Portrait of an Elder
Text: 1 Timothy 3:1–7
Main Idea: When it comes to spiritual leadership, a leader’s Character always trumps his Calling, and his Competency.
I. Eldership is a Nobel Calling (1 Timothy 3:1)
II. Elders must be Competent Stewards of God’s Word (1 Timothy 3:2)
III. Elders are Ultimately Selected for their Godly Character (1 Timothy 3:2–7)
1 Timothy 3:1–8
I am so excited this morning to celebrate God’s gracious provision for our church. When we started this process over 10 months ago, we had no idea “who” we were looking for. We simply knew what kind of man we were looking for. And when I say, what kind of man, I do not simply mean a man who could oversee our discipleship efforts and lead Sunday morning worship. In fact, in our first meeting as a search team we didn’t even discuss the prospective associate’s duties—we focused on the Biblical qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. Because, all too often search committees fall in love with a candidate’s charisma, experience, and gifting; but fail to properly examine his character. As a close friend and spiritual mentor told me years ago, “All too often we hire pastors for their giftedness and fire them for their character.”
In fact, this simple insight helps us understand one of the greatest problems facing the church today. Why have some of the most successful and well-regarded pastors in our nation crashed and burned? Let me clear, I’m not talking about the obvious charlatans who are pimping the gospel to line their pockets. I’m talking about men who preached sound doctrine and led people to Jesus Christ.
So why? Why do men like this fall? I don’t think the answer is that big churches destroy pastors OR that unfaithful pastors are the only ones who can build big churches. The problem is that, all too often, church members and church leaders willing to overlook a pastor’s moral compromise as long as he is producing measurable results. In fact, recent failures have exposed the sad reality that church leadership and staff knew something was wrong long before these men fell.
Now you might be wondering what this has to do with pastor Ryan’s installation service this morning. Well, firstof all, this passage applies to pastor Ryan because he is by definition an elder. Pastors and elders are not two different categories, rather pastors are elders who are specially gifted, called, and commissioned to the teaching and preaching ministries in the church.
1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
Notice that there is a distinction among the elders, some are specially devoted to teaching and preaching while others are not. In other words, don’t place your teaching elders on a pedestal because they are always up front. Your elders who rule well—not just teach well—should be considered worthy of double honor.
The second reason that I have selected this passage this morning is that I want to make sure that we, as a church, truly understand the Biblical qualifications for eldership. What I mean by this is that we do not select elders and pastors merely because: (1) they have been a part of the church for decades, (2) they give large amounts of money to the church, (3) they represent a specific demographic group in the church, or (4) because they are gifted leaders in the secular world. We select elders because they meet the Biblical qualifications that God laid down for the Church.
Main Idea: When it comes to spiritual leadership, a leader’s Character always trumps his Calling, and his Competency.
Eldership is a Nobel Calling (1 Timothy 3:1)
An Internal Passion
Notice what Paul is saying here. He’s saying that prospective elders must have a preexisting aspiration to serve as an elder. But what does this really mean? Little girls aspire to be ballerinas, veterinarians, and lawyers. Little boys aspire to be professional football players, firemen, and pilots. But, their childhood aspirations drift to other fields as they grow older. Their aspiration is little more than a passive desire, a daydream, a fantasy about the future.
But, the kind of aspiration that Paul is talking about here is anything but a daydream, it is a focused passion. I get this from the fact that the Greek verb behind our English word “aspires” (ὀρέγω) literally means “to reach or stretch out.” And what are they reaching for? The end of verse 1 tells us, the “task” or the “work” of eldership, which is nothing less than a passion to serve and shepherd God’s people. The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, put it this way over 120 years ago in his book, Lectures to My Students, “The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all absorbing desire for the work.”
Notice, this is a desire to serve and shepherd not drive your personal agenda. A desire to serve and shepherd not find approval and self-worth. A desire to serve and shepherd not be served yourself. I want to point this out because many people desire honorable things for the dishonorable reasons.
1 Peter 5:1–3 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
Not under compulsion: it’s never right to push someone into eldership. Yes, I get frustrated when seemingly qualified men tell me no. But, it’s better to have three elders who are passionate about shepherding God’s church than seven who are doing it out of arm-twisting obligation.
Not for shameful gain: it’s always wrong to pursue eldership for any reason but serving God’s people (financial benefit, social status, relational capitol)
Not domineering: it’s always wrong to pursue eldership so that you can control people, push your own agenda, or become the baron of your personal ministry fiefdom.
When busy men who have an unending list of family and career responsibilities sense an inescapable and holy passion to shepherd, oversee, and serve God’s flock; God’s calling is present.
An External Pursuit
But at the same time, this aspiration is not the kind of passion that allows a man to sulk in the corner hoping that someone will finally acknowledge his potential as an elder. This is the kind of desire that necessarily overflows into an intentional pursuit of long-term ministry and service in the local church. It is the kind of desire that drives him to get involved in the lives of other people. It’s the kind of desire that is increasingly captivated by the church’s mission to make disciples of our neighbors and the nations. It’s the kind of desire that, not only drives him serve, it ultimately compels him to pursue the kind of training that eldership requires.
I resigned from my church, sold my home, and drove 4,600 miles from Alaska to Minneapolis Minnesota so that I could be a better pastor.
Despite the fact that he had 5 children and no promise of a job, Ryan abandoned a his life as an almond farmer in California to pursue the preparation that his calling to eldership required.
A true calling to eldership is an internal passion that overflows into an external pursuit of Christian service. But as we turn back to the text, calling is not the only criteria for eldership. Elders must be competent stewards of God’s Word.
Elders must Competent Stewards of God’s Word (1 Timothy 3:2)
Not Just Administration and Oversight but Instruction
Now, you might be wondering why I am focusing on the last qualification in verse 2 before I address the preceding qualifications. Well, it’s because the ability to teach is the single criteria that separates elders from deacons. We do not have the time to dig into verses 8–13 this morning but virtually every other qualification is identical.
To put it another way, eldership is not just about administration and oversight as if elders are merely the church’s board of directors and the pastor is the CEO. No. God intended his elders to be so much more, he requires them to be faithful and skillful stewards of his Holy Word.
Not Just Teachers But Faithful Stewards
The Greek adjective behind “able to teach” (διδακτικός) doesn’t mean that an elder must be able to muddle through a lesson if he is forced to teach. It means that he is “skillful in teaching.”
A skillful teacher is, first and foremost, a faithful steward of God’s Word. And by using the word steward I am trying to emphasize the fact that a skillful teacher is someone who understands that they do not stand in their own authority, they stand in the authority of the one they represent—God. His words are their words. His goals are their goals. His doctrine is their doctrine.
Skillful teachers understand that there is a kind of Bible study that merely uses the text as a springboard to promote the teachers speculations.
2 Timothy 2:15–18 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.
What’s the warning here. Not all Bible study is good Bible study. What is one of the key marks of Bad Bible study— Irreverent and unwarranted speculation. These Bible studies might be mentally stimulating, but they destroy listeners, lead people into ungodliness, and spread false teaching like a cancer.
Skillful teachers endeavor to lead the kind that of Bible study that helps every students understand the text at hand and apply it to everyday life.
Now let me be clear, this does not mean that all of our elders are equally gifted when it comes to teaching. They are not! But, at bear minimum it means that our elders must be known as men (1) who don’t dabble in speculations, (2) men who hold fast to sound doctrine, and (3) men who are known for their ability to help fellow Christians understand and apply God’s Word to their life.
In summary, what’s the implication for eldership? We need to be looking for men who feel called to serve as elders and have demonstrated the ability to competently and faithful steward God’s word. But here is the most important and sobering qualification. When it comes to spiritual leadership, a leader’s Character always trumps his Calling, and his Competency. Or to put it bluntly: When it comes to eldership OR the pastorate, who you are is more important than what you have to offer.
Elders are Ultimately Selected for their Godly Character (1 Timothy 3:2–7)
One Over-Arching Status (3:2a)
What is Paul telling us in this text? He is telling us that personal integrity—being above reproach—is the most important aspect of spiritual leadership. Because, every character trait in this list is subsumed under this single overarching requirement.
So what does Paul mean by above reproach?
First, the Greek adjective behind “above reproach” indicates someone whose reputation or character is not open to attack. Second, the very grammar of the passage helps us see that Paul is focused on the elder’s current life status, in that, the qualifying phrase “must be” is a present, active, indicative verb. In other words, he is not asking about how an elder conducted themselves 10–15 years ago, he is primarily focused on the past few years. What does their life look like today? So an elder is “above reproach” when his current life reflects the character traits in verses 2–7.
Now, is Paul saying the elder or pastoral candidate has to be perfect—no! Is he almost sinless in these areas—no! Has he offended or sinned against someone in the church—probably. Have the negative traits in this passage ever defined his life—certainly. The key to being above reproach is not that elders must be holier than everyone else in the Church, it’s that elders are models of Christian maturity.
In fact as, Don Carson, one of the most prominent NT scholars in America has observed; the most remarkable thing about the list in verses 2–7 is that that it is entirely “unremarkable” given that the New Testament calls every single Christian to the very same standard.
This list was never intended to make eldership virtually unattainable. Nor was it intended to make it appear as if pastors and elders are always living on a knife edge—one accusation or unintentional sin away from instantaneous disqualification. No. Paul gave us this list so that we could honestly discern if an individual’s recent life is marked by these positive character traits and free from these notable character faults.
- Is he battling porn today or is that battle part of his past?
- Is he battling addiction today or is that battle part of his past?
- Is he quarrelsome, threatening, and belligerent today or are these traits merely part of his past?
- Is his leadership in the home a disaster or is that simply part of his past?
- Is he an insufferable pariah to people outside the church or is that part of his past.
Being above reproach is about who the elder is today. But that said, there are a few failures that permanently close the door to spiritual leadership like infidelity and sexual abuse. In these cases true repentance and Spirit-wrought life change are glorious gifts of grace that we should celebrate because they magnify the cross-work of Jesus Christ by bringing forgiveness and restoration where there was whole-sale rebellion. But, when it comes to Christian leadership—not Christian fellowship—there are some stains time can never erase (NOTE: For a humble and thought provoking examination of this see, John H. Armstrong, The Stain That Stays, Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2000).
Now, you might be thinking “Man, this is heavy I thought this was supposed to be a time of celebration?” It is.
First, We cannot celebrate God’s gift in pastor Ryan apart from acknowledging the true gravity of his calling. Ryan has given his life to pursue this portrait of a faithful elder. He’s not a perfect pastor—and I’m not a perfect pastor—but by God’s grace Ryan has demonstrated his clear calling to pastoral ministry, his competency to shepherd God’s people and steward God’s Word, and throughout the search process and his first weeks on staff we have witnessed his Christlike character. God has brought us the kind of man that we were praying for, and I pray that he grant us many years of close friendship and fruitful gospel labor together.
Second, I want to ask you to be praying that God would call and equip mature men to serve as elders here at Olympic. Pray that God would kindle holy Christ exalting aspirations that will compel them to see spiritual leadership and Biblical instruction as a treasures to be pursued both in the home and in the Church. And pray, please pray, that God would protect your current pastors and elders from any failure that would ultimately disqualify them for service and discredit the church of the living God.
Finally, if you sense a calling to eldership and have been waiting for someone to talk to you. I’d like to invite you to set up an appointment with me so that we can sit down and consider God’s qualifications together.
Walter Bauer et al.,A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Bauer et al., BDAG.
Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 134.