Volume 9, Issue 2: Presbyterion
The Bible describes clearly what an elder is to be like. Among other things, an elder must be "blameless." He must be "temperate," and of "good behavior." He must not be a "covetous" man, or "quarrelsome." He must have a good testimony with those who are outside the church. The full descriptions of the biblical elder are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.
These passages describe required personal attributes and character--they are not a mechanical checklist. Paul and Peter require us to find a certain kind of man. This is important for many reasons, but early among them is that elders are responsible to replenish their own ranks, and in order to find a certain kind of man it is necessary for the current elders to be certain kinds of men. In other words, when the elders of a church are determining whether or not a new candidate is qualified for the office, they must be the type of men who are mature in judgment. They are discerning character, not counting rocks.
To take one example from Paul's list: an elder must be a "one-woman man." These cryptic words require a judgment call. Does it mean "no polygamists"? Does it exclude a man who has ever been divorced? A man who has been married and divorced five times? Taking it further, does Paul reject any man who has been with more than one woman sexually at any time, with or without the marital paperwork? And what about a man who has been married more than once because his first wife has passed away? What Paul says is that an elder must be a "one-woman man." Clearly, when we come to apply God's absolute Word in a variable world, the elders must be men of mature biblical judgment, because they are called upon to make such judgments. To sin in making these judgments is a grievous thing.
Two different attitudes interfere with mature judgment in such cases. First is the sloppiness found in liberal and modern evangelical churches: it begins by decrying "legalism" and "perfectionism," moves on to consider the biblical requirements as nothing more than mere "suggestions," then as a "noble ideal, but impossible to achieve," and then, not surprisingly, disregarded entirely--dismissed from consideration as "unrealistic." Countless churches have fallen from faithfulness to Christ into fuzzy-minded liberalism because they were faithless first in how they selected their leaders.
The second attitude is often a reaction to this modernist refusal to take God's Word seriously. In this reaction, the list of attributes ceases to be descriptive of a certain kind of man and hardens into a checklist. And as with all "checklist" approaches to godliness, a clear arbitrariness begins to creep in--no less humanistic even though it is thought to be "strict" or "conservative." Countless churches have fallen away from faithfulness to Christ into an unbibilical woodenness because they were faithless first in how they selected their leaders.
Thus a man who slept with ten women before his conversion, but was enough of a jerk not to marry any of them, is thought to be qualified for eldership after his conversion, but a man who married one woman and was divorced from her before his conversion is thought to be automatically disqualified. This version of the "one-woman man" may have had any number of mistresses in his past, but no wife. Ironically, this "strict" approach can wind up passing by men who have a glaring character deficiency with regard to women, and excluding a man who clearly does not. It is as though the elders insisted that a new elder not be given to much wine, but oceans of beer are okay.
Now obviously the subject of marriage and divorce does relate very clearly to this qualification of the "one-woman man." A man most certainly can be excluded by the biblical requirements because of a divorce in his past. But wise elders will not exclude him out of hand; they will reject any attempt to reduce the evaluation of a man's character to a simple three-step process. The desire to have a handy-dandy checklist can easily be reduced to absurdity. An elder must not be given to much wine. Suppose he used to have a drinking problem thirty years ago? Now what? Suppose he used to have a drinking problem three weeks ago? The elders must use their heads as they apply God's descriptive standards.
The church cannot have leaders who are "blameless" by nature. By nature we are all objects of wrath. The blamelessness of the elders is by grace, and the task in considering a new elder is to determine whether the work of grace is real, lasting, and deep. This is not done by obtaining lip service to the requirements. ("Do you have any plans at this time to leave your wife?") With regard to this requirement, the fruit of a man's marriage over time must be evaluated. In other words, is he the kind of man who exhibits single-minded devotion to one woman, displaying for the congregation the characteristics of a biblical marriage? If yes, then he is a one-woman man. If no, then he should be excluded from office. If the question cannot be answered because there is not enough history to evaluate, then consideration of the candidate should be postponed.
Men of judicious character are rare, and the nature of such biblical requirements demonstrates how important it is to have them in the leadership of the church. "But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14).
When the elders are examining a candidate, they should be asking whether that candidate meets the biblical description of an elder now, and, because we cannot see hearts, whether there has been a demonstrated pattern of God's grace at work, over an extended period of time. Apart from God's grace, no one is qualified.