As careful as pastor-elders must be to keep their churches from being influenced and shipwrecked by the world, they also must lead their people outward. Jesus gave an outward-facing commission. Our gospel is a growing, expanding gospel. God’s word runs and triumphs. It matters, in some measure (not absolutely) what outsiders think because we want to win them. We do not change our message for them. We do not cower to unreasonable demands from evil, twisted critics. And we should not suffer leaders in the church who are fools on the world’s terms just as much as Christ’s.
Most Likely to Sheep-Feed
Leaders. Our criticisms of them, cynicism toward them, conflicts with them, and controversies about them fill our feeds, queues, and real-life conversations. Perhaps a previous generation gave its presidents and pastors too much benefit of the doubt. But that is increasingly not our temptation.
Whether in society or the church, both a fascination with and a negative mood toward our leaders and celebrities (we’re increasingly unable to draw clear lines between them) pervades our age. Many today are confused, and often for good reasons. Stories of use and abuse abound, and multiply, with the aid of our technologies.
What Christ Requires
For Christians, we have our conflicts and controversies to grieve, and speak into, but the risen Christ has not left us confused about what to expect, pray for, and hold our leaders to account for. Scripture has a lot to say about our current crisis.
To my count, 1 Timothy 3 provides fifteen requirements for pastor-elders—the lead or teaching office in the church. Another list—again, I count fifteen—comes just pages later in Titus 1, with most of them mapping on precisely to the first list. Added to that, we have, among others, 1 Peter 5:1–5, 2 Timothy 2:22–26, Hebrews 13 (verses 7 and 17), and the words of Christ in Mark 10:42–45. Jesus has not left us without clarity.
Paul Really Knew
For more than a decade now, I’ve given unusual time and attention to lingering over the pastor-elder qualifications. Not only am I a pastor seeking to regularly rehearse what Christ requires of me (and grow, with his help, in these virtues), but since 2012 I’ve been assigned “the eldership class” at Bethlehem Seminary. This class is typically a cohort of 15–16 seminarians training to be vocational pastor-elders.
Over time, we’ve found the lists of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to be worthy of far more than a brief review or a single session of focus. In fact, in seeking to present to the class and address what Scripture teaches, and what I’ve found to be significant in pastoral ministry, I’ve found again and again that essentially all the relevant practical issues in preparing for eldership pair with one or more of the traits Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.
Paul really knew what he was talking about—not just as a list of prerequisites to become an elder but as a catalog of the kind of virtues that elders need day in and day out to be healthy, effective elders in the long haul for the joy of the church.
What Kind of Men?
Semester after semester, I have found so much life, so much to learn, so much to say, so much to discuss, so much to apply in these elder qualifications. For one, the virtues mentioned here are not devoid of reference elsewhere in Scripture. Rather, in most cases, Scripture, from Old Testament to New, has quite a bit to say about these traits.
One avenue into these traits I’ve developed over time is finding a superlative for each. Perhaps this will help some readers, as it’s helped me, come at these traits from fresh angles and understand them, in theory, in practice, and in new dimensions. I’ll order them here under the three major headings I’ve come to use in the class—humbled, whole, and honorable.
Humbled: Men before Their God
The first is perhaps the most misunderstood: aspiration. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). In the age of the subjective, we often emphasize the self’s desire for, or aspiring to, the office of pastor-elder. That’s good and well, and so we should. Aspiration is here at the outset of the list, and it’s critical. Pastor-elders are to be those who labor with joy (2 Cor. 1:24), which is to the benefit of their people (Heb. 13:17), and which is why this line of work is not to be done reluctantly or under compulsion, but willingly and eagerly (1 Pet. 5:2).
However, what some in our day misunderstand is that their subjective desire, their aspiration, is not the end-all-be-all in being “called to ministry.” Rather, the heart of Christian ministry is not bringing our desires (however sanctified) to bear on the world but letting the actual needs of others (on God’s terms) meet with and shape our hearts. Often overlooked in Christian discussions of “calling” today is the actual God-given, real-world (objective) open door. Aspiration is critical but not a “call” in itself.
“Not be a recent convert,” then, we might call the most unactionable trait in the list. If you just came to faith, you are recent (literally, a “new plant”) and there is simply nothing you can do about that. So we might say this one is, in a sense, “most out of your own hands.” However, we might also add that “recent” is a relative word. And those who seek humility (Zeph. 2:3) and make some real headway in putting to death their pride, move forward in line with the concern of this requisite: that he not “become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Being genuinely humbled, and learning to welcome it, will make more recent converts seem less recent.