Appointing Quality Elders
The longer I serve in ministry, the more heartfelt appreciation I have for the elders of my congregation. I am convinced that godly and visionary elders play an important role in determining the future of Churches of Christ.
So how do we raise up new elders? An answer to this question will undoubtedly include consideration of church processes. But unless we reconsider our traditional handling of the biblical texts on elders, we may stall these processes before they even begin. In other words: does the Bible offer us qualifications or qualities for elders and elder candidates?
Dr. Lynn Anderson makes this helpful distinction in They Smell Like Sheep. For the sake of those beginning an elder selection process, let’s flesh out the distinction biblically. When it comes to elder selection we tend to focus on only two passages, 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. But in fact, there are at least five. Take a moment to read Exod. 18:21, Deut. 1:13-18, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Pet. 5:1-4. Then take it a step further and create a chart, listing each of the qualities of good elders from these passages side by side.
What do you notice?
First, note the overlap between lists, even between Old and New Testament lists. This affirms consistency in the type of character God desires of the people who shepherd God’s flock. However, there are also noticeable differences between the lists. These differences speak to the different contexts in which elders were needed and appointed. Different qualities emerge as most important depending on the context of the faith community.
So, which of the five lists do we use? Many modern churches use all five, forming a large composite list. But not a single one of these first century churches would have done that. Peter’s church probably did not have access to Timothy’s list. Instead they used the list provided them to appoint the leaders best suited for their context.
This brings us to how the lists of qualities should function. Churches have often treated the composite list as a list of qualifications instead of qualities. The difference may seem minor, but a list of qualifications implies a check-list that every candidate must meet, whereas qualities speak to biblical virtues, principles, and character a candidate should possess.
When the lists are treated as qualifications, typically one or two specific “check-boxes” prove complicated—for example, what does it mean to be a one-woman man, or to have believing children? We make decisions about those matters, but do not treat the rest of the list with the same scrutiny. As Keith Wright and John Oaks have pointed out, we do not treat “hospitality” as an in-or-out qualification (see Biblical Eldership: Qualities or Qualifications?). Is it more important to have a baptized child than to be hospitable? How do we make that call? How do we decide which “qualifications” are actual qualifications and which are optional?
Here’s the point: these lists are better treated as desirable qualities for an elder, rather than mandatory qualifications. Taken on the whole, they speak about someone who has noble character, pastoral sensibilities, and protective instincts. No elder could possibly fulfill every item on these lists. Some of us are more hospitable than others. Some more easily angered and some are less so. No candidate should be considered based on only one qualification, but rather in light of these desirable qualities.
In the spirit of biblical faithfulness and to honor past processes, many churches have previously eliminated candidates who were divorced, unmarried, without a baptized child, not well-known by the congregation, not already leading a ministry, etc. It’s very possible that these matters sometimes point to larger character flaws that would make an appointment to the eldership unwise. But it’s also possible that these perceived qualifications may prevent our churches from considering a candidate who—taken on the whole—would be a tremendous elder for their context, reflecting well the weight of these desirable qualities.
We are right to seriously consider biblical lists when appointing elders. However, we would be wise to consider these lists as desirable qualities and not qualifications. Doing so will require an even more prayerful discernment process, as we consider the whole of a person and how their character aligns with those God has always desired among God’s shepherds.
I am prayerful that this difficult discernment will more strongly enable us to identify and train more elders capable of casting a vision for our future in Christ.