If you approach the New Testament with this question in mind – “Who is qualified to serve as an elder in Christ’s church?” – you’ll be confronted with a number of words in response. For the sake of brevity, we’ll limit our investigation at this point to four important texts: 1 Timothy 3.1-7; 5.17-22; Titus 1.5-9; and 1 Peter 5.1-5. Reflection on these passages will cause us to ask ourselves a series of questions concerning potential candidates and we can word the first question this way: “Is their character and behavior highly respectable?” The following words and phrases in our key passages clearly give rise to this important question for our consideration.
a. An elder must “love what is good” (Titus 1.8 CEB). The Greek word translated here as “love what is good” is the word philagathos and its appearance here in Titus 1.8 is it’s only occurrence in the NT. A person who is philagathos is someone who is “a lover of goodness” (RSV; NAB; NJB; NRSV; KNT), a “lover of good men” (KJV), and truly does “enjoy doing good things” (CEV). In doing such, it’s a apparent that they are living in their right mind, that is, they are “right-minded.” (REB) Or in the words of William Barclay: “The Christian office-bearer must be a man whose heart answers to the good in whatever person, in whatever place, and in whatever action he finds it.” (The Letters of Timothy, Titus, and Philemon; p.238).
b. An elder is a “godly” person (Titus 1.8 CEB). The Greek word underlying this thought is the rare word hosios. It is difficult to translate as is evidenced not only by the various ways it is rendered in a variety of English versions – “devout” (NASB; REB; NJB; NRSV; NLT); “holy” (KJV, NCV; NIV; NAB; KNT); “pure” (CEV) – but also by the fact that it is a word descriptive of the Lord himself (cf. Rev. 15.4; 16.5). It’s appearance here in Titus 1.8 is the only time it occurs in Paul’s letters.
c. An elder must be “without fault” (1 Timothy 3.2; Titus 1.6 CEB). Paul again selects for use here a common enough word, but one that only finds its way into the NT five times: anenkletos. It was a word commonly used outside of Scripture to describe a military position that was not open to easy attack by the enemy from any direction; there were simply no holes in its defense. A person with such a character was “blameless” (KJV; NAB; NRSV; NIV; KNT), “above reproach” (KNT), being of “irreproachable” or “impeccable” (NJB) character.” Their character, being “unimpeachable” (REB) comes from their living their life in a way that “cannot be spoken against” (NLT). Or in other words, they have a “good reputation” (CEV) based on their being “not guilty of doing wrong” (NCV). It is Christ’s purpose and work to present all he has reconciled before God in such a state (cf. “faultless” – Col. 1.22), not only those who serve as elders. Such a quality is the polar opposite of the character of Titus’ opponents in Crete (cf. Titus 1.11-14).
d. An elder is to be “honest” (1 Timothy 3.2 CEB). Paul’s use of words common in the culture, but rare in the NT continues as he twice inserts the word kosmios into his letter we know as 1 Timothy twice (1 Tim. 2.9; 3.2). When Paul says an elder is “honest” (kosmios), he has at least two things in mind, namely that they have “good behavior” (KJV) or are “well-behaved” (CEV), and that others take note of their “decent” living (NAB). Consequently, they come to be “respected by others” (NCV) or are considered “respectable” (NASB; NRSV; NIV; KNT). This comes from their interacting in “courteous” (REB; NJB) manner with others. In sum, the life of a kosmios person is beautiful, and beautiful in particular because it just plain put together well. In a colloquial way today we might say such a person “has their stuff together.”
e. An elder certainly needs to be “ethical” (Titus 1.8 CEB). That is, they are “ethical” (dikaios) in the way they are consistently “just” (KJV; NASB; REB; NAB; KNT) and “fair” (CEV; NLT) toward others. They live with respect toward others, all others, and so “live right” (NCV) by walking “upright” (NJB; NRSV; NIV). Such a person respects people, reverences God, and gives what is rightly do to all. The word dikaios is quite common in the NT (79x) and appears a number of times in Paul’s writings (14x), often being translated in English renderings by the word “righteous.” No one is completely “ethical” or “righteous” for all of us as humans are tainted with sin (Rom. 3.10), but an elder stands out from the mass of humanity in the fact that they are like their God, who is the “righteous” (diakios) judge (2 Tim. 4.8)
f. An elder will receive criticism and “accusation” and so, they should to be capable of handling such well.
“Don’t accept an accusation made against an elder unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses.” (1 Tim. 5.19 CEB)
False charges (kategoria; John 18.29) were brought against Jesus, so someone who serves as an elder can hardly hope to escape such if they imitate the Lord’s ways. The way a person being considered to serve as an elder handles a false “charge” (CEV; REB) or “complaints” (NLT) should be noted for one rest assured that many an untrue “accusation” (KJV; NASB; NRSV; NAB; NJB; KNT) will come their way if they serve as an elder among God’s people.
g. And an elder must “have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Timothy 3.7 CEB). They should be “well thought of by outsiders” (NRSV), meaning they “have the respect of people who are not in the church” (NCV). The Greek words (kalos martyria) literally mean “good witness,” the point being that people outside (kosmos) of the community of faith (ekklesia) give testimony to the moral worth and sensitivity of such a person. Boring & Craddock comment: “The goal is not necessarily respectability as such, but that the church’s leaders not cause non-Christians undue concern over the way they conduct their personal and family lives.” (p.661)
While all of this is quite an impressive, even daunting, list, it is barely the beginning of what Scriptures shares with us as we ask the question “Who is qualified to serve as an elder?” In response, may our first question be “Is their character and behavior highly respectable?“