Shepherds and Servants: Elders and Deacons in the Life of the Local Church

God has not left us in the dark when it comes to how to order his church. Churches, and the Christians who comprise them, are not doomed to wander around in the dark, groping desperately for guidance as to how to structure their life together. A survey of the evangelical landscape, however, would not indicate this to be the case. Even among churches that champion the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, there is a tragic neglect of what the Bible says concerning the organization of the church. In some churches, the recognized offices of leadership are often defined according to secular business principles rather than to sound biblical teaching. They are often driven not by theology, but by pragmatism. In others, there are no recognized offices at all. Instead, the argument is made that formal church offices were later extra-biblical additions and are nowhere to be found in the corpus of Scripture. Both models overlook the biblical teaching. In the former, Scripture is inexcusably ignored; in the latter, it is irresponsibly interpreted. This ought not to be the case.[1] In this paper, I will explore the qualifications and number of offices in the local church. I will show that the New Testament teaches there are two offices in the local church, namely elders and deacons, and that Scripture is not silent in regard to the qualifications for the office of elder.[2] I will conclude the paper by making several practical applications related to elders and deacons in the life of the church.

The Number of Church Officers

Before the qualifications of church officers can be addressed, it is necessary to determine the number of church officers for which there are qualifications. The New Testament teaches that there are two recognized offices in the local church, that of the elder and that of the deacon.[3]

Elder

The first office is that of the elder, or overseer.[4] The New Testament uses the two terms “elder” (presbuteros) and “overseer” (episkopos) interchangeably to refer to the same office.[5] Several biblical passages demonstrate this. In Acts 20, Paul calls for the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17) and exhorts them: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Here, Paul calls for the elders and refers to them as overseers.[6] In his letter to Titus, Paul instructs him to “appoint elders in every town” who are “above reproach” and then proceeds to say that “an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:5-7).[7] Here, Paul connects the office of elder with that of the overseer.[8]

In addition to these verses, there are several biblical reasons for affirming that elders and overseers are the same office.[9] First, Scripture describes the functions of each in the same way. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes that an overseer “must manage his own household well… for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Then, two chapters later, Paul speaks of “the elders who rule well” being worthy of double honor, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (5:17).[10] Both overseers and elders are to rule, or manage. Additionally, both are responsible for teaching. In 1 Timothy, the overseer must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), while in Titus the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). As Benjamin Merkle observes, “It would be strange if the elders were not the same people as those who were called ‘overseers’ since they both were to perform the same duties.”[11]

Second, Scripture gives similar qualifications for both the overseer and the elder. Each is to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6, 7), the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), self-controlled (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9), not a drunkard (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), not violent (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), not financially driven (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), and able to manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4; Titus 1:6).[12] Third, Scripture never lists elders and overseers as separate offices. When Paul lists the qualifications for church officers, he speaks of only the overseer and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-7, 8-13). He makes no mention of separate qualifications for elders, although he certainly recognized an office of elder (5:17) and even warned Timothy not be hasty in appointing men to it (5:22).[13]

In conclusion, “There is simply not enough evidence to maintain a distinction between the terms elder and overseer.”[14] However, this raises the question: Why, then, are there two titles for a single office? Why is there not just one title? A possible reason is that both “elder” and “overseer” were common titles already in use by other groups, and therefore served as prime candidates for how the church would refer to its leaders.[15] Although these titles were common outside the church and within the Jewish community, Christians likely appropriated them into their own ecclesiastical system and redefined their function in ways distinct from the other groups.[16] Both titles were rich with historical significance and ripe with functional meaning, and therefore the church retained them.[17] Another possible reason is that the churches favored one term over the other: “The Jewish congregations apparently favored the term presbuteros, while the Gentile congregations favored the term episkopos. Over time, however, those two terms came to be used in the same congregations and could be used interchangeably.”[18]

The New Testament also teaches about an office of pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11).[19] Rather than viewing the pastor-teacher as an office distinct from that of the elder-overseer, it best to understand it as an alternate title for the elder-overseer. Both elder-overseers and pastor-teachers are given the task of shepherding and teaching the flock (Eph. 4:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).[20] Additionally, there are no qualifications given for the office of pastor-teacher, which seems to suggest that in giving the qualifications for the elder-overseer (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) Paul was also giving the qualifications for the pastor-teacher.[21] These three terms (elder, overseer, and pastor-teacher are used interchangeably and refer to the same office.[22]

Deacon

The second office is that of the deacon. The title “deacon” appears in two or three places in the New Testament ([Rom. 16:1;] Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).[23] Immediately after giving the qualifications for those aspiring to the office of overseer (1 Tim. 3:1-7), Paul lists the qualifications for those desiring to serve in the office of deacon (3:8-13). In this chapter are found the qualifications for both New Testament offices. When Paul composed his letter to the church in Philippi, he addressed it to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Here, Paul writes to the church as a whole while recognizing, in particular, those among them who serve in one of the two recognized church offices.

The Qualifications for Elders

Having determined that the New Testament teaches there are two offices in the local church, it is now possible to address the qualifications for these offices.[24] The qualifications for elders are found in two places (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9), while the qualifications for deacons are found in one place (1 Tim. 3:8-13).[25]

The first qualification for an elder is that he be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:5).[26] This is “an all-encompassing term that Paul proceeds to detail in the ensuing lists [1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 1:6-9].”[27] He must be “‘irreproachable,’ in the sense of not open to attack or criticism in terms of his Christian life in general and in terms of the characteristics that follow in particular.”[28] In terms of what follows, the elder must be free from any substantiated accusations.[29] This qualification in general, as well as the other qualifications in particular, must be true of the elder in his present state in life.[30] The focus of this qualification is not on perfection, but on godliness.[31] This qualification raises the question: Is this man an example of Christ-like character and conduct?[32] Can he in good conscience, like Paul, exhort others to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1)?

The second qualification for an elder is that he be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).[33] There have been five primary interpretations of this phrase: 1) “an elder must be married,” 2) “an elder must not be a polygamist,” 3) “an elder must have only one wife his entire life,” 4) an elder must not be divorced, and 5) “an elder must be faithful to his wife.”[34] The first interpretation is unlikely for several reasons: 1) the emphasis of this passage is on the character of the elder rather than his marital status; 2) this kind of a requirement would seem to contradict Paul’s teaching on the value of singleness (1 Cor. 7:32-35); 3) there was a way for Paul to express that an elder must be married, but he did not express it this way; 4) this requirement would exclude Paul, Timothy, and Jesus from this office; and 5) consistency would require an elder to have more than one child (1 Tim. 3:4).[35] The second interpretation is possible, but it is likely that Paul was addressing more than the issue of polygamy.[36]

Although the third interpretation has its strengths, it also has the following weakness: 1) it would mean that Paul was requiring a higher moral standard among elders than among Christians; 2) Paul indicates that remarriage is at times a viable option for believers (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:8-9); 3) divorce and remarriage are not unpardonable sins; and 4) Paul could have said that an elder must be married only once or that he could not remarry, but he did not.[37] The fourth interpretation is also unlikely due to the permission Scripture gives concerning divorce (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15) and the fact, noted previously, that divorce is not an unpardonable sin.[38] The fifth interpretation seems to be the best way to understand this qualification.[39] The emphasis of this qualification, and the others, is on the elder’s present character.[40] This qualification does not require an elder to be married, but that, if married, he would be a “one-woman man.” Paul “wrote in terms of the common situation, i.e., of being married and having children, and then spoke of what should be the case when this most common situation exists in an officer’s life.”[41]

The third qualification for an elder is that he be “sober-minded” (1 Tim. 3:2). The word is sometimes translated as “temperate” due to its connection elsewhere with the use of alcohol, but here it refers to “mental sobriety, that is, a mind that can think clearly and spiritually about important matters. It is the ability to be self-controlled, having a balanced judgment and being able to rationally make coolheaded decisions.”[42] The fourth qualification of an elder, that he be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:8), is like the third qualification in that it “refers to the need for [the] disciplined exercise of good judgment. It speaks of being prudent, sound-minded, and discreet.”[43] For an elder to be “self-controlled” means that he is “level-headed in terms of his thought life, emotions, and volition, and sensible in terms of his discernment.”[44] In the midst of disagreement and conflict within the church, an elder must be able to make clear-headed decisions and to do so in a self-controlled way in the face of heated opposition.

In addition to these qualifications, an elder must be “respectable” (1 Tim. 3:2), meaning that he is a man worthy of being followed because of his character and not merely because of his office.[45] He must also be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), devoted to the task of getting to know people and having them be a part of his life (as well as himself being a part of theirs).[46] He is a friend to those God has placed around him, selflessly helping and serving them.[47]

The seventh qualification for an elder is that he be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul elaborates on this in his letter to Titus: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).[48] An elder must not only be skillful in teaching, as though talent was Paul’s primary focus, but that he must be able to teach the “trustworthy word” and “sound doctrine.”[49] What Paul has in view is the skillfulness of an elder’s teaching as well as the content of his teaching. Without knowledge of Scripture, an elder will be unable to instruct others in it or rebuke others with it.[50]

Paul proceeds to couch the next four qualifications in terms of what an elder must not be. He must not be a “drunkard” (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), meaning one who is addicted to drinking alcohol in excess (cf. 1 Tim. 3:8).[51]  He must not be “violent” (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7); “he must not be pugnacious, striking out at others physically (and, by extension, spiritually, verbally, or emotionally),” but instead ought to be “gentle” (1 Tim. 3:3).[52] When wronged, he turns the other cheek (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29).[53] He must not be “quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3), but should be peaceable.[54] He takes Paul’s command seriously, refusing to have anything to do with “foolish, ignorant controversies” because he knows “that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24). He must not be “a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3) or “greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7) because “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:9-10). He must not love money or set his heart after it because “If a person is a lover of money, it is difficult for him also to be a lover of God [Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13].”[55] Instead, he must content with God’s provision (Heb. 13:5).[56]

The twelfth qualification for an elder has to deal with his ability to “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3:4; cf. Titus 1:6).[57] An elder must not provoke his children to anger, but must “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:2; cf. Col. 3:21). He must not be a heavy-handed father, laying down the law in a harsh, domineering, or unloving way.[58] His ability (or inability) to lead his family is evidence of his ability (or inability) to lead God’s family, the church.[59] If he cannot manage his own household, how, then, will he be able to manage God’s household (1 Tim. 3:5, 15)?[60] The qualification that an elder’s children “are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6) is best understood as referring to their faithful submission to the authority and leadership of their father.[61]

The next two qualifications have to deal with an elder being a mature believer (“not a recent convert,” 1 Tim. 3:6) and being well thought of by outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7). Because a recent convert would likely “become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6), Paul writes that an elder must be a mature believer.[62] According to Gregg Allison, “the idea is not so much one of time as it is of maturity.”[63] This is why Paul does not include this requirement when he writes to Titus about the qualifications of an elder. The church in Crete where Titus was serving, unlike the church in Ephesus where Timothy was stationed, was a newer church that lacked mature Christian men to serve as elders.[64] In the case of Crete, “if new believers were not appointed as elders, there would be no elders. Consequently, it seems this qualification is not absolute but depends somewhat on the situational context of the congregation involved.”[65] In order that an elder “may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil,” it is necessary for an elder to be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7).[66] It is possible for non-Christians “to be better judges of character than those in the church. Neighbors, coworkers, or relatives may actually spend much more time with the person than his fellow church members.”[67] For this reason, an elder must have a good reputation with outsiders.[68]

The final four qualifications are unique to Paul’s letter to Titus.[69] They include the qualifications that an elder be “a lover of good,” “upright,” “holy,” and “disciplined” (Titus 1:8). To be “a lover of good” means “setting his mind on all that is noble and honorable (Phil. 4:8) and engaging in good works (Titus 2:14).”[70] To be “upright” means “living according to God’s Word [1 John 3:7].”[71] Similarly, to be “holy” is to live piously before God, seeking to please him in every way.[72] It “involves being wholly devoted to God and His Word. It entails being set apart to God in order to obey His will.”[73] To be “disciplined” is similar to being “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2), but refers to the body.[74] “An undisciplined person yields easily to temptation, but a disciplined person fights against lust, anger, laziness, and other ungodly traits.”[75]

These eighteen qualifications summarize what is required of an individual in order to be eligible for the office of elder.[76] Two observations, however, ought to be made at this point. First, the Bible does not give a minimum age requirement for the office of elder. Paul could have given a specific age requirement, as is clear from his requirement that a widow be no less than sixty years of age in order to be enrolled in the church’s benevolence program (1 Tim. 5:9). However, he does not set a minimum age requirement in regard to men who aspire to the office of elder. According to Merkle, “The key issues are: (1) Is the person spiritually mature, meeting the specified qualifications; and (2) Will the congregation respect his leadership?”[77] Second, the Bible does not require an elder to be formally educated. As was stated above, “the focus of the qualifications is moral and not mental or cognitive.”[78] The fact of the matter is that “Holding a seminary degree [or any degree at all] does not make a person morally qualified to be an elder. Churches need to be concerned about the moral life of a potential elder more than the institution a person attended.”[79]

As Alexander Strauch rightly notes, “God does not require wealth, social status, senior age, advanced academic degrees, or even great spiritual gift [from] those who desire to shepherd His people.”[80] Simply stated, God is looking for a few good men who are “above reproach,” men who know God, walk with God, and desire to see others do the same. Knight summarizes the qualifications of an elder well: “He must love people and equally love virtue. He must be wise and prudent, must live in accordance with God’s law, must be devoted to God and seek to please him, and must manifest genuine self-control. With this blend of characteristics, the Christian leader is equipped by God’s grace to exercise the kind of oversight that a steward in God’s house, the church, should exercise.”[81]

Practical Implications

Having addressed the number of church officers as well as the qualifications for one of these officers, attention is now turned to four practical implications for local church life. First, because Scripture speaks of a two-office church, we should view all the positions within the church through the lens of these two offices. If titles such as childcare coordinator, youth group intern, or Sunday school teacher are used by the local church, members and leaders alike ought to consider which of the two offices these positions fall under. For example, does Sunday school teacher fall under the category of elder or under the category of deacon?[82]

Second, because Scripture speaks to what these church officers are called, we should consider carefully our choice of titles for these officers and consider adopting the biblical terms.[83] By adopting biblical terminology, we are rooting these positions in sacred Scripture rather than secular wisdom.[84] By utilizing the biblical titles, we are demonstrating to the church members the relevance and applicability of the Bible in every aspect of life, including how we refer to church officers. When church members read their copy of the New Testament and come across titles such as “elder,” “overseer,” “pastor,” and “deacon,” they will know what these offices are because they have seen it modeled in the corporate life of the church.[85] In this way, church leaders are helping their people understand the Bible by putting one more of its teachings on display for them to not merely read about, but to see.

Third, because Scripture speaks of the qualifications for these two offices, we should follow Scripture’s qualifications rather than inventing our own.[86] God has not left us in the dark in terms of how to structure the church. He has given us the Bible to guide our church life together. Churches are not forced to consult the secular business world in order to discover the kind of qualifications they ought to be looking for in their leaders. Instead, they need only look to Scripture. Fourth, because Scripture speaks of the need to appoint only those who are qualified, we should examine every elder and deacon candidate carefully so as to discern whether they are qualified for office according to the biblical standards rather than according to the subjective standards of sinful people. We must be careful not to go beyond Scripture, resisting the temptation to add requirements that God nowhere gives. In the Bible, we find that God has spoken. He has not left us to our own devices or imaginations in trying to discern his plan for the church. God has graciously given both elders and deacons as gifts to his church and he has kindly revealed what type of qualities ought to characterize them.


[1] “The Bible should be our standard for all faith and practice… we have patterned our churches after the successful, corporate model. Consequently, a return to a biblical model of church government is desperately needed in the church today” (Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008], 13).

[2] In no way is this meant to convey the idea that Scripture is silent in regard to the qualifications for deacons. This is not the case, as 1 Timothy 3:8-13 makes clear. However, due to space constraints, only the qualifications of elders will be explored in this paper.

[3] Others, such as Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, include church members as a third office in the local church (Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010], 318; Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church: Timeless Truth and Timely Methods [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 65).

[4] The terms “elder” and “overseer” can be alternatively translated as “presbyter” and “bishop,” respectively. I have, however, opted for “elder” and “overseer” throughout this paper.

[5] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John S. Feinberg [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012], 211; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994], 914; Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976], 184; John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005], 161; George W. Knight, III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992], 175; Walter Lock, The Pastoral Epistles. The International Critical Commentary [New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924], xix-xx; Benjamin L. Merkle, The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church. Studies in Biblical Literature, ed. Hemchand Gossai [New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2003], 20; Benjamin L. Merkle, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2009], 19; Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, rev. and exp. [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995], 187, 231; Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1992], 61. Merkle summarizes the four ways in which the relationship between the terms elder and overseer have been understood: 1) “‘Elder’ is never a title of an office but is only a designation for age or honor;” 2) “Overseers are a special type of elder” who “also perform the special functions of preaching and teaching;” 3) “The overseer is above, but still identified with, the elders;” and 4) “The overseer is above, but not identified with, the elders” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 78; cf. Merkle, The Elder and Overseer, 3-20). He concludes: “The view that elder and overseer are used interchangeably in the Pastoral Epistles (and the New Testament) is best able to account for all the New Testament data” (Ibid., 20). Elsewhere, Merkle responds to the question whether the terms “elder” and “overseer” refer to the same office by giving four reasons for seeing them as one office: the terms are used interchangeably, elders are never given separate qualifications, both have the same function, and both are never listed as separate offices (Merkle, 40 Questions, 79-82).

[6] Merkle, The Elder and Overseer, 130. According to Karen Jobes, Paul “uses presbyteroi and episkopoi interchangeably in Acts 20:17, 28 as he exhorts the Ephesian elders (presbyteroi) to shepherd (poimainein) the people of God because they are overseers (episkopoi)” (Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005], 303). Dever notes: “In the span of twelve verses [Acts 20:17-28], the same men are referred to as elders, overseers, and shepherds” (Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life [Washington, DC: 9Marks, 2006], 15).

[7] According to Merkle, Titus 1:5-7 is “Perhaps the most convincing passage that demonstrates that the terms elder and overseer are interchangeable” (Merkle, Why Elders, 20).

[8] “From a prima facie reading of this text, it appears as if the author uses the terms to refer to the same office (‘appoint elders… for an overseer’)” (Merkle, The Elder and Overseer, 142; cf. 148). Merkle goes on to write that the terms elder and overseer in 1 Timothy also refer to the same office (Ibid.).

[9] According to Merkle, “the three-tiered ecclesiastical system that later developed in many churches is foreign to the New Testament. Not until the second century – in the epistles of Ignatius – do we see a distinction between the overseer (i.e., the monarchical bishop) and the elders (i.e., presbytery)… This later development, however, is not found in other writings of the postapostolic era. For example, 1 Clement (44:4-5) and the Didache, both probably written at the end of the first century, use the terms for elder and overseer interchangeably” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 81, 82; cf. Jobes, 303). For a brief history on the understanding of “elder” within the church, see Dever, By Whose Authority, 13-27.

[10] “It is probably best to interpret this text as teaching that all elders teach but that some work harder at it than others” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 81).

[11] Ibid., 80. Merkle observes: “both elders and overseers have the same function – ruling/leading and teaching” (Ibid., 81).

[12] Merkle, Why Elders, 66.

[13] “Paul never mentions the qualifications for elders. If elder and overseer are two separate offices, then it would seem reasonable to expect Paul to give the necessary qualifications for each office. In both 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9, Paul gives the qualifications for anyone who aspires ‘to the office of overseer’ (1 Tim. 3:1). But in both 1 Timothy (5:17-25) and Titus (1:5), elders also are mentioned. If the offices are distinct, then what are the qualifications for someone to become an elder? This omission is especially telling because in 1 Timothy 5:22-25, Paul warns Timothy not to appoint someone to the office too hastily since that position is to be filled only by qualified individuals (cf. 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). If elder is a distinct office from overseer, we would expect the qualifications to be clearly stated for such an important position” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 80).

[14] Merkle, The Elder and Overseer, 160.

[15] For background on the terms “elder” and “overseer,” including their usage in the Old Testament, early Judaism, and the Greco-Roman world, see Merkle, The Elder and Overseer, 23-65.

[16] “The New Testament church borrowed the title [of elder], and the official status that came along with that title, but defined for itself the specific duties that those who held this title performed” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 72).

[17] According to Merkle, “elder is more a description of character” while “overseer is more a description of function” (Ibid., 82).

[18] Ibid.; cf. Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, 63.

[19] Despite the common usage of the title “pastor” in many churches today, the title occurs only once in the entire New Testament in reference to an office in the church (Eph. 4:11) and is there linked with the office of teacher (Merkle, 40 Questions, 55; cf. Hammett, 162). The titles “elder” and “overseer” are far more commonly used in reference to the leaders of the church: “elder” is used seventeen times to refer to a church leader and “overseer” is used four times in this way (Ibid.). Regarding the other offices referred to in this verse (apostle, prophet, evangelist), Merkle argues that the offices of apostle and prophet have ceased and that the office of evangelist may still continue, but that it is an office dealing primarily with ministry outside the church as opposed to ministry inside the church (Merkle, 40 Questions, 51; cf. Hammett, 159).

[20] Merkle, 40 Questions, 56; Merkle, Why Elders, 23.

[21] Merkle, 40 Questions, 56; Merkle, Why Elders, 24.

[22] Allison, 211-212; Dever, By Whose Authority, 15, 16; Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012], 54, 55; Mark Dever, What is a Healthy Church? [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007], 114; Driscoll and Breshears, Vintage Church, 69; Hammett, 161; Grudem, 913-914; Merkle, Why Elders, 40.

[23] Merkle, 40 Questions, 229; cf. Hammett, 191. Whether Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) was serving the church at Cenchreae in the formal office of deacon or merely as an informal servant is disputed among scholars. While many refrain from forming a dogmatic opinion on the subject, scholars have made their views known. Those who reject the claim that Phoebe was a recognized deacon include John Hammett (200-201) and Alexander Strauch (The New Testament Deacon, 70-71). Those who affirm the claim that Phoebe was in fact a recognized deacon include Gregg Allison (234, 246n141), Mark Dever (The Church, 51), Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears (Doctrine, 321; Vintage Church, 76, 77); Walter Lock (40), Douglas Moo (Douglas J. Moo, Romans. The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000], 500), Leon Morris (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988], 528-529), and Thomas Schreiner (Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moises Silva [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998], 787). Benjamin Merkle at one time affirmed the view that Phoebe was a deacon (The Elder and Overseer, 106) but later concluded that it was a weak position (40 Questions, 257). Even though Wayne Grudem prefers to call Phoebe a “servant” rather than a “deacon” and does not find the arguments for female deacons based on 1 Timothy 3:11 convincing, he still concludes that “if deacons simply have delegated administrative responsibility for certain aspects of the ministry of the church, then there seems to be no good reason to prevent women from functioning as deacons” (Grudem, 944; cf. Grudem, 919).

[24] Throughout this paper, it will be assumed that the office of elder is restricted to men. As important as this qualification is for the office of elder, it is simply outside the scope of this paper to adequately make the case for this conclusion. For a treatment of this subject, the reader is directed to Allison’s Sojourners and Strangers (223-240).

[25] Merkle, Why Elders, 91. “When reading the qualifications for an elder or overseer, one is immediately struck by the relative simplicity of the qualifications. In fact, the qualifications for an elder are the basic characteristics that are expected of all Christians. The only exceptions are that an elder must not be a recent convert and must be able to teach” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 109; cf. Lock, 35; Merkle, Why Elders, 65). “The qualifications for an elder are the basic characteristics that are expected of all believers. Elders are not super-spiritual people but are those who are mature in their faith and live consistent, humble lives. An elder has a healthy and pure relationship with his wife, and he is a godly leader in his home. His character has no glaring blemishes, and his godliness is even recognized by those who are not Christians. He is not perfect, but his life is characterized by integrity” (Ibid., 81).

[26] Merkle includes the “desire to serve” in his treatment of the qualifications for an elder, though he admits that it is “not formally a qualification” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 111). Regardless, the point is reasonable: “those who are chosen to serve should want to serve” (Ibid.). Because it is not a formal qualification, it is not treated in the body of this paper. Commenting on the nobleness of aspiring for the office of elder, Lock writes: “It is right, then, to wish for such a post; but such a noble task requires a character above reproach” (Lock, 34). As Strauch points out, “A noble task naturally demands a noble person” (Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 188). However, as noble as the aspiration to the office of elder may be, “God provides objective, observable qualifications to test the subjective desire of all who seek the office of overseer. Desire alone is not enough; it must be matched by good character and spiritual capability” (Ibid.).

[27] Allison, 213; cf. Knight, 155-156; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 74, 188-189, 228-229.

[28] Knight, 155-156.

[29] Allison, 213. “By God’s grace the pattern of the bishop’s life conforms to both the general and specific characteristics and he is not objectively chargeable” (Knight, 156).

[30] Allison, 213. Allison notes: “Obviously, this cannot be construed to mean that the person’s background is unimportant in consideration of his fitness for the office, but it does imply that no former misdeed (including, it would seem, persecution of the church by the writer of the letter to Timothy!) necessarily disqualifies a man from serving in this capacity” (Ibid.). In reference to being “a husband of one wife,” Knight adds: “This characteristic, like the others, is the result of God’s grace in Christ (cf. especially 3:6, 9) and thus has reference to a man’s status and conduct from the time of his conversion” (Knight, 159).

[31] Merkle, 40 Questions, 117; Merkle, Why Elders, 62, 73; cf. Allison, 218.

[32] “The character required to be an elder is the character necessary to be an example to the flock. Such a person would not need to be perfect (such persons are in very short supply among fallen humanity) but would need a degree of maturity and proven character that would enable him to serve as an effective example, including an example of how to confess and repent when he does stumble” (Hammett, 166). Additionally: “For the flock, he would be a worthy example; for the outside world, he would be someone who would command their respect” (ibid., 167).

[33] This is perhaps the most controversial of all the qualifications (Ibid.).

[34] Merkle, 40 Questions, 124, 125, 126, 128; cf. Ed Glasscock, “‘The Husband of One Wife’ Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 140 (1983): 244-249; Hammett, 167; Knight, 157.

[35] Merkle, 40 Questions, 124-125; cf. Allison, 214; Glasscock, 245-246; Knight, 157; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 190. Merkle writes: “if we press Paul’s word beyond his original intention, we could argue not only that a potential elder must have at least two children but also that his children still live at home with him” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 131).

[36] Allison, 213; Glasscock, 254; Hammett, 168; Knight, 158; Merkle, 40 Questions, 125.

[37] Ibid., 126; cf. Allison, 215; Glasscock, 246-247; Knight, 157-158.

[38] Allison, 214; Glasscock, 247-249; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 191. “Had Paul wanted to exclude divorced persons, he simply could have said, ‘he must not be divorced’” (Hammett, 168).

[39] This is the view of Gregg Allison (215), Ed Glasscock (256), Donald Guthrie (80), George Knight (158-159), and Benjamin Merkle (40 Questions, 128; Why Elders, 71). According to Hammett, the main focus of this qualification is the question: “Can this person serve as an example to us in the area of marriage and family?” (Hammett, 168).

[40] Ibid.; Merkle, 40 Questions, 128; Saucy, 238.

[41] Knight, 157; cf. Lock, 36; Merkle, 40 Questions, 130; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 77. According to Strauch, “Single men and childless, married men can certainly be pastor elders” (Ibid., 78).

[42] Merkle, 40 Questions, 117; cf. Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 193.

[43] Merkle, 40 Questions, 118.

[44] Allison, 215; cf. Knight, 159.

[45] Merkle, 40 Questions, 118; cf. Allison, 215; Knight, 159.

[46] Merkle, 40 Questions, 118. Being hospitable “means sharing one’s life and home with others. An open home is a sign of an open heart and a loving, sacrificial, serving spirit. A lack of hospitality is a sure sign of selfish, lifeless, loveless Christianity” (Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 194). This quality is elsewhere expected of all Christians (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9), but ought to be present “in a heightened way in the bishop” (Knight, 159).

[47] Allison, 215.

[48] Knight, 159; cf. Lock, 131; Merkle, Why Elders, 68. As important as it may be for elders to know the Bible and to be able to rebuke those who contradict it, “Elders cannot teach and defend the gospel if their lives discredit the gospel” (Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 185). A cognitive apologetic, however compelling, must be coupled with a lifestyle apologetic. A man’s personal life must both display and demonstrate his professed belief.

[49] Merkle, 40 Questions, 111.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 119. “Notice, however, that Paul does not say that it is wrong to drink alcohol. Rather, he is referring to the excesses of drinking too much alcohol and drinking it too often. As a matter of fact, he later tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23). Although many churches require not only their leadership but all members as well to abstain from alcohol, this requirement is nowhere found in Scripture” (Merkle, Why Elders, 75-76; cf. Merkle, 40 Questions, 119; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 196). Similarly, Allison writes: “an elder must not be addicted to wine (and, by extension, any drug that alters his mind and conduct)” (Allison, 216).

[52] Ibid. Being “gentle” is the opposite of being “arrogant” (Titus 1:7), which is the act of being “inconsiderate of other people’s opinions and feelings” and attempting “to get what [one] wants regardless of the cost to others” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 121; cf. Knight, 291).

[53] Merkle, Why Elders, 76.

[54] Knight, 160; Merkle, 40 Questions, 120; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 198. To be quarrelsome, or contentious, is like being “quick-tempered” (Titus 1:7; Allison, 216; Knight, 291).

[55] Merkle, 40 Questions, 121.

[56] Knight, 160.

[57] This qualification no more requires an elder to have children than it requires him to have a wife (Ibid., 161). This qualification, like that of being “a husband of one wife,” speaks to the common situation of a man in that day and therefore deals with “what should be the case when this most common situation exists in an officer’s life” (Ibid., 157; cf. Allison, 216; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 191). If an elder has children still living at home, they must be submissive to his authority and leadership. If he does not have children or if they no longer live within his household, this qualification about submissive children does not apply (Ibid.). “In the case of a single man, his managerial abilities may be ascertained by observing how he runs his business, engages his clients, teaches his students, conducts himself with his family of origin (or nurture), and the like” (Allison, 216).

[58] Merkle, 40 Questions, 114.

[59] “The leadership of his family becomes tangible proof that he is either fit or unfit to lead in God’s church. In addition, by neglecting his family – even for the sake of ‘the ministry’ – a man can become disqualified to serve as an elder” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 114). Allison observes: “So as to ascertain the ability of a potential elder – and to assess and ensure confidence in the ability of a current elder – to lead at the macrocosmic level of the church, Paul instructs that the candidate or present elder must demonstrate a good managerial skill at the microcosmic level of his home” (Allison, 216).

[60] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 77. “The argument [of 1 Timothy 3:5] moves from the ‘lesser’ to the ‘greater,’ in analogous terms, i.e., from the family [of the elder] to the family of God, and states that inability in the former makes ability extremely doubtful in the latter” (Knight, 162).

[61] Allison, 217. According to Merkle, “The word translated ‘believers’ is better translated ‘faithful.’ This interpretation is confirmed by the fact that 1 Timothy 3 does not mention the need for elders’ children to be believers. Furthermore, the following phrase in Titus 1 clarifies what Paul meant by ‘faithful’ when he states that they must not be open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Merkle, 40 Questions, 114-115; cf. Merkle, Why Elders, 72; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 229). Strauch observes: “Those who interpret this qualification to mean that an elder must have believing, Christian children place an impossible burden upon a father. Even the best Christian fathers cannot guarantee that their children will believe. Salvation is a supernatural act of God. God, not good parents (although they are certainly used of God), ultimately brings salvation (John 1:12, 13)” (Ibid.; cf. Merkle, Why Elders, 72).

[62] Allison, 217.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.; Knight, 175; Merkle, 40 Questions, 112-113.

[65] Ibid., 113. Although it is ideal for a mature Christian to occupy the office of elder, it is sometimes necessary for a newer Christian to fill this office in order that it not remain vacant. “In some churches [such as those in the American South], it might be unwise to let a person who has been a Christian for only five years become an elder. In other churches, however [such as those in heavily unreached or incredibly hostile places], it may be unwise to wait that long” (Ibid., 112).

[66] According to Knight, “ὀνειδισμóς is a reproach or reviling that is a disgrace or insult” (Knight, 165; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2, “above reproach”).

[67] Merkle, 40 Questions, 113.

[68] Knight, 164; cf. Merkle, Why Elders, 70. “Vv. 6 and 7 [of 1 Timothy 3] seek to protect both the man and the church’s leadership from self-righteous pride and cowardly disobedience. To avoid both demands a mature believer with an established reputation” (Knight, 166). “These touchstones coupled with those marks that should characterize all Christians are those things concerning which he should be ‘above reproach’” (Ibid.).

[69] Allison, 217.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Merkle, 40 Questions, 118; cf. Knight, 292.

[72] Ibid.; cf. Allison, 218.

[73] Merkle, 40 Questions, 119.

[74] Allison, 218.

[75] Merkle, 40 Questions, 119.

[76] Strauch sees an additional qualification in 1 Timothy 3:10. Because deacons must “also be tested,” Strauch argues that elders also must be tested prior to beginning their service (Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 202).

[77] Merkle, 40 Questions, 115.

[78] Ibid., 122; cf. Merkle, Why Elders, 85.

[79] Merkle, 40 Questions, 122; cf. Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 82. Although a seminary degree is not required for an individual to qualify for the office of elder, it is a gift from God that must not be ignored. Because an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:9), every man who aspires to the office of elder ought to answer the question, “Why should I not go to seminary?” rather than “Why should I go to seminary?” The burden of a valid reason rests with those who do not attend seminary rather than with those who do. In a day when false teachers are leading Christians astray and in a world where biblical literacy is at an all-time low, every man aspiring to the office of elder must wrestle with whether or not to attend seminary.

[80] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 72.

[81] Knight, 293.

[82] To answer this question, one must consider the function these various positions perform. Although the functions elders and deacons perform were not covered in this paper, the qualifications themselves go a long way in helping us to discern what those in these offices are responsible to do. For example, that an elder “be able to teach” indicates that an elder is responsible to perform a teaching function. If the position is primarily a teaching or leading one, it ought to be viewed under the category of elder. However, if the position is primarily a serving one (and does not involved teaching or leading), it ought to be viewed under the category of deacon.

[83] Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, 68.

[84] Merkle, Why Elders, 26.

[85] Ibid., 27.

[86] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 68.

Author: John Alexander