By Eric Stevens
“Is that a good job?” How often have you been involved in that discussion?
What makes a job good? Is it the pay? Is it the benefit it gives to others? Is it the joy or satisfaction it brings to the worker?
In the New Testament, “good works” is used to describe selfless acts that benefit others. Jesus did “good works” (John 10:32)1. Good works are a testimony to the glory of God (Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12). Believers should engage in good works (Titus 3:8) and encourage each other to do good works (Hebrews 10:24).
This same phrase in the Greek New Testament describes the service of an elder: it is a “fine work” (1 Timothy 3:1). The word translated fine here is translated good about 99 percent of the time in the New Testament (the only other case being “fine pearls” in Matthew 13:45). The translators decided that good was not a positive enough description of the eldership—it is a “fine work.”
The implication is significant. The eldership is a good vocation. Doing the work of an elder is not doing a good deed here or there—it is a life of good deeds. It is good because it is a ministry for God and to the people of God (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13). The elder joins the Father (Philippians 1:6; 2:13), Son (1 Corinthians 15:58; Philippians 2:30; 1 Peter 5:2-4) and Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2; 1 Peter 1:2) in shaping people. The elder assists in the work the Word of God was created to perform (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The work of the elder is good because it is a holy and a helpful work.2
What kind of people ought to do this job? That is the issue Paul sets out to answer for Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9). The key to having a healthy church is having a spiritually mature leadership. Paul’s instructions indicate these leaders are godly examples for the congregations over which they exercise care.
What is meant by a godly example? A person who has lived with Christ long enough to have a thorough knowledge of God’s truth and who has steadily implemented the practice of God’s truth. This person has demonstrated in his life the qualities of a faithful follower of Christ. Others are able to point to this man and say, “Here is what I have seen him do in the name of Christ.” This example is seen in every area of his life. His inner person and his outer person have been shaped by godly motivation.
Paul describes this godly leader by mentioning 15 characteristics in each letter! The two lists are not exactly the same. Some of the characteristics are identical, some are similar, and some are unique.
Several have attempted to explain why the two lists are different; I believe they are different because they are not intended to be exhaustive. They are not checklists of perfection (as they have sometimes been used). Rather they are brushstrokes—in vivid colors—creating the portrait of a man who has walked with God.
Paul could have kept on describing a good leader with characteristic after characteristic, but certainly 15 are more than enough to identify the man who has the suitable character to lead the congregation. And they are enough to eliminate the man who does not have the godly character necessary for that task.
Rather than wading through the list of 20-some characteristics, I have chosen to group the terms into four areas. Paul addresses personal character, family character, congregational character, and character observable by those outside the congregation; they can also be categorized under the headings personal life, family life, congregational life, and public life. Who is a suitable guide for God’s people? One who has influence upon himself and whose influence extends into ever-widening spheres.
“Above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6) is the initial description of the person Timothy and Titus are to install as elders in their congregations. This does not mean a person is sinless or perfect! It is a general description fleshed out by all of the following attributes. It means this person’s actions do not give others a reason to bring charges of wrongdoing against him.
What are the habits a man cultivates so his life does not give offense to others? He is temperate (1 Timothy 3:2). This indicates he is able to control his actions. And he is prudent (1 Timothy 3:2), able to control his wants and desires. This ability to think and act wisely and in tune with God’s will is described as being sensible and self-controlled (Titus 1:8).
There is not a great variation in the meanings of these terms. We cannot assume the elders in Ephesus (1 Timothy) needed to be temperate and prudent, whereas the elders in Crete (Titus) needed to be sensible and self-controlled. The man who is temperate and prudent is also self-controlled. Because this is true, he is not quick-tempered (Titus 1:7). His emotions are under control. Paul is describing a person who is balanced.
The man suitable for the good job of elder is a person who loves what is good (Titus 1:8). This could mean such things as he is honest, makes a positive contribution to his community, is compassionate, etc.
There are many activities that should be embraced because they lift people up. Others should be rejected because they bring out the worst in people or drag people down. The kind of person being described here is a Philippians 4:8 person.3
An elder is to be a godly and mature family leader. The first way Paul describes this characteristic is with the unusual phrase, “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Scholarly studies have proposed as many as five possible meanings for this phrase. However, the only understanding that is actually useful to the context is that the man who would be elder is a devoted husband (see the reverse of this phrase in 1 Timothy 5:9). His relationship with his wife is marked by faithfulness and trustworthiness.
That a man has been married only once is not a high enough standard. This alternative is unsatisfactory as a “checklist” qualification. It is unfortunate that it has often been used this way. Having had only one spouse is no guarantee a man has the qualities necessary to guide others in their marriages—a good work that an elder will surely need to do.
The elder is also to have significant spiritual influence on his family. His children should behave in a disciplined manner (Titus 1:6). They are disciplined because their father has taken the time to teach them appropriate behavior and has held them to that standard (see Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). He has given them the self-discipline they need in life. This self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).
In the instructions to Titus, Paul says the elder has children who believe (Titus 1:6). The idea here is that a man has enough spiritual influence to lead those closest to him into a relationship with Christ. If one cannot influence his own family, how can he influence those who have no natural reason to love and respect him?
The leader of the church is a good manager of his own household (1 Timothy 3:4, 5). This includes the people and the orderliness of his house. Paul reasons that any person who can’t lead those in his own household won’t be able to lead those inside God’s household. This, after all, is the fine work of the elder.
1Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
2See Knofel Staton, “Elders: The Church’s Lead Caregivers,” CHRISTIAN STANDARD, 15 June 2008, 4-7.
3George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 287.
NEXT WEEK: The elder’s congregational life and public life.
Eric Stevens is professor of New Testament at Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.