The Qualifications of the Office of Elder (8): The Elder’s Relationship to the Truth

Previous article in this series: October 1, 2014, p. 12.

Explaining I Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9, we have noted in past articles that elders in the church of Jesus Christ must be 1) adult male members of the church; 2) blameless men, who cannot be charged with any grave fault, and who are godly in all aspects of their life; 3) men who, when they are married and have children, enjoy the kind of relationship with their wives and children which indicates that they love with the love of Christ, and are wise, devoted, mature, and able to rule well; and 4) men who have a concern for others—loving hospitality, loving good, and having a good report of those who are without.

Three qualifications remain to be treated. First, God’s Word requires that the elder be “apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2). Second, he must be “not a novice” (I Tim. 3:6). Finally, he must be one who holds “fast the faithful word as he hath been taught” (Tit. 1:9).

The Underlying Principle

Underlying these qualifications is the principle that the elder must have a firm grasp on the truth set forth in Scripture.

He must himself have been taught (“holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught”). If the elder is a covenant child from his youth, this teaching includes the instruction of parents, covenant school teachers, and pastors in catechism, so that it can be said of him, as Paul said of Timothy, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures...” (II Tim. 3:15). If the elder was converted in his youth or later, this teaching would include all that instruction by which he came to know the true Christian, not to mention Reformed, faith.

Nor is this teaching limited to what he learned in the past. The elder must continue to learn and grow in his knowledge of Scripture: of the historical facts set forth in Scripture, the doctrines of saving grace revealed in Scripture, and the principles of antithetical living which God’s Word teaches.

This firm grasp on the truth as set forth in Scripture is necessary for an elder. Every officebearer, elder included, is charged with the task of bringing God’s Word to bear on the needs of God’s people and the circumstances in which God’s sheep find themselves.

Because elders must clearly understand the Scriptures in order to do their work, and because this clear understanding of Scripture relates to these qualifications for their office, I encourage elders not to be too busy to study the Scriptures. In addition to the time you take for family devotions and for preparing for your Bible study society, read wholesome books and listen to wholesome sermons and lectures. Of course, you are busy throughout the week earning your family’s keep, and your free time involves being with your family as a husband and father. But dedicate some time regularly to read and study.

The Requirements

This underlying principle comes out in the three qualifications that we are considering.

First, the elder must be “not a novice” (I Tim. 3:6). The Greek word so translated literally means “new planting.” He must not be one newly converted to Christianity. As it takes time for a plant to put down a deep root, so it takes time for a new convert to become well-grounded in the Scriptures.

In no way does this qualification denigrate new converts. The church rejoices to hear that God has turned others from unbelief and ungodliness to faith and godliness! The church readily receives such members! But the elders of the church must not be such men, for not all new “converts” are truly converted in the heart. They may have “temporary faith,” depicted in the parable of the sower by the seed that fell on stony ground (Matt. 13:5-6, 20-21). In addition, in the very nature of the case a new convert is not ready to lead, rule, and teach other Christians who are more grounded than the convert. Even in secular society, we appoint as our leaders those who have knowledge gained by experience.

Implied also is that the elder be spiritually mature. This point is also underscored by the requirements that he be blameless and godly. However, he must not only be mature personally and in his spiritual life; he must also be mature in his understanding of Scripture. A man who has a vast knowledge of scriptural facts, but is not able to see the “big picture” that they teach; or a man who knows all about the laws and commands of Scripture but does not understand the doctrines of grace; or a man who can use (twist) Scripture to draw out his own conclusions, contrary to the meaning of Scripture—such men are not candidates for the office of elder.

Second, the elder must “hold fast” this Word (Tit. 1:9). He must treasure this Word, to ensure that he does not lose it. Literally, he must always “have the faithful word before him.” We will not lose that which we always keep in our sight.

Implied is that the elder is in danger of losing sight of the Word. This is a danger for all God’s people; the care of the world and the deceitfulness of riches can choke the Word (Matt. 13:22). Jesus speaks this regarding those who have absolutely no care for the Word, and show themselves to be unfruitful unbelievers; but it can be applied relatively to the children of God. So the elder must realize that part of his task as elder is to grow in knowledge and love for the Scriptures.

Also implied is that the devil will try to snatch this Word from the elder personally, as well as from the church. “Gainsayers” will arise, who oppose the teachings of Scripture, trying to show them to be false, absurd, or irrelevant. If the elder is wishy-washy, he stands in danger of losing the Word, the very tool and weapon with which he must oppose these gainsayers. To this we will return in a moment.

Third, the elder must be “apt to teach,” or skillful at teaching (I Tim. 3:2).

Some interesting questions arise in connection with this qualification. Does this qualification apply more to the church’s pastors (“teaching elders,” to use the term commonly used by Presbyterians), than to her elders (“ruling elders”)? If the qualification applies to the ruling elders, why do they need to teach? And how must they be able to teach?

God willing, we will return to these questions in our next article, to give them a well-worked out answer without constraints of space.

For now we assert that “apt to teach” does require the church’s ruling elders to be men who are capable of teaching. Teaching has two fundamental aspects. One is that teachers must know the subject matter that must be taught. In other words, this qualification follows from the underlying principle of the three that we are considering: the elder must have a firm grasp of the teachings of the Scripture, because he must himself teach them. The other aspect is that one must be able to communicate effectively. How the elder does this, we will come back to next time. But for now we emphasize that a man who is simply devoid of the ability to teach truth is not qualified for the office of elder, even if he is a godly man and qualified in all other respects.

The Purposes

God tells us why these qualifications are so important.

He must not be a novice, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (I Tim. 3:6). And he must hold fast the faithful Word as he hath been taught, “that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:9).

Although the reason in I Timothy 3 regards the elder himself, and the reason in Titus 1 regards others (“gainsayers”), the reasons boil down to the same thing: Satan is incessantly trying to destroy the church of Christ. Therefore, the church’s elders must be the kind of men who know how to fight, and who can be in the vanguard of the battle.

This requires elders to battle against sin within ourselves. One way the devil attacks the church is by attacking her leaders, her officebearers—by fanning their pride. Satan knows the consequences of pride; for pride, he himself was cast out of heaven, and consigned to hell. If he can get the officebearers to be proud, he can make inroads into the church.

Pride is a particular temptation for any elder. The fact is, they have been chosen out of all the men of the church—to the office of rule! Clearly, they might imagine that they are better than others...more capable than others... more spiritual than others! The decisions they make affect and influence the lives of other people! Such thinking manifests proud hearts, and is the yeast that leavens the whole man’s thinking and acting, preparing him for a fall (Prov. 16:18).

If any elder must guard against pride, all the more would a novice need to. He might think: so quickly I rose to leadership in the church; am I not better than the others?

But the church is not served well by proud leaders. Her elders must fight sin within. If we do not, we will fall into the condemnation of the devil—that is, upon us will be pronounced the sentence of the everlasting misery of the torments of hell, which is pronounced on Satan himself!

Then, of course, elders must battle sin in the lives of others. “Gainsayers” are those who contradict the truth and the rule of godliness. They are found not only outside of the church but also within the church. They are the ones whom the elders must exhort and convince!

Strikingly, the word “rebuke” is not used here. The words “exhort” and “convince” indicate a very tender, meek approach. That they must “exhort” such means that the elders must come alongside of such, to give quiet instruction. That they must “convince” means that the elders must reprove and admonish, and especially point out one’s error—but not with earthly threats, nor with a loud, angry voice; the elders must bring the Word of God, authoritatively and convincingly. To do that, they must know the Word!

The word “convince,” as we use it today, suggests that the other, the “gainsayer,” sees and turns from his error. Sadly, such will not always be the fruit of the work of the elders. But when the gainsayer does not turn, let it be because he rejects the Word that the elders brought, and not because he is offended by the manner with which it was brought, or by the haughtiness or the impatience of the man who brought it.

Yet the elders who bring the faithful Word that they have been taught, and who bring it in humility and meekness, will accomplish their purpose: they will “convince,” in the sense that they leave the gainsayers without excuse, and make plain that the doctrine and life of the gainsayers is contrary to that set forth in the Scriptures.

In some instances, by God’s grace, this will be the means to work repentance in those gainsayers, and to restore them to the sheepfold of Christ!

By God’s grace alone—yet using the means of elders who know, love, hold fast, teach, and live according to God’s Word.