New Testament Elders
When we turn to the New Testament, we find many similarities between the elders of the church and elders in typical kinship-based communities, including those of ancient Israel. A comparison of the “qualifications” of elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to common characteristics of those elders brings this out. Elders in kinship-based communities are senior members of respected families; a Christian elder is to be one “who manages his household well” (1 Timothy 3:4-5), and whose children are also part of the community of believers (Titus 1:6).
Typically, kinship-based elders are wealthy, but they are also generous and hospitable; a Christian elder, whatever his standard of living, is to be “hospitable,” “no lover of money,” “not greedy for gain” (1 Timothy 3:2-3; Titus 1:7). Elders lead exemplary lives in regard to the ethics and morality of their communities; a Christian elder should be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified” (1 Timothy 3:3); and he must be “a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled (Titus 1:8). Elders carry on the traditions and beliefs of their people; a Christian elder is “not a recent convert” (1 Timothy 3:6), and “he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine …” (Titus 1:9). Finally, elders must be good speakers, able to persuade the members of their community of measures which benefit the whole community, as well as serving as worthy representatives for their community to outsiders; a Christian elder, we are told, should be “an apt teacher” (1 Timothy 3:2), he should not be “quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:3), “he must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7), “not … quick-tempered or … violent” (Titus 1:7).
The commonalities between elders of typical kinship-based societies and elders of the New Testament church are too pervasive to be overlooked. Paul’s prescriptions for the elders in the churches of Ephesus and Crete were nothing new to the world, nor were they unique to Israel prior to the advent of Christianity. Those characteristics are, in fact, typical of elders in most kinship-based societies.
This realization should make us stop and reexamine our idea of why the “qualifications of elders” are given in Timothy and Titus. Here is one traditional idea:
God has revealed to mankind the plan to be used in the governing of His Church … (This) plan is perfect and if conscientiously followed, His children will live in harmony and their work will be done regularly, systematically and enthusiastically.
This perception of elderships is managerial, very business-like. The church has a task to do, and God revealed the most effective way to organize it so that it can accomplish that task. My own perception of what Paul prescribes, in light of the similarities to typical elderships, is that Paul is not concerned so much with giving us a divinely-ordained “structure” or “plan” as he is trying to create a community of believers. He wanted a community to emerge where one had not existed before, consisting of people previously unrelated, but now related (a family) in a very special way.
I hope that the church can recapture that community mentality. This will require more than adherence to certain structural patterns so that things can run smoothly. It will require a renewed spirit of family, true family, among church members. The role which elders play in this is very important. They must earn and maintain the respect of the members of their congregations by modeling the Christian life to those members. They must model lives of generosity and hospitality, lives of exemplary moral and ethical character. They must be repositories of knowledge and wisdom for their congregation, and they must constantly work for unity and consensus. They are not a governing board or an administrative structure. They are shepherds (1 Peter 5.1-3) and fathers (Deuteronomy 32:7). They are respected senior leaders of a community, a family of believers.
* The text of this presentation appeared in the winter quarter 1992 issue of the journal Leaven (2:1; pp.8-12).