The Office of Elder—His Qualifications

Mr. Gritters is a member of the Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

In our first article concerning the office of elder (Nov. 15, 1994), we briefly reviewed the biblical meaning of the office of elder (bishop), and also traced the history of the office from the times of the "elders of Israel" to the Reformed concept of the office as we know it today. 

Before entering upon a more practical, personal discussion of the office, we must look at the qualifications Christ has placed upon those whom He places in this office. Our discussion of these qualifications, however, need not exclude some very practical applications related to these qualifications, thanks in part to some of you who responded to our editor's suggestion in the November 15th issue to contact the writers of this rubric with comments or questions. I not only find this to be very encouraging, but it also gives an opportunity to address thoughts and concerns of fellow church members instead of being limited to the opinions and experiences of the writer. 

To qualify for something—materially speaking—means you must prove to someone that you have the education (knowledge), experience, personality, temperament, physical traits, etc. that make you competent or worthy of performing a specific task. It follows, therefore, that an elder's qualifications are inseparably tied to the duties imposed upon him by the Word of God, which duties we cited previously. 

We could quote from the Church Order, the Ordination Form, and countless other sources, but inasmuch as all of these are—and must be—based solely on the Scriptures, we limit ourselves to the Word of God for now. In the interest of brevity, let us look at what is probably the most familiar guideline for the office of bishop (elder). The Holy Spirit by the apostle Paul tells us in I Timothy 3:1-7: "This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take> care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil." 

To this, Paul adds such words as "not self-willed, not soon angry, a lover of good men, just, holy, temperate, holding fast the faithful word," etc. (Titus 1:6-9). What an extensive list we generate from just two passages! Granted, some of these traits may be synonymous; even so, we can number as many as twenty qualifications, all "desirable," many "mandatory" (e.g., "must be blameless"). Now it is in no way my intent to expound the meaning of each of these terms as if to create yet another "handbook for elders," so to speak. This has been done countless times in the past by theologians and writers immeasurably more competent than I. Nor is that the expressed intent of our Standard Bearerstaff in these articles directed toward "Ministering to the Saints."

We note that while most of the qualifications are "mandatory," additional ones may be "desirable" (public speaking); some are expressed negatively (not covetous), and others positively (given to hospitality). In summary, they can essentially be grouped into three categories. 

The first (though not necessarily in importance) would encompass a majority of the several qualities cited by the apostle Paul. These elements, taken together, I will refer to as the elder's character and deportment as seen by others, especially by those of the household of faith. These would include "blameless, monogamous, not self-willed, patient, not given to wine, not soon angry, no striker, no brawler, not guilty of filthy lucre, hospitable, sober, holy, temperate, and (somewhat all-inclusive) good behavior." 

The second category would include those very special gifts an elder must possess in ruling (overseeing) the Body of Christ, the church. Among these gifts would be "able to rule well one's own house (family), patient (not soon angry), just (who would not dread being brought before God's law by an un-just consistory?), not a novice (newcomer), holding fast the faithful word (to be able to exhort and convince)." 

The third category would be the ability to instruct others. Here the obvious scriptural reference is "apt to teach." 

Now we should note two things. Many of the qualifications grouped above really are appropriate to each of the three categories. For example, if one is not hospitable in his deportment, how can the fellow-saints respect him, or (especially in the case of young people) even dare go to such a one for counseling or advice? So also, an elder's rule must be hospitable, not tyrannical! Again, the elder as ateacher must be hospitable toward those in his care, whether in private counseling or in the catechism classroom, showing care and sincere love, even as for his own children! 

Did you notice that the gifts applicable to the duties of ruling and teaching are described as "special gifts"? Why are they so? Because the traits outlined by the apostle Paul, and which we have lumped together in the first group above, are "general," that is, virtues that every child of God, every member of the Body of Christ, must strive for every day of his life here below. And how much more so for the officebearer who represents Christ! Not short-tempered, not given to wine, not a brawler, not obsessed with earthly gain (filthy lucre); in short—blameless

What an awesome word when we stop to think about it. Blameless! What child of God would not be the first to confess that he is not blameless? But wait! God's Word does not even give that as an option. The elder must be blameless. This is the same word Jesus uses when He says to Nicodemus, "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7). Certainly, then, the word "blameless" cannot be taken to mean "sinless." For who of us is without sin? May we draw a parallel here from the Form for the Administration of the Lord's Supper? I quote but a part: "But this is not designed to deject the contrite hearts of the faithful, as if none might come to the supper of the Lord, but those who are without sin." So also, we being elders do not "testify that we are perfect and righteous in ourselves" (God forbid!). But rather, "we have daily to strive with the weakness of our faith, and the evil lusts of our flesh." 

So, what is it to be "blameless"? Since only the Lord can judge the innermost heart, we conclude that the reference here is to our deportment in society, both within the church and without. Our personal walk, our behavior, our example, do not go unnoticed. This applies to everyone, but especially to consistory members. Are you seen as a "lover of good men (people)"? Are good people too strict for you? Do they "cramp your style"? Do you have to watch your language too closely? The fact of the matter is that we must watch every aspect of our walk. We must so control our conduct and outward appearance so as not to give rise to disrespect or even offense by fellow-believers.

We must ask ourselves, then, who can possibly "fill the shoes" of that man the apostle Paul describes for us? Not one! But notice. God does not place the rule of His church in the hands of one. Where do we find in the Scriptures an instruction to go to the "elder"? or to appoint an "elder" in every city? The reference is always to elders (plural). Did not our Reformed fathers provide for this in the Ordination Form for Elders and Deacons where we read (in part), "that such men should be joined to the ministers of the Word in the government of all the Church, to the end that all tyranny and lording may be kept out of the Church of God, which may sooner creep in, when the government is placed in the hands of one, or of a very few"? 

Another good reason for elders serving as a body is that not all have the same gifts. I Corinthians 12 gives a beautiful account of the "diversities of gifts" whereby the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals may complement one another to the edification of the entire body. The Scriptures further recognize that the elder has a "helpmeet." Wives, have you considered the fact that your deportment is to some extent a measure of your husband's worthiness to serve? You, too, are called upon to be "grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things" (I Tim. 3:11), to the end that you may "teach the young women..." (Titus 2:4). 

(I suppose at this point I do wish I were writing a "handbook." I could then draw more heavily on the writings of others. For as I look ahead to discussing the more practical aspects of our office, I find the finger pointed more and more at me. And I am not "real comfortable" with that! Nor should I be.) 

I made reference earlier to some concerns expressed to me in connection with our work as elders. The first subject has bearing on our attitudetoward our work; the other, an aspect of our being an example

Officebearers, do your fellow members see you as being happy in your work in the church? Or are we sometimes prone to display a lack of enthusiasm (or worse) for our office? (Consistory meeting again tonight!—hope it's a short agenda—hope we don't have to sit here til midnight! Oh, no! Family visitation starting again?—seems like we just got done with it!) Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. Guess where I heard it? (Shame on me!) Are we not Christ's representatives? Did Heever give of Himself grudgingly? Timothy tells us that if a man desire the office of bishop he desires a "good (excellent) work." If then Christ bestows agood thing upon us, may we (dare we?) be anything but happy? Further, how can our work be effective if we convey a feeling to our fellow saints that we would rather not be "bothered by it all"? 

Another concern expressed was a perceived growth of "materialism" among us. Anything specific? Yes—houses and cars. Now, we know that material possessions are not inherently wrong. Nevertheless, I Timothy 3:1-3 exhorts us that a bishop must be "not given to filthy lucre." Suffice it that we ask ourselves if our castles, cars, and clothing have taken on too much importance in our lives. Do you have that "warm feeling" when you leave for church on Sunday morning? Is that feeling in anticipation of hearing the Word? Or could it be the satisfaction you derive from watching heads turn as you drive into the parking lot in your luxury automobile? Are we (poor) examples in our quest for earthly gain? Does it show? If so, need we be surprised if there be parents among us, who, while struggling to pay their tuition, would not dare send their children to school in anything less than Reeboks and Jordache? 

What more can we say than, "Take heed." As we close this article, and with a view to discussing therule of the elder in the church next time, D.V., let us note well the priority the Scriptures set for "taking heed." Acts 20:28, "Take heed therefore untoyourselves (emphasis mine, E.G.), and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood."