In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul set forth 15 qualifications for church leaders. In Titus 1:5-9, he presented 17 qualifications. Though similar in most ways, the two lists differ slightly. 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 that one would like to see when considering a person as an elder in the church.
Paul’s list of qualifications for overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7
Paul moved from a discussion about authority in the church (1 Tim 2:11-12) to the office and qualities of an overseer in the local assembly. Paul said, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim 3:1). The term overseer (ἐπισκοπή episkope) refers to “engagement in oversight, supervision, of leaders of Christian communities.” The term overseer appears to be synonymous with elder (πρεσβύτερος presbuteros) and pastor (ποιμήν poimen), as these terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit 1:5-7; 1 Pet 5:1-3). Beginning his list of qualities for overseers, Paul states:
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:2-7)
A closer look at the characteristics of an elder:
- Above reproach (ἀνεπίλημπτος anepilemptos) means there must be nothing observable in an overseer’s life that others can take hold of and legitimately criticize him for. This requires sound doctrinal thinking by the church and time to observe the candidate. Sadly, Satan will always have those who oppose a good candidate, and where a genuine flaw cannot be found, one can be manufactured, in order to disqualify an elder candidate. This sort of false attack was certainly true for the Lord Jesus, whom the Pharisees and Sadducees had called “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt 11:19). Surely, their estimation should not count.
- The husband of one wife (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα), is literally, a one-woman man. This phrase is somewhat ambiguous. Certainly it prohibits polygamy. I take the phrase to mean the overseer must have his affections directed solely to his wife. However, some Bible teachers take the phrase to include men who have been divorced and remarried (Wiersbe). According to Duane Litfin, “The reasoning behind this view is usually that divorce represents a failure in the home, so that even though a man may be forgiven for any sin involved, he remains permanently disqualified for leadership in the congregation (cf. vv. 4–5; 1 Cor 9:24–27).” One must consider this matter carefully, for though the church must select qualified men to serve as overseers, it must also guard against weaponizing these qualifications to rule out good candidates. Wisdom is needed.
- Temperate (νηφάλιος nephalios) “pertains to being very moderate in the drinking of an alcoholic beverage, temperate, sober.” The Bible does not condemn drinking alcohol (John 2:1-10; 1 Tim 5:23), but it does prohibit drunkenness (Eph 5:18; cf. 1 Cor 11:21). This is because alcohol can impair a person’s thinking and behavior, which must always be under control. A church elder must always be able to think, and to think doctrinally in order to lead effectively.
- Prudent (σώφρων sophron) “pertains to being in control of oneself, thoughtful, self-controlled.” This means he must take his work in the church seriously and be disciplined. Of course, this does not mean he is not friendly or jovial, for one with a dour personality will not last long in church leadership.
- Respectable (κόσμιος kosmios) means he must be orderly. Wiersbe states, “The pastor should be organized in his thinking and his living, as well as in his teaching and preaching.” There is a discipline and ordered structure to the life of a church elder.
- Hospitable (φιλόξενος philoxenos) means he must love strangers. Elders should be friendly toward unbelievers (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2), who must feel welcome in the local assembly, but also to Christians who might be traveling from city to city and looking for Christian fellowship (3 John 1:5-8).
- Able to teach (διδακτικός didaktikos) means he is skilled to teach others. This requires years of training and practice as a communicator of God’s Word. There’s no place for sloppiness in handling God’s Word, and judgment will fall upon the one who does (Jam 3:1).
- Not addicted to wine (πάροινος paroinos) pertains “to one who is given to drinking too much wine.” This touches on the matter of maintaining self-control in one’s thoughts and actions, which is forfeited when intoxicated. The Bible clearly prohibits and condemns drunkenness (Eph 5:18; 1 Cor 11:21).
- Not pugnacious (πλήκτης plektes) refers to a person who is “a striker, one apt to strike; a quarrelsome, violent person.” Such behavior is characteristic of a bully, and there’s no place for bullies in the church. Charles Spurgeon used to tell his students, “Don’t go about the world with your fist doubled up for fighting, carrying a theological revolver in the leg of your trousers.”
- Gentle (ἐπιεικής epieikes) describes the believer who is “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.” Where God’s Word is silent, the overseer will make room for others in the church to exercise their preferences.
- Peaceable (ἄμαχος amachos) means the Christian leader must “not be disposed to fight; not quarrelsome or contentious.” He is one who, when possible, prefers peace in all situations. Elsewhere, Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18).
- Free from the love of money (ἀφιλάργυρος aphilarguros) means “not fond of money, not covetous, generous.” The one who loves money might be tempted to twist or compromise God’s Word lest it offend a would-be giver. The writer to the Hebrews states, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Heb 13:5a).
- A good family manager. Paul states, “He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim 3:4-5). This means he must manage his home well, controlling his children—as best he can—while not throwing his dignity out the window. Paul’s rationale is that if he cannot manage his own home life, he will not be able to manage the local church. According to Wiersbe, “This does not mean that a pastor must be married, or, if married, must have children. However, marriage and a family are probably in the will of God for most pastors. If a man’s own children cannot obey and respect him, then his church is not likely to respect and obey his leadership.”
- The overseer must a mature believer. Paul states the elder must “not be a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim 3:6). According to Litfin, “An overseer must not be a recent convert (neophyton, “neophyte”), lest his rapid advancement to leadership fill him with pride and conceit, and he experience the same kind of judgment that the devil incurred for his pride.”
- He must have a good reputation with outsiders. Paul closed this section, saying, “And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim 3:7). Thomas Constable states, “A good reputation with those outside the church is essential so that the elder will not bring reproach on the name of Christ and the church. Paul saw this as falling into disgrace and the snare of the devil.” Warren Wiersbe asks, “Does he pay his bills? Does he have a good reputation among unsaved people with whom he does business? (see Col 4:5 and 1 Th 4:1).”
Biblically, it appears God is the primary Person who selects elders to serve in His church. The Apostle Paul, when speaking with the elders at Ephesus, said, “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” (Acts 20:28). William MacDonald states:
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 Th 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.
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. Other qualifications for church elders are as follows:
- They consist of men only (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6; cf. 1 Tim 2:12-14).
- They solved doctrinal problems in the church through biblical discussion and research (Acts 15:1-11, cf. Acts 16:4).
- 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).
- They received biblical instruction from Paul regarding the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Today the elder spends the majority of his time studying Scripture so he can be spiritually prepared to meet his obligations as a church leader. Studying God’s Word is important, for he cannot live what he does not know.
- They shepherded the church through general oversight (Acts 20:17; 28).
- 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).
- All the elders were leaders (1 Th 5:12-13; Heb 13:7, 17), but only some functioned at “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17; cf. Eph 4:11-14).
- They were supported financially by those who benefitted from their oversight and teaching (Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17-18).
- The elders offered support and prayer to fellow believers who were suffering (Jam 5:14).
- 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 commanded 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 is still 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).
The role of elder/overseer/pastor is very challenging. Though there are no perfect pastors, they must display a level of maturity and godly qualities to be eligible for leadership service in the local church. Pastors have huge responsibilities and often bear great burdens for those in the church (2 Cor 11:29). Today, a qualified pastor will devote many years to learning God’s Word, which requires great discipline and financial cost, both for his education and library. Afterwards, he will often accept pay well below what he could have earned if he’d chosen another profession. Many pastors serve bivocationally (Paul was a tent maker who often paid for his own needs; Acts 18:3; 20:34), and some work purely as volunteers. These men need all the encouragement and support a congregation can provide, to help lift them up that they might stay the course and lead God’s people in His will.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- Characteristics of a Christian Leader
- The Christian with Integrity
- Our Spiritual Blessings in Christ
- What is the Church?
- Choosing a Good Bible Church
- A Role Model for Believers
- The New Covenant and the Lord’s Supper
- Choosing a Righteous Life and Righteous Friends
- The Biblical Teaching on Tithes
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 379.
 A. Duane Litfin, “1 Timothy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 736.
 William Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 672.
 Ibid., 987.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 220.
 William Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 780.
 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1246.
 William Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 371.
 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, 1079.
 Ibid., 1103.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol 2, 221.
 A. Duane Litfin, “1 Timothy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 737.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Tim 3:2.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol 2, 221.
 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2086.