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ADD TO YOUR LEARNING - The Philippine Teaching Ministry
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“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders (presbuteros) in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5).   In this passage and others in the New Testament, God is providing a model to his church for church leadership.  Apparently, the normal mode of local leadership God has in mind includes a plurality of elders in every church with the maturity to have men who can take that position.  Recently, with the changes blowing through our movement, the need to meet this biblical requirement has been made even clearer.  This is a natural moment to pause and ask ourselves two questions.  Who should we appoint to the eldership and how should they be selected?

The tradition of our churches, largely handed to us through the doctrinal stance of the Churches of Christ, is to take a conservative view toward what are seen as the “qualifications” of the eldership.  One specific example—the one which has had the greatest impact on our ability to appoint elders—is our normal stance on the qualifications for the eldership as it relates to the children of those who are willing to consider as candidates.   The passage most germane to this issue is Titus 1:6.  “An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” (NIV)  Our tradition has been to interpret this passage fairly narrowly, in that we have said that unless a man has children, and unless they are all baptized and faithful disciples—members of the ICOC fellowship—then the person in question is not “qualified” to become an elder. 

In this essay, we propose to address the question of choosing elders from two fronts.  First, we would like to do a thorough word study in the Greek of the qualities/qualifications listed in the key passages in Titus and 1 Timothy.  What is the literal meaning of the Greek words used?  Should the word in Titus 1:6 be translated as believers or faithful and why?  What did Paul really have in mind?  What is denoted and what is connoted by the qualities Paul lists for elders?  What is the background in the letters to Timothy Titus and 1 Peter which caused Paul and Peter to mention the specific traits in these passages?  How are the qualities related, and why are they listed in the order they appear?  Are some more crucial than others?

Secondly, we propose a change of overall perspective as we view Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and 1 Peter 5:1-4.  We believe that, in general, these passages list desirable qualities rather than qualifications for the eldership.  This may seem like splitting hairs over semantics, but we will show that it is more than that.   In other words, in asking who we should appoint as elders, we should investigate the lives of the men who are brought forward and take an overall view of how well their lives exhibit the qualities implied in these passages.  Some may have stronger qualities in one area above another, but the man should be viewed on balance, taking all the qualities as a whole into account.  The lists of Paul and Peter should not be seen as lists of in-or-out qualifications, but as guidelines for viewing the sum of a man’s character as it relates to the crucial role of elder in the Lord’s church.


Before we become embroiled in the useless and fruitless debate over translation that has raged among and split many religious groups let us provide some observations.

First, the accusation (sometimes subtle, sometimes not subtle) that modern translations are too interpretive as compared to the “literal” translations is misleading or even deceptive.  Every translator who approaches the biblical Hebrew and Aramaic or Koine Greek must make choices concerning word meanings and word order.  The idea the “literal” translations (examples: KJV, ASV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and the recent English Standard Version) are more faithful to the wording and meaning of the original text is not necessarily true at all.  These making of these translations involved hundreds of decisions about the interpretation of the original text.  In some cases, that will require a choice of something as simple as word order; in other cases, it could be a choice as serious as a textual variant.  Of course every translator has personal preferences which affect the way he/she chooses to state what he/she sees in the ancient text.  The point is that the choice of a literal word-for-word translation (RSV) may actually provide a less accurate sense of the original meaning than a meaning-for-meaning (NIV) or a paraphrased (LB) version.  A good example of this concept is found in Titus 1:6.  When an evangelical translator chooses the phrase “believing” children over “faithful” children, the word “believing” has a much weaker connotation for the evangelical than for us.  This fact can, in turn, have a large effect on how we interpret this passage.

Many modern translators have chosen to do a meaning-for-meaning rather than a word-for-word translation and such decisions are effected by the translators’ preferences.  The same is true of the “older,” “literal” translations.  Every Greek word carries a meaning which is to be determined by the context in which they are contained; even conjunctions (the small seemingly insignificant words) have a variety of meanings that can affect the understanding of the text.  One who cannot read the original texts must depend on a translation.  It is advisable, therefore, to compare a variety of translations if one is to be involved in a very detailed discussion concerning the interpretation of a particular passage of scripture.  Having said this, it is important to remember that arguments and debates over fine points of interpretation and translation can cause one to cross the line of arguing over unessential matters.  Such fruitless arguments the Holy Spirit strongly warns us to avoid (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-26).  In the end, we may need to tolerate different opinions on these unessential matters in our fellowship.  There is no perfect translation!

The honest truth is that it would take a complete perversion of the text to make our understanding of the important and essential matters change.  In all the translations, Jesus is still the unique Son of the only God who has brought the only hope of salvation to a lost world, and each individual has the opportunity to be reconciled by God’s gracious offer through the obedience of faith and love in Jesus.  In the end, we will all agree that the elder or overseer fills a crucial role of leadership in the church and that the standards of spirituality for this responsibility are very high. To take other matters, perhaps ancient debates going all the way back to the days of those who came after the apostles themselves, and make them equal in importance to the faith, or the gospel, is to create division in his church.  God help us to avoid that error, which has plagued the “Christian era”.


Just to set the stage, let us take a brief side trip to consider what we can see concerning elders in the Old Testament.  In Exodus 18 Moses received some valuable advice from his father-in-law.  Jethro suggested Moses place qualified men in charge of various groups to relieve him of the monumental burden of meeting the vital needs of the entire nation.  In Deuteronomy 1:9-18, Moses explained what took place in Exodus 18 as a reminder to God’s people of how important this was to meeting the needs of the people.  In this passage, the appointed men were called “tribal leaders” and “judges.”  This is not the first time we run into the concept of elders among the people of Israel.  When Moses initially returned to deliver Israel from the Egyptians (Exodus 3:18) the first people whom he gathered together were the elders (Exodus 3:29).  One can see a list of names of the elders in Exodus 6:14-25.  In Exodus 17 the leaders gathered with Moses even before Jethro arrived to advise him about choosing capable men from among the people.  So, it would not be surprising to discover that those respected by the people would become the “officials” judging the nation.  This seems to be the historical source of “elders” in Israel.  What qualities were they looking for in the men who would settle disputes among the people?


Exodus 18

Deuteronomy 1

Capable, God fearing, trustworthy, and not corruptible

Wise, intelligent, experienced, and not showing favoritism

Their responsibilities were to settle disputes and disagreements among the people of God.  This should provide some insight into the meaning of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, and what kind of people Paul was recommending as judges in the church.

Those who were chosen as elders of the people were prepared for service as described in Exodus 18:20.   Here we see Moses teaching them the Law, providing an example of a lifestyle worth following, as well as instruction about their duties, and how to handle judging disputes.  This process was already completed when Moses wrote the Law and when he provided (Deuteronomy 31:9) a copy for the elders of Israel.  Israel was not the only nation to have elders (see Numbers 22:4, 7 as an example).  But Israel’s elders were unique in that their judgments would be based on the revealed will of God.   

In Numbers 11:16-30 we see that 70 of the elders played a special role among the Israelites and in this circumstance were singled out from the other elders and leaders when the Spirit of God came on them and they prophesied. Their appointment became the basis in Jesus’ day for the Sanhedrin, or ruling council of the Jewish nation after their restoration to Jerusalem from the lands of captivity.  This was the official body of ruling priests and elders that condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy under the leadership of the high priest, Caiaphus. 


Elders played an important role in the history of Israel primarily in overseeing local city government.  They were only occasionally asked to serve a larger role when God would call the whole nation together, but their primary responsibility was to oversee local justice from the days of Moses to the days of Jesus and beyond.  It should not surprise us that disciples of Jesus who came from a Jewish background would look for elders with qualities that could fulfill such a familiar role.  If we compare the qualities of elders in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 with those we see in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5, we will find some remarkable parallels.  What are the qualities Paul gave for those who would serve as elders in the New Testament church?   As one looks at the list below, it is worth considering the situations in Ephesus (1 Timothy), in Crete (Titus) as well as in a world region which includes many nationalities (1 Peter).  The first of these was written regarding a mature church with a well established eldership, yet a church with a number of problems, including false teachings and factions in the church.  First Timothy 3 will tend to emphasize the qualities especially suited for this situation.  The situation on the island of Crete was very different.   Titus was being sent into a situation with relatively young churches which may have lacked mature leadership and probably did not have any elders appointed up to that time.  The qualities mentioned by Peter will reflect the situation he had in mind as well.  Peter wrote to Christians who were going through severe persecution for their faith.  Elders in such a situation would require an extra measure of qualities appropriate to that situation.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 Titus 1:5-9 1 Peter 5:1-4
(oregoo) means: to stretch toward something.  It is used in parallel with (epithumeoo) which means to lust after something, to have a passion for something.   The object of their desire is (episkopos), a word which has an English parallel of “supervisor” but carries the idea of watchful care and concern; according to Paul this is a (kalou ergou) a good work, which emphasizes responsibility over position and title.  The candidate should desire the good work of being an elder/overseer.    (ekousioos kata theou) means to be a willing shepherd the way God wants it to be - (mee anagkastoos) not forced or an unwilling leader.  Instead (allas) he should be (prothumoos) looking forward to the opportunity to serve in this fashion. The object of their desire is to be a shepherd of God’s flock, an overseer (episkopountes). 
(anepileempton) means: literally to be someone who has nothing held over his head; not open to bribery, manipulation, favoritism, or blackmail.  The person in mind should not have a serious blemish in his past which could be used against him by believers or outsiders. (anegkleetos) means:  someone not accused of wrong or charged with crimes.  In Titus, this word is used twice, once with regards to family matters, and then with regards to relationships outside the family.  The reason he is to be blameless in his family is so we can determine what kind of leadership he will provide for God’s household (see verse 7 where he is called [theou oiknomou – he is God’s “steward”, the servant in charge of household affairs]).  
(mias gunaikos andra) means:  literally to be a one woman man; a faithful husband.  This does not apply to a woman. (mias gunaikos andra) means:  literally to be a one woman man; a faithful husband.  This does not apply to a woman.  
(neephalion) means:  to be free from mental or spiritual drunkenness and describes someone who is calm and approachable.  This is a person who is not given to great swings of emotion.    
(soophrona) means:  a healthy thinker; a clear thinker (soophrona) means:  a healthy thinker; a clear thinker  
(kosmion) means:  worldly in the sense of order not chaos; which means someone organized and respected.    
(philozenon) means:  someone fond of strangers and so hospitable; taking care of people outside his immediate family. (philozenon) means:  someone fond of strangers and so hospitable; taking care of people outside his immediate family.  
(didaktikon) means:  a teacher, not just a manager (didaktikon) means:  a teacher, not just a manager  
(mee paroinon) means:  someone not hanging out by the wine; so, one not looking to alcohol for comfort or solutions (mee paroinon) means:  someone not hanging out by the wine; so, one not looking to alcohol for comfort or solutions  
(mee pleekteen) means:  someone not full of themselves, or pushing themselves on others; not defensive (mee pleekteen) means:  someone not full of themselves, or pushing themselves on others; not defensive  
(epieikee) means:  a good listener; someone with an open mind, continuing to grow and learn    
(amaxon) means:  someone not looking for a fight; literally “not cutting others down”    
(aphilarguron) means:  someone not fond of money; so not greedy (must handle money well)    
(prohistamenon) means:  someone who is in front of a group providing an example worth following (used twice in this context, once of his home, the other for the church).  And his children (whoever and how many and age, etc. are not specified in this context) are under his leadership and voluntarily treat him with respect (they don’t take his advice and lifestyle lightly).  If a man doesn’t know how to lead his family without resorting to force then he has no place in leading the church.  The church is to be treated like a family by her leaders and elders are to be those who (epimeleesetai) “are concerned for the welfare” of the church. (tekna exoon pista) means:  children regardless of age or quantity as long as they are part of his heritage – could include members of his household such as servants, cousins, and people who have taken refuge in his home.  These children are described as having faith or being faithful.  The meaning of “faithfulness” or “faith” is determined by the following descriptions:  (asootos) people not “wasting their lives” or (anhupotakta) “refusing direction”.  This is to be understood in the context of a society where fathers had the right of life and death over their children.  The father could even force a divorce of one of his children from their spouse, but an elder in God’s church must not resort to such rights to obtain compliance from his children.  
(mee neophuton) means:  someone who is not a seedling or just sprouting from the ground, so not a recent convert; the reason:  he will be full of hot air (literally “full of smoke”)    
A good reputation with those outside of the church    
  (mee authadee) means:  someone who does not please himself at the expense of others.  
  (mee orgilon) means:  someone who is not irritable or easily offended  
  (mee aisxrokerdee) means:  someone who is not profiting financially in an illegal, manipulative, or improper manner (meede aischrokerdoos) means:  someone not serving for financial gain, acting like an employee
  (philagathon) means:  someone who loves good; impartial  
  (dikaion) means:  innocent, not liable to be accused of impropriety; consistent with his confession  
  (hosion) means:  devotion to laws  
  (egkratee) means:  someone able to take a personal stand, not depending on others for restraint  
  (antexomenon) means:  someone who holds on to the teaching of Jesus against those who want to be involved with theological speculations and philosophies and is capable of convicting those who have been led astray.  
    (meed oos katakurieuontes) he must not be a person who rules or lords his position over others whom he has appointed to lead (kleeroon). 
    Instead of lording it over others he must be an “example” for them to follow (tupoi).

As mentioned above, there are some likely reasons for the difference between the listed qualities for the elders of Ephesus as described to Timothy and those for Crete in Titus.  Ephesus was a city where the apostle Paul had spent much personal time and built great relationships.  If the traditional date for 1 Timothy, in the early sixties AD is correct, then Paul had already appointed elders, and Timothy was responsible for finding more elders who could help carry the load in that city.  It is even possible that some of those already appointed as elders in the city may have been part of the problems there.  If 1 Timothy was written prior to elders being appointed [1] , then Paul was telling Timothy what kind of individuals to look for among those people who could take care of the church and keep it healthy.  Paul would also be warning them of teachings that would cause trouble in that city.  And he would personally follow up with this group of men in Troas (Acts 20).  In Titus one finds a situation where the apostle Paul spent little or no time at all.  The society in Crete at that time was criticized for a lack of discipline that could easily influence a young church without the advantage of an apostle’s direction.  In the churches in Crete, elders needed to be men who could stand against the unruly society they lived in and provide an example that would set the church apart from their unbelieving counterparts.  They also had to be men who were capable of stemming the spread of false teaching that would wreck the faith of young believers.  1 Peter was likely written toward the end of Peter’s life when the official persecution of Christians had become a reality.  Peter was aware that he would soon no longer be available to help the church in these regions, so he wrote t hem reminders of the important matters of the faith and charged the elders in those regions to be faithful to their God-given charge to lead the church.  There were different needs in each of these cities.  Peter and Paul recognized this and addressed them appropriately through the list of qualities for elders which they mention.  This should not surprise us since the qualities of Old Testament elders as described in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 are significantly different even though both of these accounts refer to the same event. 


 Now that we have a good background for the meaning of the words in Titus, 1 Timothy and 1 Peter, let us turn to the question of qualities versus qualifications.  This gets to the heart of the matter.  Are we to interpret Titus 1:6 as an in-or-out qualification for an elder candidate?  First, let us consider the phrase in Titus 1:7, “Since an overseer (episkopos) is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered…”   If Titus is a list of qualifications for the eldership, how could any of us be qualified on the grounds of being blameless?  Can any of us claim to never have been overbearing?  And what about “whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient”?  Can any of us who have teens claim with a straight face that our children have not been disobedient?  Clearly, no disciple of Jesus is blameless; neither do any of us have children who have never been disobedient.  Nevertheless Paul lists these qualities for a very good reason.  These are the absolutely essential qualities that anyone who would take on the shepherding, overseeing role in the church. 

Without a doubt, the quality of a man’s parenting, as it is reflected in the lives of his children, is a key aspect for those who would take on the role of elder, which is why this quality appears prominently in both Titus and 1 Timothy.  If we are looking at a quality of faithfulness of the candidate’s children, then it seems that at least one or two of the children should be old enough for the fruit of the management of the home to be born out.  However, does this mean that one would have to have all the children past the “age of accountability” to judge this quality?  If one is looking for a list of qualifications, the answer is perhaps yes, but if one is looking at qualities of the man, probably not.  Would all the children over the age of thirteen have to be disciples to qualify?  Again, we are looking at the overall qualities of the man, so such a “qualification” makes no sense.  In other words, what we should ask is whether the general demeanor of the children shows evidence of love, of good management of the family, of servant shepherding and strong leadership?   God will hold us accountable for our stewardship of our children, but good shepherding and leadership is not an absolute guarantee of one hundred percent of our children being saved.  Even Jesus was not able to “save” all twelve of his apostles.   Nevertheless, no one would say Jesus failed in the quality of being a great servant leader of the apostles.

If one is looking at qualities, not qualifications, this will allow us to take a more balanced perspective on all the qualities Paul lists in the key passages on elders.  No one has ever seen hospitality as an in-or-out qualification, but because “believing children” has been seen as a qualification, that has tended to cause us to not look as closely as we ought at how hospitable those we nominate for the eldership are.  Is “faithful children” a more key quality than hospitality?  Perhaps so, but both should be considered.  And what about the quality of holding firmly to the trustworthy message--of refuting those who oppose sound doctrine?  It is our perception that these qualities have not been entirely ignored, but that they have not been viewed with adequate weight in our consideration of who should be elders.  The same could be said for the quality of being gentle or of having a good reputation with outsiders.  Have we looked carefully at these qualities, or have we fallen into the trap of almost, but not quite, looking exclusively at a couple of the qualities which God has in mind?  It would be possible for us to overstate the case, but it is hard to deny that we need a more balanced approach to the qualities we must look for in candidates for the eldership.


It could get a bit daunting considering the blizzard of qualities in the two passages above.  It will be helpful to attempt to generalize some of the desirable traits of an elder so that we can organize our thoughts.  Of the two passages, Titus 1:5-9 lends itself more easily to a general outline.  The qualities in Titus seem to fit an ordered pattern as follows:

  1. Titus 1:5-7a (blameless, one-woman man, faithful children—not chargeable with being out of control, blameless a second time and parallels in Timothy).  These qualities could be generalized as those which would make the candidate for the eldership be above reproach—not having any serious moral or leadership blemishes which could be used as a wedge to create division in the church or to cast doubt on his authority to lead the church.  The role of elder, presbuteros, (as opposed to shepherding or overseeing) seems to be emphasized here. 

2.   Titus 1:7b, 8 (not overbearing, temperate, not violent, not greedy, hospitable, not easily offended, etc. and the parallels in Timothy)  These qualities could be generalized as those which could create a sense of safety, protection and love for those who would be shepherded by the men in question.  The pastoring role, poimeen, of the elder is emphasized here.  Not surprisingly, these qualities are prominent in 1 Peter 5 as well.

  1. Titus 1:9 (holding firmly the message, encouraging sound doctrine and opposing false teachings and the parallels in Timothy).  These qualities could be generalized as combining teaching and protection to safeguard the church both from within and from without against false doctrines and those who would cause division in the church.  The overseeing aspect, episkopos, of the potential leader seems to be in mind here. 

Of course, all these qualities are those which make for a great husband and father—a spiritual leader of a physical family which would qualify one to be a leader of the spiritual family of God.  John Calvin summarized the second two sets of qualities, saying the pastor must speak in two voices:  one for gathering sheep and one for driving away wolves and thieves. 

Another factor to consider in choosing elders is the local situation.  It would be wise to consider those qualities which one could anticipate being particularly needed in the local church.  The local particular issue may be perceived to be family ministry, persecution, false teachings, major sin problems or whatever the situation may present.  It might also be helpful to consider the elders in place:  what are their strengths and weaknesses in relationship to the qualities needed locally?  If their current strengths weigh more toward shepherding, then it might be wise to emphasize the teaching/protecting role in choosing the next elder.  Leadership qualities, especially within the family of the potential elder will always be extremely important, but certain situations might call for a closer look at these qualities.  The point is: if we are looking at qualities, not qualifications, it frees us to look at the whole person and the situation at hand to choose those men who God can use to take care of the local needs of the church of Jesus Christ.

To summarize, when a local church is looking for men to be appointed as elders, each candidate should be examined in light of all the qualities listed above.  It might be helpful to consider the three general areas of blamelessness, shepherding and protecting the flock as described above.  Any one candidate may be stronger in one area than another, but they must be at least significantly strong in all three or they should not be appointed.  Bear in mind, however, that the three categories mentioned in this paper are only intended as a potentially useful constructs.  It would be a mistake to consider the three categories alone without looking at the individual specific qualities mentioned Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.


Let us summarize by creating a picture of the man of God who is willing and well-prepared to take on the role of elder/pastor/overseer in the church.  He is a man who is not perfect, but about whom no seriously damaging charge could be laid.  Anyone who knows this man would agree that no one could believe he would use his position for personal financial gain.  His children are not perfect, but it is reasonable to think, based on what we can see, that they are stable enough and that they show him sufficient respect that he will be able to focus a great deal of attention on the family of God.  There is not even the slightest hint of sexual impropriety in this brother’s life.  One thing that is for sure is that brothers and, perhaps even more importantly, sisters, simply feel loved, protected and safe around him.  They are not on pins and needles, wondering if he will get angry or defensive.  If any one quality could describe this man, it is unselfish love.  He is not one given to arguing, but to peace making and to bringing about unity and consensus.  This man combines qualities which are often not found together in one person.  While being gentle and peace-loving, he is able to respond vigorously whenever the church and the truth of the gospel are under attack.  He knows his Bible backward and forward and knows how to apply it to provide milk for the new convert and solid food for the mature, all the while opposing those who would bring trouble and shame on the kingdom of God.

There are aspects of choosing elders not addressed in this brief paper.  Who should create a list of potential candidates?  How will they be examined and by whom?  How will input be sought from the church as a whole?  Who makes the final choice and what form will the appointment take?  Are elders to be selected on a semi-permanent basis, or might they be rotated in or out of the position?  These questions are not addressed directly in the New Testament, but the local church must come up with a plan of action which the entire church can feel confident will produce a team of elders who will meet the long term needs for spiritual growth of the body of Christ.

Keith Wright

John Oakes

[1] The great majority of scholars would date 1 Timothy to the early sixties, implying that there had already been elders in place in Ephesus for several years.  However, one cannot rule out an earlier date for the writing of Timothy.

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