, this is a different topic and what we are going through in my church's Sunday morning exposition of 1 Timothy. We have been discussing how every member of the local church, and as you rightly pointed out - every Christian, is not required to have these qualifications to be a member of the local church or a Christian it would be fair to say that every Christian, every member should strive toward all those qualifications. Certainly every individual in the local church cannot actually be an elder but imagine the congregation filled with believers who are qualified to become elders! Exciting stuff.

It is interesting all the myriad situations that arise that cause us to question how those situations fit into the intention of the writer. The case you gave of the promiscuous pre-Christian man now up for eldership with a wayward son conceived prior to church membership or conversion. For my part, i'd like to stick firmly to those things that are clear (e.g. husband of one wife is clear at least on the issue of gender). I would like to think on the rest, if there are qualified elders in place through whom the Holy Spirit is working to minister to the body and those with a desire for eldership who wish to minister to the spiritual needs of the body through whom the Holy Spirit is working, the specific situation can be successfully and correctly handled. Put another way, it seems the Holy Spirit would prompt someone to not proceed (either the current elders or the prospective elder) if the person or timing is not right.

From experience that has been the case at our church. All prospective elders, who are asked by the current elders if they have a desire and feel the timing is right, go through an elder training course where the book "Biblical Eldership" is read in combination with detailed discussions of the qualification in 1 Timothy and Titus. Deep discussions about personal confidence and passion for the church body and mission statement go forward. Even after those steps, there have been cases where prospective elders have felt a compelling need to hold up and not proceed. In other cases personal issues like debt that are not even listed have caused some to say that they do not feel qualified to move on. In still other cases elders have stepped down because of children's behavior (which if 100 church-goers nationally were polled with the particular information might say was no big deal). If the motivation of all parties is to the Gospel first I have to believe the Holy Spirit will be faithful to direct the local church body rightly.

Great post.

Stan said...

You know, Jeremy, you made me think. We're talking here about church leadership. It's not a business or a party planning or something simple. It is spiritual oversight. Now, I think we need to think these things through thoroughly, for certain, but I wonder if we ought not go to the ... how shall I put it? ... most conservative side. Consider two alternatives. Let's say that "the husband of one wife" means "married now to one woman, never married before, not unmarried." No divorcees (regardless of circumstances) or widowers or single men (and, obviously, no females). That's what it means. And we say, "It means a one-woman man and doesn't matter if he was previously divorced." We'd be putting people in positions of spiritual leadership that fail to meet God's requirements for that role. Now the alternative. We say, "It means married now to one woman, never married before, not unmarried" and, as it turns out, it simply means "a one-woman man." In this case we would miss out on a potentially qualified elder, but we would not be putting in unqualified leadership. Is it better to be safe than sorry? Is it possible to be too careful when it comes to church leadership? I wonder.

You mention that debt is not listed. It is, indirectly. If a man cannot manage his own household, how can he manage the house of God? On the other hand, I think that the office of elder/bishop/overseer is an office of high responsibility and importance and ought to receive a large amount of scrutiny with a rigid set of standards and a close examination of all prospects. I'm not at all sure that this is the standard operating procedure in most churches. Yours sounds more like it than most.

Jeremy D. Troxler said...

It seems you and I have the same fall-back on issues that quickly descend into hair-splitting: God is Holy and Righteous, what decision can I make here that will most closely ensure bringing no shame to the Gospel or be a stumbling block to fellow believers. When that is the question constantly in the back of one's mind it can clear the water pretty quickly. If, that remains just behind our initial questions.

Thanks, you make me think as well, that's why I read your stuff every day it's possible.