On occasion through the years in ministry, church members have asked me a question that goes something like this: “Hey preacher man, if you were personally selecting those who would serve as elders, what sort of things would you look for the most in people?” Or to put it another way, “As you ask yourself questions about elders to be or elders that are, what sort of questions do you ask yourself about them?“
As you might expect, my answer has varied somewhat through the years, as it should, for circumstances change and my understanding of God’s word has evolved. However, four questions have always loomed large in my eyes and I find myself continually coming back to them for it’s clear they find their roots in a number of Scriptures. If I’m not settled on clear, positive answers to these questions, I’m not settled at all in my heart as to that person’s ability to effectively shepherd God’s people.
Here are those four questions (each of them being stated two different ways) long with four Scripture texts that cause these questions to come to my mind.
1. What is their life like toward the weak? or Does this person show genuine heart and help for the vulnerable and hurting or do they live their life relatively insulated from engagement with the struggling?
In everything I have shown you that, by working hard, we must help the weak. In this way we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20.35 CEB)
Many people are content to spend their life avoiding the troubles of others, unless, of course, those troubles find themselves in the lives of their closest friends. Some of the same, and many others, will give of their interest, time, thought, and support only to those who are their perceived equals or those they consider greater than themselves. Few they are who will not only serve, but will truly sacrifice their life for those who cannot give them something, even only their gratitude, in return.
Those who could be fit to shepherd are those who often leave the comfort zone of the ninety and nine and go to traverse the canyons and thorn patches of life to try to assist a weak sheep. However, if the only real evidence in their life is hanging out with their friends and schmoozing the strong, then I don’t consider them shepherd material at all.
2. How do they engage God’s word? or Is this someone who bathes themselves in Scripture, consumes the word, carefully considers and reflects on God’s revelation, and bends over backwards to live out what they understand of God’s will?
… work hard by speaking and teaching … (1 Timothy 5.17 NCV)
Someone who can lead others to God can do so only as they live by God’s word themselves. And I don’t mean by having a very general understanding of God’s word and can reference or quote a few commonly known Scriptures. I mean their great pleasure in life is that God has spoken and they are so elated by this fact that they hang on his every word. Consequently, it’s obvious that their life revolves around what God has said. They read Scripture, and all of it. They wrestle with it, trying to grasp all that is being said. They dig deep below the surface meaning of the words and mine out the treasures of God. They think seriously about how they can put it into practice and not merely how it applies to others. They change through time as they grow in their understanding of the word and their understanding of the word changes through time as they move from a diet of milk to meat.
Now the text in 1 Timothy 5.17 uses the phrase “work hard” in conjunction with how an elder engages God’s word and the Greek word behind that phrase is kopiao. Listen to what this word means and how it’s used in the Bible:
“In the NT, the kopos word group is used in three main ways: it refers to hard manual labor (like the farmer in 2 Tim. 2.6), or to working to physical exhaustion (cf. John 4.6); Paul often uses it to refer to Christian ministry; and with the verb parecho (‘to offer, supply, give’), it means ‘to trouble’ or ‘bother’ someone …” (William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, p.386)
Show me someone who sweats in their grappling with, and use of, God’s word in their own life and for others and I’ll show you someone who has the start for a proper foundation for building a life of godly leadership of God’s people. If I can’t often see sweat trails of the word on a person’s neck, I look elsewhere for the shepherding of my soul.
3. What do their prayers reveal about them? or Is this someone who prays essentially the same, safe, familiar prayers over and over and over or is this someone who clearly has an unending, brutally honest, giving-and-not-just-asking conversation with God going on in their life?
… the elders should pray over them …Prayer that comes from faith … (James 5.14a,15a CEB)
Our words reveal who we are inside and when we reveal to others the words we use in speech to God, we cannot help but reveal deep things about ourselves. Like is there really any depth there? If an individual isn’t trying to grow and stretch themselves in the way they talk with God, do they have any real business talking to me about him, much less trying to lead me to him? People whose prayers have basically remained unchanged for months or even years at a time need not apply for the post of elder in my book.
4. What are they exemplifying for the church to become? or What might we realistically expect the church to look like in the future if we followed the current trajectory this person’s life and teaching appears to be on?
… be good examples to them. (1 Peter 5.3 NCV)
While we can’t change the past and we can’t know the future, we can see what sort of example a person is living of Christ in the present in light of where they have come from in the past. If there has been no significant change in a person’s life in years, I can’t reasonably expect them to lead others to change their lives in the future.
Similarly, I can look at a person and ask myself, “Is the sort of life I see in that person what I want to hold up to my children, and their children, as a target to aim for in their development through life in the coming years?” Can I say to them, “Grow up to be like them in the way they walk with God?” If I can say that of someone then I can have the more confidence of where this congregation of Christ’s church is headed.