A Superlative Guide to All 15 Elder Qualifications

Most Likely to Sheep-Feed

Leaders. Our criticisms of them, cynicism toward them, conflicts with them, and controversies about them fill our feeds, queues, and real-life conversations. Perhaps a previous generation gave its presidents and pastors too much benefit of the doubt. But that is increasingly not our temptation.

Whether in society or the church, both a fascination with and a negative mood toward our leaders and celebrities (we’re increasingly unable to draw clear lines between them) pervades our age. Many today are confused, and often for good reasons. Stories of use and abuse abound, and multiply, with the aid of our technologies.

What Christ Requires

For Christians, we have our conflicts and controversies to grieve, and speak into, but the risen Christ has not left us confused about what to expect, pray for, and hold our leaders to account for. Scripture has a lot to say about our current crisis.

Workers for Your Joy

David Mathis

Pastor-elder David Mathis expands on the nature and calling of local church leaders as joyful workers for the joy of their people, through the framework of the elder qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

To my count, 1 Timothy 3 provides fifteen requirements for pastor-elders—the lead or teaching office in the church. Another list—again, I count fifteen—comes just pages later in Titus 1, with most of them mapping on precisely to the first list. Added to that, we have, among others, 1 Peter 5:1–5, 2 Timothy 2:22–26, Hebrews 13 (verses 7 and 17), and the words of Christ in Mark 10:42–45. Jesus has not left us without clarity.

Paul Really Knew

For more than a decade now, I’ve given unusual time and attention to lingering over the pastor-elder qualifications. Not only am I a pastor seeking to regularly rehearse what Christ requires of me (and grow, with his help, in these virtues), but since 2012 I’ve been assigned “the eldership class” at Bethlehem Seminary. This class is typically a cohort of 15–16 seminarians training to be vocational pastor-elders.

Over time, we’ve found the lists of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to be worthy of far more than a brief review or a single session of focus. In fact, in seeking to present to the class and address what Scripture teaches, and what I’ve found to be significant in pastoral ministry, I’ve found again and again that essentially all the relevant practical issues in preparing for eldership pair with one or more of the traits Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.

Imagine that.

Paul really knew what he was talking about—not just as a list of prerequisites to become an elder but as a catalog of the kind of virtues that elders need day in and day out to be healthy, effective elders in the long haul for the joy of the church.

What Kind of Men?

Semester after semester, I have found so much life, so much to learn, so much to say, so much to discuss, so much to apply in these elder qualifications. For one, the virtues mentioned here are not devoid of reference elsewhere in Scripture. Rather, in most cases, Scripture, from Old Testament to New, has quite a bit to say about these traits.

One avenue into these traits I’ve developed over time is finding a superlative for each. Perhaps this will help some readers, as it’s helped me, come at these traits from fresh angles and understand them, in theory, in practice, and in new dimensions. I’ll order them here under the three major headings I’ve come to use in the class—humbled, whole, and honorable.

Humbled: Men before Their God

The first is perhaps the most misunderstood: aspiration. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). In the age of the subjective, we often emphasize the self’s desire for, or aspiring to, the office of pastor-elder. That's good and well, and so we should. Aspiration is here at the outset of the list, and it’s critical. Pastor-elders are to be those who labor with joy (2 Cor. 1:24), which is to the benefit of their people (Heb. 13:17), and which is why this line of work is not to be done reluctantly or under compulsion, but willingly and eagerly (1 Pet. 5:2).

However, what some in our day misunderstand is that their subjective desire, their aspiration, is not the end-all-be-all in being “called to ministry.” Rather, the heart of Christian ministry is not bringing our desires (however sanctified) to bear on the world but letting the actual needs of others (on God’s terms) meet with and shape our hearts. Often overlooked in Christian discussions of “calling” today is the actual God-given, real-world (objective) open door. Aspiration is critical but not a “call” in itself.

“Not be a recent convert,” then, we might call the most unactionable trait in the list. If you just came to faith, you are recent (literally, a “new plant”) and there is simply nothing you can do about that. So we might say this one is, in a sense, “most out of your own hands.” However, we might also add that “recent” is a relative word. And those who seek humility (Zeph. 2:3) and make some real headway in putting to death their pride, move forward in line with the concern of this requisite: that he not “become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Being genuinely humbled, and learning to welcome it, will make more recent converts seem less recent.

“Able to teach” is the most central (listed eighth of the fifteen) and we might also say the most distinctive. The single qualification that most sets the elders apart from the deacons is the Greek didaktikos, that is, “able to teach,” or perhaps even better, “apt or prone to teach.” Such teaching bent and ability in pastors is not to be minimal, as in “he’s able to teach if you put a gun to his head.” Rather, it’s maximal. “He’s the kind of man who won’t stop teaching—even if you put a gun to his head.” As he learns, he thinks about teaching. He’s a teacher at heart. He loves to teach, with all the planning and care and patience and energy that good teaching requires. And he’s effective at it.

Sober-minded, I think, is the most underrated. A level head and a balanced heart affect essentially everything the elders do, from their leading, oversight, and decision-making to their teaching (what they teach on, when, for how long, and how they approach and present the teaching and draw lines of application). One particularly important application of collective sober-mindedness for the council is how the pastor-elders bring the congregation along in various seasons in the life of the church.

Whole: Men Where They Are Known Best

Under the second heading, and now more briefly, we might cluster together the traits associated with integrity, or being the same in public and private.

At the head of this list is self-controlled, which we might call the hardest to cultivate. It is a summative term for Christian virtue, both as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) and as Paul’s singular charge to young men (Titus 2:6). It is at the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is quite simply one of the most difficult things sinful humans can learn to do.

“Husband of one wife”—or literally, “one-woman man”—might be the most countercultural in our generation. It speaks to sexual fidelity in a strikingly sexualized age. Whether married or single, does the man’s public and private patterns of life testify to, or betray, a deep singular fidelity of the heart in view of God’s express design and dictates for marriage? Of the fifteen, this one may run most against the grain of our society.

For me, “not a drunkard” is the hardest to give a superlative. Perhaps this was the trait a previous generation passed over most quickly. “Of course, the pastors must not be drunkards, or even have a drink! Or any Christians for that matter!” But these are not typically the troubles we face today—at least not in the circles I expect many readers of this article run. The pendulum has swung. Whereas evangelicals of a bygone era may have overreached in response to the dangers of alcohol, we may find ourselves today in fresh need of church leaders who will not fall victim to the same set of new temptations many in our flocks are facing.

Of the fifteen, “not a lover of money” (memorably in the KJV, “not greedy of filthy lucre”) may be the most conspicuous when compared with other lists. The synonymous attribute “not greedy for gain” appears both in Titus 1:7 and 1 Peter 5:2, as well as for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8 (while Titus 1:11 rebukes false teachers who are “teaching for shameful gain”). The single word translated “not a lover of money” in 1 Timothy 3:3 (Greek afilarguron) appears again in Hebrews 13:5 for the whole church: “Keep your life free from love of money.” We should not let this conspicuousness be lost on us—especially in times of such wealth and excess.

We might go so far as to call “manage your household well” the most pressing in this generation. Not only did the industrial revolution change “the household,” making it more a place of consumption and rest, and less a place for life and work, but also the gargantuan distraction of personal devices threatens what life and health remain in households today. A man managing his household well today is no small or simple task. It is profoundly countercultural; in the coming years, we will perhaps discover more and more publicly what devastation has been sown privately in distracted, poorly managed households in this generation.

Honorable: Men before a Watching World

Six of the fifteen qualifications are strikingly public. First is the most encompassing or most general, “above reproach.” In both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, “above reproach” comes first. Then another fourteen follow. In coming first, “above reproach” is a kind of umbrella term. It may seem minimal at first pass, but upon further reflection, we may see why Paul begins here, as the trait is fleshed out in the specific aspects that follow.

Respectability might be the most overlooked attribute of the fifteen today. We might also consider it the least serviced—for instance, one commentator on 1 Timothy 3 gives multiple sentences (and usually many paragraphs) to the other fourteen, but only one sentence to respectable, saying it means “good reputation.” We can say more. Christ calls his church to respect her leaders (1 Thess. 5:12), and he calls those leaders to do their part—in their words, their dress, and their behavior—to be worthy of the church’s respect. Christ requires a holy “dignity” of his officers.

Jesus gave an outward-facing commission. Our gospel is a growing, expanding gospel. God’s word runs and triumphs.

Hospitable might be the most forgotten. We might also say the most evangelistic. Words and acts of hospitality—that is, love for strangers—reveal something deep, and deeply Christian, in a man’s heart. Does he welcome, pursue, invite, and warmly approach those who are strangers, unfamiliar, or naturally uncomfortable to him? Hospitable pastors lead the church in the impulses that produce evangelism and missions.

“Not violent but gentle” then, might be the most particular. I say that based on it being the only negative (of four) that is also paired with a positive. Here we have specificity: not that but this. And gentleness today may be the single most misunderstood Spirit-produced fruit of the nine listed in Galatians 5:22–23. Today gentleness is often used as a positive spin for weakness. But gentleness in Scripture is emphatically not a lack of strength, but the godly exercise of power. Gentleness does not signal a lack of ability but the added ability to steward one’s strength so that it serves good, life-giving ends rather than harm.

“Not quarrelsome”—what might we say about this in the post-COVID era? Most newly on our radar? Most conspicuous in global pandemics, election years, and the era of social media? Until you’ve lived in quarrelsome times (enduring a nation’s and civilization’s marked politicization that comes with secularism, the pretenses of “democracy,” and Internet access, with people bickering about topics like masks and vaccines), you may not notice how often the New Testament (and Proverbs before it) warns again quarrelsomeness. In 1–2 Timothy in particular, Paul cuts clear lines between public talkers who are quarrelsome and those who are apt to teach (see especially 2 Tim. 2:14–4:5).

Finally, “well thought of by outsiders” might be the most surprising on the list. We might expect teaching bent and ability. Not a drunkard? Of course. But well thought of by outsiders? Hold on. Do outsiders have a say about who leads in the church? Maybe Paul saved the most surprising for last to make a point. As careful as pastor-elders must be to keep their churches from being influenced and shipwrecked by the world, they also must lead their people outward. Jesus gave an outward-facing commission. Our gospel is a growing, expanding gospel. God’s word runs and triumphs. It matters, in some measure (not absolutely) what outsiders think because we want to win them. We do not change our message for them. We do not cower to unreasonable demands from evil, twisted critics. And we should not suffer leaders in the church who are fools on the world’s terms just as much as Christ’s.

So we pray and look for honorable men—above reproach, respectable and hospitable, not quarrelsome, not violent but gentle, such men who, on the whole, will indeed be well thought of by reasonable outsiders. That public dimension is critical, in the church and in the world, and it is the fruit of a man’s long-hidden wholeness in private, and ultimately his humility before his God.

David Mathis is the author of Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ on Christian Leaders.

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