10 Brief Reflections on an Elder’s Character
The New Testament describes elders as men worthy of Christlike imitation. Church members should “consider the outcome of their [leaders’] life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). Likewise, the apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians: “We beseech you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12). Paul also tells Timothy to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim 4:16).
Why all this focus on elders and their character? Because in the church, God’s glory is displayed and God’s people are edified through qualified elders. For that to happen, godly character is essential. Pastors aren’t perfect men, but they should be holy men (James 3:2).
1. An elder’s character is a non-negotiable.
A survey of texts on eldership reveal the primacy of character for the office (1 Tim 3; Titus 1; 1 Pet 5; Acts 20:18–35; 2 Tim 2:22–26). Pastors should widely and consistently possess Christian qualities:
- Sexually/maritally faithful
- Good manager of household
- Financially responsible
- Upright in character
- Above reproach
- Spiritually mature
- Exemplary in Christian living
Scripture recognizes no elder who has significant holes in his holiness.
2. An elder’s character is a perpetual qualification.
Here’s what I mean: these qualifications aren’t merely a threshold a man has to meet upon entering the office. It’s not enough for a man to have been qualified for eldership at some point in the past; elders must be qualified in the present. Elders should be examples to the flock (1 Pt 5:3), resisting and repenting of sin.
3. An elder’s character must be distinguished between what’s essential and what’s desirable.
Every elder has character deficiencies at some level. The question is whether these deficiencies are extensive enough to prove that he is unfit for the pastoral office. If what’s essential isn’t distinguished from what’s desirable, then we circumvent God’s design for elders to be ordinary Christian men who exude exemplary Christian conduct and a gift for teaching. For example, a church might desire an older elder. But we know from 1 Timothy 4:12 that church leaders don’t have to be a certain age. What’s essential, however, is that a church leader—whatever age he might be—should “set an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, and in purity.”
Similarly, if what’s desirable isn’t distinguished from what’s essential, then we may be affirming men who aren’t actually qualified. Later in 1 Timothy 4 , Paul writes that we should “exhort [an older man] as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters in all purity.” Essential to pastoring is being spiritually mature enough to be able to address various church members in various stages of life with a godly, pastoral temperament. It takes wisdom to distinguish the difference between essential and desirable.
4. An elder’s character will be assailed with great temptation.
That which is essential in the life of the church will be targeted by Satan to disrupt. The evil one and his minions specifically and perhaps especially tempt elders. Evil forces will bring temptations to give up and give in, to compromise and relativize. Men who aspire to the office need to be aware of this, and to prepare beforehand by pursuing maturity by God’s grace.
5. An elder’s character is embedded with a stricter judgment (James 3:1–2).
God gives grace to aspiring elders such that Paul can call aspiring to the pastorate “noble” (1 Tim 3:1). At the same time, elders should be sobered by this warning from James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). That stricter judgment can be explained by the fact that elders can be a major source of stumbling for Christians because of their influence.
6. An elder’s character must not be compartmentalized.
Charles Spurgeon said it well: “True ministers are always ministers.” The qualifications are meant to be consulted, evaluated, and prayed through regularly. We must not neglect any of the biblical qualifications, however minor our struggle may be.
J. C. Ryle helps us: “Nothing darkens the eyes of the mind so much, and deadens the conscience so surely, as an allowed sin. It may be a little one, but it is not the less dangerous for all that. A small leak will sink a great ship, and a small spark will kindle a great fire, and a little allowed sin in like manner will ruin an immortal soul. Take my advice, and never spare a little sin.”
7. An elder’s character must be evident in the home.
What a tragedy for the elder to be benefiting the church spiritually but neglecting his family. We need to be reminded, as David Mathis has written, “Our families are our first pastorates.” Paul in 1 Timothy 3:4–5 warns against men being occupied with the affairs of the church to the exclusion of their own family.
8. An elder’s character must be refined through correction.
One means by which elders stay qualified is the sanctifying effect of godly critique from family members, church members, and other elders. There should be an atmosphere of transparency, gentleness, love, humility, and openness on an elder board. It’s healthy for elders to welcome feedback from one another and to have confidence that they can confront each other in love without fearing ongoing relational tension.
9. An elder’s character should be advanced in sexual purity and humility.
No small amount of pastoral counseling and shepherding is helping members with sexual sin. Being a “one-woman man” cannot be compromised. Sexual sin will infringe upon every aspect of ministry—qualification, teaching, and counseling. Therefore, an elder ought to be advanced in his sexual purity, as well as his humility, which will enable him to pursue all the other qualifications by grace.
10. An elder’s character will amplify or drown the voice of a ministry.
Spurgeon is worth repeating: “Our character must be more persuasive than our speech.” Elders are constantly preaching and teaching—often with words, always with character.
We must realize that character isn’t only necessary for ministry; character is itself a ministry.
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Editor’s note: For more on this topic, consider Aaron Menikoff’s book Character Matters.