By Randy Blackaby
Despite the fact that many denominations routinely ordain women elders, the Apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus make clear that the divinely directed pattern is for the gender of an elder to be male. Further, the apostle declares that serving as an elder is “work” and that a man must be willing and desirous of doing such work. It is not simply an honorary office. And, the character of a man suitable for this work is to be defined by the word “blameless.”
The gender qualification is disturbing to those who advocate the political correctness of contemporary culture. And by his own later admission many a man has been appointed an elder because of the urgings of others, not his own desire to do the job. Some may be pressured to serve “because if you don’t we won’t have an eldership” or because his wife wants to see the “honor” bestowed upon him, or for a host of other reasons. And a number of elders are appointed without really understanding the “work” of an elder.
And the qualification that a man who holds the office is to be “blameless” has led to the exclusion of many good men, because this requirement is misunderstood. On the other hand, men sometimes have been appointed who can’t be said to be blameless, in violation of God’s will.
Only Men Are To Serve As Elders
The context of Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus make clear that only a man can serve as an elder. He says in 1 Timothy 3:1-2, “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…” And in Titus 1:6 he writes, “if a man be blameless, the husband of one wife…”
It is appropriate to note that the Greek word translated man in the New King James Version is not definitive. By that word alone we could not be sure the apostle is referring to a male instead of simply humankind. Because the word is not definitive, the translators of the King James Version translated it “man” in Timothy and “if any” in Titus.
However, the context easily resolves the issue. This person who may be an elder must be “the husband of one wife,” say both texts. A woman, obviously, can’t be the husband of one wife.
Further, in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, the apostle writes that the prospective elder must be, “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)”
We know from Ephesians 5:22-24 than wives are directed to submit to their own husbands and that “the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.”
Thus, common sense and scripture combine to demonstrate that an elder learns the skills of leading a local congregation by the leadership he has exercised in the home. Only a man is authorized to be leader or head of the home, thus only a man can be qualified to be an elder.
The work of an elder involves the exercise of authority. In Hebrews 13:17 we are exhorted to “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls…” The words “obey” and “rule” and “be submissive” demonstrate that authority adheres to this job. It is not authority as exercised by the rulers of the Gentiles (Matthew 20:25-28) and elders aren’t “lords” over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3), but it certainly involves the congregation voluntarily submitting to or obeying the leadership of their elders.
All that is said to demonstrate that a woman is not permitted to lead in such a way. In verses immediately preceding his instructions to Timothy regarding elder qualifications, Paul writes, “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Timothy 2:12-14).
So, to understand that a woman would be qualified to serve as an elder, one must disregard God’s directions for the leadership of the home and the church.
Desire For The Work An Absolute Necessity
It almost goes without saying that a man who doesn’t desire to be an elder will make a pretty poor “overseer” or “shepherd” of the flock. It is both reprehensible and harmful when a man agrees to be an elder when he doesn’t really want to serve. It is a direct violation of God’s decree and demonstrates a callous disregard for the will of God.
Further, it should be noted that the apostle says if a man desires the office or position of a bishop he desires a good “work.”
If we only had the English words “office” or “position” before us, we might reach erroneous conclusions, since it is not uncommon in politics for men or women to be elected to an office and really do no work. Some offices are created as honorary positions. But the apostle, by divine guidance, closes that door when he refers to the eldership as a “work.”
It is arguable that the desire to serve as an elder needs to begin in one’s youth, before a man is fully qualified. If more young men would have this focus as they consider the women they choose to marry and as they contemplate how they will raise their children, imagine the larger pool of qualified men from which the church could appoint elders.
As all the other qualifications in combination also suggest, the desire to be an elder must be rooted in a desire to do the Lord’s will, see the kingdom grow and help others attain eternal life.
An Elder Must Be Blameless
The requirement of blamelessness is found in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. But a misunderstanding of this qualification has led some to conclude, directly or by implication, that no man is qualified to serve as an elder. But if this term is interpreted to mean a man who has never sinned in his life or never makes a mistake, such would clearly contradict Romans 3:23, which declares “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
But the words used by Paul mean “one against whom no evil charge can be sustained” or “not open to accusation” or “one who cannot be called to account.” The meaning is similar to the phrase “above reproach.”
Now, let’s use the common sense God gave us to understand the directions (scriptures) he also gave us.
If a Christian is an obedient believer in the Christ who died for our sins, and if the church is the body of those saved from their sins (Acts 2:47), then we must conclude that every Christian and every member of the church has sinned sometime in the past. If blameless means “never sinned” then Jesus is the only man who could ever be termed blameless.
However, when a person obeys the gospel of our Lord and savior, his sins are remitted, forgiven, washed away and remembered no more.
If a man’s life as a Christian is marked by a high degree of obedience to God and a willingness to repent anytime he finds sin or error in his life, then he will be blameless. When sin is repented of and forgiven, it can’t be held to a man’s account.
The idea here is very similar to that depicted in 1 John 1:5-
10 inreference to “walking in the light.” It is necessary to walk in the light, yet John declares that if a man says he has no sin or never sins, he’s a liar. However, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
What we must look for in an elder is a man of maturity whose sins are relatively infrequent and who demonstrates ready repentance when sin is found in his life. That’s the example and pattern that needs to be shown to the whole congregation.
What we sometimes forget is that all Christians are called upon to be blameless. The Apostle Paul wrote to the troubled, divided and often sinful church at Corinth, “that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8). The context shows that such blamelessness won’t be attained by personal perfection but through the working of Christ. Christ’s death on the cross provides for forgiveness of sins committed before we obey the gospel and for sins committed after we become Christians.
What is certainly illogical and improper is imbuing blamelessness with narrower meaning in reference to elders than to others. Deacons also must be blameless (1 Timothy 3:10) and widows supported by the church must be (1 Timothy 5:5-7). Preachers must be blameless or unrebukeable (1 Timothy 6:14).
It should be the objective of every Christian to live a life holy and free of sin. The qualification in reference to a potential elder calls for selection of a man whose character and behavior reflect having achieved this to a high degree. Again, absolute perfection is not in view, but a life of walking in the light. This will include readiness to avail oneself of the pardon available by repentance.
Finally, as proof that “blameless” refers to a life habituated in righteousness and a willingness to repent when occasional sin occurs, readers are pointed to the example of the Apostle Peter.
Peter was the once impulsive disciple who vowed that though others might stumble, he never would—yet denied the Lord three times as Jesus was being tried before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:33-35, 69-75). This same Peter, after the Lord’s ascension, after he had first preached the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, had to be rebuked by the Apostle Paul for hypocrisy because he followed the lead of Judaizing teachers and refused to eat with some Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14).
Now, consider that Peter was an elder, as well as an apostle, and thus subject to the qualification of blamelessness (1 Peter 5:1). If blamelessness means that a man has never sinned or erred during his time as a Christian, Peter would have been unqualified to be an elder.
The qualifications we’ve examined demonstrate that the Lord is looking for men experienced in successful leadership of their homes who have a great desire and eagerness to lead fellow saints as they have fellow family members toward righteous, godly living.
Sought is a man whose life is characterized by righteousness, which includes a humble spirit willing to repent when sin is discovered in his life. When repentant and forgiven, he is unblameable or unrebukeable in the sight of God and men. When sins are blotted out or expunged from the record, there is no basis for charging a man with sin (Acts 3:19).
This qualification, like others we will examine in coming months, points to a man of maturity in the faith. He is the man the Lord wills to lead the local church.
Next: The Elder’s family and domestic qualifications.
Randy Blackaby lives in Medway, OH and preaches for the New Carlisle church of Christ. He also serves this congregation as one of its elders. He has preached full-time for about 18 years and part-time for that many more. During the period from 1971 to 1988 he was a reporter and later managing editor of The Xenia Daily Gazette in Ohio. He preached for 14 years in Kokomo, IN and has written a number of newspaper columns as a preacher, including Bible Q&A and op-ed pieces on current issues from a biblical perspective. He is a staff writer for Truth Magazine and writes monthly columns for the New Carlisle Sun, the Knollwood Messenger and this magazine. He has written a host of workbooks on Bible texts and themes, including recent ones on the book of Galatians and the Life of Moses. Currently, he is working on another on what the Bible teaches about “Money and Possessions.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, he made five preaching trips to Lithuania between 1994 and 2000. He can be contacted at email@example.com.