More than a Checklist: The Significance of Elder Qualifications

Nov 24, 2020

As Paul writes to his young pastoral protégés, Timothy and Titus, he gives a sobering list of leadership qualifications that every pastor is very familiar with. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are foundational character traits for leadership in the church. In Titus 1:6 Paul highlights their significance in saying that the pastor “must be above reproach.” The ESV appropriately translates this word “must” again in verse 7 and in verse 9, applying the expectation to every characteristic mentioned. No characteristic on the list is unimportant and no characteristic is optional. This is the Lord’s required standard for leadership in the church.

These qualifications are rightly studied, preached, read and esteemed in evaluating and appointing new elders and in reaffirming current elders. Yet there is a subtle danger that can enter the pastor’s life when thinking about these lists of qualifications. This is the danger of viewing these qualifications as simply a checklist to mark off in a man’s life so he can do ministry. At times these character traits can be viewed and treated as a box to check off on one’s spiritual resume so that he is qualified to be in a position of leadership. While they certainly are not less than characteristics that qualify one for leadership, in actuality, elder qualifications are much more than just a checklist to get one through the door. Elder qualifications are the tried and proven character required in a man’s life that not only qualifies him to be in ministry, but also sustains him to be faithful in ministry. A man’s depth of ministry will never rise above his personal godliness. The elder qualifications reflect the necessary maturity that the Lord not only requires for a position, but demands of a man so that he is able to endure the rigors and weight of pastoral ministry. This is why we see the significance of character emphasized in so many places throughout the Pastoral Epistles far beyond the lists given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (See 1 Tim 1:19; 4:6-16; 5:22; 6:11-13; 2 Tim 1:6-7; 2:15, 22-26; 3:10-11). While there are numerous reasons why the elder qualifications are to be viewed as more than just a checklist in the pastor’s life, I want to highlight three.

1. Your godly character allows you to lead and shepherd biblically. 

Your character not only qualifies you to be in a position of leadership, but your character sustains you to lead biblically. Paul reminds us in Titus 1:7 that pastors are God’s stewards.  God designed the church, builds the church, sustains the church and has ordered the church.  The church is God’s, not the pastors. Therefore, the pastor’s job is simply to be a faithful steward of what is God’s. Our leadership is not based on human wisdom, human vision, or human solution.  Pastors are called to be faithful to God’s appointed plan and purpose for the church. Titus is specifically commissioned to “put in order what remained” (Titus 1:5). Paul instructs Timothy how the church ought to conduct itself (1 Tim 3:15). These examples become templates for pastoral ministry. Yet if a man is arrogant and quick-tempered—characteristics that are warned against in Titus 1:7—such a man will be easily tempted to veer off course to his own personal agenda, personal wisdom, and personal innovation. Such arrogant departure in leadership is devastating for the church because it leads the church away from the design and blessing of God. Elders are also called to be sober-minded, self-controlled, upright, holy, respectable and disciplined (Titus 1:8; 1 Tim 3:2). If these character traits are not rooted deep in the heart, the pastor can be easily blown around by personal desires, deceived by false doctrine, or tempted by passing pleasures. (Tit 3:9). Pastors cannot cater to the whims of the sheep, the whims of society or the latest fad. Rather, rooted in sober-mindedness, self-control, dignity, holiness, and godly discipline, pastors are to stay the course as God-pleasers. Leadership very quickly reveals the true character of man and who or what he is trying to please. This is why the Lord demands godly character of in our lives! “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). 

2. Your godly character is an example for the church to follow.

Peter writes, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3). By God’s design, the character of leaders is meant to be a living teaching tool for the church. They are to hear truth from our mouths and they are to see truth lived out in our lives! Every character trait given for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is also commanded for all believers to pursue. Pastors are not called to a higher standard than other believers, as if there are certain areas of godliness that others in the church are exempt from pursuing. However, pastors are held more accountable to that standard, thus the need to be above reproach and mature in these areas of life. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).  He wrote to the Thessalonians. “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…” (1 Thess 1:5b-6a). The elder qualifications of our lives are much more than just a list of character traits to check off. The pastor’s life, by divine design, is a living teaching tool that is to model godliness and point others to be more like Jesus Christ. Every pastor needs to ask the question, is my life worthy of imitation? Maybe a better question to ask: Would Christ consider my life worthy of imitation?

3. Your godly character allows you to endure the weight of ministry.

Pastoral ministry is wonderful, joyful, and very rewarding. But, ministry is also hard. Very hard.  It can be difficult, trying, exhausting, and painful. Pastors bear a unique weight in the church. We bear the weight of concern for human souls for which we will give an account (Heb 13:17).  In counseling, pastors enter the sewers of sin on rescue missions. In leadership, there are difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions that need to be made. There is the joyful privilege and weighty burden of walking with people through the dark trials, intense suffering and even the valley of the shadow of death in their lives. Pastors face criticism that can break one down and pastors can receive inappropriate praise that puffs one up. There is a tremendous weight to pastoral ministry. This is why tried and proven character is so important. Pastors need to be able, by God’s grace, to endure. This is one of the reasons why Paul warns Timothy not to lay hands on anyone too hastily (1 Tim 5:22) and why one of the qualifications for elders is that he must not be a recent convert (1 Tim 3:6). Proven godly character is needed to withstand the ups and downs and the joys and sorrows of ministry. This is why these elder qualifications are so much more than just a checklist in our lives!

May we as pastors be encouraged by these character traits, not only to be qualified for a position, but also so we can faithfully endure!

Justin McKitterick is one of our eleven TES campus pastors, having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida since 2011.