Elders


Text Comment

v.5

As we said last week, the letter to Titus was perhaps occasioned by Paul’s learning that he had friends going Titus’ way and he dashed off this short letter for them to carry with them to Crete. Accordingly, he omits the thanksgiving section that is often found after the greeting in his letters, and plunges right into the business. First and foremost among Paul’s concerns is that Titus finish up the work of providing the church in Crete with able leadership before he leaves for Nicopolis to join Paul for the winter.

What seems to have happened is that Paul and Titus had gone from city to city on Crete preaching the gospel, much as Paul had done in other places during his missionary career. They had enjoyed some significant measure of success in their evangelistic work, but Paul had not had time to return to those same cities to establish the new converts and organize the churches. He had left Titus in Crete to do that.

The verb the NIV translates “appoint” in context may well mean “ordain.” That would indicate that the final act of the process by which elders are chosen and installed is used to indicate the entire process. We don’t know very much about this process in apostolic Christianity, but comparing this passage with others, it is not farfetched to conclude that Titus would have overseen a process in which the congregation selected its officers (as, for example in Acts 6) and Titus – the one ordained minister present – ordained them. In other words, the language employed here may suggest that what happened on Crete was quite like what we do today in choosing officers for our congregations.

Now Paul continues with a list of qualifications for the office of elder. As you know this passage has a parallel in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

v.6

The summary qualification is that a man be blameless or above reproach. The term, of course, does not mean “sinless.” It means that such a man has a reputation that does not invite criticism from those either inside or outside the church, that he lives a life that is consistent with his profession of faith as a follower of Christ, and, in particular, that he is not deficient in those characteristics that Paul is about to enumerate. That is, his life is marked in a significant way by each of the positive characteristics and is not marked by the negative characteristics that Paul is about to name.

“the husband of one wife” means that marital and sexual fidelity must be a characteristic of this man’s life. It doesn’t exclude widowers or bachelors or men properly remarried after the death of a spouse or even men who have been divorced, if in the divorce the man was innocent of wrong, but it does mean that, if he is married, as most men were and are, the first and most profound relationship of his life must be one conducted in Christian faithfulness.

“whose children believe…” means that an elder should be a man who has managed his family well, proof of which is children who follow him in the faith and live themselves lives of Christian obedience. There is, as you may know, a controversy here. There is resistance to the idea that such a direct connection can be made between a parent’s faithfulness in raising his children and ordering his home and the salvation of his children. Some fear that such an idea amounts to saying that children are saved by their parents’ works. Others simply can’t bear the thought that they might be, or others they love might be in someway responsible for the spiritual death of their children. But the weight of biblical evidence is all on the other side. The Scripture always teaches us to think that parents are responsible for the spiritual nurture of their children, often reminds us that God has promised to be their God and the God of their children and that one of the principal means of the fulfillment of that promise is the nurture of a godly home, and frequently lays the blame for a child’s rebellion at the feet of his or her father. Now there is a great deal more to be said here, I fully realize. Others are responsible as well. I believe myself that in many, many cases, ministers will bear more responsibility for the spiritual death of the church’s children than will their parents, because the ministers did not teach this responsibility or teach how it is to be fulfilled. I have had too many people tell me through the years that if only they had known then what they later came to know they would never have raised their children as they did. That is fault of the ministry. And I could go on: all situations are not the same; there are many things no one can judge but God, and so forth. But, it remains the case that Paul says that a man must have believing children to be an elder and the reason is that there is a connection, a direct connection, between a man’s faithfulness and success in raising his own children in his own home and his ability to nurture and care for the children of God. As Paul puts it in 1 Tim. 3:5: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s family?”

This is, I fear, a commandment very widely disobeyed in the church today and to the church’s very great harm. It is perhaps one of the most important reasons why so many churches are hemorrhaging their children into the world. They have put their church family in the hands of men who have not proved that they could properly lead their own biological families. Here is Calvin on this same text: “And therefore let us marke that in this place, when hee speaketh of children, it is to the ende wee should marke whether a man be meete to governe the people of God, and to rule his house and his Church wel, and have shewed ye effect of it in his own house. Therefore if a man do not onely shew that he walketh in the fear of God, and absteineth from all evill, but also causeth them that are in his charge to serve and honour God…then we know that hee is watchfull, and hath a zeale of God, and wisedome and gravitie in him. …howe will hee bee able to bring strangers to the faith, when hee hath not brought his owne?” [Calvin, Sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, ET: 1579, reprinted Edinburgh, 1983, 1070-1071.] There is much one cannot know about a man and his life. You do not live in his house. But there are some objective tests and one of the most important of these is the spiritual life of his children. And here is the great Albrecht Bengel: “For he who could not bring his children to the faith, how shall he bring others?” [Bengel, Gnomon Novi Testamenti, editio tertia, Tűbingen, 1855, 849.] And, much earlier, from the 4th century, here is the 18th canon of the Third Council of Carthage. “That bishops and presbyters and deacons should not be ordained before they make…Christians of all who are in their home.” [Cited in C. Spicq, Saint Paul: Les Épître Pastorales, 4th ed., II, Paris, 1969, 602.] All of these citations confirm the straightforward interpretation of Paul’s words here: a man who is to oversee the faithfulness of the Christian church should have produced that faithfulness in his own house first.

v.7

The necessity of blamelessness is repeated at the head of a list of virtues that must mark the life and character of an elder and of vices that must not.

Now you will notice the very important detail that Paul now refers to this church officer by another title, overseer. This is the word translated “bishop” in the KJV. What is important is the fact that in the context it is obviously a synonym for “elder.” It does not, that is, describe a different office, but the same office. Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders and in his description of what sort of men elders should be, he refers to them as overseers. In their biblical usage, “elder” refers to the officer in respect to his character and qualifications; “overseer” refers to the officer in respect to his function and responsibilities. This is an important text in the argument between Presbyterians and Episcopalians as to whether the NT teaches or allows for a hierarchy of church officers, with bishops wielding greater authority than elders. The fact that the two terms — bishop and elder — describe the same office and the same man favors the Presbyterians, as you might expect I would say.

v.8

There are seven virtues in Paul’s list, seven describing a complete Christian personality and, as well, a man who knows and understands the faith well enough to make proper use of it in the government of the church. The Puritan, John Trapp, sums all of this up by saying, “It is better…to live so as thine enemies may be amazed at thy virtues than that thy friends should have cause to excuse thy vices.” [Commentary on the NT, ad loc.]

No doubt Paul intended this instruction about the qualification for elders not only for Titus – not even first for Titus, who would have known these things already – but for the churches in Crete, to direct them in the choosing of their officers.

Now, as you may be aware, there are various debates that swirl around this text, some quite contentious. Over the last generation – though not much before that stretching back to the very beginning of Christian history – Paul’s limitation of the office to men has become highly controversial. It is, however, from first to last a masculine description that Paul provides of the elder, here and in 1 Tim. 3, and that is in keeping with the practice of biblical history and in keeping with everything else the Bible says about church leadership.

Additionally there is the question of the precise office being here described. Is this a description of the officers we know as pastors or ministers, here designated generically as elders, or did Paul intend also to describe the officers we today refer to as ruling elders. The term “elder” is used of both officers in the New Testament, as it was in Judaism. A priest was part of the eldership of Israel – the Jewish Sanhedrin, which included priests, is called “the elders of the people” in the Gospels – but Jewish elders per se, lay leaders, obviously were not, for that reason priests. The emphasis on teaching in both 1 Tim. 3 and this paragraph has suggested to most authorities that Paul is talking specifically about pastors or ministers in our text, but it matters not. It is clear that what is said both here and elsewhere in the Bible indicates that he would have said virtually the same things about lay elders, about church rulers. They too must be blameless men, men of spiritual wisdom, and of godly character. Proof of that is furnished by the fact that Paul uses the same term, “blameless,” in his description of the qualifications of deacons in 1 Tim. 3. All church officers must be men of this type, this character, and this personal holiness.

The Hebrew word “elder,” which, as also in Greek and English means literally “old man,” comes from the noun meaning “beard.” Of course the old age referred to is not necessarily chronological age, as if church elders must all be men in their sixties and seventies. A comparatively young man can grow a beard! But the term is an appropriate designation for that sort of spiritual character, mature, practiced, balanced that should come with years of experience. Obviously, in Crete, there would have been few to no men who had been Christians for many years. Elders would have had to have been chosen among younger Christians, because almost all of them were recent converts. Interestingly, in Ephesus, where the church had existed for a longer time, Paul requires Timothy to refrain from choosing recent converts for church office. Time needs to pass so that their mettle can be tested. It takes time to form the godly character such as Paul has here described. But that was impossible in Crete. Everyone was a spiritual novice! But even the Cretan Christians were to choose the most mature, the most spiritually experienced, and the most godly men they had. They were to choose, in other words, men who best represented the Christian faith. Not in one way or another, but in the totality of their characters. An unbelieving man may not drink or have an uncontrolled temper. But Paul is after men who not only are self-controlled but committed to the faith of Christ; not only men who are not greedy and grasping but who are open-hearted toward others and eager to do them good in Christ’s name. Such is the distinctly Christian character Titus and the churches in Crete are to look for.

And that character is the prerequisite whether they were choosing men who would preach and teach or men who would rule. Indeed, even the qualifications for the deacon, listed in 1 Tim. 3 but not here – perhaps the addition of that office in the churches of Crete would be left to the elders to arrange once they had been ordained – are not different. So far as qualifications of character and spiritual life, the qualifications for ministers, elders and deacons are the same. In any case, the fact that the qualifications are what they are and are the same for all church officers is, of course, important for us at this moment, as we are, as a congregation, in the midst of nominating candidates for the office of elder, that is, ruling elder.

But can we get a better idea of the man Paul is describing here? Can we put flesh and blood on Paul’s bones? Let me give you some pictures of the man that Paul has here described. Here is Thomas Boston, the saintly Scottish pastor of the early 18th century describing William Biggar, one of the elders of the Ettrick parish church of which Boston was the pastor.

“Though he was a poor man, yet he had always a brow for a good cause, and was a faithful, useful elder; and as he was very ready to reprove sin, so he had a singular dexterity in the matter of admonition and reproof…so as to convince with a certain sweetness, that it was hard to take his reproofs ill.”

“He was always a friend to ministers, a fast friend to my predecessor…”

William Biggar accompanied Boston on a preaching visit to another congregation and there fell sick and died. Boston was at his deathbed.

“He died in hopes of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Among his last words were, ‘Farewell, sun, moon, and stars; farewell dear minister; — and farewell the Bible;’ which last words especially made a great impression on me…” [Memoir, 212; cf. 209]

That is the kind of man Paul is describing to Titus. Or consider this recollection of one of Robert Murray McCheyne’s elders, one John Matthewson.

“Since my early days I had known his figure as he walked along the street in Dundee, near St. Peter’s church, and in later years it was interesting to hear him relating incidents connected with the ministry of his sainted pastor, and their joint labors at deathbeds and with souls.”

“His usual practice for a number of years was to rise [early in the] morning for reading of Scripture and prayer, and he had at one time perhaps about thirty persons on his list, for whom he prayed. I suppose my name had been on it, as sometimes he would give me a familiar touch and say, ‘There’s no’ a day but I mind you.”

His knowledge of the Bible was so extensive and exact that he seldom referred to a passage of Scripture without mentioning chapter and verse, and he also knew the contents of chapters by the opening verse of it. His well-thumbed Bible was a sight to see, hundreds of marks in it, and some of the pages nearly dim with use and marking.

The man offering this recollection of John Matthewson was also at his deathbed.

“I afterwards laid my hand on his head, and prayed that his mantle might fall on us who were left – his mantle of prayer; of believing the Bible; of loving Jesus; and having a kind heart to all.” [J.C. Smith, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 78-82]

That is the kind of man Paul is describing to Titus. Or listen to Alexander Whyte recalling one of the first pastoral visits he made after coming to Edinburgh as Robert Candlish’s assistant at Free St. George’s, the church where he would remain as pastor for nearly 50 years. He was sent to call on one of the elders of the congregation who was on his deathbed. They used to say that no one had elders like Robert Candlish at Free St. George’s. They were men of profound biblical learning, men of spiritual experience and substance, men of great and godly authority. Well, Whyte, telling the story as an old man, remembering this early pastoral visit as if it were yesterday, says that he found this elder on his deathbed and open on the pillow beside his head was a book. You might wonder what book it would be that such a man would have open by his head as he came to die. Well it was the Westminster Confession of Faith opened to the chapter on justification by faith. “I am dying on that gospel chapter,” he told the young minister. And no sooner had young Alexander Whyte read that chapter to him than the old elder breathed his last.

There is also the kind of man Paul is describing to Titus. But it is certainly not the case that such men live only in the past. If you have seen the most recent issue of ByFaith, the magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America, you will have seen an article by Joel Belz on two PCA elders who died recently. I was privileged to know both men: Lanny Moore, a businessman from Ft. Myers, Florida and Rudy Schmidt, longtime member of the administration of Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rudy since my boyhood, virtually a member of our family. Both men were churchmen in the highest and holiest sense of the word. They were valued elders in their own congregations but served the wider church as well. Both were much loved by multitudes of people for the men they were and for the interest, help, and love they had so selflessly invested in others in Christ’s name. Those too are such men as Paul is here describing. And, I am happy to say I have known many such men in my life. I can summon up face after face of elders who were devout men, able men, men committed to the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ, wise men, men whose lives and words invested their rule with divine authority. I just read last week of the death of another such elder of the church Florence and I attended for 3 years in Scotland.

It would not be wise for me to speak of our elders here in this respect, though I could, but I certainly expect, as well as hope and pray, that through the generations here at Faith Presbyterian church the saints who are part of this congregation will have reason to speak with reverence, affection, and gratitude of the elders who have served in this place.

But as I conclude this reverie on the elders of the Christian church, let me draw your attention to two important facts.

  1. First, the great qualification for this office is a holy life.

I do not deny that there is a gift of rule. Paul says there is in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. And, however hard for us to define precisely, we know that some men have it. But the emphasis falls, here and elsewhere in the Bible, in the NT and the OT on the man’s character and his godliness. Get that and you get almost all of what you need. Elders do most of their work, almost all their work, according to the Bible, together. The word “elder” hardly ever even occurs in the singular, except in such a context as this when the qualifications of an elder are being listed. It is the elders who rule the church. And put godly men together and a church is likely to get wisdom and sound judgment and proper direction from them. Let no congregation forget the emphasis placed here on a man’s character and his Christlikeness; his devotion and piety; his commitment to Christ and his love of the church; his familiarity with and his loyalty to the Word of God.

  1. And the second fact is this: the same character that is to be found to an eminent degree in an elder is precisely that same character that ought to be found in an increasing degree in every Christian.

Perhaps you noticed this as we read Paul’s description of the man who ought to be an elder in Christ’s church. It is nothing but a description of Christian godliness and of the virtues to which we are all summoned and of the vices which we are all commanded to put to death. It is not only elders who are to be blameless, hospitable, self-controlled, and holy. It is not only church officers who ought not to be quick-tempered, given to too much drink, or greedy.

So fundamental to God’s interest in our lives is a holy character, so crucial to what Christ is wanting to accomplish in us by the Holy Spirit is personal godliness, purity, and love, that such a life becomes the measure of man’s fitness to lead the church. We might have thought it otherwise. We might have thought that the wealthy and powerful, or the smartest, or the most commanding personalities, or the best speakers, or the most interesting teachers might be chosen for the church’s leaders. But it is not so. It is to be the holiest men and they only; those who have gone ahead in the things of God and have put on the full man in Christ Jesus.

Do you see the point? It is for us as it must be for them: our lives are our ministries; our lives are the proof of the gospel of Christ; our lives are what invest our words with authority and persuasiveness; our lives embody, express, and represent our faith in Christ. It is holy Scripture that teaches us times without number that Christ gave himself for us to make us holy; God sent his Son to die for us that we might be conformed to the image of his Son; that we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. To make a godly life our great interest, to make a Christ-like life the great goal of our efforts day and night, is to think God’s thoughts after him; it is to honor the love and sacrifice of Christ; and it is to seek to fulfill God’s will in our lives. All of this is confirmed in this attention paid to a man’s character in the qualifications for the eldership.

A wise man once said that “The best way for a man to get out of a lowly position is to be conspicuously effective in it.” [Cited in Alexander Moody Stuart, 54] Well, so it is in the church of God. The best way to gain a greater role is simply to grow up in the graces of the Christian life and to practice a godly, devout, and holy life in the place where God has put you; for the church – to the extent that she is wise – will always take her holiest men and make them her leaders.

And for all of us – men and women – this emphasis placed on godliness and Christian virtue is a reminder of what God himself prizes in his people; what he loves to reward; and what he will make fruitful during our lives in this world.

If we all aspire to be what elders should be, we will not only be happier and more useful to Christ ourselves, but will together produce a church that must be greatly favored to have so many holy men from which to choose her officers.