By James Riley Estep Jr.
With blamelessness, the center piece of our puzzle, in place, what other pieces fill out the portrait of a spiritual leader? After reviewing the lists in parallel, the other four major pieces come to light: Being “blameless” before God, others, family, and self.
Blameless Before God
How would you assess your relationship with God? This piece is best reflected in several qualities of an elder. Peter expresses this when he describes that an elder (shepherd) must be capable of being affirmed by the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). An elder must have theological blamelessness before God (Titus 1:7; 1 Timothy 3:2). He must also be upright and holy (Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 5:2). Paul reminds us that an elder must “not be a recent convert” (1 Timothy 3:6); thus, spiritual maturity is a requirement. God expects a congregation’s leaders to be blameless before him.
Blameless Before Others
Another piece involves interpersonal spiritual character. Elders need to be blameless before others inside their congregation and to those in the community outside. As Paul says, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Timothy 3:7). Scripture describes such an individual in several ways, all of which explain how an elder is to relate to those he leads and serves (1 Timothy 3:2, 3, 7; Titus 1:7, 8; 1 Peter 5:2, 3). Such an individual as this could lead the congregation during difficult times through the compulsion of his character, as well as be a witness to those outside the church.
Blameless Before Family
This piece hits close to home. Paul identifies three qualities of family life for the elder. First, he must be of good reputation where women are concerned, and hence recognized as “faithful to his wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Second, an elder must have believing and obedient children (1 Timothy 3:4, 5; Titus 1:6). In fact, even his children are to possess the quality of blamelessness, “not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (Titus 1:6). Notice Paul’s concern for the reputation of the elder, that his family is not open to the charge; in other words, blameless. Third, an elder must manage his family well (1 Timothy 3:4, 5; Titus 1:6). How orderly is his household? The simple fact is that a disorderly or strife-filled household can be a distraction for an elder. Likewise, living in this condition, what will you bring to the church?
Have you ever not been able to live with yourself? This is not narcissism, which is love of self to the point of sinful egocentrism. Rather, when you reflect back on your life, do you see a life that reflects positive values and healthy self-image? Who looks back at you in the mirror? Do you see yourself as blameless? Paul identifies several internal qualities of an elder (1 Timothy 3:2, 3; Titus 1:7). A cursory review of these qualities reveals the need for balance. The internal qualities are just that, qualities that are possessed by the individual. The “not” list involves turning our life over to externals, such as money, alcohol, and reactionary responses to threats.
If we are to live blameless lives, we must be thermostats, not thermometers. Thermostats have an internal control, whereas thermometers simply react to the external environment. A Christian leader must have the thermostatic control of his life centered on Christ, not worldly distractions.
The Completed Puzzle
Elders do not serve alone. Paul did not appoint an elder over each church, but “elders for them in each church” (Acts 14:23); Paul even told Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Peter too writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder . . .” (1 Peter 5:1, emphasis added). Elders do not lead alone. Like a puzzle piece, each one has strengths and deficits, but pieced together with other elders, the puzzle is indeed complete.
So, what does this have to do with the expected qualities of an elder? First, it is important to realize that you are not the only one qualified to serve as an elder. An elder may differ with others around the table, and may hold differing opinions, but ultimately we realize God values each individual who matches his expectations of serving “above reproach.”
Second, no one elder possesses the quality of blamelessness with all its dimensions to the fullest, as described above. However, as an eldership, the call to blamelessness is more completely realized. Together the elders bring to the table their strengths and weaknesses, and complete one another as a leadership.
Third, elders need to exercise servant leadership. An elder must recognize that he did not earn the office, nor did he politic to attain the office, but rather he was summoned by God to serve as a shepherd to his flock; also, one does not serve simply because of an election or personal appointment of a minister. A qualified elder should not promote the idea of superiority or rank, since that alone would violate the notion of “not lording” over God’s people, but he should be “eager to serve” them (1 Peter 5:2, 3). Elders sit at the table of leadership not simply because of a horizontal recognition from within the congregation, but a vertical recognition by God to be a servant to him in his people.
It is not enough to simply want to be an elder; he must possess the basic expectations described in Scripture. Scripture admonishes that an elder serves “not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2), and says, “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). When someone has the biblical life qualities for leadership, all the pieces come together.
James Riley Estep Jr. serves as dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.