All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95), Published by The Lockman Foundation

Today, many candidates for the pastoral office are chosen for all the wrong reasons. They may have great learning, an impressive manner of speaking, be charismatic leaders, or be masters at managing an organization. But none of these things, in themselves, qualify a man to serve a church as a pastor or elder. The teaching of the apostles presents us with a far higher standard for church leadership than the standard by which most evangelical assemblies evaluate pastoral candidates today. According to the teachings of Paul, there are two characteristics that a man must possess in order to be qualified to serve as an elder – spiritual-giftedness, and spiritual maturity.

The Elder’s Spiritual-Giftedness

By “spiritual-giftedness”, I mean a man’s empowerment from the Holy Spirit to be able to fulfill the duties of elders. And what are those duties? They are described in the very titles that Scripture gives to elders. These include “overseers”, “leaders”, and “shepherds-and-teachers”. Therefore, we can know for certain that the roles of elders are to oversee assemblies, to lead assemblies, to shepherd assemblies, and to do this by teaching assemblies. Thus, the two main essential gifts that a man must possess to serve as an elder are the gifts of leadership and teaching.

In his instruction on spiritual gifts in his letter to the Romans, Paul reveals that there are several gifts that a man may possess in order to be able to serve as an elder. However, note from the beginning that Paul is speaking to all Christians, including the elders. He describes the use of spiritual gifts in this way:

“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence . . .” (Ro. 12:6-8)

The two gifts of God’s grace listed here that all potential elders must possess are “teaching” and “leadership”. Such gifts, even before a man becomes an elder, should be used by him. So, if a man is really qualified to be an elder, he’ll be teaching, and leading before he becomes an elder. As a side note, I suspect that many qualified elders are also gifted to “exhort”, or to encourage, as well.

Not only are potential elders themselves gifted to teach and lead, but they themselves in their service are gifts to the assembly. Paul explains this in his foundational passage on the purpose, unity, and growth of Christ’s body in Ephesians 4:11-12:

“And [Christ] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ . . .”

Paul begins this text by disclosing the fact that Christ first gave His people some offices that were exclusive to the church in the first century, while the apostles were still planting churches. These are the “apostles” and “prophets”. However, the next two offices are still used by the Lord today – evangelists, and what the Greek literally says are “pastors-who-are-teachers”. One way we can know that Paul is speaking of a single office with these last two terms is that he precedes every separate office with the word, “some”, but he doesn’t include this word before teachers. Rather, in a deliberate Greek construction, he joins the words for “pastors” and “teachers” together, to say that he’s talking about “pastors-who-are-teachers”, or “pastor-teachers”. But of course, the English word obscures the true meaning of “pastors”, since the Greek word literally means “shepherds”, as the ESV translates it. Hence, Paul is saying that Christ gave His people some “shepherd-teachers”.

And what was the purpose of giving this office to the saints? To “equip . . . the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (v. 12). So, we see that the purpose of shepherds leading and teaching their assemblies is to equip the rest of the saints to work in serving. And what will this service result in? The “building up”, or the spiritual growth, of Christ’s body.

In addition to being gifted before becoming elders, men who become elders may also receive a spiritual gift of leadership upon being appointed to that office, as Paul implies that Timothy was in 1 Timothy 4:12-14:

“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself and example of those who believe. Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery [or eldership].”

According to what Paul orders Timothy to do in this passage, it seems clear that at least part of the spiritual gift that was “within” Timothy was the giftedness to be an example of a mature believer, to exhort, and to teach. It’s likely that it was because Timothy was serving as a representative of Paul, and as a church-planter himself, that he was given this special giftedness, in order to complete the establishment of the assembly in the area of Ephesus.

But another important principle is to be found from this account. This principle says that, in the appointment, or selection, of elders, it’s the elders of the assembly who have the main responsibility to recognize a man as being gifted and qualified to serve as an overseer. This is represented by the act of “the laying on of hands” by the “eldership”, as the Greek word for “presbytery” can be understood. The laying on of hands was a symbolic act of letting the elder candidate, and anyone witnessing, know that the man on whom their hands were laid was being recognized as a new elder of God’s people. On the flip side, it wasn’t the congregation as a whole who laid their hands on Timothy, but a group of elders. They were confirming God’s gifting of him to serve in the position of an overseer, at least as a temporary one in Paul’s place.

So, we’ve seen that potential elders must be gifted by the Spirit to lead and teach. But what sort of man is fit to be a leader and teacher of an assembly of the saints? Paul and Peter answer this question with very specific qualities that are demonstrated by a man who is worthy of the pastoral office.

The Elder’s Spiritual Maturity

We’ll first examine the character traits that Paul lists in both 1 Timothy and Titus when describing the qualified elder. These two lists are the most comprehensive of all of Scripture, and the most directly applicable to elders. In 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul begins his list by saying, “An overseer, then must be . . .”, and in Titus 1:5-6, he explains to Titus that he left him in Crete so that he would partly “appoint elders in every city . . . if any man is . . .,” then he lists several signs of maturity.

Qualities from Both Letters

It’s important to remember that, when Paul describes the man competent to serve as an elder, he doesn’t begin with the elder’s ability to teach or speak, but with the man’s high moral character – his Christlikeness. So, what are the qualities that Paul includes in both lists?

He starts off by saying that an elder candidate must be “above reproach” (1 Ti. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). This means that the man must be living a life that is beyond any legitimate accusation of glaring sin, unfaithfulness, or hypocrisy. Another word to describe this quality is “blameless”, or out of reach of being blamed for a practice of known sin.

Second, Paul includes a similar idea with two different words by calling a faithful overseer “temperate” and “self-controlled” (1 Ti. 3:2; Tit. 1:8). Both words carry the idea of being disciplined in thinking and acting, so that the man is in full control of himself. This will cause him to usually act in a clear-headed, and sensible, manner, so he doesn’t engage in obsessive, compulsive, or excessive behaviors, such as over-eating, over-sleeping, resting too much, or talking too much.

The third trait that a man must possess is conveyed by the words “prudent” and “sensible” (1 Ti. 3:2; Tit.8). These descriptions tell us that the elder must have common, or good, sense, and be thinking clearly, logically, and wisely. He must be able to identify and evaluate problems, and come up with practical, timely, and beneficial solutions.

A fourth, and often neglected, quality that an elder must possess is that of being “hospitable” (1 Ti. 3:2; Tit. 1:8). The Greek noun for “hospitality” literally means “the love of strangers”, so it primarily has the meaning of being willing to welcome those you don’t personally know into your home. In the 1st century, hospitality was particularly important for the many traveling preachers, teachers, and messengers, since there were usually no public “inns” or “hotels”. Therefore, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of friends, for the most part. But there’s another reason why an elder must be hospitable toward people. It’s so he can demonstrate by example what it means to obey Jesus in the context of his home. This is especially important for elders who are married, since by having people over, they’re able to show how to properly love and lead a wife, and to manage a household. Are the elders in your assembly hospitable?

Fifth, both of Paul’s lists include the requirement that a man be “gentle” (1 Ti. 3:3; Tit. 1:7). Gentleness, as it’s commonly misunderstood, doesn’t mean lack of strength, but the proper display of strength. It refers to the ability to speak and act in a way toward a person’s behavior that’s most effective for helping him. Gentleness is most greatly manifested when dealing with mistreatment, such as through abusive speech. When a man is being unjustly yelled at, he displays gentleness when he doesn’t respond in kind, but speaks “gently,” so as to calm the person down.

Sixth, both of Paul’s lists in his pastoral letters demand that an elder be “free from the love of money” (1 Ti. 3:3; Tit. 1:7). This is self-explanatory, but it implies that such a person is content with his possessions, and not hungry for more stuff, or more respect from those who love money themselves.

The final characteristic that Paul includes in both lists is that a man “manages his own household well” (1 Ti. 3:4). In Titus 1:6, he describes this kind of man as “the husband of one wife [lit., “a one-woman man”], having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” How does Paul’s description to Titus show that this man manages his household well? Because first, he requires a faithful husband to have “children who believe”. Who believe what? There are two main interpretations of this statement, but I take the more controversial. Although it’s true that the Greek could communicate Paul’s meaning as “faithful children”, I believe it’s more consistent with Paul’s use of “faithful”, and the descriptions of household conversions in Acts, to see Paul as saying that these children at least profess faith in the gospel. And why would they? Because their father has taught them the gospel, and its demands, and lived a life consistent with it. Such faith will motivate them to live in such a way that they’re “not accused of dissipation or rebellion”. This shows that the man manages his household well by fulfilling his teaching and training responsibility toward his children. And Paul explains the importance of an elder managing his household well when he asks, “but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” Since God’s assembly is like a household, and overseers are called to lead them, then it’s essential that an elder be able to take care of his personal household.

Qualities Exclusive to Each Letter

Next, let’s look at the qualifications that Paul lists only in 1 Timothy. First, he describes a qualified overseer as “respectable” (v. 2). This should be an obvious requirement for a man who is in a leadership position, but it’s often absent from those who fill pastoral offices. An elder should carry himself in such a way, that he earns the respect of those who know him. He shouldn’t just claim to be a leader, but live like a leader – a man of God who’s worthy to be followed.

Second, he warns that an elder must not be “a new convert”, citing the danger of a spiritual baby becoming conceited and living a prideful life (1 Ti. 3:6). This makes it clear that one of the gifts that an elder must have is experience in walking with the Lord, and therefore wisdom and knowledge of how to imitate the Lord.

Along with this experience, an elder must “have a good reputation with those outside [the church]” (1 Ti. 3:4). This doesn’t necessarily mean that they all like him, but that they know that he’s an upright, godly, and righteous man, who lives a life that’s contrary to the non-Christian society around him.

Moving next to the qualities found only in Titus, Paul begins in verse 8 of chapter 1 by saying that an elder must be “loving what is good.” In other words, this man takes the most delight in thinking about, and manifesting, the good things in life. This doesn’t mean the things we personally believe are good, but what God has revealed is good. Second, Paul describes a suitable elder candidate as “just”, or “righteous” (v. 8). This clearly means that he lives in a way that’s motivated by love for God, and love for his fellow man. Third, he’s called “devout”, or “reverent” (v. 8). This word describes his inner fear and awe of God, which moves him to delight in Him, and to obey Him.

The final characteristic in Titus, which serves to reinforce the need for spiritual-giftedness, is that an elder candidate must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9). What is “the faithful word” to which he must hold fast, or tightly? It’s the word, or message, of the gospel of God’s kingdom, and the whole message that Jesus gave to His apostles. This includes not only the simple gospel message, but its context, details, and implications. Paul isn’t saying that the elder candidate has to know everything, since he couldn’t have, but he must understand the essentials of the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. Why must he understand, believe, and live out this message? “So that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Thus, Paul ends his list of qualifications to Titus with the ability to “exhort”, or “encourage” using sound teaching. But also, the elder must be able to prove the error and untruthfulness of “those who contradict” sound teaching. And this can only come from knowing and believing the essentials of the Christian message inside and out.

Having examined Paul’s essential character traits for elders, we must answer the question, “why does an elder have to be so exemplary in his lifestyle and character?” Peter gives us the answer in his encouragement for elders to,

“. . . shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight . . . [by] proving to be examples to the flock.” (1 Pe. 5:2-3)

The most important way in which elders are to lead their assembly is example. They aren’t just to teach in word what to believe, and how to live, but to demonstrate what is true, and how to live. As such, elders must be worthy of imitation. They must be able to say with Paul, “be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Are Your Assembly’s Elders Gifted to Teach and Worthy to Lead?

In conclusion, we’ve seen that the apostles taught that church leaders had to be gifted by the Spirit to teach and lead, and also had to be spiritually mature men, who demonstrated Christlikeness in every visible area of life. So, let me pose the question — are the elders, pastors, or bishops of your assembly able to teach the truth of Scripture? Are they able to teach it in such a way that the assembly actually learns it, and applies it to their lives? If they can’t teach Scripture in a way that the assembly understands, then they’re immediately disqualified from shepherding. Further, are your elders gifted at leading? Are they able to organize, instruct, and motivate the members of the assembly to serve the Lord in greater ways?

Also, are your elders worthy of following? Are they prime examples of Christlikeness? Are they blameless, self-controlled, sensible, hospitable, gentle, greedless, well-thought of by sinners, lovers of good, just, reverent, and tightly holding to the essentials of Christianity? And if you’re just a Christian man without an office in the assembly, do these qualities describe you? What characteristics do you need to evaluate and develop in yourself, so that you can become more like the Lord?

Especially if you’re a young man, like me, I’ll leave you with Paul’s charge to Timothy:

“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.” (1 Ti. 4:12)