The Lord's Day Morning
June 9, 2002
1 Timothy 3
Why We Need Elders and Why Kind of Elders We Need
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Timothy chapter 3. This morning we're going to look at the subject of why we need elders and what kind of elders we need. And this is an obviously timely matter, for at the end of this month we are, as a congregation, to begin voting for new elders. And about a month later, we’ll begin the process of voting for new deacons. So this Sunday and next, we're going to concentrate on the biblical teaching about the qualifications for, and functions of, these two biblical offices of elder and deacon.
In 1 Timothy, Paul is laying down for Timothy, who is a young evangelist, minister and church planter, a permanent pattern for ministry in the church. Not just an ad hoc suggestion for how Timothy ought to do things where he is, but a permanent pattern of ministry for the church. And in the immediate context of 1 Timothy chapter 3, Paul has been spelling out a number of issues which directly relate to the gathered church of God. He's been talking to Timothy about what the church ought to be praying for. He's been talking to Timothy about how the church ought to relate to the world around it. He's even been talking about role relationships between men and women in the church. And now in chapter 3, he turns his focus to the issue of officers in the church. And that brings us to the passage that I'd like to study with you in detail today. 1 Timothy chapter 3 beginning in verse 1. Let's hear God's word.
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let's pray.
Lord, as we study Your word this morning, we ask that You would capture our hearts with Your vision for the elders of the church. We pray that we would understand better what they are for and what those who serve this work are to look like. And we pray that having seen this from Your word that our hearts would be so captured by it that we would embrace this ourselves, and that we would look for these things in those who will serve this great congregation in this most important task. These things we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Why do we need elders? And what kind of elders do we need? I simply want to try and answer those two questions with you today. And believe me that is enough. There is a boatload of information about those two subjects in the New Testament. And we're going to have to be deliberately selective as we tackle those questions this morning. But let's start off with the first one. Why do we need elders? Well, there are three answers to that. Paul required that elders be appointed in every church. Jesus gave elders as gifts to the church. And so we must need them, because Jesus doesn't give unneeded gifts. And thirdly, the Bible says that elders are given to the church for the purpose of discipleship and spiritual oversight. Let me prove those things to you by asking you to turn with me in your Bibles to several passages. And we’ll start off in Titus chapter 1. Now you remember that all the “Ts” in the New Testament are together; Timothys and Thessalonians and Titus are all together. So if you’re lost, look for the “Ts” right before Hebrews, and you’ll find Titus, a small book, chapter 1 and verse 5.
Here we see proven, and I could go elsewhere, that Paul directed that elders be appointed in every church that was planted. He says to Titus, who was a missionary church planter who had been on his missionary church planting team, this, “for this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” Now, you’re thinking immediately, “Well, that says ‘appoint elders in every city not in every church.’” Remember folks, this is a missionary church planting situation. There's only one church in every city. And so Titus is to go around to every city where a core group had been established and establish the congregation, and as a part of establishing that congregation, he was to appoint or ordain elders in every congregation. In fact, when we look at the New Testament, in Acts, in 1 Peter, in James, in Timothy, in Titus, in Hebrews, everywhere we look and have any information of any sort about an established church guess what it has? A body of elders. Think of it, when the author of Hebrews tells the people of God to submit to the leadership of the church, what does he say? Submit to your leader? No. Submit to your pastor? No. Give heed to the leaders of the church, plural. When James tells you, when you are extremely, seriously ill to call for the church leadership to pray for you. What does he say? Call your pastor and have him pray for you. No. He says, call the elders. When Peter is greeting the churches which are dispersed in Asia minor, what does he say to the leadership of the church? I want to say hello to my fellow pastors. No. I want to say hello to my fellow preachers. No. He says, “I greet my fellow elders.” When Paul is greeting the Philippians what does he say? “I bring greetings to the elders and deacons.” Over and over in the New Testament we find everywhere there is a settled church, there is a body of elders which has been given spiritual oversight. And we see Paul setting down the principle for that in Titus 1 verse 5, where he says, “Titus, appoint elders in every church.”
Secondly, we need elders because Jesus gave them to the Church. Along with various other officers, He gave them as gifts to the Church. Turn with me back to Ephesians chapter 4 verse 11. We have just been told that Jesus has ascended on high, He has led captivity captive, and He as given gifts to men. And what has He given to His church? Well, Ephesians 4:11 tells you some of the things that He has given to the Church. “He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists and some as pastors and teachers.” Or it can even be translated some as “pastor teachers.” In this passage it is clear that Jesus has given officers to the church, and among those officers that He has given are pastors and teachers.
Now you’re thinking to yourself, “But yes, that's talking about the preacher.” Well, wait a second, in the passage we just read, in 1 Timothy chapter 3 what does Paul call elders? Shepherds, pastors. That's what an elder is. An elder is a pastor. Now some pastors have the job of preaching on Sunday morning. But all elders are pastors whether they are teaching elders or ruling elders. They’re all pastors. That's what an elder is. An elder is a shepherd. An elder is a pastor. An elder is a spiritual overseer. And so we're being reminded here in Ephesians chapter 4 that these elders, these pastors, are gifts of Christ to His Church. And so we must need them.
But we don't have to guess why we would need them. Because if you’ll go on and look at verses 12 and 13, you’ll see that Paul tells you why Jesus said that we need elders. The Bible makes it clear that elders are given, and necessary, for our spiritual edification. Look at what Paul says in Ephesians 4 verses 12 and 13 “He gave 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; until we all attain into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to the mature man to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” Now that is a mouthful of a sentence. But it is crystal clear what Paul is saying. He is saying that Jesus gave elders to the church so that one, the saints can be equipped for the work of service. That the work of the elder is to equip the saints to do what god made you to do. We need elders to equip us for the work that god has given us to do. And two, to the building up of the body of Christ.
Elders are given to build up the body of Christ. How? Well, you see it in verse 13. He explains what it means to build up the body of Christ. “Until we all attain to the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the son of god, to a mature man.” In other words, elders are there in order to foster the unity of the fellowship, and elders are there to build us up until we are mature in the faith. They are there to help us grow. They’re to disciple us into spiritual maturity. That's why we need elders. Because Paul said they were to be appointed in every church. Because Jesus gave them as gifts to the church. Because Jesus said that they were there in order to build up the saints in the unity of the faith and to maturity in Christ. And, of course, this is confirmed by what Paul says in acts chapter 20. Turn back with there to acts chapter 20 verse 28. He's speaking to the Ephesian elders, and he says to them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” He's speaking to the Ephesian elders and what does he say? Be good pastors. Be good spiritual shepherds. That's what we need elders for. We need spiritual shepherds to help us in discipleship. To help create and continue and grow the unity of the family of god in the church. To help us grow in grace. For these reasons and, frankly, for many more, we need elders. Well, that's the first part that I want to speak about with you today. That's why we need elders.
But what kind of elders do we need. Now turn with me back to 1 Timothy chapter 3. What kind of elders do we need? Well, Paul tells you six things about the kind of elder that you need, and let's just walk through them together today.
I. We need elders who want the work, not just the status of an elder.
In verse 1, he tells us that we need elders who want the work, not just the status of the elder. We need elders who want to do the work of the eldership. Not just those who want to be called elder, but who really desire with all their hearts to do the work of a pastor. You see, the work of the eldership is pastoral work. And Paul says in verse 1 that it is a wonderful work to which to aspire. He doesn't say it's a wonderful office to which to aspire, but a wonderful work to which to aspire.
Now Paul, of course, means the same thing when he uses the word “elder” and “overseer.” In some of your Bibles some of his words are translated “elder” and others are translated “overseer.” In other Bibles it may be translated “elder” and “bishop.” Either of those are fine translations, but the thing I want you to see is that the office of elder and the office of bishop are the same in the New Testament. Those aren't two different offices. Bishops aren't people that get to wear a miter, held a staff, and wear really cool clothes and boss all the elders around. They are the same office. Elders in the New Testament do the work of a bishop. The elders bishop, the elders shepherd, the elders pastor; that's what bishop means in the New Testament. I can prove this to you, by the way, from a number of places. Let me just point out a couple. Since you’re in Timothy, just turn over to Titus 1 verse 5, and we read, “appoint elders in every city.” Now look down to verse 7, he's giving in verses 6 and 7 the qualifications for these elders, and look at what he says, “for the overseer must be above reproach.” Now wait a second. That word “overseer” is the word “bishop.” But he was just talking about elders. Has he changed the subject? No. Elder is the title. Bishop is the job. Elder is the title. Bishop is the function. A bishop is an overseer, a shepherd, a pastor. And the elders are to be good pastors, Paul is saying. Pastors must be above reproach. Now this is said over and over in the New Testament. Another example is right back there in Acts chapter 20. You remember we just read in acts 20:28 Paul's exhortation to the elders at Ephesus. Well, in acts chapter 20 verse 17 we read Paul “called to him the elders of the church.” And then down in verse 28 he says to these elders, “be on guard for yourselves and for the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops.” So, elders bishop, elders pastor, elders shepherd.
It's interesting that the Jewish Christians that Paul would have been writing to would have been more used to the terminology of elder. Whereas, the Greek speaking Christians that Paul would have been writing to would have been more used to the terminology of bishop or overseer. And Paul uses both of those terminologies in explaining this one office.
So, when Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 3:1, of those who desire the work of the eldership, he is talking about the pastoral work of the elder. The elder is fundamentally a pastor. He's a shepherd of souls. And what Paul is saying here is that the man who aspires to be a shepherd of souls is aspiring to a wonderful work. He longs to see the people of God studying the word of God, learning the word of God, growing in the word of God, being conformed in the image of Jesus Christ. He longs to help people who are struggling spiritually. He longs to establish people who are growing spiritually. He longs to bring people into the kingdom who don't know Jesus Christ. He is engaged in pastoral work. And you want to elect men to the office of eldership who long to do that kind of spiritual labor. They've got a spiritual agenda for wanting to be an elder. They don't simply desire status. They don't simply desire to be able to make decisions. They long to do spiritual ministry.
II. We need elders who are godly men, for holiness is God's great qualification for an elder.
Secondly, Paul says, we need elders who are godly men. Look at verses 2 and 3. Isn't it interesting that the only qualifications that Paul gives for the office of elder are moral qualifications. Isn't it interesting that the only requirements that he makes for this office are character requirements. Paul wants to see godly men. Paul wants to see men who have a desire to be holy, a desire to be like Christ, in the office of elder. We need elders who are godly men, because holiness is God's great qualification for an elder. Elders minister from a base of godliness. They minister from a base of godly character. And the work that they’re to be involved in requires a corresponding character of goodness Paul says.
So in verses 2 and 3 Paul lays out eleven character qualifications for elders. Let me run through them quickly. He says they’re to be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, not addicted to much wine, not pugnacious, gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. What does that mean?
To say that they are above reproach means that they are free from scandalous sins which would bring reproach upon the church. Now if above reproach meant you had to be perfect, guess how many elders we would have had in the last two thousand years? That's right, none. But above reproach means that a man is free from scandalous sin which would lay him open to serious public criticism.
He's to be the husband of one wife. That is, he is to be marked by the strictest marital fidelity. His marriage is to be biblical, monogamous, and sexually pure. He is not to be unbiblically divorced. He is to be a man who is upstanding in those areas.
Thirdly, he is to be temperate or sober-minded. He is opposed to all sorts of excesses. He is to be prudent. He has mastery over his natural reactions. He's self-controlled. He is to be respectable. His life bears up under public scrutiny. Religion is personal, but it is not private. And his life shows itself to be one which is respectable.
He is hospitable. This isn't talking about the elder's wife being hospitable. This is the elder. He has a heart for hospitality. Paul in Romans says that all Christians ought to have a heart for hospitality. But especially elders ought to have a vision for bringing people into their lives and homes, for ministering to people, for making them comfortable, showing kindness and favor to them in hospitality.
He is not to be addicted to much wine. He is to be freed from any enslavement to any kind of fixation with alcohol or drugs or any other addictive stimulant.
He is not to be pugnacious. He's not to be a violent man. He is not to be given to quarreling or quick tempered. If you had an elder who is given to quick temper, that be tested very quickly in the context of the work of the eldership, and that could ruin the fellowship of the elders in the church.
He is to be gentle. That is, he is to be meek and humble and so able to elicit a response of trust and respect and affection from the congregation.
He's to be peaceable. His pattern of speech is to be not quarrelsome so that he can gently instruct, Paul says, those who are in opposition.
And he's to be free from the love of money. He's no money grubber. He doesn't seek gain in a dishonest way. He is in control of his material appetites. All of these things Paul says are part of the qualification of what it means to be eligible for an elder of the church of the Lord. And you want to elect men who are godly and who are evidently in their lives pursuing godliness in these practical ways.
III. We need elders who are able to teach, that is, who are able to convey God's truth to disciples.
There's a third thing that Paul makes clear. And you noticed that I skipped it. Go back to verse 2. It's the only phrase that I skipped in verses 2 and 3. I did it on purpose because it is the only gift ability that Paul lists in the whole list that an elder needs to have. Everything else is moral. Everything else has to do with his character. Everything else has to do with God's grace working certain characters and virtues in him.
This has to do with a gift ability. And it's the one thing that he mentions: He must be able to teach. It is the one gift qualification that Paul lists for elders in this passage. They be able to teach. And we need elders who are able to teach. That is, they are able to convey and explain God's truth to disciples and seekers. Paul is calling on us to look for men who know the Bible, who love the Bible, who know the doctrines of the Bible, and love the doctrines of the Bible, and know it well enough to explain it and defend it to others.
Now, this teaching is not to be stereotyped. Behind the podium or behind the pulpit is not the only kind of teaching that can be done. And there will be many elders who are good behind a podium and other elders who are qualified, according to this particular directive, who are not particularly good behind a podium. You wouldn't want to listen to them 52 weeks out of the year. My father was scared to death to get behind a podium. And he was a faithful elder in the church. And whenever he got behind a podium, he had written out every word that he was going to say and he read it. And my mother had written every word of it. But give him a Coke and some peanuts and put him down across the desk from somebody, and he’d teach you more in 15 minutes than you could have learned many places in many, many hours. He was able to teach. He wasn't very good behind a podium. But he was very good one to one.
Now all elders need to be able to convey the truth. They may not all be great. You may not want to listen to them 52 Sundays out of the year. But they’re able to teach. That's the kind of an elder that you want. You want to elect elders who not only want to teach, but they have some ability to convey God's truth, to explain and defend it.
IV. We need elders with godly homes and families, and who are aiming for godly homes and families.
Fourthly, look at verses 4 and 5. Paul says we need elders with godly homes and families. They’re men who aim for godly homes an families. They’re men who in some measure have established godly homes and families. Paul has already pointed to their marital qualifications. Now, he points to their leadership in the home. And in addition to marital fidelity, he says that they ought to be good managers of their own family.
This is fascinating, isn't it? Paul doesn't say that, you know, these men need to be able to run a Fortune 500 company. He doesn't say, you know, that guy is the most impressive small business entrepreneur in the whole community. He needs to be on the board of elders. He says, you know, I want to know how that guy lives the Christian faith and disciples the Christian faith in his own home. That's what I want to know. How does he do at home. He doesn't say, find the guy who's most successful in the world and make him an elder. He says, find the men that are most successful with the gospel at home and start there. You see, Paul knows that it's easy to go out and work real hard saving the world and neglect the family at home. And he wants to see men involved in public ministry who have demonstrated some competency in leading their own family to the throne of grace. And so he says, you want to elect elders whose home life and home values accredit their fitness as shepherds, and reflect their commitment to Christian discipleship amongst the whole flock.
V. We need elders who are spiritually mature and not recent converts.
Fifthly, if you’ll look at verse 6, Paul goes on to say we need elders who are spiritually mature. They’re not recent converts. He says, “Not a new convert.” Somebody's converted, they have a dramatic conversion, and six months later he's put up for church office and Paul is saying, don't do that, don't do that to the man. That's a dangerous place. Satan loves to get hold of new converts and crash them against the rocks when they are given the burden of spiritual discipleship.
You need men of spiritual maturity. This does not necessarily mean that they are chronologically old. Paul is not saying they have to have their Shoney's Senior Membership Over 55 Card before they can be elders. Timothy probably was 30 years old. So there may be young men who are spiritually mature, who are very able to be elders. They need to have spiritual gray hairs, but they don't necessarily have to have physical gray hairs. They need to be spiritually mature even if they are chronologically not senior citizens. Paul is saying, you want to elect elders to whose spiritual insight you can confidently submit. Remember, when you vote for a man for office, one day you may be called by him to account. Now you want to be able to respect his spiritual maturity if, with the other elders, he calls you to give account for the hope which is in you. You want to be able to respect them and their spiritual oversight. And so they need to be men who are spiritually mature, not recent converts.
VI. We need elders who moral reputation is good with local non-Christians.
And sixth, and finally, if you look at verse 7, Paul says we need elders whose moral reputation is good with local non-Christians. It's not just electing men who are popular within the congregation, or electing men that are well known in the congregation, or even men that are well respected within the congregation., but these men ought to have respect in the community amongst non-Christians. Paul expects elders to be respectable not only to those within the church, but also in the estimation of those with out it. We don't want men in the eldership about whom people in the community are saying, “You know, he's had a well known moral problem for many years. You see that just proves that all this stuff that they say doesn't mean anything.” We want men who have a reputation in the community of godly character, because Paul is saying to us that you want elders who will enhance and not embarrass the Church's witness to the watching world.
Those are the things that Paul says we ought to be looking for. And we ought to be praying through those things in the week to come, in the weeks to, come as we prepare to exercise that tremendous privilege and responsibility of selecting the men who will be the elders of this church in the years to come. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we bow before You and we ask that as elders are gifts from Christ to His Church that You would in Your mercy appoint those whom You have set Your heart on and who have a heart for You. In Jesus' name. Amen.