Jim Wilson is the retired director of Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho. He will be posting regularly, so check back in soon!

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Qualifications of Elders

The qualifications of elders in the church are clearly defined in the Scriptures. These qualities include doctrinal and moral integrity, the nature of the elder’s relationships within the church and within his family, and his reputation outside the church. I encourage you to read the following Scriptures, giving attention to every word, using several translations: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 3:1-10, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 13:12-17, Mark 10:42-45, Acts 20:27-31, Romans 12:7- 8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Timothy 5:17. You should expect your present elders and your future elders to adhere to the Scriptures.

My remarks will be about relationships within the church. However, the Bible also teaches Christians about their relationships outside the church government. There are similarities, but they are not the same. I will describe those relationships in my next post.

The following three verses in the New Testament teach or command Christians directly concerning elders in the church.

• Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work... (1 Thess. 5:12-13)
• Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7)
• Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)

There are seven commands in these verses. They are “respect,” “hold them in highest regard,” “remember,” “consider,” “imitate,” “obey,” and “submit.” Two of these are “remember” and “consider.” After this consideration, we see that “respect” and “highest regard” go together, and “submit” and “obey” go together. “Imitate” stands by itself.

The key words to the saints, then, are 1) remember, 2) respect, 3) imitate, and 4) obey. We would expect to find orders to elders which correspond to these key words. There is no corresponding word to “remember.” There is a complement to “respect.” “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain” (1 Tim. 3:2, 8). We are to respect elders for two reasons that go together. 1) He is a qualified elder. 2) We, as Christians, are to be respecting people.

There is also a corresponding word to “imitate.” We are told to imitate an elder who is an example to imitate. That is, the elder is to be a good example since he is to be imitated.

• …not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:3)
• Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. (1 Tim. 4:12)
• Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)
• Therefore, I urge you to imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16)

As we imitate our elders, we should become more like Jesus Christ. If by imitating them we do not become more like Jesus Christ, we should not imitate them.

With “obey,” we run into a blank. The complement of “obey” is “command.” Although we are to obey elders, we do not find anywhere in the Scripture that they are to command us. The word “command” seems to be limited to orders from God. Elders are to teach obedience to what Jesus has commanded, but not to what they themselves have commanded. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-19). We see then that elders are to be worthy of respect and examples that can be imitated, but that they have no authority to command, other than the commands that have already been given by God.

However, we should assume that they were appointed as elders because of their lives. So the position of elder should get respect. If, while he is an elder, a man is found to be not respectable, he is still to be respected because of his position, but he should be corrected. “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Tim. 5:19-20). The elder may be required to step down because he no longer fits the qualifications of elder.

There are church elders who have taken authority over the saints beyond their teaching and their example. They have become lords over the flock. This is forbidden.

"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers— not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:1-3).

In any church, there may be good elders and bad elders. We see this in Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders.

"For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood. I know that “after” I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:27-30).

This was written to elders, instructing them to “watch out” for other elders. Verse 31 says, “So be on your guard!” Here are some things about which you should be on your guard:

If you are in a church where the elders have exercised more authority over the saints than the Scripture allows; if you imitate the elders, and you are more selfish, profane, etc.; if you object to their overuse of authority, and you find yourself under church discipline as a result; if you attempt to leave the church, and you find unkind pressure, threats, intimidation, and extra-biblical hurdles in your way; if you see all of the members (not just a few) as Xerox copies of the elders and obeying their extra-biblical suggestions, orders, and commands; if you have been taught that the elders should have absolute authority over the saints; if there is ongoing teaching on a distinct doctrine that is emphasized more than the Scripture emphasizes it; if the elders teach how other evangelical churches are wrong, less right, or less spiritual and forbid the saints to be under the influence of other elders or other Christians; if the elders “distort the word of truth in order to draw disciples after them”; or if you have conformed to the requirements of the church and have less and less joy, then either the church is not Christian, or the elders are not qualified to be elders. You may have to leave the church.

Several years ago, at different times, I received two phone calls from out of state. Each person told me of an inordinate demand placed upon him by a Christian elder. In each case, when asked my opinion, I responded by asking this question, “When you grow up (although they were both adults) do you want to be like him?”

In both cases, the answer was a loud “NO!”

“Then the answer is simple; you must not imitate or obey. You have considered the outcome of his way of life, and you do not want to be like him. You have three choices: 1) you can stay there and imitate him; 2) you can stay there and disagree; 3) you can pack your gear and leave.”

You may not do #1. You may do #2 if you do it correctly. Do not become bitter. Your disagreement should be expressed graciously with a biblical basis for the disagreement. You should also have two or three witnesses before you bring a charge against an elder.

If this does not correct the situation, you may have to leave the church. Here’s how: If you are young and unmarried, call your father, even if he is not a Christian. (Or if you are a married woman, tell your husband, even if he is not a Christian.) Tell him the situation. He will very likely tell you to leave. Then explain to him that it is not that simple. Ask your father to call or write to the church pastor and tell the pastor that he wants you to leave the church, and that he does not want you talked to or written to or hassled in any way during the departure.

If you have no such legitimate authority to help you, call another pastor in your town for help.

Here are few Scriptures that are less direct but have to do with relationships with elders.

“So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’” (Acts 6:2-4). There are two kinds of service to the saints: serving tables and serving the Word of God. Both are serving. Both take godly men.

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The worker deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). In light of verse 18, “double honor” refers to financial remuneration. It is in consideration of “ruling,” “preaching,” and “teaching.” This consideration is a judgment call, but one that we are expected to make.

"If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is mercy, let him do it cheerfully" (Rom. 12:7-8).

"And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues" (1 Cor. 12:28).

“...if it is leadership, let him govern diligently...” “...those with gifts of administration...” This is speaking of men with special gifts and how they fit into the church. These are still gifts of service, not of lordship over the saints. The authority these men have is in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which they are to exercise for the good of the church.

Elders are instructed to “command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11) and, “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Tit. 2:15). Timothy and Titus are given authority to “command” and “encourage and rebuke.” “These things” refers to the Scriptures immediately adjacent in both cases.

In a sense, every denomination, sub-denomination, and para-church is guilty of divisiveness, or there would not be so many of them. However, many of the Christians in these churches have warm fellowship with each other. This minimizes the sin of divisiveness.

When we come across a church that has super-authoritarian elders, we find that in many cases they prohibit fellowship with Christians in other Christian churches. This could be for several reasons:

• The elders are afraid the Christians will find something more helpful in another church.
• They are possessive of their members.
• They think that the Christians will hear false doctrine and fall away.

If the elders in different churches are making disciples of Jesus Christ, then the closer the disciples get to Jesus, the closer they will get to each other. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).

If, however, they are not getting closer to each other, then we can assume that they are not getting closer to Jesus. If only one church is getting their members closer to Jesus, because of their character, they will also be getting closer to other Christians in other churches. This fellowship should be encouraged. It is commendable. However, we should take note of these warnings:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people" (Rom. 16:17-18).

"Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30).

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”’ another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”: still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:12-13)

There is no evidence in the text that Paul, Cephas, or Apollos encouraged this kind of partisanship by the believers in Corinth.

1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes, “Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:3b-4). Paul says that the believers are acting like ordinary men, not Christians. If this is wrong for believers, how much more wrong for the elders to encourage this loyalty to themselves! Loyalty to certain teachers is so normal today that it does not seem to hurt the conscience either of the elders who encourage it or of the believers who practice it.

If an elder is not encouraging loyalty to himself, yet it is still happening, he must take the responsibility for this wrong as Paul did and endeavor to correct it. The people an elder teaches should end up more obedient to God, more holy, more like Jesus. When people show excessive admiration for their teacher, it is evidence that he is effective in making disciples of himself, not of Jesus Christ. He may have the crowd and reputation, but it may be a reputation like the one God said Ezekiel had.

"As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD. My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice" (Ezek. 33:30-32).

The elder is to teach the flock to obey everything that Jesus commanded His disciples.

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