What characteristics should a godly leader possess? I try to avoid the word “qualifications,” for that leaves the impression that if a man doesn’t bat a thousand percent in each area, he is disqualified. If a man is expected to excel in each area, then no one will qualify.

Instead, I prefer these terms: qualities of an elder, traits of an elder, or even characteristics of an elder. These are areas in which, though the man may not be perfect. he is above reproach. You can consider these parts of his life and see that he is a good example to the church and sends a good message to the community.

Paul insists that the elders be men above reproach in the following ways.

1. “. . .must have only one wife.” (literally, a “one-woman man”; moral and faithful)

Myar gynaikos andra could best be understood as “a one-woman kind of man.” It is a statement of self-control and loyalty more than a requirement of marital status. The emphasis is on “one.” It describes a man who, if married, is able to maintain a marital commitment and resist the temptation of infidelity. The stress is on character, not marital status.

“In other words, the elder must be characterized as a one-woman man who is not flirtatious, promiscuous, or involved in a questionable relationship with another woman. Viewed this way, Paul is not referring exclusively to the marital status of the prospective elder but to a character trait—just as he does with most of the other qualifications for elders.”1

Why is this first in the list? Consider the weaknesses of most men and you’ll find the answer. Sexual purity is a testing ground of a man’s moral character. If a man is unable to honor a covenant to his bride, it is questionable if he will be able to honor a covenant to the church.

2. Self-controlled (literally, “wineless”; able to control his urges)

This trait honors the ability of a man to control his urges. In a literal sense the word would speak of a man who is sober when it comes to the use of alcohol.

That is certainly part of the meaning. But alcohol is not the only element in the world which can fuzzy your thinking or addict your body. The broader application of the word suggests a freedom from all excesses, whether it be alcohol, gambling, pornography, greed, or gluttony.

The reason for this is obvious. If a man is to lead the church he must be able to stand on his feet; alert, vigilant, and clearheaded. Elsewhere Paul writes: “In a war, if a trumpet does not give a clear sound, who will prepare for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8). Good question. Would you follow a drunken bugler? Could you understand a drunken bugler?

3. Wise (sober-minded; prudent; a well-disciplined person)

Anyone who has dwelt long with the truths of the human drama will gain a candid approach to life. Any man who believes in sin, hell, the cross, and evil will not live in a state of silliness. This trait describes that man. A serious man, not devoid of humor but who possesses a conviction of heart. There is a pervasive sense of truth in his heart.

The word “wise” carries the meaning of a well-disciplined mind. “Do not change yourselves to be like the people of this world, but be changed within by a new way of thinking” (Rom. 12:2). Not rash. Carefully reasoned. An elder is constantly put in decision postures— forced to render crucial judgment. For that reason, he must be wise or prudent.

4. Respected by others (literally, “orderly”; not given to extremes or erratic behavior)

Were you kept awake last night for fear of a falling planet? Or do you live in anxiety that the earth will spin off its axis and fly into space? Nor do I. Our universe is amazingly orderly. The heavens are not without an occasionally surprising meteor or falling star, but, by and large, they are harmonious and predictable.

Elders should be orderly as well. In fact, the word Paul chooses here is kosmion—a descendant of kosmos which refers to the system of the universe. Like the universe, an elder should be orderly, not given to extremes or erratic behavior. He may have mood swings and tough days, but the church isn’t on edge anticipating his tantrums or eccentricities.

I remember as a youngster serving as a Boy Scout in a troop led by a disorderly troop master. We never knew if he was coming to the meetings. He would go weeks without showing up. Then after a prolonged absence, he would appear, sit us down, and give a repentant speech. Through tears he would apologize and pledge to do better and for a few weeks our troop would be a frenzy of activity, but then he’d disappear again.

He was disorderly. Not a trait you seek in a leader.

5. “. . . ready to welcome guests” (literally, “lover of strangers”; hospitable to all)

What a helpful word this is! The term originates from a delightful word, philoxenos. Xenos means stranger. Philo from phileo—to love or show affection. We think of Hebrews 13:2, “Remember to welcome strangers. because some who have done this have welcomed angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

What does it mean to be hospitable? Does it mean to be a great cook? Does it mean one has a steady flow of church friends in your house? Perhaps, but this word implies much more. This is not a word about being with friends but a word about loving those who aren’t your friends. This is a person who has an eye out for strangers. When he comes to church he doesn’t instantly gravitate to his coffee and pie group. He, on the other hand, flows in the direction of strangers. He has little antennae on the hack of his neck which send off a signal when he is near a visitor or newcomer.

What a God-like quality! For hasn’t God done that for us? “. . . in Christ Jesus, you who were far away from God are brought near through the blood of Christ’s death” (Eph. 2:13). All of us are strangers befriended by God.

6. “. . . able to teach. . . “ (literally, “skilled in teaching”)

This trait sets deacons apart from elders: a marked skill of teaching. Why is the skill of teaching placed here? Why an ability in the midst of moral qualifications? Because teaching is essentially a moral effort. One’s life must back up his words. John MacArthur says, “You must pattern in your life what you propagate in your teaching. “2 Paul urges Timothy: Be careful in your life and in your teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).

In 1 Timothy 5:17 we read, “The elders who lead the church well should receive double honor, especially those who work hard by speaking and teaching.” The phrase “work hard” means one who works to exhaustion in word and doctrine. Here is a picture of a student who diligently studies God’s word and adequately expresses his faith.

An interesting combination of the words “pastor” and “teacher” can be found in the book of Ephesians. “And Christ gave.. . some to have the work of caring for and teaching God’s people” (4:11).

The phrase “caring for” is from the Greek word poimen, which translates “pastor.” The word teacher is the same one referred to above, didaskaloi. Many think Paul is referring here not to two positions, but one. Not pastors and teachers, but rather pastors who teach. The word for “and” is kai, which often translates, “that is” or “in particular.” Paul is possibly referring then to a “pastor-teacher,” or one who dedicates himself to the task of teaching the flock.

Teaching is inherent in leadership:

“By telling these things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus…” (I Tim. 4:6).

“Command and teach these things.”

“Be careful in your life and in your teaching” (4:16).

“…work hard by speaking and teaching…”

Like hospitality, teaching is a God-like quality. Jesus was known not as a miracle-worker or a military general or administrator, but rather a teacher. An elder should have the ability to articulate his faith and doctrine.

7. He must not drink too much wine (not under the control of, addicted, preoccupied, or overindulgent with wine).

Listen to this horrible description of the elders of Israel in Isaiah 28:7—8:

“But now those leaders are drunk with wine; they stumble from too much beer. The priests and prophets are drunk with beer and are filled with wine. They stumble from too much beer. The prophets are drunk when they see their visions; their judges stumble when they make their decisions. Every table is covered with vomit, so there is not a clean place anywhere.”

What a repulsive picture! They can’t make a good decision or take a sober step. People are misled by alcohol. People are abused by alcohol.

Elders should distance themselves from drink. It’s no accident that this trait is followed by:

8. “…or like to fight.” (plektes—literally, “a striker”; pugnacious, contentious, or quarrelsome)

A fighter is a pugnacious person who likes to quarrel. A fighter will strike the sheep rather than lead them. He may not hit them with his fist, but he often does with his words. Has a sermon ever left you bruised and beaten? Has a pastor ever used his position or pulpit to remind you of how much you’ve failed and how weak you are? A preacher doesn’t have to strike with his hands to do damage. He can hurt with his words.

There is a temptation in leadership to use the office to control others, to manipulate their emotions, to cause them to be dependent on your approval and fearful of your disdain. Both physical and verbal violence have no place in the kingdom.

9. “… gentle. . .“ (literally, “forbearing, magnanimous, peaceable, forgiving”; willing to yield and make allowances for the fallen human condition)

I jog every morning to a chorus of birds. As if they sing to celebrate the sunrise, they fill the air with music. It’s worthy to note that none of the music is made by the mighty eagle or the powerful hawk. You’ve never heard a note from a condor or a turkey. But the wren, the canary, the lark; how soothing is their singing. The sweetest music comes from the gentle birds. So it is with Christians, the sweetest music comes from the gentlest hearts.

God is gentle, “Lord, you are kind and forgiving and have great love for those who call to you” (Ps. 86:5). The word “forgiving” in the Septuagint, (Greek translation of the Old Testament) is the same word Paul uses to describe the trait of an elder. God expects his undershepherds to lead as he does.

No man can maintain a gentle heart without an honest view of his own sin and God’s grace. The following words are attributed to John Newton, the converted slave-trader who became a preacher and songwriter. Legend records this deathbed statement to a young minister:

“True I’m going on before you, but you’ll soon come after me. When you arrive, our friendship will no doubt cause you to inquire for me. But I can tell you where you’ll most likely find me—I’ll be sitting at the feet of the thief whom Jesus saved in his dying moments on the cross.”

May all elders have such aspirations.

10. “. . . peaceable” (literally, “uncontentious”; seeks to unite, not divide)

Paul describes false teachers as those who are “sick with a love for arguing and fighting about words” (1 Tim.
6:4). What a strong phrase! They are “sick”! There is no place for compromise or tolerance. They are prideful and
boastful. It’s always “my way or the highway.” When it comes to flexibility they are anemic. This is not the kind of
man you want making decisions for the church.

11. “. . . not loving money. . .“ (literally, “free from the love of possessions”)

Greed is a ready temptation for any leader.

The leaders in the days of Jesus loved silver and gold (Lk. 16:14). “The Pharisees, who loved money, were listening to all these things and made fun of Jesus.” An interesting combination of phrases: they loved money and they mocked God.

Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters. The servant will hate one master and love the other, or will follow one master and refuse to follow the other. You cannot serve both God and worldly riches” (Lk. 16:13).

It’s not uncommon for good leaders to make money. If one is prudent and temperate, he is likely prosperous, so this is a very real temptation for elders. It is not unspiritual to be blessed financially; it is unspiritual to be bound to financial success.

The church needs elders who depend on God, not their money for their self-esteem. The church needs men who walk by faith and not by stock quotes. The church needs men who know God owns all and will provide what the church needs.

12. “He must be a good family leader, having children who cooperate with full respect.” (If someone does not know how to lead the family, how can that person take care of God’s church?)

Curious that in a collection of bullet phrases, Paul dedicates two verses to the family.

Leading the church is more like leading a family than leading a business. A man can be an incredible manager, CEO, or military official and be a horrible father. Also a man can be a mediocre businessman, but an outstanding dad.

A good father has learned the skills of listening, give-and-take, forgiving, and teaching. That’s why good fathers make good elders. Does an elder have to be a father? It is better if he is, he is better prepared if he is, but is it mandatory? Again, remember these are traits of an elder, not qualifications. One might have managed well a childless household and still be a good candidate for elder.

And then there’s the question of “believing” children. “An elder must not be guilty of doing wrong, must have only one wife, and must have believing children” (Titus 1:6). The word for believing is the Greek word pistos which means faithful, loyal, trustworthy, trusted, or dutiful. “I love Timothy, and he is faithful” (1 Cor. 4:17).

Does this mean that the children must be Christians? Many would say so. Without a doubt, it would be preferred. But Alexander Strauch makes a good point when he says, “To say this passage means believing children places an impossible standard upon a father. Salvation is a supernatural act of God. God, not good parents (although they are used of God), ultimately brings salvation. While the characterization of a prospective elder’s children as faithful does not mean they must be believers, it does mean they must be responsible and faithful family members. . . . the elder must have children who are loyal and dutiful, good citizens, or—as we might say— responsible children.”4

13. “.. . not a new believer, or he might be too proud of himself and be judged guilty as the devil was.” (Literally, “one who is spiritually mature.”)

Certain truths are learned only through time. The position of elder carries honor and recognition. Should a mantle of leadership be placed too soon on the shoulders of a new Christian, he could likely fall into the trap of the devil.

The sin of Satan was pride (Ezek. 28:1 1— 19). Haughtiness and arrogance tempt the most mature believer. A recent convert would likely stumble under the weight of the position.

14. An elder must also have the respect of people who are not in the church so he will not be criticized by others and caught in the devil’s trap.

Paul’s final concern reiterates one of our first points. Protection reveals the price. The type of man called to lead the church makes a statement about its value. If we call sloppy men, then the world perceives a sloppy church. If we call holy men, then the world perceives a holy church.

The church is quick to give the benefit of the doubt. The world is not. The church is likely to understand when a leader slips. The world will not. The unsaved watch the man from Monday to Saturday, not just on Sundays. His character during the week reflects the character of the church. For that reason, he must be respected in the community.

In conclusion, let’s remember that God seeks a special man to lead his churches. This penetrating phrase is found in 1 Samuel 13:14:

“…the Lord had sought out a man after his own heart.”

When God was seeking a leader for his people in Israel, he sought not a man of stature or power, but a man with a Godlike heart. “The Lord searches all the earth for people who have given themselves completely to him. He wants to make them strong” (2 Chron. 16:9).

God seeks blameless men because he seeks a blameless church. He calls his elders to set an example, not be an exception. May God grant a plurality of men in every congregation who will lead each church as shepherds lead
their flocks.

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