The New Testament qualifications for elders are like pieces in a puzzle. When we put them together we see a beautiful picture of God’s ideal for what an elder should be.
I like puzzles. At first, there is chaos. 200, 500, 1,000 pieces scattered on the tabletop; but then it begins to take shape, drawing a portrait that is revealed one piece at a time.
Everyone has a puzzle-solving strategy. Maybe it is to find the edges or corners first, or to focus on the central image. Whatever the strategy, its goal is to give some guidance to what could become a chaotic process of patching together one picture from many pieces.
The qualifications for elders are like the pieces of a puzzle. When we look at the pages of the New Testament, the qualifications for elder are not found in just one location, nor is the portrait identical in each (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Yet from these passages we can indeed piece together a picture of what God expects an elder to be.
The Center Piece: “Blameless”
Paul writes “the overseer is to be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “an elder must be blameless” (Titus 1:6). Peter affirms that he must be an example to God’s flock (1 Peter 5:3). While Paul makes use of two different words to describe this quality of a congregational leader, both convey the same essential idea: the person is unrebukable or unaccusable—nothing sticks to them! This is the core essential quality of an elder around which all the other “pieces” must fit.
Consider this: You select men to serve as candidates for the eldership in your congregation. Before you approve them as elders, you inform the congregation of those who are on the list for their consideration. You are standing before the congregation preparing to announce the list of candidates.
As you read off several of the names, you notice smiles, some applause, perhaps laughter. One man shouts “Amen!” But when you read off one of the names, there is not only a hush, but a gasp, the sound of murmurs, whispers. Later, you are approached by several individuals who question that man’s inclusion on the list, raising suspicions of poor motive, wrongdoing, and questionable beliefs. Regardless of what may be said of the candidate, his ability to serve as a blameless leader, one who will not draw suspicion or create distraction for the congregation’s leadership, is not apparent.
Do you remember Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthian congregation in 1 Corinthians 5:1? “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” Blamelessness is not only a concern for the leader within the church, but even within the community in which the church serves. If an elder is not blameless, he cannot effectively lead the congregation nor can he be a witness to the community for Christ and his church. It is the center puzzle piece.
Paul and Peter provide more pieces to the puzzle. How do they relate to the centerpiece of blamelessness? How are we to approach these other pieces? The main concern of these qualities is that an elder be blameless, able to serve as an example to the church, and above the reproach of Christians and non-Christians. The list of life qualities provided simply explains the ideal of blamelessness, as if to say, “You know what a blameless person looks like, don’t you? He is. . . .”
Before concerning ourselves with the specific nature of each leadership quality contained within the lists, we must ask several questions that are critical to making the appropriate application of these qualifications.
What is the proper biblical meaning of the listed qualification? This is a matter of letting the Bible speak as God intended it to speak through his chosen authors at the time of their writing and then applying it to our contemporary setting.
Do we consistently apply all the qualifications? We need to equally apply all the qualifications, treating each one as equally applicable.
How does this qualification reflect the idea of being above reproach? However we understand the pieces to this puzzle, they all must fit together, especially into the overarching idea of blamelessness.
What if the infraction occurred prior to conversion? Can God forgive someone and the church still hold it against him?
What if a person had a biblically acceptable reason for a given action? Particularly in the instance of “husband of one wife,” if we do maintain that this is a qualification excluding divorced men from serving as an elder, what if it was because of the wife’s adultery or abandonment? Perhaps the matter of motive should be examined and not mere action.
Above all, we must avoid the extreme of perfectionism, which can only lead to either spiritual frustration or pharisaic legalism. None of us can read these lists and say, “I embody these qualities 100 percent of the time in every situation without fault or excuse.” We are not sinless! That is not what God is expecting, since he is well aware of our shortcomings. Rather, is this individual above reproach so as to serve as an example to the congregation and a witness to the community? That is the central issue!
The center puzzle piece in understanding the qualifications for elders is the quality of blamelessness, being above reproach, an example to others in the faith. It is not only at the top of each list, but one of only two mentioned by both Paul and Peter in all three lists (the other regards love of money).
But what does this really look like? It is the centerpiece, but not the only piece. Part two of this article will provide the other puzzle pieces, and fill out the full picture of what God expects of an elder.
You may also want to visit www.e2elders.org to learn about resources available for elder training and equipping, some of which further explain the call, qualities, and ministry of the eldership.
James Riley Estep Jr. serves as dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.