Elders: The Real Deal
When the apostle wrote to the Thessalonians, they were a recently formed assembly and young in the faith (see Acts 17: 1–9) and there is, accordingly, no suggestion that they had elders. In NT times, elders were appointed when there had been spiritual development in individual believers (see Acts 14: 21–23) such that they met the requirements of the role of overseer (an overseer is what the AV refers to as a bishop in Phil. 1: 1; 1 Tim. 3: 2; Titus. 1: 7 and 1 Pet. 2: 25). The very word elder itself supposes spiritual maturity. Thus as Paul says in 1 Tim. 3: 6, an elder was not to be a novice (neofutoV) or one newly sprung up (from neoV meaning new and fuw, the verb to germinate). However, the apostle does exhort the Thessalonians to “know those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in [the] Lord, and admonish you, and to regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work” (1 Thess. 5: 12, 13). Thus even if Thessalonica did not have an appointed eldership, there were those there who were perhaps developing into the role, and it was the responsibility of the saints to recognise this.
Paul also says that “if any one aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3: 1, my emphasis). However, aspiration is not qualification, and though there are many claiming to be elders today it is questionable whether they meet all the requirements that Scripture demands for the role. I say all, because all are essential. The matter is serious, for ignorant and ill–established souls are getting into positions of responsibility for which they are not fitted. If I am not “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3: 2), for example, then I can hardly fulfil the Lord’s direction given to Peter (and, by implication, to Peter’s fellow elders—see 1 Pet. 5: 1) to “Shepherd my sheep” (John 21: 17). “Apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3: 2), means to be able to communicate Christian teaching, and this thought is expanded on in Titus 1: 9, 10: “clinging to the faithful word according to the doctrine taught, that he may be able both to encourage with sound teaching and refute gainsayers. For there are many and disorderly vain speakers and deceivers of people’s minds, specially those of [the] circumcision, who must have their mouths stopped”. This is not the work of the ignorant and ill–established!
It is absolutely clear from Scripture that the one who aspires to exercise oversight must have proved himself over a period of time. Thus he should have “a good testimony from those without” (1 Tim. 3: 7)—those around him in the world—and be “free from all charge [against him]” in relation to God’s things “as God’s steward” (Titus 1: 7; see also v6). Again, he is to be “irreproachable” (1 Tim. 3: 2)—here the Greek word is anepilhptoV, which has the sense of not having anything which an adversary could seize upon and base a charge. He is to be a model for the flock (see 1 Pet. 5: 3) and so before he takes a position in God’s house, he must be known as one who conducts “his own house well” and he proves this by “having [his] own children in subjection with all gravity” (11 Tim. 3: 4), and having “believing children not accused of excess or unruly” (Titus 1: 6). Twice we are told that he is to be “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3: 2; Titus 1: 6), ruling out both the polygamous or divorced convert (who is necessarily incapable of demonstrating God’s pattern for marriage) and also the unmarried—for how can the latter prove himself if he has never run a household? The would–be elder is also to be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3: 2; Titus 1: 7) and the word here is filoxenoV, meaning lover of strangers. This has nothing to do with entertaining friends and acquaintances—Gaius illustrates the sense with how he habitually looked after the itinerant workers who came to his door (see 3 John vs. 5, 6). The one seeking oversight is not to be “fond of money” (1 Tim. 3: 3) nor to seek “gain by base means” (Titus 1: 7; see 1 Pet. 5: 2)—that is eager to make gain even if it dishonours his character. Instead he is to be “a lover of goodness”, “just” and “pious” (Titus 1: 8). He is not to be “headstrong” (Titus 1: 7), the Greek of which is auqadhV—a compound word derived from adew (to please) and autoV (self). Instead he is to be “mild” (1 Tim. 3: 3) in relation to others. Thus he is not to be “a striker” (1 Tim. 3: 3; Titus 1: 7—and the sense here includes the wounding with words which comes with being “addicted to contention” (1 Tim. 3: 3) and being “passionate” (Titus 1: 7), or prone to anger. An elder is to be “sober” (1 Tim. 3: 2), not only in the obvious sense of “not given to excesses from wine” (v3; see Titus 1: 7), but “discreet” (1 Tim. 3: 2)—where the sense is of a sound mind. The whole picture is of one who life is “decorous” (kosmioV from kosmoV—order) or, as the AV puts it, “of good behaviour” (1 Tim. 3: 2). Whoever does not fulfil all of these characteristics is not an elder!
Finally, a truly mature Christian will have some appreciation of the peculiar state of things in the Christian profession today. Division is the norm, and there appears to be little or no sense of every Christian being called into one universal fellowship, the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). In the NT, Elders were to be appointed “in each city” (Titus 1: 5)—clearly on behalf of every Christian in that place. The modern practice of each sect having its own elders is a denial of Christian unity. That is not to say that there are not saints who have the necessary qualities (although these are more stringent than many seem to appreciate), but such will shrink from accepting any kind of official accreditation in a day of public breakdown. It is not a godly response to collective failure to build up again that which God in his governmental wisdom has allowed to be thrown down.