By Randy Blackaby
While brethren often spend much time examining a man’s domestic qualifications to be an elder—his marital situation, child-rearing success, etc.—his possession or failure to possess the qualities of vigilance, temperance and sober-mindedness is equally important to his success as a pastor of God’s people.
And any congregation which has appointed a man who didn’t meet this qualification has learned the hard way why this qualification is ordained of God.
In 1 Timothy 3:2, the Apostle Paul declared an elder “must be” a man who is “temperate, sober-minded” (NKJV) or “vigilant, sober” (KJV). The same apostle, writing to Titus (1:8), said the bishop must be “temperate” (KJV), “self-controlled” (NKJV, ASV) or “disciplined” (NIV).
A closer look at each of these words will help us understand better the character traits demanded in the life of one of God’s shepherds.
Vigilance Or Temperance
The word Paul used in writing to Timothy, translated vigilance or temperance, comes from a Greek word (nephaleon) that is defined as “to be sober, to be circumspect, temperate, abstaining from wine.”
Perhaps it is fair to say the idea is that of being spiritually and morally alert, and observant. Elders must be self-controlled, both as an example of mature faith to others and of a demeanor to properly handle the myriad issues that arise in their work among church members.
All Christians need to be extremely aware that the “Day of the Lord” is coming at an undeclared and unexpected time in the future—and thus the need to be aware, awake and always anticipating (1 Thess. 5:1-8). Encouraging brethren to live in anticipation of the glories of the kingdom yet to be revealed, Peter said, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16).
And, Peter also spoke of the need to be ever watchful and wary of Satan and his workings. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
An elder must have the ability to discover and avoid danger or provide a way to safety (his shepherding role).
Elders who aren’t observant, either because they don’t have this quality or because they simply refuse to look, don’t or won’t see problems developing in the lives of individual members or the congregation as a whole. Thus, they’ll leave the flock of God vulnerable to Satan’s attacks.
To understand the need for this qualification, read Paul’s admonition to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to 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. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”
And the unnamed writer of Hebrews demonstrates that this quality is central to one of the major responsibilities of pastors. He writes, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” ().
The work of an elder, which often involves confrontation, crises, correction and conflict, requires a self-controlled, moderate man, with a cool and calm disposition. He will face people making rash charges, people who themselves are extremely upset and not looking at things very rationally or spiritually.
Further, the elder must be sober-minded or serious. He can’t have his judgment clouded by alcohol or drugs. He can’t be a jokester who takes nothing seriously, when the souls of men and women are at stake. He can’t be driven by self-ego. He can’t have the disposition that most things just “don’t matter.”
He will have to be constantly on guard against worldliness, false doctrine and sin in the congregation he helps oversee and guide.
Self-Controlled Or Disciplined
While some translations use the same English word—temperate—the Greek word Paul used in writing to Titus about elder qualifications is different from the one he used in writing to Timothy. In Titus, Paul uses the word egkrata to describe another quality necessary in an elder of the Lord’s church.
That word means “having the mastery over, having possession of, having control over oneself, self-disciplined, curbing, restraining.”
It is worth noting again that such a character quality is to be the goal of every Christian, but must be achieved to a relatively high degree before a man can be considered for the office of bishop.
Self-control is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” mentioned in Galatians 5:23. Recall also that such behavior is part of the message of the gospel, for Paul preached to Felix of “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25). And self-control or temperance is one of the Christian graces to be added to our faith (2 Peter 1:6).
It is necessary in a person’s disposition or thinking to avoid sins of passion like murder, brawling, fornication and many verbal sins. The same apostle who writes these qualifications identifies this one as necessary to win the crown of life. He said, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. -27).
So, let’s explore just a bit further why this is so important in the life of an elder. Most, if not all, sin is the result of losing self-control or personal discipline. Thus, the self-disciplined or God-disciplined life is a requirement for living faithful unto death and receiving the crown of life.
The Christian shepherd’s job is to help others achieve eternal life and that crown. So, first and foremost, he must demonstrate and exemplify that life before those whom he leads. It is not unlike in the home. Parents who want behaved, self-controlled children must themselves be well behaved and self-controlled. Jesus, the chief shepherd, illustrated this supremely, keeping every false emotion, erroneous impulse and physical desire under control. He did so to the point of submitting to death on the cross.
Sober-Minded Or Sensible
In his writing to both Timothy and Titus, Paul indicated church overseers must be “sober” (KJV), “sober-minded” (NKJV, ASA) or “sensible” (RSV, NRSV). The Greek word used in the original writing was sophrona and means “discreet, moderate, temperate, chaste, sober, of sound mind, sane, in one’s senses, curbing one’s desires or impulses.”
This word carries many of the same ideas previously discussed, but adds some shades of meaning.
Sober-mindedness points to the cause of the vigilance or temperance previously examined. This word speaks of the nature of the mind.
In religion, particularly today, many people are swept to various conclusions and actions by excitements and emotions. But truth is established by a sensible, rational examination of what God’s word (the Bible) declares.
When Paul was before Festus, he was accused of being out of his mind. “Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!’ But he said, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason” (Acts 26:24-25). In teaching Festus truth, Paul used “reason.” He used and called upon Felix to use the mental capabilities God has given each of us to understand truth.
Sobriety is something both the old and young need. To the younger preacher Titus the Apostle Paul wrote, “Likewise exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you” (Titus 2:6-8). Notice all the things affected by such a sound mind.
Continuing his thought, the apostle wrote, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13),
This quality keeps a person from thinking too highly of himself. Paul again wrote, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:3-8).
An elder who assumes his office makes him of greater importance and greater value than all others in the congregation is an abject failure as far as his God-given duties are concerned. Thus, he needs to be sober-minded or sensible and realize he is doing a job for the Lord, yet all other members have important roles in the kingdom as well.
This sense of clear thinking also prevents fear from paralyzing or provoking a Christian. This was Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 1:7-8, where he wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God.” Fear is a powerful motivator. Yet a Christian who understands God’s promises and power doesn’t lose his or her mental soundness to fear.
Not a few elders have failed to carry out their duties because of fear. They may fear that leading in church discipline will result in a decline of church numbers. Or, they may fear loss of friendships, prestige or honor. They may simply fear making the wrong decision. Such men are not sober-minded enough for the job.
Again, men who serve as elders must have the capability of looking at the scriptures and a particular situation before them calmly and rationally and then conclude and teach the will of the Lord on the matter. Men who must “feel the pulse” and “test the winds” of the congregation aren’t using the senses God gave them.
The qualifications and words we’ve explored have much similarity, yet shades of meaning that help make clear what is needed in the life of every child of God, but particularly in the lives of those who would shepherd the local church. They emphasize that emotions and excesses can’t drive a mature Christian.
God has given each of us rational minds capable of learning and understanding and obeying His will. But several things often compromise our abilities, if we aren’t careful. Here are but a few of them:
- Excessive emotion.
- Alcohol, drugs and the like.
- Coming under the control of fleshly lusts. When we crave anything physically too much, it impairs our ability to look at other things rationally.
- Ungodly fears.
The good elder will keep his own behavior governed—for his own sake and as an example to others in his congregation.
The Christian shepherd must take his work seriously—for the very souls of people are at stake.
It is certain that when we choose men to be bishops we want men who are vigilant, temperate, self-controlled, sensible and sober-minded.
The opposite would be men who pay no attention to their lives or those of their brethren, men who are rash, subject to outbursts of anger, unable to control their physical appetites and men who can’t sensibly and rationally determine what God has said.
Next: Look for a man who is well-behaved, hospitable and able to teach.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.