The Scripture is clear, pastors appoint elders, and do to it the other way around is just unbiblical! I have done a lot of training with pastors and showed them how to appoint elders, but I have not done – outside of our training new elders – training and teaching to everyone about what sort of qualifications a good pastor should be looking for in a potential elder. The truth is that what really matters is character. Far far far far far far far far far more than capability! God can develop capability as you go, but you cannot develop character as you go, you have to develop it before you are put in the position of elder.
So many people I meet want to be an elder to be in the spotlight, but actually you should want to be an elder to help others. I watched a Bible study recently, and one person wanted to dominate the room, they always wanted their voice heard, they were determined to be the most important person in the room. And they could speak, they were capable and confident, but I will never make that person an elder because they lack character. Good character encourages others to speak, helps serve others, lifts others rather than just self-promotes all the time. So, let’s look at what the Bible says about character and elders. Paul told Timothy as the pastor he had to appoint elders in Ephesus and he told him what sort of people to look for, and everything Paul said was to do with character not capability:
3 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full[a] respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Tim. 3.1-7. NIV)
Now to be an overseer is the same thing as an elder. They are the same task. Notice the pastor is given the job of appointing the overseers and it is up to the pastor to determine the character of the elder. If a pastor is not sure, I will always tell them, then don’t appoint, leave it six months and see what happens. But let’s break down this list of character essentials for eldership:
- Above reproach. This means nothing sticks to you. I know some people if you told me they did x and y, I would laugh in your face. Those people have proved to me again and again they are just not like that. Those are the kind of people I want as elders. Some people you could tell me they did this and that, and my first thought would be, they probably did. Those are the kind of people I – and the whole church – does not want as elders.
- Faithful to his wife. It’s a sad truth some people use local church as an excuse to avoid working on their marriage, Your first church is your family and if your wife is not happy, I don’t want to put you in charge of a small group. That’s just honest talk. This includes sexual fidelity, but it is so much more! Your wife should be appreciated and honoured by you, and it should be obvious to everyone. People notice these things, and if your wife is always hassled and harried, and you are gliding around looking after all the other ladies in the church (and the men) – it’s not going to help anyone to give you an position of eldership!
- Temperate. This means not over the top in anything. In the way you look, act, respond – are you over the top, or are you able to move forward at a consistent and steady pace. Always appoint tortoises as elders, not hares!
- Self-Controlled. Some people need to be “controlled”, you need to constantly be reminding them to come to church, you need to remind them to not take too long when they take a 3 minute offering and take 10 minutes. You need to remind them not to dominate a discussion, you need to remind them to pray, to give, to spend time with their families. Those people are not yet ready for leadership, they have not learned to control themselves.
- Respectable. This means literally “able to put things in order”. Is the person doing well at work, is their house in order, are the basics in their life in order? Do they turn up at church on time? Are they able to submit to other elders when they are not an elder? Do they respect the order of the church service, or do they yell out in the middle of a service? Do they get upset at the lowest level of hurt? Do they tell you to your face if they have a problem, or do they call someone else in tears and gossip and slander you? Those people are not elder material. We have some people in Tree of Life who are running their secret little Bible studies, their secret WhatsApp groups, their secret meetings, teaching what they want, what some other church or para-church ministry wants, and that is totally out of order. I let those things continue because I am not in control of someone’s life and choices, but I will never appoint those people as elders as they absolutely do not understand order. They are not respectable.
- Hospitable. Can they open their house and make people feel welcome.
- Able to Teach. Some people will tell me this is not a character issue but capability. No, all the items in this are character. You see the truth is in terms of capability running a house group and leading a Bible study does not take too much capability, it does take character. This is not preaching on a Sunday, it is small group teaching, discipling – those are the teaching an elder should be doing. Will the elder teach the study they are given, or will they try and put their own spin on it? Will they say “well pastor said this, but actually that…” – people like that have zero character and should not be in your leadership team and should not be discipling others until they deal with their immaturity and character issues that mean they cannot teach!
- Not given to drunkenness. The more your leadership influence grows, the less you should be seen with a drink in your hand. Tree of Life Church is not a “dry” church, but you should know and maintain your limits!
- Not Violent. This word means someone who loves fighting, and loves a fight. The word is similar in root to “smite”. We have some people who just want a fight. They want someone to bring some legalism into their meeting so they can show off their theological strength and “smite” them with the Word. They are always arguing about doctrine all the time. I do not put those people in charge of others!
- Gentle. The Greek word is epieikes, one of the most beautiful words in any language. It is different to directly translate into English, it means to be appropriately peaceful, to be fair, to be kind, to use the right amount of strength. Some people I can talk directly to, some I have to hold back and say things a lot more softly. That art is gentleness and that is an issue of character that if you do not develop you will never be a successful leader of people.
- Not Quarrelsome. This is a bad translation in the NIV if you want my honest opinion. The Greek means someone who is aware they are not invincible. I heard someone translate it once as “unmacho” which is actually spot on! If you want to be considered a leader, you have to be aware you are not perfect, you are not invincible, you are not the paragon of life showing all the plebs the way forward. We are all human, and we lead from a shared sense that we all need to keep learning, growing and develop. It stops you lording it over others or being utterly unreasonable. A lack of this quality is what leads pastors to make people bow before them, have personal offers every Sunday for themselves, their wife and their cat. It is what leads pastors who have been removed from ministry for moral failure join the church down the road, tell everyone they used to be a pastor and have a lot of experience as a pastor, but omit to tell everyone why they are not a pastor anymore. It’s all about building a persona rather than building a person! Do not embrace that quality. Be the first to own your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I am not saying let it all hang out with everyone, that’s not wise, but just a healthy awareness of your lack of invincibility is vital!
- Not a Lover of Money. Never ever see any ministry as a way to gain financially. If you do not tithe you are not fit for any church leadership. If you do not know how to give generously, you do not have the faith to believe that you can disciple and help people. It’s that simple. Be free from the love of money, do whatever it takes to get free!0
- Mange his own family. Again, no family is perfect, but I look to see if someone’s children honour them and love them. If not, why would I want to give that person more “children” to help. If a person cannot listen to their children talk about how tough their day at school was, how can they be a good listener to a young Christian talking about how tough their day at church or work was?
- Not a recent convert. It’s not about years, it’s about character. Has this person been through enough experiences as a Christian to help others. I think this means anyone who has recently changed their mind about something. Someone who has been a Christian forty years but just last month got baptized in the Holy Spirit or realized the complete work of the cross, is a recent convert. They have not processed their new views and ideas enough to be able to help others yet!
- Not vulnerable to conceit. This word is the Greek word for a vapour or cloud. It means to be puffed up and inflated with pride to the point where you cannot see any more! There is an old English translation of the Bible that translates this word as “beclouded” – surrounded with a cloud of stupid trust in your own brilliance. That kind of person thinks they should be an elder because they are so brilliant, but they will never listen to the pastor, they will argue with the pastor, they will cause strife. They will if allowed to continue start arguing with the pastor, correcting him in private to other people, trying to build their power-base within the church. They will be like the false mother in Solomon’s issue – they will cut the church up just to own a dead half of it and not care one iota about the people being hurt as long as they get a powerbase, and they will think they earned the powerbase because they are so awesome.
- Good reputation of outsiders. I don’t translate this good reputation WITH outsiders, but OF. I don’t really care what your last church or employer says about you – who are they and what do they know? But I do care what you say about them. If you constantly tell me your last church was terrible, that’s on you, that’s your perspective. You will leave us soon telling the next church how terrible we are. You need to be positive about every situation and community you are in. You need eyes of faith. If you are critical of every other group you have been in, you will criticise the Tree soon. Best if I don’t platform you doing that.
So that is a short overview on the character necessary to be an elder in a healthy Biblical church. It also says that if you desire to be an elder, you desire to disciple people, you desire to help people, you are desiring a noble task. So it’s good you want to be an elder, but to be an elder quit vying for position, quit trying to hog the spotlight and start developing your character. That is what will open the door to helping others and that is what will mean that when you do start eldering, you will be a blessing and not a curse!