What are Elders?
This morning we begin the book of Titus. It’s a short letter written by the apostle Paul to a young man named Titus giving guidance and direction on his ministry.
“But,” you say, “I’m not a pastor. I’m not called to ministry. Why should this be interesting to me?” That’s a great question. Let me give you two thoughts.
First, it should be interesting because you can read exactly what church leaders are supposed to know and do. Many religions give power to their leaders and no one is allowed to question them. Not so with Christianity. You have a built-in system for keeping leadership accountable. You see, all Christians have access to the same truth. There are no secrets. There is no ‘deeper truth.’ Pastors aren’t initiated into special, hidden, mystic knowledge. It’s all laid out here for you; we’ve all got access to the same data. So, you can hold your leaders accountable. And, you can know what a good church should look like and what you should be looking for when you need to find a new one.
Second, as we learn about the role of leaders in the church you’ll find plenty to consider about how to be a good parent – or leader in the home, how to be a good leader at work or on your team. Every Christian, regardless of title, should desire to be more like Christ and these verses spell out some of what that looks like. In fact, as we go through this chapter, I hope you’ll notice something very important: the qualifications for leadership in the church are based more in character than credentials. It’s more about who you are than what you can do. And that means there is something here for each us to apply immediately to our lives. So let’s begin with
Titus 1:1 Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, 3 but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior;
4 To Titus, a true son in our common faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.
5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—
So we know where Titus is and what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s on the island of Crete where he’s supposed to be helping new churches get started off right. And the first thing Paul mentions is something that sounds kind of basic, but it’s important: he says there should be leaders in every church. God calls men to lead His church. As we saw back in Ephesians 4 and in other places like 1 Cor 12, He gives them supernatural gifts and abilities and says: “Now take what I have given to you and love and feed My sheep.”
The men who do this are called by several titles or descriptions: elders, bishops, overseers, pastors, just about every New Testament scholar agrees the words are interchangeable. We have different things come to mind when we hear elder, pastor, or bishop, but according to the Bible, they all refer to the same kind of individual who has been called by God to love and lead the local congregation.
And here’s what his life should look like, no matter what you call him:
6 if a man is blameless, (NIV/ ESV above reproach)
Immediately, the standard is set high. “If a man is blameless.” What does that mean? Because, I know I’m not perfect, I let people down. I disappoint and frustrate them at times. Does that mean I need to resign? Well, it’s not that the man is perfect, but it means the general tenor of his life is righteousness; he has an unblemished reputation. Paul puts it this way in his letter to Timothy; he says elders should be men who have a “good testimony among those who are outside” (1 Tim 3:7).
Your reputation, what others think about you and say about you when you’re not around, is important. And if people don’t think highly of you they’re not likely to follow you. That’s true no matter who you are. If you can’t play your sport well, how are you going to be captain of the team? If you’ve done shabby work in the past how likely are you to get referrals?
Paul called himself “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) but he was also able to say (1 Cor 11:1) “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” What you discover when you read the Scriptures is that leadership in the church depends on how you live, not just on what you profess. There is more to becoming a ministry leader than affirming a doctrinal statement. Paul told Timothy:
1 Tim 4:12 Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
Now, no man is perfect, no pastor is perfect, no parent or professional is perfect, but do you strive to be found blameless? Is that even on your radar? Is it something you think about? Is that a way you orient toward the world?
Ministry is more caught, than taught. Jesus didn’t give the disciples a reading list, He invited them to spend three years at His side learning who He was and watching what He did.
Christian, more people are going to read your life than read your Bible. So, how do they see you live? Could you be categorized as blameless? Your family, your friends, your church and your community need, they desperately need, to see a life lived well. They need an example they can follow. We need to be able to imitate you as you imitate Christ.
And as we’re about to see, that example begins at home where an elder must be
the husband of one wife,
Now, there has been a lot of confusion over this verse, and some people have misapplied it. The literal translation is that he must be “a one-woman man.” It does not mean you can’t be an elder if you have been divorced and remarried. There was a way for Paul to say, “only married once,” but he did not. He says, “the husband of one wife” because He’s referring to the man’s present status, not a lifelong condition. In a minute he’ll say elders should not be violent or drunks. So, does that mean you can never, ever serve as an elder if you were a real partier or fighter in college? No, of course not. And “the husband of one wife” doesn’t mean you can’t be remarried.
Previously, I served with two assistant pastors that were divorced and remarried. In that case, both of them were divorced before they got saved and remarried after. Now, you want to look into these things, you don’t simply brush them off, but divorce and remarriage is not an automatic disqualification from the ministry.
Nor does this mean marriage itself is a prerequisite. Jesus was not married and Paul encourages single people to remain single and use their freedom for the Lord if possible (1 Cor 7:8). So it’s hard to imagine him encouraging singleness if it would disqualify someone from serving as a pastor.
This is really saying: when you’re looking for elders, look for someone who is totally and completely devoted to one woman – his wife. And men, here’s what that means: be satisfied with who you have, don’t be dreaming of or desiring anyone or anything else, be content - no digital wives, no dream wives, no work wives, you accept your one and only wife, and you accept her as she is because you are “the husband of one wife”.
Remember, Jesus is always after your heart – it doesn’t matter how good your relationship looks from the outside – your heart can still be this nasty, cankerous, festering wound – so let Him heal that and give yourself totally to one God and one woman because she’s also going to play a key role in the next qualification:
having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.
Alright, what does that mean? Are the pastor’s kids supposed to be perfect? No. The emphasis here is on the rules, not the outcomes. The pastor’s kids might be crazy at times, but they should also be corralled. They might even rebel and walk in sin, but it should be obvious to any outside observer that the child is in open rebellion and defiance and that mom and dad are not just passively permissive.
We all rebel against authority at times – even God’s kids, Adam and Eve, rebelled against His good rule. There is no perfect parenting style that guarantees results. We want there to be. We would pay good money for if it could be found, but here’s the cold, hard, fact: the most important thing that will affect your child’s decision making and behavior is their walk with God and you can’t force that to happen.
You see, even with all the books that are published, and blogs that are posted and conferences that are held, we still are not able to change one simple fact: salvation is ultimately a supernatural work of God. Pastors don’t have some sort of special parenting style that guarantees the submission and behavior of their kids. And neither do you. And neither does the youth pastor.
We can all affect our kids. We set up good rules and encourage and discourage certain things, we can set them up for success, but no one can guarantee a specific outcome. God Himself must reach down and touch the soul of your child, calling them to His side. Calling them to be His son or daughter and not just yours, or mine.
So what do you do? Pray. Depend on God, not your plan, your book, or your youth group. Pray. Parenting is a supremely spiritual endeavor. And yes, read books, listen to things online, build a great youth group, but don’t trust in those things. Trust, depend, entirely and completely on God. Be desperate for Him to work.
That’s true in your home and that’s true in the ministry – have a plan, but be dependent.
7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God,
You have to see what’s happening here: we start to move out of the home now and into the house of God. The term “steward of God” literally translates to a manager of God’s household. When you serve as a leader in the church, you’re taking care of God’s people and His stuff. So you see the big connection: the way you run your home is a qualification for the ministry – if you can’t/don’t/won’t live it out there, then why/how are you going to do it in the church?
There’s a principle that governs our service to the Lord – faithful with little, trusted with much (Luke 16:10; 19:17). There is nothing wrong with having some small sphere of influence and responsibility, that’s what most people will have. But sometimes, if you have done well with a little, God will entrust you with a little more. Not always, but sometimes. So, the first qualification for leadership in the church is leadership in your own home.
Remember that as we come to five vices you don’t want in the man who rules your family, and which God doesn’t want touching his church.
7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed,
You don’t want a man at home or in the church, who is arrogant, who wants his own way, is stubborn, headstrong, who gives little or no consideration to others. You want a team player, not an individual.
Someone who is
Elders deal with the problems of other people, they face worldly and spiritual opposition in the battle to advance the kingdom of God – they need a steady hand and a level head. But it’s a struggle, especially when you see the work that needs to be done in the church or the community, or the change that needs to be made in someone’s life. Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary to China once confessed:
“My greatest temptation is to lose my temper over the slackness and inefficiency so disappointing in those on whom I depend. It is no use to lose my temper—only kindness. But oh, it is such a trial.”
Leadership is a trial at times, isn’t it? But James wrote his letter to regular Christians, not just leaders, and he said:
James 1:19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; 20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
You see, one of God’s attributes is that he is slow to anger and we must represent Him well.
If you’re going to be the kind of elder, pastor, mom, dad, employer, supervisor, whatever that is approachable, you can’t have a reputation for being a powder keg ready to go off.
And, you can’t have a reputation as a drunk:
not given to wine, (NIV - not given to drunkenness; ESV – not a drunkard; literally, “not lingering beside the wine”)
The problem here is not with what you consume; it’s with being controlled. An elder must be in control of his life. Other things cannot control him.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a drink. Jesus drank wine Himself and served it to others. We see people drinking wine throughout the Bible – there’s not a problem with drinking it, there is a problem with being controlled by it and there is a definite prohibition against getting drunk. Especially since drunkenness often leads to some of these other behaviors, like the next disqualification we see:
I love the way Joe Focht, pastor of Calvary Chapel Philadelphia puts this. He says, “Pastors shouldn’t be punchers.”
Now, this doesn’t mean elders have to be passive and effeminate. You can be willing to be violent – I have friends who are incredibly violent men in combat, Vic can tell you of deputies who are capable of violence in the jail, capable of physically confronting and restraining bad people. We need strong men and women who are capable of doing violence on behalf of the innocent, weak, and vulnerable. But not because they’re provoked by little things that irritate them. And we certainly don’t need pastors, parents, coaches, or leaders of any kind who turn to violence as a matter of first resort.
Elders are not called to solve disputes in the church with violence. And you can be violent with your tongue and your looks too; it’s not just your fists. Isn’t that where we get the expression: “if looks could kill.” Brothers and sisters, violence comes out of the heart. So if you feel your blood beginning to boil, take a serious look at your heart and what’s going on there. So, “not violent” and
not greedy for money,
You know, both poor people and rich people can be lovers of money. It’s important that elders have a mature view of finances. They need to trust in God’s provision so they walk by faith but they also need to exercise good stewardship of what God has brought in. You don’t want to either over or under manage, but you want to stay in that sweet spot balanced between diligence and dependence.
One of the fastest ways to spot a false teacher or a man or a ministry that is off-course is by looking at how they treat and talk about money. If they’re always asking you for it, there’s a problem. I love the way Hudson Taylor famously put it: that God’s work, done God’s way, will not lack God’s supplies. You don’t need to go on and on asking people to pledge money and encouraging them to give and promising them blessings and gifts of the month if they do. Just follow God and let Him convince and convict people of the need to support the work. If it’s of Him it will succeed and He’ll bring along the funding so you can talk more about the gospel and His glory than your needs for more funds.
So, these are the five vices you don’t want to see in an elder. Now we come to seven virtues that you do want to see. And the first is that he should be
8 but hospitable,
And that involves people – it means elders need to be giving or sharing their time and stuff with others. Ministry involves a lot of leadership and administration and a lot of study and prayer, but you can’t have org charts and budgets or conferences and books over to your house for dinner. God wants elders in the church who love people, not just programs. There is no requirement for a seminary professor to be hospitable, you can go study theology all day long and write great books and blog posts, but if God is calling you to shepherd His flock, you’re going to need to spend time with people.
And you need to know the difference between hospitality and entertaining. When you entertain you pull out all the good placemats and the good china, you make sure the whole place is clean and polished. But you can be hospitable when the kid’s toys are spread all over the floor, the dishes are sitting in the sink and the laundry needs to be folded. Hospitality is about how you care for and welcome people into your life and home. The fellowship is more important than the food. Don’t let the desire to impress and wow get in the way of connecting with people. Accept the fact that no photographer is coming over to photograph your dinner and living room, and just invite people over.
a lover of what is good,
This is someone who sees what needs to be done and just does it, for the sake of others, simply because it is good.
But in 2 Tim 3 we’re told that in the last days people will be “lovers of self, lovers of money…without self-control ... haters of good.” Do you feel like that is what you’re seeing in the world around you? Then defy the darkness. See good, love good, pursue good, and do good, sacrificially for others. And be,
prudent, sensible – you make good choices because God has given you His Word and His Holy Spirit to give you wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. And that means when you make decisions you tend be the next virtue:
That is - someone who can be trusted to make fair, righteous decisions for the family, the team, the company, the church. Someone who is also seen as
holy, (or devout)
Now, here’s one a lot of people are uncomfortable with. Would you describe yourself as holy? If you are surrendered to Christ, you are. Remember from our study of Ephesians, there are only two categories in the world: saints and aints. If you are a saint, if you belong to God, you are holy. You might not act like it, that’s another problem, but you are holy, you belong to God, you are special – so let the outside reflect the inside. And be an example of the next virtue:
If you can’t control yourself, how can you control others?
Pro 25:28 Whoever has no rule over his own spirit
Is like a city broken down, without walls.
Remember, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit – walk in the Spirit instead of the flesh and you will begin to see this naturally produced in your life. But it all begins with a choice – will I do what I feel, will I follow my urges, interests, and desires, or will I build any walls at all in my life to keep me from certain things while focused on others?
Well, after looking at all these vices and virtues, we come to the final qualification: can you pass it on?
9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
Now, different men have different gifts. Some are called to do this in the pulpit, others in a home group or in counseling – you don’t have to be an excellent public speaker, but if God is calling you to be an elder, you should know the truth and be able to communicate it well in some setting. And you should be able to do two things: feed the flock and defend the faith.
10 For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11 whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.
The task of the elder is not just internal – feeding the sheep, it’s also confronting error and protecting the sheep. Christian, there are voices out there speaking things to the church which are either flat out wrong or that are simply not helpful. There are popular speakers and teachers that we would not commend to you. There are still, to this day, mouths that should be stopped. And they’re speaking at conferences, and at churches, and online teaching things that are not helpful and sooner or later it becomes visible in their lives.
15 To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.
This is a real category – it is possible for someone to profess to know God, but deny Him by their works. You see the contrast here between true, godly leaders, elders in the church, and men and women who have assumed the role of leader and influencer for their own purposes. They could be doing it intentionally, or they could have just gotten off course in their theology somehow, but the end result is the same – the proof of their life is not what God demands of those He calls to lead His church.
The big point this morning is: there should be external proof of the internal change in your life when Jesus takes over. That’s true for leaders in the church, but it’s true of all of us as well.
It’s good to believe, or to say you believe, but what do your works look like? What does your life look like? The Bible says God wants to begin a good work in you. It says He wants to make you like a vigorous, healthy, tree full of ripe fruit. It says He has a plan for your life, good things He wants you do to and be a part of. There is “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” as the old hymn says, “blessings all mine and ten thousand beside.”
Is that what your life looks like?
We’re going to prepare to receive communion now, and I’d like you take the time while the men distribute the elements to consider: am I surrendered to God and His call and commands for my life? We know what the elders’ lives are supposed to look like, but you also know what your life is supposed to look like – is there anything that needs to be cleaned up, cast out, or strengthened? If so, come to Christ today – ask for forgiveness and receive His grace and strength.