I remember being asked years ago what it means to be “biblical”. The term has been tossed haphazardly nowadays and much confusion arises. Is the mere mention of a word makes it biblical? Who determines if its qualities? Well simply put, it is the Word of God as a whole that determines its meaning and purpose. Being divinely inspired, it alone is capable of defining its own terms and meaning. Being free from any error or deceit, it alone is consistent from beginning to end. And because it contains completely the revelation of God, the Bible is the final arbiter of what is and what is not biblical.
Therefore, as receivers of God’s Word, we simply allow Scripture to determine what it is biblical and those which are, in the truest sense of the word, being “biblical”. But is this how we assess our own beliefs and practices? Do we labor to be biblical and align ourselves with the teaching of Scripture? One area I would like to challenge our thinking in terms of biblical practice is on the topic of church leadership. I believe, aside from worship, choosing our leaders in the church is an area we need to be more faithful. Church leadership in order to be effective has to be grounded in Scripture. So this is what we will be doing in our lecture this morning. We will examine the biblical qualifications of an overseer.
The overseers that Christ’s appoints are qualified, godly and gifted men. They possess specific identities, characteristics, and abilities and this separates them from the congregation and becomes selected for the task of serving the church. Prayerfully every congregation should seek them out and appoint them to positions of pastors/teacher, elders, and deacons.
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy the qualifications of those who will occupy Christ’s office in the church. In 1 Timothy 3:2-7, he listed down the identity, character, and abilities required from these men. The requirements can be broken down exegetically into five major division: (1) two requirements: one general and the other is specific; (2) three character traits; (3) two special abilities; (4) another set of characteristics, listed here are five traits; and (5) three lengthy requirements that address the nature and work of an overseer.
I have organized the lecture, Biblical Qualifications for Men as Overseers, into six topical points: (1) Qualified Men in Office; (2) Must be Above Reproach; (3) Faithful men who are able to teach. (4) Office-bearer Misconduct; (5) Elders Ruling Well; and (6) Maturity towards Members and the rest of the World.
On the first point, we will answer the question about having qualifications. Why do we need to qualify our overseers? And the next two points, we will answer the question about the qualifications themselves. What are the qualifications? Why are these the qualifications set by the apostle Paul? What does this reveal about the identity, character, and ability of an overseer in the church?
At the same time, we will examine the character needed to fulfill the task of leading, or as Paul puts it “ruling well”. Simply put: An overseer is not abusive. He is not self-seeking. As a leader, an overseer rules well with gentleness and who is mature in his conduct towards others.
Qualified Men in Office
Why do we need to qualify our overseers? First, we need to recognize that qualified overseers are God’s good gift to the church. Second, we need to accept our responsibility as a church to qualify them according to God’s word.
Building up the church is the work of our Triune God. There is often a danger of assuming that leaders of the church were appointed because of their natural gifts and abilities. However, Scripture was clear about the source and origin of such gifted men. We need to recognize they were God appointed, Christ procured and Spirit distributed. It was God himself who appointed them according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: 27-28: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues (emphasis mine).” God the Father, who arranges and appoints these gift for the church, sustains the church by these extraordinary and ordinary gifts. The source of the gifts was divine.
More so, the one who distributes such gifts was also divine. God the Son, Christ himself procured everything the church would need for its redemption including the special powers it would need in order to prevail in the end. Again, Paul reminded us that it was Christ who secured the victory over sin and death and in his ascension, it was said: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:7-8)”. Christ who mediates his gifts to his people. He shared these gifts to build up his church.
And lastly, God the Spirit distributes the gifts to the entire body for the common good of everyone. Going back to 1 Corinthians 12, Paul again established the Trinitarian nature of spiritual gifts when he wrote: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).” The Holy Spirit who calls men in the office of the overseer. He gave them the desire and the ability to perform their duty before God. Paul made this clear when he said to the elders in Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).”
Our Triune God gives qualified men to occupy his office in the church. He calls them into office by providing then the desire and ability. Therefore, due to the spiritual nature of this internal calling, it is necessary for us to objectively qualify them in terms of their identity, character, and ability. This is our second point under this topic: it is the duty of the church to recognize, to affirm and to use them in the church. The internal calling of the overseer must be met with the external calling of the church. Paul made this clear when he wrote: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be… (1 Timothy 3:1-2a)”. The internal and external calling goes hand in hand. God will continually supply his church the leaders they need. This is the sovereignty of the God and the responsibility of the church at work in the selection and appointment of church leaders according to Scripture. Again, to summarize our first topic: God gives qualified men and in response, the church recognizes them by the qualities set to us by Scripture.
God provides qualified men in office and the church can qualify them based on the identity, character, and ability set by Paul in his letter to Timothy and Titus. But before we dwell further on the list of qualifications, let us first address the question of identity. Who are these qualified overseers?
The overseers are men appointed to the office of pastors and elders. They were men given by God and recognized by the church and called to feed, to lead and to protect the church. They are men and not women. Now, we will be unable to discuss in detail the role of women in the ministry of the church; we need to reserve that topic for another lecture but it is suffice to say that the role of authority in the church was given to the head of the household, the husbands or the men. Going back to 1 Timothy 3:1-2a, Scripture says: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife”. The word used as “overseer” in greek is a masculine noun. The English equivalent of the term is a bishop or “episkopos” which is also similar to the designation of the term “prebyteros” or elder. Both titles were given to men to leads the local church. Paul made this emphatic command to Titus when he wrote: “This is why I left you in Crete so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).” Now given these verses, I think we can conclude that Scripture made it plain that the leaders of the church should be men. Positively speaking, men were given the roles to lead Christ’s church.
So God gives qualified men to the church to occupy his office. What then are the characteristics and abilities we should look for as a church in order to identify them, select them and finally appoint them to the task of an overseer?
Must be Above Reproach
According to Scripture, the first qualification of an overseer, in a general sense, is that he must be above reproach (verse 2a). Paul made an emphatic use of the English word “must” or in Greek “dei” meaning it is necessary, should or proper by making it the first word on this sentence. Because of the word order lay emphasis on the necessity of this qualification, the apostle made it plain that the character of the person is the most important quality in an overseer. Being above reproach or in greek “anepílēptos” means a person who is “properly, not apprehended (found wrong) when censured or attacked, i.e. without blame in light of the whole picture.” It points to a character related to his holy conduct. Now, I have heard several exhortations in the pulpit that focuses on availability and faithfulness as a qualification for an officer of the church. It often in the context of finding people who are more willing than able. However, the character that counts most for Paul in qualifying men for service is not his willingness but his godly character. It is not a question of availability but spiritual integrity.
Now the requirement is not sinless perfection. We need to understand that in even our most sanctified life, we will never be able to achieve that unless we are glorified in Christ. However, we should not mistake this as an excuse to lower our standard of moral behavior expected from an overseer. Simply put, an overseer who is above reproach means he cannot be charged by anyone of wrongdoing publicly or privately. It does not mean he is above the law or immune to correction or rebuke. It just simply means when someone tries to charge him with anything, he should be able to uphold his good name and clear himself with any wrongdoing. No one should be able to put him to shame and to smear the good reputation of Jesus Christ and his church. He should be blameless, a man of moral and spiritual integrity.
Specifically, how can he demonstrate his integrity? More than in his church, he should be able to show this at home. The next item in Paul list is that he should be a husband of one wife (verse 2a). Now, I have made this point on our first topic so this time I would like to focus not on the identity, being a “he” or a husband, but on the character of fidelity. Integrity and fidelity are often the traits of a mature godly man. Integrity means oneness in speech and in action while fidelity pertains to the consistency in conduct. Both are domain traits of a mature man who knows and does what needs to be done and does it steadily over a long period of time.
Excursion #1: But is this quality limited only to married man?
Most men, in general, who mature over time will eventually marry. Now does this mean that the office of an overseer limited only to men who are married? Well, if we consider the teaching of Scripture as a whole, we can plainly conclude that this is not so. Paul was unmarried and yet he holds the office of an apostle which is also considered an overseer. Therefore, we can only conclude that an unmarried man who demonstrates integrity and fidelity in his singleness can be qualified to be an overseer.
So, an overseer should be above reproach and a husband of one wife. He should be a man of integrity and fidelity. These are the two most important characteristics we should all be looking for in an overseer.
Faithful Men who are Able to Teach
The next set of qualities given by Paul points to the characteristic needed to carry out the first ability laid down by Paul. In verse 2b, he wrote: “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach”. Being sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable and hospitable are great traits of an effective teacher. Overseers are godly men who are able to teach. In here, the ability to teach becomes the primary task of an overseer. While we must particularly make a distinction between the office of pastors who preach with the elders who rule, suffice to say for now that in general, being an overseer, the skill of teaching is the main instrument used in carrying out both office of the ministers and the elders.
But the hard skill of teaching needs to be accompanied by several important personal attitudes and soft people skills namely, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable. These make them effective overseers in the church of Christ. While teaching can be a profession or a vocation used in secular schools in universities, teaching as a part of the overseer’s task can only be made relevant to the congregation when carried out spiritually. Being sober-minded and self-controlled are the two main spiritual attitudes required in an overseer. In other translations, sober-mindedness means being watchful or vigilant while self-controlled means prudent, thoughtful or possesses a good and sound mind, able to make a good judgment. These qualities are important to an overseer especially when teaching because an overseer is in charge of the souls of the congregation. In all seriousness, wisdom and judgment are required to carry out this important charge.
Aside from these spiritual attitudes, these men are required to be respectable and hospitable. These traits gauge a person’s ability to interact and conduct himself properly with others. An overseer should be concerned with the welfare of others and able to demonstrate sincere love toward others. He should be a great host to people, warmly greeting guest and welcoming to strangers in the church. He should be winsome, approachable, able related to anyone. He cannot be aloft, easily annoyed and timid. Just like how Jesus conducted himself in his public ministry and in his private life with his disciples, we should be able to express our sincere care and love to others. In a way, all these are related to his ability to teach. An overseer should be able to teach with wisdom and care.
Excursion #2: But do they need a seminary degree?
Well, a person who teaches understand the rigorous requirement of an academic degree can help with the discipline of teaching. As a church, we should recognize the importance of training and education. A seminary-trained overseer can effectively perform his duty. However, I will like to direct us to Edmund Clowney’s reminder about this matter. He wrote: “When people see the evidence of fruitful ministry, they extend the outward call to the office in the church. Grades gained in a theological college or university may represent performance on the academic level, but the decisive demonstration of gifts appears in the service of the church.” Well, let us not make the cart put the horse. Service to the church has to be demonstrated first then proper training can be attained. Not all who goes to seminary becomes an overseer but those who are called to be one will definitely have the desire to be trained in order to perform well in their duty.
To summarize: An overseer must be a man of integrity and fidelity. He should be able to teach with great wisdom and sincere concern. This is the identity, the characteristics and ability of an overseer made plain to us from verses 1-2 of 1 Timothy 3.
An overseer should not tarry along wine. 1 Tim 3:3 says: “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” So the first prohibitive act of abuse that we should not allow in an overseer is towards alcohol or wine. He should not be a drunkard. Proverbs warned us of substance abuse.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. (Proverbs 23:29-30)
It does not matter whenever not you are a regular drinker or only a social one, the prohibition against drunkenness is clear. We should consider it important for an overseer to perform his duty well that he should have a sound mind. He should be able to be alert and protect Christ’s church at all times and he will fail in such task when he allows any substances to take control of him. We should look for a sober-minded overseer who does not abuse any substances that would impair his judgment. Ancient or modern, wine or alcohol has been abused by people inside and outside the church. We should not allow anyone who is enslaved by anything to be an overseer. We should discipline anyone found to be abusing alcohol.
Instead, we should follow the admonition of Paul when he wrote in Ephesians 5:18-21: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” An overseer must be given to wine but with the work of the Holy Spirit. He should be under the influence of God’s presence and not with alcohol.
The next abusive behavior that we should not allow an oversee to posses is related to physical and verbal abuse. The next prohibition Paul used in this verse means literally “not a striker” at the same he should not be “quarrelsome”. Simply put, he should not let his anger gets the best of him. Men, in their masculine composition, is physically powerful. But we should not allow a strong emotional drive to take control of it. Any abusive behavior in their action and even in speech is again grounds for discipline in an overseer. We may say do not engage in any physical abuse but how about in our speech or in what we say? Paul warns us: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph 4:29-32).” Abusive speech creates strife and division in the body of Christ. Overseers are builders and not destroyers of the church of Christ. We should not allow such behavior in the church.
Lastly, an overseer should not be abusive of power. The word used here by Paul was “not a lover of money”. Money is a means to gain material power and this power when abused leads to all sorts of evil. Men are naturally attracted to power and authority. They can be easily be tempted to occupy any seat of power therefor any position of power is attractive to them. Most would want a position of power because of the prestige and privileges that come with it, not the responsibility it entails. Therefore, we should not allow men who abuse power or desire to be an overseer for material gain. These men can be practically detected. They want to be served and not to serve. They put themselves first and not the congregation. They are self-seeking and not servicemen.
In summary, we should not allow an overseer to have abusive behaviors and tendencies. He should not abuse any substance and he should not be abusive in his action and in his speech. He should not be self-seeking and indulge in material gain or abuse power.
Elders Ruling Well
The first ability stated by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 is “able to teach”. An overseer should be able to teach but aside from teaching, he should also rule well. Ruling well is the second of two abilities set by Scripture. This is one of those characteristics that Paul explained the grounds for saying so. He spent two full verses to explain it.
The logic is simple. The one who is faithful in small things can be faithful in bigger things. Jesus himself said: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much (Luke 16:10).” We cannot expect an overseer to lead an entire church composed of several families to be led by someone who cannot even his own. It is simply not wise. A persons desire to an overseer should be matched by his capability to lead. No amount of availability that can trump capability. We cannot delegate the authority of leadership to someone who is always there but unable to rule well his own family. The operative word describing the rule is “well”. Men will naturally lead his own family but does he rule them “well”. Rev. A.A. Allison wrote: “A man who does not rule himself well, but seeks to rule others or expects them to govern themselves, is a hypocrite. He will lose the respect of others and will be unable to rule over anything well.”
Next, an overseers rule should not be abusive but gentle. This is the kind of attitude that accompanies this ability to rule. There are many who are capable of keeping his children and wife submissive and we may mistake this as something that satisfies the requirement set by Scripture: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive”. However, this can be done in a manner that is violent, abusive and self-seeking. An outward compliance of submission is not the goal but an internal quality wrought by the Holy Spirit. The rule of an overseer must be with a gentle spirit.
Gentleness is a quality produced by the Holy Spirit. As characteristic expected of all believers, an overseer should be spirit-controlled above all. This is the mark of a true leader of the church, he lived under the influence of the Holy Spirit and the first essential quality that we should expect from him is the gentleness of his rule over others. An overseer should not be abusive but must be gentle in his rule. And because he also possesses the authority of teaching his congregation, he should be able to conduct himself with gentleness especially in correcting others. Paul again reminded us when he wrote: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-25).”
An overseer should be gentle in his rule. This leads us to final requirements set by Paul.
Maturity towards Members and the rest of the World
Lastly, an overseer should be mature. Which means he cannot be a recent convert. Why? Because a recent convert does not yet possess the gentleness a mature Christian will naturally have. He is also susceptible to abusive tendencies specifically when it comes to power. We often hear an old saying by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt; Absolute power corrupts absolutely” And this is true especially when someone who is new to power. Intoxicating as wine, the influence, and prestige, and power that position of leadership brings makes men want to have more. Which why Paul made it clear that our leaders should be seasoned by time and experience. Paul wrote: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.”
We need to carefully select our leaders. Why? Because like what Winston Churchill admits: “Where there is great power there is great responsibility…“ We should not allow men hungry for power and prestige to take over the leadership of the church instead select men who can serve the church with gentleness and maturity. And maturity in service can be displayed not only in his conduct towards his congregation but also to the rest of the world. Paul ended with this requirement: “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Why? Because the office of an overseer is a public office and not a private one. We may expect from him godly living in his household but we should also hold him accountable for his conduct in public. No one should be able to charge an overseer any public wrong-doing or he will smear the name of Christ and his church. We should remove anyone in office who are not “well-thought off by outsiders” wrote Paul. We cannot be wiser than God. We should allow God to rule over us according to his Word.
In conclusion, let me address some practical concerns. Here I listed five.
First, some might think, especially men in our church, I don’t think I can qualify given such high standard. You might be thinking, who can only qualify for that? Now first I would like to say, it is a good thing that you feel some kind of inadequacy on your part. I would rather have us feel inept than overconfident and improperly assess yourself. But given that you felt some kind of lack means you are aware of the gap between who you are right now with what is required of you. For me, it is a good start.
However, the key to overcoming obvious lack of current requirement is to understand whether or not you are desirous of such office. Is God calling you to service? For one thing that I learned in ministry is this: “What God requires, he supplies.” God mandated in his Word that his church should be led by qualified, faithful and able men. Do you believe this? If so then let us trust God’s wisdom and allow him to sovereignly apply this in our lives.
Therefore, it is our duty as leaders to uphold them and as members to look for them. This is how God makes true churches in this world. We may be able to come up with an endless list of things we lack, however, I am made sure by God’s Word that he will work it out. So do you have a desire to be an overseer? Scripture said that calling is from God and if it is from God then He will provide everything you need to fulfill that call.
Second, about not having the time and energy to fulfill the call. You may say, Pastor, I do desire to be an overseer but I don’t think I can do it now for I have a full-time job and my family needs my full attention. I have no more time for ministry. Well, let me direct you to Alexander Strauch who wrote the book Biblical Eldership. He reminded his readers this: “The real problem, then, lies not in men’s limited time and energy but in false ideas about work, Christian living, life’s priorities, and— especially—Christian ministry.” To the Ephesian elders, Paul said, ‘You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:34,35)’. How do working men shepherd the church yet maintain family life and employment? They do it by self-sacrifice, self-discipline, faith, perseverance, hard work, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”
As Christians, we are called to bear our own cross and since we are redeemed by the work of Christ on the cross, our lives in sanctification will be marked by the cross. D.A. Carson reminded us with his quote in the book The Cross and the Christian Ministry: “The cross not only establishes what we are to preach but how we are to preach. It prescribes what Christian leaders must be and how Christians must view Christian leaders. It tells us how to serve and draws us onward in discipleship until we understand what it means to be world Christians.” Our calling is marked by suffering. Again, we are called to carry our own cross. A life of service is a life of sacrifice. We can find time by simply understanding that it requires some concessions or part. We need to man up and simply do what is required. Let us arrange our lives for spiritual service and not indulging in our earthly desires.
Third, on the idea that we should lower our standard and simply compromise. Why should we burden ourselves with such “unrealistic” ideals? Perhaps we should give ourselves a break and deal with the matter pragmatically. My friends, this is the surest way to kill a church. Apart from Biblical worship, biblical church government specifically, biblically defined eldership becomes the watershed that leads to a church’s demise. Compromise on this matter will eventually lead the church to spiritual decay.
But the cure to the church’s spiritual stagnation and decline is a biblically defined and applied eldership. We can be sure, as the sun shines on the day and the moon shines brightly at night, of God’s faithful provision to his church when the church faithfully applies his Word in their lives. Again Alexander Strauch wrote: “A biblical eldership, then, is a biblically qualified team of shepherd leaders. A plurality of unqualified elders is of no benefit to the local church. I agree fully with the counsel of Jon Zens, editor of the journal Searching Together. He writes “Better have no elders than the wrong ones”. The local church must in all earnestness insist on biblically qualified elders, even if such men take years to develop. We should be committed to this biblical mandate of having biblically qualified men in office.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, let heed the call to be faithful with what Scripture teaches. Let us apply them intentionally to the leaders of our church.
Fourth, we may be thinking why the strict requirement for leaders in the church? Practically, so that we can discourage unqualified men to take office. The high standard of attitudes and abilities will bar those who are not qualified and discourage any temptation for the congregation to compromise. The requirements are unquestionably clear and anyone in the congregation to wants to lower the standard can be corrected and rebuked. At the same time, the clear high standards of Scripture in terms of the behavior and conduct of its overseers will be grounds for disciplining anyone who will err. We sometimes pay lip service the inspiration of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) if we only see it positively as means to reinforce good behavior but not willing to accept the responsibility to correct bad ones. Sola Scriptura was meant to be lived in the congregation and selecting our leaders should be one of them. On the other hand, the high standards are meant to encourage godly living. It means that when these qualifications are being demonstrated by the men in a congregation, the Holy Spirit is truly working in that church. Holiness is the standard of godly living. Effectiveness in the ministry while an important work of the church can only be caused by holy living. God is holy, we are also called to be holy.
Fifth, Why would anyone want to be an overseer and subject himself to the discipline and scrutiny of living a godly life? I know there are those who specialize in extremes sports, endanger their lives and live under hostile conditions but why would anyone in the right mind like to have this difficult life inside the church? Because Christ, our great Shepherd, compels us to do so. We are called to suffer in Christ. (1 Peter 4:13) Christ shares his glory as well as his sufferings with us (Romans 8:17). This is the life Paul wanted for himself and encourages others to follow: I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10). So we end this lecture with the Gospel and be reminded again that in anything that Christ called us to do, he has done for us and he will do in us through the Holy Spirit. This is not legalism but simply gospel-grounded living. Do we hear Christ call to serve his church? Then let us prepare to live a life of suffering in service.
The overseers that Christ’s appoints are qualified, godly and gifted men. They possess specific identities, characteristics, and abilities and this separates them from the congregation and becomes selected for the task of serving the church. An overseer is not abusive of any substance, speech and action, or even material gain or He is not self-seeking. As a leader, an overseer rules well with gentleness and who is mature in his conduct towards others.
Prayerfully the congregation should seek them out and appoint them to positions of pastors/teacher, elders, and deacons. May the Lord supply what he requires. Amen.