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Lesson 3: Qualified Elders (Titus 1:6-8)

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Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, recalls an encounter that he had early in his career with an officer who had been caught cheating at cards.

When he came in, I had laid out the packs of cards on the front of the desk. “Do you see these cards?”


“Are they yours? Do you recognize them?” He flushed and said, no, he couldn’t.

“Well, I can show you exactly where you have marked them. Would you like me to do it?”

He stammered, “No.”

To end it, I asked, “Would you rather resign at once for the good of the service or would you like to be tried by court-martial?”

“I’ll submit my resignation this afternoon,” he said.

Two or three days later, the congressman from his district came in, accompanied by the officer’s father. The congressman introduced the latter as one of his most important constituents and suggested that I withdraw the son’s resignation and transfer him to another camp. I declined politely; this would be passing the problem on to another commander, and the man would repeat the same offense. After the congressman argued and blustered a bit, he asked whether I could have taken out of the resignation the words, “for the good of the service.” Not as far as I was concerned, I said; the man had been guilty of cheating and he had to take this request to the War Department. (Cited by Doug Cecil in Dallas Theological Seminary “Connection.”)

General Eisenhower knew that leadership requires sterling character. If a man cheats at cards, he is not trustworthy, and if he is not trustworthy, he is not qualified to lead other men into combat. I would guess that if an officer today did what Eisenhower did then, he would be reprimanded for being too harsh. The common view today is, what a man does in private has nothing to do with his performance as a leader!

As we saw last week, the apostle Paul had left Titus on Crete to correct some of the problems in the fledgling churches there. One of his primary prescriptions to get the churches on a solid foundation was to appoint godly leaders. I wonder what would happen if the evangelical churches in America would apply Paul’s prescription by removing unqualified men from office and installing godly men as church leaders. Churches would lose a lot of people, but maybe God would bless us with genuine revival!

We also saw that Christ runs His church through a plurality of spiritually mature men, called elders or overseers, who shepherd His flock. These men are not elected in the popular sense of that term, but rather are officially recognized by the church by virtue of their meeting the qualifications that are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and here in Titus 1:6-9. Thus it is vital for the health of the church that we all understand these qualifications and apply them carefully in officially recognizing elders.

The two lists are very similar. I do not know why they are not identical, and have not read anyone who answers that question. 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 exclusively on godly character, not on spiritual gifts or other abilities. Both lists begin with “above reproach” and both lists emphasize a man’s home life.

Before we examine the list, note that the majority of these qualities are prescribed elsewhere in the Bible for every believer, including women. They describe a spiritually mature person. Also, note that spiritual maturity takes time and effort. You cannot have some dramatic experience and become instantly mature. As Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:7), “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” It’s an athletic metaphor, and as we all know, to succeed as an athlete requires discipline over the long haul.

Also, we need to keep in mind that no one meets these qualifications perfectly. These are lifetime goals and no one can say, “I’ve got them all down perfectly.” But a man who is recognized as an elder in the local church should not have any glaring violations. His overall character should reflect spiritual maturity.

We can group these qualifications under three headings: Verse 6 focuses on spiritual maturity in the home; verses 7-8 on maturity in personal character; and, verse 9 on maturity in sound doctrine. Today we will look at the first two qualities; next time we will look at the requirement of being mature in sound doctrine.

The qualification for being an elder is spiritual maturity as
reflected in a man’s home life and his personal character.

1. An elder must reflect spiritual maturity in his home life (1:6).

The term “above reproach” is used in 1:6 and 1:7, first to sum up a man’s home life and again 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 (see R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 381). He is a man of integrity. He doesn’t live one way at church and another way at home. His wife and children would affirm that he displays the fruit of the Spirit at home. If he sins, he is quick to confess it and ask forgiveness.

Under this general requirement of being above reproach, Paul specifies two areas in which it manifests itself:

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

The fact that this qualification is named first after “above reproach,” both in Titus and in 1 Timothy 3, shows its importance. There have been a number of different interpretations of exactly what it means. Some have claimed that it is a prohibition against polygamy. While that is assumed, that is not the main thrust of the term. Some of the early church fathers interpreted it to mean that if a man’s wife died, remarriage would disqualify him as an elder. But that view stems more from false asceticism than from the Bible. Others have said that a man who has ever been divorced cannot be an elder. Most who hold this view limit it to divorce that occurs 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 at sins that he may have committed years ago. For example, what if a man used to be self-willed or 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,” and I think that it 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 does not look at pornography. An elder should be a man who has a track record of being above reproach in mental and moral purity.

This means that a man who has never been divorced and has been married for 50 years may be disqualified from being an elder, because he has not brought his thought life under control. He is not a one-woman man. Or, a man who went through a divorce as a young man may have matured. He dealt with the sins that led to his divorce. He has been married faithfully to his current wife for many years, and 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 children who are under control.

Again, this does not mean that an elder must have children, but if he does, they must be under his control. But, this qualification also has spawned a lot of debate. Does the Greek word here mean “believing” (NASB, ESV, NIV) or “faithful” (NKJV)? 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]) argues that if even one of a man’s children, whether still in the home or as an adult, is not a believer, the man should not be an elder (or pastor). Others (Justin Taylor, “Unbelief in an Elder’s Children,” 9 Marks web site) say that it only applies to children in the home and that the word means that the children are faithful and under the father’s control. They aren’t rebels.

Due to time constraints, I can’t go into the pros and cons for each view, but in my estimation, the correct view is somewhere in the middle of these two. The view that all of a man’s children, whether younger or older, must be believers, goes too far in that it puts on the elder the responsibility for his children’s genuine conversion, which is beyond anyone’s control. Many godly men have had children who have rebelled against God (1 Sam. 8:1-3, for example), in spite of the father’s example and his conscientious attempts to bring the child to saving faith.

Some will cite Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” They argue that if a child goes astray, it means that the father failed to bring him up properly. But that is to misinterpret that verse. The Book of Proverbs is not a book of ironclad promises, but rather a book giving general maxims about life. Generally, if you train a child properly, he will grow up to follow the Lord. But, there are exceptions. As important as a father’s example and training are, ultimately salvation is a supernatural act of God. While He uses godly parents in this process, no actions on the part of the most godly father can guarantee the salvation of his children.

In my understanding, our text requires that we should look carefully at a man’s relationship with his children. Does he model godly behavior in the home? Is he conscientious to 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 believe in Christ. If all or most of his children grow up and reject Christ, there is probably something wrong in that home. We should probably not recognize him as an elder. On the other hand, if most of his children follow Christ, but one goes astray, in my estimation it does not necessarily disqualify the man as an elder. Each situation must be prayerfully considered.

Whatever view you take, 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 unruly and rebellious should not be put into church leadership.

2. An elder must reflect spiritual maturity in his personal character (1:7-8).

Paul repeats the summary qualification for an overseer of being “above reproach” and then adds (1:7), “as God’s steward.” As I explained last week, elder and overseer are interchangeable terms (see 1:5). A steward was a household manager who was accountable to the owner for overseeing daily operations. The church is the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). Thus elders or overseers manage it under God’s authority and must give an account to Him (a sobering thought!). Also, as a steward, this isn’t “my” church. It belongs to God, not to any man. He purchased with the blood of His own Son! Elders are just His stewards.

Paul goes on to list five negative character flaws that an elder must not have, and then six positive qualities that he must have.

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

(1). An elder must not be self-willed.

The word literally means, “self-pleasing.” It refers to a man who obstinately maintains his own opinion or asserts his own rights and does not 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 is not a team player. If he acts in such self-willed ways in the church or with other elders, you can assume that he runs his family like a drill sergeant. Don’t make him an elder!

(2). An elder must not be quick-tempered.

A quick-tempered man is always a spark away from blowing up. He uses anger to intimidate or control others to get his own way. He is also usually a self-willed man. 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 govern a spiritually mature man.

(3). An elder must not be addicted to wine.

“Wine” includes all alcoholic beverages. The Bible does not prohibit drinking alcoholic beverages, but it does warn about the dangers of wine and strong drink, especially for leaders (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; 31:4-5). Drunkenness and addition 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 a problem with drinking, 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 his position as an example to the flock.

(4). An elder must not be pugnacious.

Being pugnacious means physically hitting others. But it may legitimately be expanded to refer to a man who is verbally combative. It should be needless to say that an elder should never strike anyone, especially his wife or children. If he must spank his child, he exercises control and does not abuse the child. I think that it is always wrong to strike a child in the face or to spank when you’re angry. The older the child, the more you use reason and the less you use spanking. The point is, an elder should not be a man who solves conflict by hitting others or being an aggressive bully.

(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 is 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 not godly. They will be tempted to take advantage of people financially or to embezzle church funds.

A. Positive character qualities that an elder must have:

(1). An elder must be hospitable.

The Greek word means, literally, “a lover of strangers.” Again, this is a quality that every Christian must strive for (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9), but it is especially incumbent on elders. If elders are not friendly and warm towards others, the entire church will reflect that indifference and selfishness. Hospitality means taking a genuine interest in others and making them feel welcomed and at ease. It should be begin here when the church gathers. If you’re talking with someone you know and see a visitor all alone, 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 is on TV or in movies. Positively, as Paul puts it in Philippians 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 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 practical holiness, 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 the Word of God seriously. He doesn’t take the things of God as a joke. He lives in obedience to God’s Word.

(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 wreath. 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 will be disciplined about spending time alone with God in the Word and prayer. This word is the last of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), which grow in us as we walk daily by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). (You may access my message from December 31, 2006, “Learning to Control Yourself,” which deals with this single topic.)


There has been terrible damage to the church of Jesus Christ because unqualified men have been put into leadership. The pastor of the church that I grew up in was a quick-tempered man who tried to control the deacons (that church did not have elders) through intimidation. My dad served on that board and often was the object of the pastor’s anger, because he wouldn’t go along with things that were not in line with Scripture.

It all came to a head when it came to light that the pastor was using church facilities for his private counseling practice. He was illegally channeling the income he received through a fund labeled “Youth Camp Fund,” to dodge the IRS. When my dad confronted him privately, he blew up. So, my dad confronted him at a church meeting. When the church would not correct the situation, we left the church. Within a few months, the pastor had left his wife and five children to run off with a counselee.

We then started attending another church. We hadn’t been there very long until it came out that the pastor was carrying on wrongful relationships with several women in the church, including the wife of one of his staff members. That staff member and his wife subsequently divorced. The pastor left the church, but the denomination, rather than removing him from ministry, moved him to a large church in another state! He later moved back to California. A few years ago, I saw in a publication from that denomination that the governor of California had named a day to honor him! Somehow I think that God’s view will be a bit different!

Whenever these things happen, many people are wounded. Some, who were shaky in their faith, leave the church and sometimes leave the faith. Unbelievers mock God and the church and find justification to go on in their sins. So it is imperative that we, as a church, only put into leadership men who are spiritually mature, as seen in their home life and in their personal character.

Application Questions

  1. If you had to single out one of these qualifications for church leadership, which one would it be? Why?
  2. What should a church member do who is aware of an elder who glaringly violates one or more of these qualifications?
  3. Often churches choose pastors like Americans choose political leaders: personal charisma, good looks, dynamic vision, etc. How can we avoid this tendency to insure godly leadership?
  4. Should a pastor with an unbelieving, rebellious child (or children) leave the ministry? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, 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)