questions on elders: what indicators do you look for, preacher?


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.

questions on elders: the husband of one wife?


When the apostle Paul laid down some qualities for Timothy and Titus look for in individuals they would appoint as elders (1 Tim. 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9), one of those qualities he chose to word with these words in Greek: mias gynaikos aner. That phrase is translated in the KJV:

“… the husband of one wife …” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6a KJV)

This sounds simple enough, but upon investigation and reflection, perhaps not so much. What exactly did Paul mean? There are several options.

1. Did Paul mean that anyone who serves as a church elder must have never been married before, whether they had been widowed, deserted, divorced, etc.?

Perhaps. This is certainly the interpretation that colors the translation offered by the NRSV:

“… married only once …” (Titus 1:6a NRSV)

2. Was Paul trying to say the person who serves as an elder must not be guilty of polygamy?

Perhaps. Some English renderings are of this persuasion:

“… with only one wife.” (Titus 1.6a J.B. Phillips)

” … the husband of [but] one wife …” (Titus 1.6a AB)

This is also the line of thought to which the NIV seems to lean, in both an older edition (NIV 1984) and all the more so in the latest edition (2011):

“… the husband of but one wife …” (Titus 1:6a NIV 1984)

“… must have only one wife …” (Titus 1:6a NIV)

Incidentally, some renderings show both of the preceding options (1 and 2); one in the text and the other in a footnote. The GNT (Good News Translation; aka: Today’s English Version) is an example of such, using the phrase “have only one wife” in the text and the phrase “be married only once” in a footnote.

3. Or did Paul intend to communicate that whoever serves as an elder in Christ’s church must be undeniably faithful to their mate?

Perhaps. More than one English translation certainly takes this tack. For example:

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1:6a ERV)

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1:6a NLT)

“… faithful to their spouse … (Titus 1:6a CEB)

Now while it may be obvious to many, it may not be apparent to all, so let’s just say it right here: translation requires interpretation. There’s simply no such thing as an “interpretation-free” rendering of another language. This fact alone accounts for no small number of the variations we encounter in English translations of the Biblical text. This is just another good reason why it’s often helpful to compare different translations of the Bible and to truly think about what is recorded in each. Variation need not unsettle us or cause us to lose confidence in the rendering of the Biblical text, either. Quite the opposite, actually, for being aware of such variation deepens our engagement with the text and often reveals nuances in meaning, translators’ tendencies, and more.

Further, our task in interpreting Scripture is to try as much as possible within us not to read into the text our own culture, expectations, or concerns. Instead, we should strive to let the text speak to us from its original context. That is, among other things, to let the culture and setting of the time in which the text was first penned to color our understanding of it.

Take, for example, the possibility that Paul had polygamy in his sights when he included the phrase mias gynaikos aner in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus. Polygamy was anything but unknown in Paul’s time and in some Gentile areas in which Paul ministered. This fact certainly makes this interpretation of the phrase in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 possible, but the additional fact that polygamy would certainly have been encountered much less frequently in urban settings, and especially in areas with particularly strong Roman influence, makes this specific understanding of the text less likely.

In addition to the great need to consider a text in its cultural context is the crucial concern to construe a text in its literary context. Or, to put it in other words, it’s vital that we understand a statement in view of the statements in which it is nested. If you’ve ever been misunderstood or your words taken out of context then you know what we’re saying here. “A text taken out of its context becomes a mere pretext for saying something else.”

As to the possibility of rendering of Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 in such a way that it seems to immediately give rise to subjects such as death of a spouse, divorce of a mate, desertion by a wife, etc. in connection with an elder, we should investigate the surrounding context to see if such subjects are discussed. However, when we seine 1 Timothy and Titus with these matters in mind, we find nothing in our net. This certainly diminishes the possibilities that Paul had such in his sights when he penned the phrase mias gynaikos aner (“one woman man”).

By this process of elimination through consideration of the cultural and literary contexts of the statement, we’re left with the possibility that what Paul was trying to get across to Timothy and Titus was the perspective that those to be considered for service as an elder in the church must show undeniable faithfulness/fidelity to their mate.

This interpretation of the text certainly fits the immediate cultural context of Ephesus well (where Timothy ministered) in addition to Crete (where Titus served). And, best of all, it emphatically fits the surrounding literary context we find in 1 Timothy and Titus. Timothy’s ministry was strongly affected by false teachers who were advocating immorality/infidelity (2 Timothy 3.6). Similarly, Titus is reminded in a number of ways that his ministry attention should be given to matters involving self-control (2:2,6), young wives loving their husbands (2:4), teaching all to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions (2:12), and to not become slaves once more to “passions and pleasures” (3:3). All of these concerns go straight to the heart of fidelity and faithfulness to one’s mate.

Further along the lines of keeping the original literary context in view is evidence from the immediate literary context of the statement. The phrase mias gynaikos aner is immediately followed by a reference to the faithfulness of the prospective elder’s children. And so it is rendered in the KJV:

“If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.” (Titus 1:6 KJV)

Paul commonly uses chiasm in his writing and if his intent in meaning was fideltity/faithfulness on the part of the elder toward his wife, then a nice, simple chiasm comes into view:

  • If any be blameless [not able to be successfully accused of any bad thing]
    • B the husband of one wife [husband faithful to wife]
    • B having faithful children [children faithful to father]
  • A not accused of riot or unruly. [not successfully accused of bad things]

With all of the preceding in view, it now certainly seems most likely that Paul’s specific concern when he wrote his instructions to Timothy and Titus to appoint elders and that such should be mias gynaikos aner was to simply say – nothing more, and nothing less – that such a person needs to be:

” …committed to his wife …” (Titus 1.6a The Message)

” …faithful in marriage.” (Titus 1.6a CEV)

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1.6a TNIV)

a primer on pastors (3)


NOTE: Following is a copy of the discussion guide that will be used in MoSt Church’s LIFE groups tomorrow (Sun., Mar. 18). This guide will enable your follow-up of my sermon that morning. The primary texts for this sermon are 1 Timothy 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9; however, there will also be brief notice of Acts 20.35; 1 Timothy 5.17, James 5.14-15a, and 1 Peter 5.3. This is the third sermon in a five-part series on elders/shepherds (A Primer for Pastors) and is entitled What’s the Meaning of This? You’ll find these LIFE group discussion guides categorized each week here on my site under the category title, originally enough, “LIFE group guides.”

* BTW – You’ll notice we’re going old-school with the primary texts’s translation for this sermon; I’m workin’ out of the ol’ KJV for ya’ here.


To lay down a basic understanding of the work of a bishop/elder/overseer/shepherd/steward.


This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3.1-7 KJV)

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1.5-9 KJV)


Icebreaker questions are meant to help us all start talking. Choose one of the following to discuss as a group.

1. Tell us about a funny time when you misunderstood what you thought were clear directions.

2. My friends, spouse, etc. would say I’m quite capable of missing the point when _____ is the subject.


These questions are intended to help us grapple with Scripture related to this morning’s sermon. Choose some.

1. Count the number of qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3.1-7? Do the same for Titus 1.5-9?

2. List some Bible characters who weren’t trying to get “into ministry,” but God set them up anyway.

3. What specifically is in view here as to the behavior of elders’ children (1 Timothy 3.4-5; Titus 1.6)?

4. Scripture doesn’t condemn drinking wine, but it is consistently hard on its abuse (drunkenness). What texts other than 1 Timothy 3.3 and Titus 1.7 do you recall that speak against drunkenness?

5. According to Titus 1.9, what is the end in view regarding an elder’s ability to teach?

6. Name the four qualities noted in the latter part of the sermon from Acts 20.35; 1 Tim. 5.17; James 5.14 & 1 Pet. 5.3. Are any of those stated or clearly implied here in 1 Timothy 3.1-7 or Titus 1.5-9?


These questions facilitate our sharing what we sense God’s Spirit is doing with us through his word. Choose some.

1. What traits are you surprised do not appear here in 1 Timothy 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9? Why?

2. Why do you suppose these Scriptures are totally silent as to the qualities of an elder’s spouse?

3. Complete this sentence: the difference(s) between the qualities listed here to be an elder and the goals for maturity for me as a Christian is/are _____?

4. Reflect on this statement and comment: “The ‘qualifications’ of an elder are directly linked to, and find their meaning in, what an elder does (i.e. – their ‘job description,’ if you please)?”

5. What sort of temptations can you imagine the devil placing before an elder(s) with these traits?

6. An individual with these qualities and who serves as a church elder is in need of my _____?

elders: elders in the OT community (3)


The following is excerpted from a description of the Ibo tribesmen of Nigeria. This particular example has been picked because it describes so many characteristics which are typical of meetings in many of the tribal societies about which I have read. The author here uses “elder” and “leader” interchangeably.

“The day-to-day routine business (of an Ibo village) was carried out by persons referred to in government reports as ‘the elders.’ More important business was dealt with at village council meetings, for example, matters involving decisions affecting the whole community. … (a collection of villages is called a town.) Matters which affected all the villages in a town were determined at a town council meeting convened by the ‘elders’ of its component villages. … The members of the council meeting were graded on a basis of age into elders, … men, and young men. Age however was considerably modified by achievement. …”

“The meeting was opened by a village leader (i.e., an elder) who introduced and explained the subject to be discussed. Any person who wished was then free to address the meeting … Veteran leaders took care to speak towards the end of the discussion when they could judge the general feeling of the meeting and put forward arguments which would win general support …

“When the elders felt that the matter had been fully discussed and some degree of unanimity had been reached they … retired … to consult. They stood out of earshot of the meeting, literally putting their heads together. All appeared to be talking at once, but gradually the babble subsided as a decision was arrived at. They then returned to the meeting and one of them, ‘the spokesman,’ usually a leader accepted by his fellows as their best public speaker, announced the decision, pausing after each important point for the assembly to indicate its assent by acclamation.

“The assembly always accepted the elders’ decision for the simple reason that it was in fact their own decision. The elders, when they retired, were not making a new decision but consulting how to give precise definition and expression to the general feeling expressed by the meeting.”

One aspect of this meeting should be highlighted. Any man is welcomed to attend. Tribemen typically give two reasons for this: (1) the community wants a true consensus opinion on the matter at hand, and (2) this meeting provides a forum in which the younger men can see how a respectable person (an elder) conducts himself.

But what do individuals have to do to attain the status of elder in the community? Not every old man becomes an elder. What sets off certain individuals as “elders?”

Research has led me to descriptions of the characteristics (qualifications, if you will) of elders from a variety of societies. What is surprising is that an almost identical set of basic characteristics of elders of a local community appears in each of these societies. These qualifications usually include the following: (1) an elder is a senior member of a large extended family; (2) he is wealthy, but also generous and hospitable; (3) his character exemplifies the standards of ethics and morality which the community esteems most highly; (4) he is well-versed in his people’s “secret knowledge” (religious practices, customs, and history); and (5) he is known in his community for his oratorical skills, especially his skill of persuasion.

The first characteristic (family) gives him a significant constituency – and, consequently, a significant voice – in the community. The next two characteristics (generosity and moral/ethical uprightness) demonstrates to his family and the broader community that he has the interests of the community , not just his personal interests, at heart. The final two characteristics (knowledge and oratorical skills) are necessary tools for him to have if he is going to represent his group effectively. As in the example given above, consensus is central to the decision-making process. Even in criminal cases, it is felt that no settlement has been reached unless it is obvious that both parties in the case will agree with the correctness of the verdict of the elders before it is given. The elders, therefore, must be masters of persuasion. They must use their oratorical skills, along with their extensive knowledge of the community’s past for historical and legal precedents, to achieve a consensus, if one does not emerge naturally. If a consensus is not reached, there will probably be a rift in the community.

Similar characteristics can be inferred for Israel’s elders from the Old testament. A delineation of some of the principal characteristics of an Israelite elder appears in Job 29 and 31, Job’s final defense before his three friends. Job speaks of his earlier life as the life of the ideal elder. He describes his economic status in terms of the size of his family (his children) and of his herds (milk) and his orchards (oil) (29:5-6). Thus we know that he was the head of a large and wealthy family. He points to his generosity, hospitality, and ethics in the acts of benevolence which he performed habitually (29:12-16; see 31:1-40). He was famous for his skills in speaking and persuasion, holding the attention of all who came to the gate of the city (29:7,11,21-23). His fame apparently spread beyond his own relatives, for even “princes” and “nobles” stopped talking to listen to him (29:9-10), and he was like a “chief” and a “king” to the people (29:25). As is the case in similar societies, these characteristics of persuasive speech and wisdom would have been most significant for situations of potential community strife. The counsel of an elder like Job would have carried much weight.

Although Job 29 does not mention any knowledge of ancient traditions, laws, and stories, this characteristics of elders is mentioned elsewhere. For example, in Deut. 32:7, Moses invokes the people to turn to their “fathers” and their “elders” to hear the stories of God’s past deeds. In sum, typical characteristics of tribal elders are found in Israel’s description of her own elders.

(by Dr. Timothy Willis, Leaven; 2:1; pp.8-12)

elders: elders in the OT community (2)


A similar persistence in old tribal patterns is found in most countries in which a tribal society – i.e., a society which has a non-centralized political system – has been taken over by a state society with a centralized government. This is true whether the tribal peoples introduced the central government themselves (as in the Israelite monarchy) or whether government was imposed on them from outside by some other group. This persistence of old tribal structures, practices, and beliefs is due in large part to the kinship bases to these communities. The basic family unit is not the nuclear family (husband-wife-children), but the “extended family” or “minimal lineage.” An extended family consists of the oldest surviving member of a family and all of his descendants. A minimal lineage consists of one or more extended families all descended from a common ancestor who lived a few generations prior to the families currently living. Such a group may consist of 20-200 persons. In spite of this increased size, the minimal linage often functions much as we would expect a nuclear family to function. All the members of a minimal lineage feel common economic, emotional, moral, and legal responsibilities to one another. When one member is in need, the whole family steps in to help. When one members suffers, the whole family hurts. When one member sins, the whole family is shamed. When one member is accused of wrong or is physically threatened by others, the whole family must defend that member or bear the consequences. Elders arise from the ranks of senior members of the various extended families within these lineages.

The minimal lineage in the Old Testament is called a “father’s house” (beyt’ ab; pronounced “bait av”). This is most obvious from the story of Achan in Joshua 7:16-18. This is the man who caused Israel to be defeated at Ai by keeping goods captured at Jericho. God designated Achan as the culprit through lot-casting. By this method, he was able to narrow the field of candidates by working his way through the different levels in Israel’s tribal structure. First, he indicated the culprit’s tribe (Judah), then his “clan” (also translated “family”; Zerah), and then his “house” (Zabdi). Zabdi was Achan’s grandfather. Zabdi was deceased by this time. This is known because Achan was a grown man with a wife and children, and his father or grandfather would have been of the generation which died in the Wilderness. (On “father’s house,” see also Num. 1:1ff; 26:1ff). Still, Achan was considered to be part of Zabdi’s minimal lineage, the “house of Zabdi.”

The corporate responsibility of the minimal lineage is indicated most clearly by stories like that told in the book of Ruth, and by laws of redemptions (e.g., Lev. 25:47-49, which calls for one’s brother or uncle or uncle’s son to redeem one who has been sold into slavery to a foreigner). One must keep in mind this strong sense of family corporateness when one reads laws involving elders, because elders in tribal societies usually do not get involved in a dispute unless it affects more than one minimal lineage in a community. For example, in Deut. 21:18-21, there is a law requiring parents to hand over a rebellious son for punishment. This law seems extreme to us; however, the involvement of the city’s elders – among other things in the text – indicates that the son’s rebellion is such that it affects the reputation and well-being of the entire community.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions we have about elders in tribal communities is the way they interact with the rest of the members of their community. Because of our American society, we tend to impose our experiences with democratic representative bodies and typical business meetings upon what we read about with elders. For example, we often talk about elders as “officers” in the church, which gives a particular flavor to our perception of the way in which they exercise authority. I have found elderships in tribal societies to be more democratic and less business-like than we imagine. One brief example will illustrate this.

(by Tim Willis, Leaven; 2:1; pp.8-12)