Elders in the church. How do they function? What’s the point? The qualifications for elders in 1–2 Timothy and Titus comprise a relatively small portion of the New Testament, and as D.A. Carson has said, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the qualifications is how unremarkable they are. The qualifications are mainly to do with character, and most of them are characteristics that we’d expect in mature Christians, the exception being apt to teach. What, then, is the point of elders? Have we set the bar too high or too low, or something entirely different?
All of us, depending on our context, are tempted to make a big deal about some qualifications while minimizing others. And however that may shake out — whatever qualification we might be tempted to minimize — I don’t think it can ever be teaching. The ability to teach. The desire and skill to teach. Not only is it mentioned explicitly in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9, but the whole basis of the office has to do with preserving the gospel — a teaching task.
Here is how Greg Beale puts it:
[The] ecclesiastical authority structure ensured the Christian community that it was continuing in the truth and life of the kingdom, which would enable it to be strong in accomplishing its mission of witness to the world, which is also a significant theme in the Pastoral Epistles. This positive element of mission is part of the larger positive role of the church in its responsibility of carrying out the original Adamic commission to subdue the ends of the earth and Israel’s similar commission to be priests for and a light of witness to the world. (NTBT, 822)
In short, because false teaching is a part of the inaugurated end-time tribulation that continues throughout the whole epoch before Christ’s final parousia, the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it” is central to the pastoral calling. Beale writes again,
The office of elder is not a response to occasional or temporarily unique conditions but rather owes its existence to the ongoing, uninterrupted eschatological tribulation of false teaching and deception. In addition, we saw that the office was also created to protest the church’s doctrine so that it will remain healthy as it conducts its mission to the world to expand the invisible boundaries of the new creation. Such an office is needed until the time when the new creation is consummated. (822)
Elder then, or overseer, can’t simply mean manager, or leader, or director. It is centered on the priority of creed and character. It means the man must know the gospel, the word, sound doctrine, and know it well enough to teach it and correct those who get it wrong. And that he must do it with the heart of Jesus, with compassion, as a servant not a tyrant. Listen to the charges from 1-2 Timothy emphasize teaching and character:
(1:3) Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.
(1:5) The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
(1:18–19) This charge I entrust to you . . . wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.
(3:1–7) “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
(4:6) If you put these things [sound teaching on creation] before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.
(4:7) Train yourself for godliness.
(4:10) Command and teach these things [the hope that is in God].
(4:13) Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching
(4:15) Practice these things, immerse yourself in them.
(4:16) Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this.
(5:21) I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.
(5:22) Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others, keep yourself pure.
(6:3) Teach and urge these things. [the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness].
(6:11) Flee sin.
(6:12) Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.
(6:14) Keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach.
(6:20) Guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
(1:13) Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
(1:14) By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
(2:2) What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
(2:8) Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.
(2:22) So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
(3:14) Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.
(4:2) Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.