Author: Ron Graham
Qualifications of Elders and Deacons
We continue, on this page, to consider the characteristics or qualifications of elders and deacons. When we compare the lists in Titus 1:6-9 and 1Ti 3:2-14, we find basically three categories of things that are required in elders and deacons:
- 1. Good character and reputation
- 2. Teaching ability
- 3. Family leadership
We have already discussed the first item when we looked at "a bishop must be blameless". On this page we say more about that, then move on to the second item, "able to teach".
1 Men of Character
We find Paul to be entirely consistent in the kind of man he describes to Timothy, and the kind of man he describes to Titus. The two descriptions don't match word-for-word, because they are not intended to be complete and exacting descriptions, but merely sufficient to indicate the nature and character of the right man. He is a man who is free from the common bad habits, such as losing one's temper, drug abuse, greed for money, arrogance and insensitivity, silly and irresponsible behaviour.
It would be foolish to become legalistic about these things, since they are written by Paul as a sort of thumbnail sketch. We are expected to use our brains and good sense, and to exercise judgment.For example, a man might be "not given to wine" but may have an addiction to tobacco or marijuana. We could hardly say that he qualifies for eldership because he is "not given to wine". Paul may have specified wine, but surely we should make a general application to any addiction that demonstrates intemperance and lack of self-control.
Another example is that of being "not quicktempered or violent". Now some men are anything but quicktempered, quarrelsome, or violent. Instead they are sullen, sulky, incommunicative. You don't get a blood nose or a black eye from them, but you certainly get hurt feelings and become demoralised. Would we be so foolish to say that because Paul specifies the hot-tempered individual as unsuitable, but fails to mention the other extreme, the stone cold individual, therefore we can make the latter sort of man an elder or deacon?
If a man has any serious fault or flaw in his character, that should disqualify him as an elder or deacon whether Paul actually mentions that particular thing or not. For example a man might be obsessive about stamp collecting, and spend an inordinate amount of time on it, time which he could use to do something more useful. Paul makes no mention of obsessions. Yet common sense should tell us that this type of man is not a suitable person, although by a legalistic interpretation of "the qualifications" he may "qualify".
Occasionally some well-meaning author will take us laboriously through scholarly word studies of the elder and deacon qualifications, item by item. For example, we will be told that "temperate" translates enkratees from kratos meaning strength or rule, prefixed with the preposition en meaning in, and therefore signifying inner strength or self control. Then some boffin will be cited just to show that the person benefiting us with this exquisite insight is in fine scholarly company, and isn't talking through his hat. However, does Paul expect us to grind away thus at every word?
That would be like me sending you a snapshot of myself so that you could recognise me at the airport, and you examining every grain of the print under a microscope. Paul is sketching a picture sufficient to let us easily recognise the type of man who makes a good elder or deacon. With that guidance we can use our brains not to dissect words and accomplish nothing, but rather to find good shepherds for God’s church.
2 Men of the Word
Now we look at the second basic qualification of elders and deacons. 1Timothy 3:2 says simply, "Able to teach."
We would all realise that this does not mean able to teach arithmetic, or how to play cricket, but able to teach the gospel by which the church lives. We notice that the qualification "able to teach" (1Timothy 3:2) is given a more detailed description in 1 Timothy 3:9 and Titus 1:9 . There Paul says, "Holding to the mystery of the faith... holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine, and to refute those who contradict".
The terms Paul uses, namely "mystery, faith, word, doctrine", belong to a set of relatively interchangeable terms referring to the gospel of Christ. See for example Romans 16:25-26].
This qualification for elders and deacons, that they be men of the word, has four aspects...
- 1. Being examples of the word in daily conduct
- 2. Defenders of the word refuting those who contradict
- 3. Wise in applying the word to the local circumstances
- 4. Skilled at imparting their understanding of the word to others
DEACONS AS TEACHERS
It stands to reason that deacons do not need to be able to teach to the same degree as do elders or evangelists. From Acts 6:3-4 we can see that the primary task of the deacons was to take charge of a matter that was distracting others from "the ministry of the word". So it follows that the ministry of the word is not the deacon's primary task. However, if we look closely at (Acts 6), we can see that deacons do need some ability to teach.
According to Acts 6, the appointment of deacons was precipitated when "there arose a murmuring" because some were being "neglected" and this had a Jews-versus-Greeks element to it (Acts 6:1). The deacons had to deal with that situation, and what sort of situation was it? Was it a practical problem, a spiritual problem, or a combination? Obviously it was a combination. We should not imagine that the deacons rectified the situation just by sitting behind a table handing out coins, or running around serving soup to ladies.
Certainly, they would ensure this task was done properly, but they would also need to correct the bad attitudes that had contributed to the problem in the first place. In short, as they served and took charge, they would need to give people sound teaching on such things as family responsibility, Jew-Gentile relationships, contentment, tolerance, helpfulness, humility, and so forth.
That's why the congregation chose, for example, "Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). further down we read that some opponents of the church "were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke" (Acts 6:8). Stephen gave his life for the gospel he taught. This deacon became a great Christian hero. Another of the deacons was Philip. Of him we read, "Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them" (Acts 8:5).
So, you can see, these deacons were men of the word and able to teach, and that was one of the reasons they were chosen for deaconry.
3 Men of Maturity
Paul makes it clear that no man should be appointed who is "a novice" (1Timothy 3:6). We certainly must not rush men into leadership who don't have the maturity and experience to handle it.
Of course no man will be perfect, however those chosen as elders and deacons should have attained "a good degree, and great confidence in the faith" (1Timothy 3:13). On the other hand, room must be allowed for growth and improvement, noting that Paul says, "Having served" they obtain this good degree in the faith. Men will gain strength from the experience of serving, so we should not require perfection, nor even the height of excellence, as a prerequisite.
Just as there is a danger of appointing novices if we don't take the qualifications seriously, so there is the opposite danger of treating as novices men of long standing and commendable faithfulness. They may not be Australia's top teachers and preachers, but they may have a good measure of the four aspects listed earlier: they are good examples, defenders of the faith, wise for applying God's word, skilled at imparting the word. This should be recognised by the congregation. If church shepherds and servants had to be perfect in every point, Jesus would be the only church shepherd rather than the Chief Shepherd of many shepherds.
Stephen and Philip were not just men of the word, they were giants. The Jerusalem congregation had thousands of members, so it was understandable that men of a very high standard would emerge from the selection process. In a small flock as is common in Australia, we cannot expect the same standard, and we have to understand that qualified men are not all equally qualified. As I keep on pointing out, we must look for a reasonable degree of maturity, not for an impossible degree. Men who are "able to teach" are not equally able. Some will be more able than others. We should encourage our elders and deacons to emulate men like Stephen. However we should not require a man to be Stephen's equal before we appoint him as a deacon or elder.
The point we have made on this page may be summarised thus: Let our elders and deacons be men of character, men of the word, men of maturity, and let us be reasonable and realistic when judging men as such.