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Looking for leaders

Category Articles
Date August 30, 2002


Now how should you go about nominating and electing those who will serves leaders of our congregation? You need to know two things: First, what are these men called to do? Second, what qualifications are they required to possess?

by William H. Smith

We as a church are looking for leaders. One of the highest privileges and greatest responsibilities of a church member is to nominate and to choose those who will serve as leader/officers. I hope you take that very seriously now during the nomination season when potential officers are identified and that you will later when you are called on to elect those who will actually serve as officers.

The generic name for all church officers is “servant” or “minister.” The same Biblical word in Greek is used in a special way of those who are called Deacons. But all officers, whoever they may be are servants who follow the Great Servant, Jesus Christ, who said that He came not to be served but to serve and described Himself saying, “I am among you as one who serves.” Like Jesus, all church officers are servants of God and servants of His people.

Now how should you go about nominating and electing those who will serves leaders of our congregation? You need to know two things: First, what are these men called to do? Second, what qualifications are they required to possess? I am going to address those questions by asking you to consider with me two things: First, the Offices. Second, the Officers.


For the sake of context, let me tell you two things that Presbyterians believe about church government. The first is that we believe that church government is not one of those things where we are allowed liberty in the church to construct whatever we might think best. We believe that the basic structure and outline of church government is laid down in the Bible. This is the government that King Jesus has established and through which He governs His Church. The second is that we believe there are two permanent offices in the Church, and these are the offices of elder or overseer and deacon. There were temporary offices such as apostle and prophet, but these are the two offices left for the permanent structure of the Church at the end of the Apostolic Age.

A. Elders

The first office is elder or overseer. By the way, the word translated overseer is, in older versions, translated as bishop. These two terms – elder and overseer, or bishop – do not refer to two offices but to one.

The terms are not synonyms but they are used interchangeably. You can see that in Acts 20 where the elders are instructed by Paul to care for the flock of which God has made them overseers. You can see it also in Titus 1 where Paul reminds Titus that he must make sure elders are appointed in every city where there is a church and then refers to these same men as overseers.

Why do we have elders? Elders are given to the Church by Jesus Christ to carry on His work of shepherding His people. Peter wrote to elders telling them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 1:2) for “the chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). This is why we sometimes call elders undershepherds” – because they are shepherds serving under the chief Shepherd. We rightly think of the work of a shepherd as leading, caring, feeding, protecting. The important thing for the congregation and elders to remember is that elders represent Christ in His work of shepherding.

The shepherding work of the elder comes out in 1 Timothy 3 in two ways. The first is in the one qualification of an elder that mentions a gift – “able to teach.” The second is implied in a rhetorical question in which Paul is speaking about the family life of the elder and asks, “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how we he care for God’s church?” As a shepherd an elder teaches and cares for the church.

The elder must be able to teach. That does not mean that every elder must be able to stand behind a pulpit or on a platform and preach a sermon. We believe that there is only one office of elder but that within the eldership there are differences in gifts. Some are given gifts for preaching. But all elders must be able to teach. That assumes a knowledge of and commitment to the content and doctrine of the Bible and an ability to communicate it to others. This qualification is filled out for us in he supplemental passage in Titus 1 where Paul says of the elder: “He must hold firm 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” (1:9). This could be in a Sunday school class or a covenant group. It may be one on one. A friend of mine spoke of his father, a ruling elder, and said that he could speak publicly only by reading word for word what had previously been written out by his wife, but, give him a coke and some peanuts, and a face to face conversation and he could teach with great effect. An elder must be able to minister to God’s people by communicating
the truth of God’s word to them – evangelizing, discipling, encouraging, admonishing, comforting.

Then an elder must be able to care for God’s church. This is the elder’s work of leading and protecting and generally watching over God’s people. It is important to put this in the right context. Paul does not describe it in terms of a ruler’s management of citizens, or a CEO’s management of a business, but in terms of a father’s management of his household. It is
leadership that involves not just a position but also a relationship. It is grounded in love. It is tender in its operation. It is oriented to people and is considerate of them. At the same time it is leadership. In the Bible church government is not democratic except at the level of choosing leaders. Otherwise church government is representative with gifted leaders directing the life of the congregation. An elder represents Christ as a Shepherd, teaching and caring for God’s
church, the flock God has put under his care.

B. Deacons

The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos, which has the general meaning of servant. As we have already noted, the word is so general that it can refer to all officers of the church. It can even apply to all Christians. All of us are servants of God and each other. But the word is used in a special and technical sense to refer to the church office of deacon. The deacon represents Christ in His merciful service to His people.

The deacon has doctrinal qualifications, too. Paul says, “They must hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” Doctrine is important for the deacon, because the deacon carries out his practical ministry from the base of a grasp of doctrine. The church’s ministry of mercy is grounded in and always informed by the church’s grasp of the truth revealed in the Bible. The deacon needs to hold to these truths with a clear conscience – he must understand and sincerely believe them. We could put the difference between the deacon and elder in this way. The deacon needs to understand and believe everything the elder understands and believes but the does not have to have an ability to teach it.

Now the deacon takes as his example the Lord Jesus as Servant, who in the Upper Room, with the cross heavy on His heart, and, though He was the Master and Teacher, got up from the dinner Table, forgetting about himself, took off His outer garments, wrapped a towel around His waist, and did the work of the lowliest kind of house slave, washing the dirty feet of each disciple. The deacon remembers the origin of His office in the church of Jerusalem. The church from the beginning had such a bond of love, sympathy, and unity that it cared for its own, seeking to assure that there would not be a needy person among the Christians. One of the commitments was to care for the widows. But complaints arose from the non-Palestinian members that their widows were not getting equal treatment. The Apostles, who to this time had been administering this ministry, realized that something had to be done. They did not give up the ministry of the Word and prayer, but they were not willing to neglect the widows. So this office of deacon was
established to care for God’s people. These men were not glorified janitors but men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3).

The office of deacon exists to represent Christ in His service to His people. They are to show and to help us to show the merciful, practical love that Christ has for His church.

The offices of elder and deacon are two separate offices with two separate callings. Both are necessary for the spiritual well being of the church. The first thing we need to know as we begin to choose them is what they are called to do. Elders carry out the work of Christ as Shepherd and deacons
the work of Christ as Servant.


Having answered the question, “What are officers called to do?” we now move on to ask, “What qualifications are they required to have?” It is both interesting and important to note the nature of the qualifications. We might expect that of an elder it might be said that he should have experience as the manager of a business or at least a division of one. We might expect that a deacon would need some kind of accounting or at least bookkeeping experience. But the Biblical qualifications take us in a different direction altogether. They point us in the direction of the officers’ relationships with the community, with their families, and with themselves.

A. Relationship with the Community

We begin with their relationships to the Christian community. The first thing to note is that they need to have been around awhile. Paul says that elders must not be new converts. He points to a special danger of making a new convert an elder. He might, by his position and its authority, become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation the devil fell into
when he became puffed up and in conceit rebelled against God. It is not wise for the community or good for the man, when a new Christian is showing leadership ability and doctrinal understanding, to thrust him into the eldership. He needs time to mature and to show that he is able to handle the office. With regard to the deacon Paul seems to ask less but still
quite a lot. He needs to be tested and put into office only if he passes the scrutiny of the community. Probably the reason for the less stringent demand on a deacon is because as an office of service there is less temptation to conceit.

Paul can list some things of the elder that can be checked in community life. The elder must be respectable – not a sourpuss or a stuffed shirt – but a man who has gained respect. The elder must also be hospitable – a genuine lover of people who will for the sake of discipling and caring for the people entertain them whether in his home or elsewhere. The deacon must be dignified which is a different word from respectable but also carries with it the idea of having gained the respect of others.

The result on the Christian community – the church is that the elder must be above reproach and the deacon must be proved blameless. This is not saying that the man has attained sinless perfection or that there are absolutely no areas of weakness in the eyes of his brothers and sisters, but it does mean there must not be obvious patterns of sin, failure, and neglect – nothing that would undermine him in the exercise of his office, nothing that would cause him to lose his credibility.

Paul adds that the elder must be well thought of by outsiders, that is by those in the broader community outside the church who know this man to be Christian. The elder represents the church before the community. The community must not be able to look at him and say, “Well, you know he goes to that church and claims to be a Christian but look at the way he lives, or the way he operates his business, or what people think of him who play golf with him.” Outsiders may not agree with his faith, but they should be able to acknowledge that he claims to be a Christian and that he lives as

Christian – he “talks the talk and walks the walk,” as they say. Otherwise, his service as an elder may bring reproach to himself and the church and may lead into a trap of temptation and sin set for him by the devil.

B. Relationship with his Family

Paul puts great emphasis on the officer’s relationship with his family, with his wife and his children. We should take a moment here to ask the question whether a church officer has to be a married man with children. It would appear not from the fact that Paul was an officer and unmarried. However, most Christian men will be married and have children, and, if that is the case, this area of his life must be carefully examined. If a man lacks a wife and/or children, then his life must be examined in other ways to determine if he has the character that is usually demonstrated in the family context.

Both the elder and the deacon must be the husband of one wife, or a one- woman man. A man who is married must have a marriage relationship in which there is no question about his commitment to and fidelity to his wife. He has one wife, and one sexual relationship, and must be scrupulously and
unquestionably faithful to his wife. I cannot deal today with the question of a man who, at some point in the past but during his Christian life, has been unbiblically divorced. The least I can say about that is that any such case must be thoroughly examined and there must at the least be convincing long-standing evidence of repentance of all sin involved in that divorce. But a congregation would be foolish in the extreme to put into either office a man about whose marriage there are serious questions. Not only is there great potential harm for the church but also for the man and his marriage.

The man’s handling of his children must also be considered in weighing his qualifications. About the elder it is said, He must manage his household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive. In Titus Paul adds that the elder’s children must be “believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6). Back in 1 Timothy Paul says about the deacons that they must be capable of managing their children and their own households well. A man who is going to serve as an officer must be a father who is able to train his children, manage them, and have them
obey him. We fathers need to let the buck stop with us and stop making excuses – like “he’s ADD you know”, or, “she’s really tired”, or “they’re just being kids.” We raised 5 boys, who were all boy, spread out over just 8 years, and I can tell you from experience that you can train children to
respect and to obey you, without constant frustration and without becoming an ogre. Now, if a man has not demonstrated leadership in the rearing of his children, how can he possibly lead the church? How can the church respect and follow him? And how can he show any promise of fruitful church
leadership if he has not been successful in the most basic and important realm of leadership, a man’s leadership of his home?

C. Relationship with Himself

The final relational area we must examine is that of a man to himself. Paul says an elder must be sober-minded, self-controlled. These speak of a man who is serious about life, who has his spirit and himself under control. He is not silly, or impulsive, or irresponsible, or undisciplined.

Paul lists three areas of this kind of Spirit enabled self-mastery for both elders and deacons. One has to do with relations with others. The elder must be not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome. Most leaders are spirited and strong men, but they must be in control of themselves and not let this break out in sinful ways that harm relationships with each other or the congregation. There are plenty of “iron sharpening iron” situations on a Session, but these must not become occasions of anger or conflict. There are many frustrating people in a congregation but an elder must correct with gentleness those who go astray. The deacon must be not double-tongued. He must be a man of integrity who speaks the truth and the same truth to everyone, a man who can be counted on for honesty.

The elder must be not a drunkard and the deacon not addicted to much wine. Some might think it would be wiser that the rule would be total abstinence, but that is not the rule. Surely it is true that, if the choice must be made between the total abstinence in use of alcoholic beverages and excess, then the choice is total abstinence. But the Bible does not impose upon us a universal rule. It expects all of us and requires officers to demonstrate the self-controlled, moderate use of wine and other substances which can be abused and become addictive.

Then the elder must be not a lover of money and the deacon not greedy for dishonest gain. The qualification of the elder gets at the root – not a lover of money. And the qualification for the deacon describes one of the fruits of that root – not greedy for dishonest gain. An officer must not be caught up in the lust for money and things. He must be able to hold these things with a loose grip. And no one should have the slightest question about his integrity, his honesty, and his fairness in all things material.

We, as a congregation, are looking now for leaders. We are looking for men who will represent Christ in His ministry as Shepherd and His ministry as Servant in this congregation. Look for such men who have proved themselves in their relationship to the community, their families, and themselves. The honor of Christ and the welfare of His church are dependent on our looking for and finding the leaders He is giving to His church.


Westminster Presbyterian Church
1400 Evangel Drive
Huntsville, AL 35758

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