Standards for pastors and elders

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Timothy 3:1-7

Perhaps it’s because of the high value our culture places on individual expression and choice, or because respected authority figures are now and then exposed as hypocrites or abuse their authority.

Or perhaps it is the nature of authority to challenges our inner life, explicitly or implicitly, and we feel judged or denigrated or rebellious.

Whatever the reason, many people today are highly suspicious of authority. But authority itself is a necessary and good gift from God that reflects his sovereign and benevolent rule over us.

With authority comes responsibility, and so in business and professional life we have codes of ethics, and professional standards, to set forth what good and bad behaviour looks like.

So too in the church: spiritual leaders exercise authority, and they need to do so in ways that honour the office which they hold, and promote the best interests of those for whom they are responsible.

It’s not easy. Leaders know only too well their own faults and failures, and there are the expectations of others, the unanticipated professional challenges and moral temptations that cross our paths, and not least our private capacity for self-reflection, self-awareness and self-mastery.

Paul knew that the church generally, and every local church specifically, lives or dies by the availability and quality of its leaders. That is why he and Barnabas, on their first missionary journey, “appointed elders … in every church” (Ac 14:23). That is why he left Titus in Crete to “appoint elders in every town” (Tit 1:5). And that is why he instructs Timothy on the essential qualities of a good ender in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim 3:1-7).

The New Testament also teaches that it is the risen Christ who gives pastors and teachers to his church (Eph 4:11-12), and it is the Spirit of Christ who assigns “overseers” to lead local churches (Ac 20:28).

When the will of God and the decisions of a local church coincide, affirming and appointing godly leaders who live well and lead well, good things are bound to happen.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it? To be a part of a church that is healthy, and growing, and devoted to Christ, and effective in ministry and mission, united by a single vision, being and doing what God has created us for, convinced that it is God who has drawn us together to achieve something we could never achieve alone, or without humble reliance on God.

So what should our leaders be like? What special standards should they uphold – not because there should be a qualitative difference between clergy and laity, not so that we can catch them out when they falter or fail, but because this is what God longs to see in all his people.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul identifies 14 qualities he expects to observe in pastors, elders or bishops:

1. “above reproach” (v. 2a): not without fault, or only Jesus would qualify for leadership in the church! You’re looking for someone who is of good character, consistent, commendable – a person who will not bring the church or the gospel into disrepute.

It’s about personal character, lifestyle, family life, work ethic. It’s about evidence of Christlikeness and the fruit of the Spirit.

2. “faithful to one wife” (v. 2b): I believe Paul understood the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10 and elsewhere, that God’s intention for marriage is for a faithful, lifelong partnership of one man and one woman.

Church leaders should model this – especially in a culture where polygamy was widespread, and where a man might have one woman to bear and raise his children, and another for sex, and another for intellectual conversation and companionship.

Does this exclude single people from church leadership? Does it exclude divorced and remarried people? Does it exclude women? No, it’s about faithfulness to one sexual partner, if you are married. The grace of God, and the wisdom of God, and the needs of the church, are certainly wide enough to embrace women leaders, single persons, those who are divorced, and those who remarry.

What is most important is that leaders treasure the gifts of sex and intimacy, and enjoy them within appropriate boundaries.

3-5. “temperate,” “self-controlled,” and “respectable” (v. 2c, d, e): These three qualities relate to the indispensable need for self-mastery and personal discipline in Christian leadership, proven over time.

6. “hospitable” (v. 2f): reaching out in love to strangers– a generous heart and a welcoming home for those who are lonely, or marginalised, or in need of shelter, food, company, conversation (see Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9; 3 Jn 5).

7. “able to teach” (v. 2g): Until now, all the qualities have been moral and ethical. Here’s the only professional qualification in the list, implying that a pastor’s primary responsibility is to teach God’s word to God’s people.

8. “not given to drunkenness” (v. 3a): Alcohol can be used and abused. When it is abused, there can be enormously damaging effects – to life and limb, to family cohesion, to employment, to health, to reputation.

Yet Paul never advocates total abstinence. He advised Timothy to drink wine to alleviate a digestive complaint. Jesus himself turned water into wine, and made wine the emblem of his saving death.

What Paul recommends is moderation, prudence, self-control, self-mastery when alcohol is in the room. Do whatever you need to do to avoid getting drunk, compromising your powers of judgment and ruining your Christian witness. And don’t judge those whose conscience or personal experience lead them to abstain from drinking alcohol.

9, 10. “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (v. 3b): Learn from the example of Jesus: this was his leadership style, and the opposite of the way of life of the false teachers at Ephesus (6:3ff).

There may be people who deserve a punch in the face, or a slap, or a tongue-lashing, but leaders are to avoid such behaviour. Leave it to God; get on with the serious business to which God has called you.

If I lose my temper, if I am violent or quarrelsome, I effectively lose my public authority.

11. “not a lover of money” (v. 3c; see also 6:5, 10; 2 Tim 3:2): If you’re in ministry to make money, you’re not only in the wrong business but you have the wrong motive, you lack the mind of Christ, and you will only harm the witness of the church and slow the advance of the kingdom of God. Do what God really called you to!

There are good people who are gifted in making money, generating wealth, but pastors are not normally given that gift (see 1 Sam 12:1-4).

12. “he must manage his own household well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (vv. 3d-5):

My biological family is the primary training ground for my leadership in the church. Leaders at home and in the church are called to be gentle, but there is a place for gentle, confident authority.

As John Stott says, “One cannot expect discipline in the local church if pastors have not learned to exercise it in their home.”[1]

13. “he must not be a recent convert” (v. 6): Pastors and elders must first be converted to Christ, and demonstrate a certain level of maturity in faith before he or she is considered for leadership.

Otherwise there are the twin dangers of personal pride and conceit (self-centred fantasy, the delusion of adequacy, masking the reality of their immaturity but not its bad fruit.

14. “he must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (v. 7): The world is watching! So relate wisely to people in the community (Col 4:5). Win their respect (1 Th 4:12).

What is “the devil’s trap”? I suggest it is anything a leader does, or fails to do, that harms his or her public reputation. John Stott again:

in his malicious eagerness to discredit the gospel, the devil does his best to discredit the ministers of the gospel … The devil has used it for centuries; it remains an effective stratagem today.[2]

What are some practical ways you can cultivate these 14 qualities yourself, where they fit your situation in life? Are there one or two where you could invest some effort?

In one sense, this list of desirable qualifications for pastors, elders and bishops holds no surprises. Indeed, all of them are required of all Christians, with the exception of not being a new convert, and an aptitude for teaching (see Mt 5:27-30; Rom 12:13; Eph 6:4; 1 Th 4:12; Tit 2:1-12; 1 Pet 1:13).

But if you are growing in godliness, and you are not a recent convert, and you can teach, and you aspire to leadership in the local church, that is a very good path to follow.

Or perhaps you have been quietly observing someone else with these qualities beginning to shine. Encourage them! Mentor them! Challenge them to follow God’s leading!

Above all, pray for the leaders of your local church, and others who have gone on to lead in a wider capacity among our churches.

Church leadership can be lonely, and exhausting, and bewildering, and spiritually dangerous. Your prayers for the leaders you know will make a difference.

I close with the words of Hebrews 13:17: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”

Sermon 630 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 9 August 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).



[1] John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 98.

[2] Ibid., p. 99.

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