The Role of Elders in the Church (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | January 4, 2015

Audio recording not available. However, the text and manuscript can be read below.

This message is adapted from a sermon by Philip Ryken, entitled “Qualifications for Elders” in the Reformed Expository Commentary series on 1 Timothy.


1 It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.

 2 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, uncontentious, 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, lest he 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 may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:1-7 NAS)


Churches rise and fall to a large degree along with their leaders. So their leaders are an important aspect of every church.


In the New Testament – in Acts 20:17-38, for example – the words for pastor, elder and bishop – are used interchangeably. This is true in 1 Timothy as well, since Paul later calls the overseers “elders” (1 Tim. 5.17). We conclude from the biblical usage that there is no difference in rank among the elders of the church, and that hierarchical forms of government go beyond the teaching of Scripture.

The biblical pattern for the church is spiritual government by a plurality of elders. All the overseers are brothers in ministry. There is a difference between teaching elders (sometimes knows as pastors or ministers) and ruling elders. But the difference lies only in their function, not in their authority. A pastor is not superior in rank to a ruling elder.

The point of Paul’s trustworthy saying in verse 1 – “If anyone aspires to the office of an overseer, he desires a fine work” – is that the work of an overseer is honorable. It has a long and rich tradition among the people of God. The first elders were appointed by Moses to teach and judge the children of Israel (see Ex. 18). Throughout the OT, God’s people were represented and governed by elders who sat in the city gates and taught in the synagogues. Ther same was true in the NT. When the first Christians sent a gift to the poor people of Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas brought it to the elders of the church (Acts 11.30). On their missionary journeys they appointed elders in all the church (14.23). So by the time Paul wrote to Timothy, the elder was a well-established officer in the church.

The work of an overseer is good work. As the word overseer suggests, it involves the oversight of God’s people. By ruling and teaching, elders supervise the spiritual life of the church. They look after things on God’s behalf. And if such oversight is good work, then it is also good for men to seek it.

This doesn’t mean that eldership should be an ambition. Elders don’t campaign for the office. No one ever decides to become an officer of the church on his own. That is for the church to decide, led by the Holy Spirit, following the guidelines set forth in this passage and also in 1 Pet. 5.1-14 and Titus 1.5-9. The outward call of the church should alsways be matched by the inward call of the man. The great Puritan preacher William Perkins asked, “How can you know for yourself whether God wants you to go [into ministry] or not?” His answer was, “You must ask both your own conscience and the church….Your conscience must judge of your willingness and the church of your ability.” Serving as a pastor or an elder can be a worthy aspiration without becoming a blind ambition.

Why does the Bible bother to say that an overseer does good work? Possibly because the task is so daunting. Calvin comments, “It is no light matter to represent God’s Son, in such a great task as erecting and extending God’s Kingdom, in caring for the salvation of souls whom the Lord Himself has deigned to purchase with His own blood, and in ruling the Church which is God’s inheritance.” Or perhaps the value of elders is stressed because the job is so dangerous. Ministers often become martyrs. In the early church, and many times since, elders have been the first to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. Nevertheless, it’s good work, because it has God’s blessing in life and God’s reward in death.


Oversight is good work, but only if you are qualified for it. What are God’s minimum requirements? What is the character of a gospel elder?

The first qualification includes all the others: “an overseer must be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3.2). Not that any mere man could every be sinless, but that he must be blameless in his outward, observable conduct. He must be free from scandalous sin. The integrity of a gospel elder must be beyond question.

To be above reproach, an elder must be the husband of one wife (3:2). This doesn’t prohibit bachelors from serving as elders. Often, elders will be married, and God will use the demands of their callings as husbands and fathers to do much of the sanctifying work that needs to be done in their lives before they are ready to serve as officers in the church. But remember that Paul himself was single and commended singleness to others as an opportunity for greater service in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 7.17); 9.5)

The point of the phrase is probably more general: elders must be morally accountable for their sexuality. The Greeks and Romans of the day generally tolerated gross sexual sin, and polygamy was practiced by both Greeks and Jews. Marriage was undermined by frequent divorce, widespread adultery, and rampant homosexuality.

God wants the leaders of the church to be living examples of biblical marriage: one man and one woman in a love covenant for life. Being faithful to marriage vows includes avoiding inappropriately intimate relationships with other women. Wise pastors and elsers don’t counsel women alone and in private in order to avoid the kind of intimacy that would compromise their ministry.

The next several qualifications have to do with an elder’s judgment. He must be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” (3:2). A sober-minded man is “free from every form of excess, passion, or rashness.” He’s wary, circumspect, even cautious – like a person walking late at night in the city – alert to the possibility of danger. A vigilant elders notices spiritual needs and warns of spiritual dangers.

Next comes self-controlled.” The Greek word has to do with decision-making. It means to be sensible. Men who make vital decisions about the ministry of the chruch must be prudent, must have balanced judgment.

The elders are to be “respectable,” that is, orderly and well-mannered. Among other things, this applies to their drinking habits. It’s not necessary that they be teetotalers, but they can’t be drunkards (3.3). An alcoholic can’t serve as an overseer because he’s incapable of sober judgment that good spiritual leadership requires.

Next, an elder is not violent but gentle (3:3). Bullies are not eligible for ordination. An elder is not a browbeater. Those who are verbally or physically abusive can’t be trusted to tend God’s sheep. Rather, elders must be gentle, that is, peaceable, the exact opposite of violent. The true strength of a man lies in gentleness. Of course, an elder must be firm when he rebukes sin. When overseers lack the courage to confront, the church loses its conviction. But an elders must be gentle, like a tender shepherd among God’s people, sympathetic with the weak and compassionate to the wounded.

Further, an elder must not be “quarrelsome.” The church is not a debating society. Few things are more distracting to God’s work than quarrelsome leaders. An argumentative man is the worst kind of person to have on a board of elders. When overseers discuss the ministry of the church, they need to express their opinions clearly and charitably because the best decisions emerge from lively discussion. But thie must never be done with a contentious spirit.

Also, an elder must not be a “lover of money” (3:3). It’s a serious mistake to consider wealth a credential for spiritual leadership. Being rich doesn’t disqualify one from the eldership, but it doesn’t recommend one for it either. What matter is how one uses his money, and especially, how much affection he has for it.


Most of the qualifications on Paul’s list explain who elders are rather than what they do. This is because, as someone said, “the usefulness of an elders will depend in the long run more on his character than on his gifts and knowledge.” But there are two requirements here that show us something about the duties of an an elder. The first is that elders are to be “hospitable” (3:2). Overseers are to have open homes as well as open hearts. Literally, they are to show “love for strangers.” Paul was pointing, as one commentator says, “beyond the normal hospitality an elder should display as head of a household to the hospitality he should extend on behalf of the church.” As they have opportunity, elders should entertain missionaries and other Christian workers. The underlying principle is that elders must make a personal commitment to the world-wide work of the gospel.

This brings us to the qualification that lies closest to the heart of an overseer’s work. He must be “able to teach,” that is, as one person said, “qualified by education and moral power to impart the sound Christian teaching in opposition to the many false teachers.” As far as teaching is concerned, most Presbyterian churches follow 1 Timothy 5:17 in making a distinction between teaching and ruling elders: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching,” All the elders direct the affairs of the church; some concentrate on teaching an preaching. Typically, the primary work of the pastor is to teach the Word of God. However, pastors are not the only ones who must be able to teach. This qualification is for ruling elders as well. Their teaching takes place in a variety of contexts, such as Sunday school classes and home Bible studies. They also teach whenever they disciple, evangelize, or make pastoral visits.


A man doesn’t become an overseer overnight. Eldership is a job that requires prior experience. The most important place for an elder to get this experience is at home. “He must manage his household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive” (3:4). The family life of an elder must be an example to others. The same must be true of the elder’s relationships at work or in other areas of public life. Leadership in these areas is especially important for single elders, who don’t have the full benefit of family relationships as a proving ground for ministry.

The Greek word for “manage” has two primary meanings. One is to supervise, the other is to nurture or be concerned. Parenthood brings both aspects together. A parent governs the household by caring for the needs of each family member. Elders do the same things in the household of God: they exercise their spiritual authority by governing and by caring.

What does it mean for an overseer to “keep his children submissive?” Paul gives us a hint: “with all dignity” (3:4). The word “dignity” means respect or reverence, and it may well refer to the way the children treat their father. But “dignity” also describes the way the father relates to his children: he treats them like people made in the image of God, and therefore he promotes a relationship of mutual respect. A father who treats his children respectfully will earn their respect. By contrast, a man whose angry temper and inconsistent discipline exasperates his children is not qualified to serve as a spiritual father in the church.

The importance of an elder’s family life is obvious: “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (3:5). The word “manage” has many practical implications. Jesus used it when he told how a man on his way to Jericho was mugged and left for dead. He said that the good Samaritan “took care of him” (Lk. 10:44). Taking care of people always demands sacrifice. It includes pity, healing, and embrace. No doubt, the Samaritan had his own busy schedule with a long list of things to do. But good neighbors – like good parents and elders – are willing to be inconvenienced by other people’s problems.


The last two qualifications are not simply for the good of the church, but also for the good of the elder as well: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (3:6). This has to do with spiritual maturity, he is not a “neophyte” which refers to something like “new growth” or “newly planted.”

In examining a man for eldership, a church should count his spiritual age, not his biological age. So a relatively young man who has been a Christian since childhood, might be qualified as an elder, while an older man who recently became a Christian might not.

The Greek word for “puffed up” originally referred to something that was filled with smoke. It’s sometimes taken to mean “puffed up with conceit.” New converts grow so fast in the Christian life, that they may be tempted to look down on others. Yet pride is the most dangerous of character traits in an elder who must be the servant of all. There’s another way to understand the reference to smoke. The danger may be that the new convert will become clouded in his judgment. The smoke of false doctrine can be blinding. A church governed by neophytes will probably end up in a theological fog.

The Elder’s Reputation

The last requirement his that “he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into the snare of the devil” (3:7). This is a reminder that the church is in the world, and that in the ordination of overseers, some consideration must be given to the non-Christian public.

People’s impressions of Christ are partly based on his leaders in the church. Church leaders have a public role in the commuity. Unless their lives speak for themselves, no one will ever listen to what they have to say. If people don’t think highly of the church’s leaders, they won’t think highly of the church. As it is, we find ourselves having to defend the followers of the gospel as often as we defend the gospel itself.

Beware of the Devil

The qualifications Paul gives for elders ends on a rather ominous note, with two references to Satan in vv. 6 and 7: “and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil…And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” When the church makes a poor choice of elders, there’s always the danger of their falling into devilish behavior. Like Satan, an elder may become proud. Then, like Satan, he would be subject to God’s curse on those who are arrogant and rebellious. Or an elders may fall into a trap set by Satan. Like an unwary bird, he may wander into the fowler’s snare.

These warnings lead us to an obvious conclusion: Satan is out to get the elders of the church. This is basic military strategy. The best way to defeat an army is to attack its command and control center. What better way to frustrate God’s plans for the church than to overthrow the elders he has appointed to lead it.

Consider how effective Satan has been in recent years at damaging the office of elder. First, many pastors have fallen into grievous sin. When this happens, his ministry is disgraced. And the entire church is brought into disrepute. Second, many Christians feel they have the right to complain about their elders. Too often, members grumble that their elders ought to be doing this or are not doing that. If a teaching or ruling elder is guilty of sin, he is to be disciplined according to the instructions Paul gives in chapter 5. If his ministry can be improved, then pray for him, or better yet, volunteer to help him with some duty. But complaining about spiritual leaders is what Satan wants people to do, so be careful not to do it!

By mentioning the devil, Paul reminds overseers to be on their guard. At the same time, it’s a reminder for every Christian to pray urgently for the elders of the church, who are subject to the most intense spiritual warfare of all.

Categories: 1 Timothy, 2015, Church Leadership, Sermons

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