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Lesson 13: How to Recognize an Elder (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7)

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July 9, 2017

As I was looking through my files for an appropriate illustration on the integrity required for church leaders, I paused to read an email that had just arrived. It was from a man I don’t know informing me that his former pastor is plagiarizing both John MacArthur’s and my sermons in his sermons.

Interestingly, it was about the fourth email that I’ve received in recent months reporting similar situations. In one, a broken and repentant pastor emailed to ask my forgiveness. He subsequently resigned from his church. In another, the pastor of a fairly large church was battling some critics who were calling for his resignation because they discovered that he was using my sermons without credit. I don’t know the outcome there. And in still another, a pastor who was plagiarizing my sermons apologized and sent a check to our church to express his repentance!

The question I want to look at in this message is, “What qualifications must an elder possess?” As we saw last time, Christ exercises headship over His church through church-recognized spiritually mature elders who are to shepherd His flock. Originally the apostles appointed elders in the churches that they had founded (Acts 14:23). Later, Paul gave his two apostolic delegates, Timothy and Titus, lists detailing the qualities to look for in men whom they could appoint as elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Since we no longer have apostles or apostolic delegates, we should seek to appoint as elders men who meet the qualifications in these lists.

The two lists are very similar. I don’t know why they are not identical. The lists are probably not meant to be exhaustive. Five items in 1 Timothy are lacking in Titus, whereas the list in Titus adds five items lacking in 1 Timothy. The significant thing about both lists is that except for the ability to teach God’s Word, both lists focus on godly character, not on spiritual gifts or other abilities. As Alexander Strauch writes (Biblical Eldership [Lewis & Roth], p. 168), “What God prizes among the leaders of His people is not education, wealth, social status, success, or even great spiritual gifts. Rather, He values personal moral and spiritual character ….”

Of course, no man is perfectly sanctified in this life, so no one can meet these qualifications perfectly. The process of growing to spiritual maturity is never over in this lifetime. But church leaders should not be in glaring violation of any of these qualities. And they should be growing in them, even as all believers should be growing in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Almost all of the qualities prescribed for elders are commanded elsewhere in the Bible for every Christian, including women. So we all should seek to be growing in these areas. But especially, younger men who desire to be elders (1 Tim. 3:1) should work at growing in these qualities. And as I mentioned last week, churches should not vote men into leadership so that they will get involved in serving. Rather, churches should recognize the men who are already functioning as elders and give them formal recognition.

I’m mainly following the list in Titus 1, with occasional reference to the list in 1 Timothy 3. To sum up:

An elder must be a spiritually mature man of integrity as seen in his home life, his personal character, and his firm adherence to Scripture.

1. An elder must be a spiritually mature man of integrity.

Two observations:

A. A spiritually mature man of integrity is above reproach.

Both lists begin with “above reproach.” In Titus 1, Paul states it in verse 6 to sum up a man’s home life and again in verse 7 to sum up his personal character. The Greek word in Titus is different than the word in 1 Timothy 3:2, although the meaning is essentially the same. It means that there is nothing in the man’s life for which a charge or accusation could be brought against him (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 381). He is a man of integrity. He’s not living a double life, with secret sins that others don’t know about. He judges his sins on the heart level, where God looks, not just the outward sins others see. If he sins (and we all do), he is quick to confess it and ask forgiveness. He doesn’t live one way at church and another way at home. His wife and children would affirm that he models the fruit of the Spirit at home.

B. Spiritual maturity takes time, effort, and discipline.

In our culture, we tend to be suckers for quick fixes to problems that take time, effort, and discipline to solve. People need to lose weight, so they buy the latest supplement that promises to take off pounds effortlessly, while they sit on the couch drinking sodas and eating potato chips. Christians are the same way spiritually. Spiritual hucksters promise that if you’ll read their book or attend their conference or get slain in the Spirit or speak in tongues, you’ll have instant, permanent victory over sin.

But it’s not so easy! There are no short cuts or miraculous experiences that lift a person to spiritual maturity. Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:7), “…discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” It’s an athletic metaphor, picturing a man in training for a race. There are no shortcuts. Every day he has to watch what he eats and spend time working out so that he will be in top shape for his event. There are days when he doesn’t feel like it, but he thinks about the goal and goes against his feelings. The goal for the Christian is a godly life that glorifies the Lord who loved and saved him.

All Christians should aim for spiritual maturity. But especially if a young man desires the office of overseer in the future, he needs to discipline himself for godliness now. He should aim at being above reproach in school, at work, at home, and in all his relationships. Godly integrity takes time, effort, and discipline.

2. An elder must be a spiritually mature man as seen in his home life.

After the general description of being above reproach, in both lists Paul mentions a man’s home life first, showing its importance. As he explains (1 Tim. 3:5), “(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” If a man has a poor track record at home, don’t promote him to lead the church! I’m afraid that many pastors would be out of a job if churches followed this requirement. In the lists, Paul refers to two aspects of home life:

A. An elder must be a one-woman man.

There are different interpretations of what this means. Some say that it’s a prohibition against polygamy. While that is assumed, polygamy wasn’t common in Paul’s day. Some of the early church fathers interpreted it to mean that if a widower remarried he was barred from being an elder. But that view stems more from false asceticism than from the Bible. Others have argued that a divorced man cannot be an elder. Most who hold this view limit it to divorce that occurred after salvation, but some apply it even to divorce that occurred before salvation.

But Paul is focusing on a man’s present spiritual maturity, not on sins that he may have committed years ago. For example, what if a man used to be self-willed, quick-tempered, or addicted to alcohol? Do these past evidences of spiritual immaturity prohibit him from ever becoming an elder? If so, then who could qualify? In other words, Paul is more concerned with present godly character than with past immature behavior.

The term is literally, “a one-woman man,” which looks at his character: He is devoted to his wife alone. He is not a womanizer. His thought life is under the control of God’s Spirit, so that he is not enslaved to lust. He doesn’t look at pornography. An elder should have a track record of being above reproach in mental and moral purity.

This means that a man who has been married for 50 years and has never been divorced, but who has a lustful thought life, should be disqualified from being an elder. He is not a one-woman man. Or, a man who went through a divorce as a young man may have matured. He has dealt with the sins that led to his divorce. He has been married faithfully to his current wife for many years. He is mentally and physically faithful to her alone. He would be qualified on this requirement. Also, this requirement does not bar a single man from being an elder, as long as he is morally pure, including his thought life (see 1 Cor. 7:1-9).

B. An elder must have believing children who are not rebels.

Titus 1:6: “… having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” In 1 Timothy 3:4, the requirement is, “keeping his children under control with all dignity.” This does not mean that an elder must have children, but if he does, they must be under his control. But, this qualification has spawned a lot of debate. Does the Greek word mean “believing” (NASB, ESV, NIV) or “faithful” (NKJV, HCSB)? Does it refer to children who are still under the father’s roof, or does it also apply to adult children?

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Titus [E 4 Group CD]) argues that whether still in the home or as an adult, if even one of a man’s children is not a believer, the man should not be an elder (or pastor). But that would put the responsibility for a child’s conversion on the father, rather than on the sovereign working of God. Some conscientious, godly fathers have children who rebel against the Lord in spite of the father’s prayers, example, and exhortation.

I understand Paul to require that we should look carefully at a man’s relationship with his children. Is he often angry with them or does he model love and kindness in his home? Does he conscientiously train his children in the ways of the Lord? Does he pray and read the Bible with his family? If so, normally most (if not all) of his children will come to saving faith in Christ. If all or most of his children grow up and reject Christ, there may be something wrong in that home. We should hesitate to recognize him as an elder. On the other hand, if most of his children follow Christ, but one goes astray, in my judgment it does not necessarily disqualify the man as an elder. Each situation must be considered prayerfully.

Having one’s children “under control with all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:4) does not mean that an elder’s children will always be perfect examples of obedience! Kids are kids! Kids from the godliest homes often disobey their parents and throw temper tantrums. A spiritually mature man corrects and trains them to obey and respect authority. Also, when Paul says that an elder must “manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4), it includes all aspects of home life, including finances. He should work to provide for his family (1 Tim. 5:8). He should be a faithful steward of the money that God has entrusted to him. He should not be in out of control debt.

Paul’s overall point is clear: an elder must be a godly husband and father. If his home life is not in order, don’t expand his responsibilities over the family of God. A man who is not devoted to his wife and whose children are rebellious should not be put into office as a steward (Titus 1:7) of God’s household.

3 An elder must be a spiritually mature man as seen in his personal character.

Paul lists five character flaws that an elder must not have, followed by six qualities that he must have. I must be brief.

A. Five character flaws that an elder must not have:

1) An elder must not be self-willed.

This refers to a man who obstinately maintains his own opinion or asserts his own rights and doesn’t care about the rights, feelings, and interests of others (Trench, Synonyms, p. 349). The self-willed man often takes the contrary view because he loves to assert himself and wield power over others. He never admits that he was wrong. He’s not a team player.

2) An elder must not be quick-tempered.

A quick-tempered man uses anger to intimidate or control others to get his own way. James 1:19-20 commands, “But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Patience, kindness, and self-control are fruits of the Spirit that should characterize a spiritually mature man.

3) An elder must not be addicted to alcohol.

“Wine” includes all alcoholic beverages. The Bible does not prohibit drinking alcoholic beverages, but it does warn about the dangers of alcohol, especially for leaders (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; 31:4-5). Drunkenness and addiction to alcohol are always sinful (Eph. 5:18; Rom. 13:13; 1 Pet. 4:3; 1 Cor. 6:12). Church leaders must be especially careful so that they do not cause younger believers to stumble. If a younger believer, who formerly had an alcohol problem, sees me drinking, and my example causes him to fall back into his former ways, I am to some extent responsible. Thus if an elder chooses to drink at all, he must be careful and keep in mind that he is an example to the flock.

4) An elder must not be pugnacious.

“Pugnacious” means physically hitting others. But it may also refer to a man who is verbally combative. Obviously, an elder should never strike anyone in anger, including his wife or children. If he must spank his child, he exercises control and never is abusive. The point is, an elder should not be a man who explodes in anger by hitting others or being an aggressive bully verbally.

5) An elder must not be fond of sordid gain.

In 1 Timothy 3:3, Paul states that he “must be free from the love of money.” Money itself is not evil, but it is dangerous. It’s like a loaded gun—it can be very useful if you use it properly, but it can hurt others or yourself if you use it carelessly. A greedy man is not qualified to be an elder, because greedy men are idolaters (Col. 3:5). They will be tempted to take advantage of people financially or to embezzle church funds.

B. Six character qualities that an elder must have:

1) An elder must be hospitable.

Again, this is a quality that every Christian should pursue (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9), but it’s especially incumbent on elders. If elders are not friendly and warm towards others, the entire church will reflect their indifference and coldness. Hospitality means taking a genuine interest in others and making them feel welcome and at ease. It should be begin here on Sundays. If you’re talking with someone you know and see a visitor all alone, unless it’s a really important conversation, don’t keep talking to each other. Go to the visitor and make him feel welcome!

2) An elder must love what is good.

Negatively, he doesn’t fill his mind with all of the violent, sensual filth that’s on TV, movies, and online. Positively, he sets his mind on (Phil. 4:8), “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

3) An elder must be sensible.

For some unknown reason, the NASB translates the same Greek word as prudent (in 1 Tim. 3:2). It means to be of sound mind, especially in the sense of not being impulsive. The sensible man is not swayed to extremes by his fluctuating emotions. He doesn’t give in to impulses that would be sinful or harmful. He is level-headed. He lives in light of his priorities and commitments.

4) An elder must be just.

This word sometimes means righteous, but in this context, it probably refers to a man who is fair and equitable in his dealings with others. He is not partial to the wealthy and he doesn’t ignore or belittle the poor. He is able to weigh the facts of a matter and make impartial decisions based on the evidence.

5) An elder must be devout.

This refers to being separate from sin and evil behavior. It does not mean being separate from sinners, because the Lord Jesus was the friend of sinners. But the devout man does not carouse with sinners in their sin. Rather, he seeks to lead them to repentance. The devout man takes God and His Word seriously, living in obedience to it.

6) An elder must be self-controlled.

Paul uses this word (1 Cor. 9:25) to refer to an athlete who exercises self-control in all things so that he may win the prize. He doesn’t do anything that would hinder him from his goal. An elder must have control over harmful desires or habits that would interfere with knowing Christ more deeply or with being an effective shepherd of God’s flock. He is disciplined to spend time alone with God in the Word and prayer. Self control is the last of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), which grows in us as we walk daily by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). (See my message, “Learning to Control Yourself,” 12/31/06.)

So an elder must be a spiritually mature man of integrity as seen in his home life and personal character. Finally,

4. An elder must be a spiritually mature man as seen in his firm adherence to Scripture.

I have an entire sermon on Titus 1:9 (3/4/07), so here I can only summarize. Paul says three things:

A. An elder must hold fast to the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching.

To “hold fast to the faithful word,” means to be devoted to God’s Word. To do this, you must understand it, which means you also must study it. It’s a lifelong endeavor. “Holding fast” also implies having biblical convictions. An elder holds firmly to the gospel and the essential truths related to the gospel. He doesn’t change his views based on the latest trends. His standards of morality come from the Bible, not from our godless culture. He does not love controversy, but neither does he avoid it when necessary.

B. An elder must be able to exhort in sound doctrine.

False doctrine damages people. So out of love and with kindness, an elder exhorts in sound (= spiritually healthy) doctrine. In our day, many Christians view doctrine either as divisive or irrelevant to life. But Paul’s normal pattern in his letters was to lay out the doctrine first before moving on to the practical aspects of it. And he wasn’t writing to seminary students or theologians, but to common people, many of whom were slaves. “Exhort” may mean either to urge to obedience and change, or to encourage or comfort, according to the need.

C. An elder must be able to refute those who contradict.

It’s not enough to be positive all the time. The enemy has always infiltrated the church with false teaching and so elders must be bold to confront errors. We must not be needlessly offensive, but neither should we be so nice and polite that we water down or compromise the truth.


Sadly, when I was growing up, two pastors of churches where we were members were not men of godly integrity. One was a self-willed, quick-tempered man who ended up leaving his wife and five children to run off with a counselee. He later became an alcoholic. Another was carrying on with several women in the church, including the wife of one of his staff pastors. He left the church, but rather than removing him from ministry, the denomination moved him to a large church in another state! Neither man was biblically qualified to be in church leadership.

Those churches did not have elders, but my dad often served in those churches as a deacon. By way of contrast with those unqualified pastors, my dad was a man of integrity. He worked as a painter most of his life, and I worked for him many years. He never acted one way on the job and at church and another way at home. He gave us children the gift of his integrity.

Men who lead as elders in the church must be spiritually mature as reflected in their home life, personal character, and firm adherence to Scripture. If we see men like that, as a church we should recognize them as elders.

Application Questions

  1. Often churches choose pastors like Americans choose political leaders: speaking ability, good looks, dynamic vision, etc. How can we avoid this tendency to insure godly leadership?
  2. Churches often vote for a pastoral candidate after one weekend of hearing him preach, based on the recommendations of the search committee. How can this process be improved?
  3. If you had to single out one of these qualifications for church leadership as most important, which one would it be? Why?
  4. Which of these qualities are churches most prone to ignore when choosing elders? What are the consequences?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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