This paper on biblical eldership was originally submitted for the ECC Pastoral Residency, an eighteen-month training program for men discerning a call to gospel ministry. It has been slightly modified for purposes of this blog.
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)
The New Testament gives much instruction concerning not only the characteristics of genuine Christians, but of godly, Christian pastors. The underlying assumption with these texts is that the people of God are not to be leader-less, wandering about as they please, living out their faith only inwardly. Rather, they are to be led and taught by individuals who are both called by God and confirmed by the local church. Scripture tells us that the elder (i.e., pastor) is a man who is to be diligent toward his own holiness and one who, as an overseer of God’s sheep, is deeply concerned and involved with the local flock. However, the character traits of biblical eldership outlined by the Apostles do not always align with the leadership traits prioritized in both the world and much of evangelicalism.
The Priority of Personal Holiness
The first thing Paul addresses in his portrait of biblical eldership is not what the elder’s duties are or how he performs them, but rather the elder’s own personal holiness. This theme of holiness and being “above reproach” can be traced through all the Bible’s pastoral passages (1 Tim 3:2-4). This does not mean an elder must be “untouchable” or unwilling to be corrected, but that he should be blameless, like the true Shepherd. Of course, he will never be sinless, but he should “display an exemplary degree of Christlikeness, free from conspicuous sin” (Jeramie Rinne, Church Elders, 21). Not only must he not be “arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” but he must not even associate with these traits. As the KJV translates 1 Thessalonians 5:22, he is to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” He—like all Christians, though even more so—is to be “holy as [God is] holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
Family Matters for Biblical Eldership
Along with pursuing personal holiness, an elder must be diligently involved in the life of his family. This continues a natural logic that is easily understandable: if a man cannot control himself and desires the wrong things, how might he be an example and promote the things that are rightly desirable? If he cannot love his wife and children, how could he love his flock? And if he cannot discipline, teach, and lead his children, how can he do the same for the people of God?
When it comes to what the world values in leadership , a man must not be as concerned with himself or his family as he is with what he can accomplish. It doesn’t matter if his family is in shambles, if his children hate him, and his eyes linger away from his wife. It doesn’t matter whether he respects his parents or whether he can control himself when anger and lust cloud his mind. If a leader can produce results, such is the evidence of his “strong” leadership. The elder appointed by God, however, is to keep himself in check, for what he does in his home and what he thinks to himself will determine how well he ministers to the blood-bought people of God.
Protecting the Flock
The third trait of the pastor is to protect the flock with his words, all of which are align with Scripture. This is seen in the ministerial task of giving instruction in sound doctrine and rebuking those straying from that sound doctrine (Titus 1:9-11). It was for this task that Paul left Titus in Crete (1:5) and Timothy in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). They were to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:4), to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), to “rebuke [false teachers] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13), and so on. We can feel Paul’s hatred for this sinful teaching that makes weak the faith of the Christian, which will “capture weak woman, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions” (2 Timothy 3:6). This false teaching is to be rooted out vigorously and replaced with the flowering truth of the Gospel.
Unfortunately, the task of protecting the flock by correcting false doctrine is not high on the priority list of many pastors in modern-day evangelicalism. Pastors are pleasant and amiable, speaking well and rarely offending anyone. They narrow the focus of the Gospel to make much of God’s forgiveness, grace, and love towards us, while hardly explaining God’s justice, the seriousness of sin, and our need forgiveness. All too often they teach that God’s greatest desire for us is not our holiness, but our happiness, never bothering to expound on the necessity of progressive sanctification for true and lasting happiness. Or worse yet, pastors, for the sake of gaining a following (cf. 2 Tim 4:3), may commit themselves to openly dreadful heresies, which might draw a crowd, but will inevitably draw people away from the Gospel.
While not completely comprehensive, the portrait of biblical eldership painted in Scripture is absolutely sufficient. Instructions on budgeting decisions and fixing boilers aren’t included, but what is included is enough to keep us busy. According to the Spirit-inspired apostle Paul, the elder must be a reliable man of good conduct who seeks after holiness. He must show genuine concern for both his family and flock, striving to make sure they both understand and obey the true riches of the Gospel. He must be humble, skillful in wielding the sword of Spirit (2 Timothy 2:15), and confident in confronting “unsound” doctrines contrary to the Word.
Of course, Scripture is clear that these traits are not to be unique to the pastor. We must all pursue the holiness of Christ, the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, and the growth of our brothers and sisters. But the elder especially must be able to point to his own life (much like Paul did), urging others to imitate him as he imitates Christ. As those aspiring to the office of elder, may we take our charge from Scripture and not from the models proposed by the sinful systems of this world.
Abram Newcomer serves as a member and pastoral resident of Elmira Christian Center. He graduated with a degree in Physics from Grove City College and currently works as a Development Engineer at Corning Inc. Abram and his wife Lydia are enjoying marriage, their activities most often including playing cards and reading Tolkien. He enjoys reading the classics, studying poetry, and listening to a rather strange spectrum of music, from the fugues of Bach to the “what-in-the-world”ness of Jacob Collier. He is commonly comforted by the masculine pastime of tea and chocolate, followed, of course, by going to bed at a reasonable hour. Don’t call after 9pm.