According to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, when believers appoint or recognize someone as an elder, they should take the persons character into account. In fact, most of the items in these lists are related to character or behavior. There is very little in these passages related to function or giftedness.
Thus, when recognizing someone as an elder, the believers should look first at a person’s character and behavior. But, immediately we should ask the question, “Does Scripture require an elder to have a higher character than any other believer?” Are there moral requirements or behavioral norms for elders that are different from the moral requirements or behavioral norms of other believers?
In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul says that elders should be blameless, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, upright, holy, disciplined. Are these requirements unique to the elder? No. In fact, God calls all believers to live a life that demonstrate these same characteristics.
In Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, John Hammett states:
Whatever is involved in being an elder, it is not a calling to a higher standard of Christian living. How could it be, when every Christian is commanded by Christ to “be perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and when the goal and destiny of every Christian is Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29)?
But if these character traits are commanded of all Christians, what is their significance here? The key to understanding the meaning of these lists of character traits is remembering that one of the responsibilities of leaders is to set the example for the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
Thus, according to Hammett, these lists of characteristics are not unique to the elder, nor are they a job description. Instead, they are to help believers recognize those who are already living the life that God has called all believers to live. In other words, whoever is actually living the way that God wants them to live should be recognized as an elder – that is, as an example to other believers.
I think it is possible to further refine this statement. We should recognize that no one is able to live perfectly. No elder can perfectly demonstrate the characteristics listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Just has Paul had not yet reached perfection, none of us have reached perfection yet either, though we should all be growing in maturity toward perfection in Jesus Christ. Because of this, it is probably better not to see these lists as “qualifications”, otherwise, no one would be “qualified” (see my post called “Qualifications and Examples…“).
Thus, it would probably be better to restate my earlier statement like this: Whoever is best living the way that God wants all believers to live should be recognized as an elder – that is, as an example to other believers.
But, this has implications for all believers, not just for elders. When we look at the lists of characteristics in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we should not read them as characteristics for elders only. Instead, these characteristics should be evident in the lives of all believers. The characteristics are not unique for elders. So, everyone who is following Jesus Christ should see their lives – more and more – demonstrating blamelessness, sober-mindedness, self-control, hospitality, gentleness, etc.
Furthermore, if believers are to recognize elders as those who best demonstrate these characteristics, then they must know the elders intimately. These characteristics are not found on a resume or during a weekend visit; they are observed during the rough times in a person’s life. In order to tell if a person is gentle, we must see that person react to someone else who is being harsh. In order to tell if a person is self-controlled, we must see that person react to a situation that is tempting. In order to examine a person’s hospitality, we must see how that person treats strangers. In other words, if we are going to recognize someone as an elder, we must first live with that person long enough to know whether or not that person regularly demonstrates those characteristics, and whether or not that person is a person who is growing in maturity toward Christ-likeness.
The character traits and behaviors listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not intended for elders alone. All believers are responsible for submitting to the Spirit so that their lives will also demonstrate those characteristics. When we recognize someone as an elder, we must live with them long enough to witness a growing level of maturity in demonstrating Christ-like character. This does not mean that elders are held to a higher standard. Instead, people are recognized as elders when they best exemplify the standard to which all believers are called.
Series on Elders
1. Elders (Part 1) – Introduction
2. Elders (Part 2) – Character
3. Elders (Part 3) – Leadership
4. Elders (Part 4) – Teaching
5. Elders (Part 5) – Shepherding
6. Elders (Part 6) – Overseeing
7. Elders (Part 7) – Conclusion