The Biblical Qualifications for Church Elder

The ShepherdThe Bible states qualifications for church elders.  Paul lists 15 qualifications for elder in his letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:1-7), and 17 qualifications in his letter to Titus (Tit. 1:5-9).  The two lists differ slightly, both in number and characteristics mentioned.  Each list served either as a general guideline, or was specifically tailored by the Apostle Paul for each church-group to whom he was writing.  I tend to think Paul was providing a general list of characteristics to consider when evaluating a prospective elder.

Church organization was quite simple in apostolic days: There were pastors (elders, bishops) and deacons (Phil. 1:1). It seems that there was a plurality of elders overseeing the work of each church, some involved in “ruling” (organization and government), others in teaching (1 Tim. 5:17).[1]

       The consideration of an elder in the church is something that requires time and observation.  Certainly an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2); however, much of what is set forth in Scripture relates to his character, home and public life.  God personally selects elders to serve in His church.  The Apostle Paul makes this clear during his discussion with the elders at Ephesus when he instructs them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Act 20:28). 

Only the Holy Spirit of God can make a man an elder. This is clear in Acts 20:28. The Holy Spirit lays a burden on a man’s heart to take up this important work and also equips him for it. It is impossible to make a man a bishop by voting him into office or by ordaining him. The responsibility of the local assembly is to recognize those men in its midst who have been made elders by God the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:12, 13). It is true that we find the appointment of elders in the book of Titus, but there it was simply a matter of Titus’ singling out those men who had the qualifications of elders. At that time, the Christians did not have the NT in printed form, as we have it today. Therefore, they did not know what the exact qualifications for elders were. So Paul sent Titus to them with this information and instructed Titus to set apart those men who had been raised up by the Spirit of God for the work. The recognition of elders by a local assembly might be quite informal. It often happens that Christians instinctively know who their elders are because they have acquainted themselves with the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. On the other hand, the recognition of elders may be a more formal procedure. A local church might gather together for the express purpose of publicly recognizing the elders. In this case, the procedure usually is to read the pertinent Scripture passages, to have them expounded, and then to have the local Christians designate whom they consider to be the elders in that assembly. The names are then announced to the entire congregation. If a church does not have qualified elders, then its only resource is to pray that the Lord will raise up such men in days to come.[2

       The Bible does not specify how many elders may serve in a church, or even what process is to be followed concerning their appointment to office.  The church has the liberty to follow a relaxed or formal policy depending on its membership.  I assembled the following observations about elders from Scripture:

  1. The first elders in Scripture had their place in the church by Apostolic appointment.  First, Paul appointed elders in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:21-23), and later, he delegated authority to Titus to appoint elders in the church (Tit. 1:5).  Since we do not have apostles today, authority does not rest in a person, but Scripture alone.  Church leadership today is appointed by God (Acts 20:28; cf. Eph. 4:11), and the church recognizes leadership because they measure up to the qualifications set forth in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9).  It is important to keep in mind that what we read in Scripture concerning elder appointment is descriptive and not prescriptive, so one should not be dogmatic about the process of ordination. 
  2. They had to measure up to the qualifications for eldership (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9).  The two lists are not exact, and one can only surmise that each list served either as a general guideline, or was specifically tailored by the Apostle Paul for each church-group to whom he was writing. 
  3. The terms elder, bishop, overseer, and pastor appear to be synonymous (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  4. They consist of men only (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6; cf. 1 Tim. 2:12-14).
  5. They solved doctrinal problems in the church through biblical discussion and research (Acts 15:4-11, cf. Acts 16:4).
  6. They worked with “the whole church” in choosing men to send on a missionary journey (Acts 15:22).  This is important because elders lead from the front, not the top.  They work within the church, and with the church, serving as examples to the church, and not “lording” their authority over others (1 Pet. 5:3).
  7. They received biblical instruction from Paul regarding the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).  Today the elder occupies his time with learning Scripture so he can be spiritually prepared to meet his obligations as a church leader. 
  8. They shepherded the church through general oversight (Acts 20:17; 28).
  9. They guarded against false teachers and their false doctrines, guiding believers into God’s will, and feeding the church with the truths of Scripture (Acts 20:28-32; Eph. 4:11-14, cf. Jer. 3:15). 
  10. All the elders were leaders (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17), but only some functioned at “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:11-14; 1 Thess. 5:12).
  11. They were supported financially by those who benefitted from their oversight and teaching (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18).
  12. The elders offered support and prayer for those who suffer (Jas. 5:14).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 1 Ti 3:1–7.

[2] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2086.