A Treatise on the Eldership
J. W. McGarvey  (1870)


      The qualifications for the office of an Elder are all prescribed by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1st Timothy and the first chapter of Titus. They are distributable into six natural divisions, and it will simplify our investigation to examine these divisions separately. They are distinguished as they relate respectively to experience, reputation, domestic relations, character, habits, and ability to teach and rule. We will consider them in this order.

      1. Experience. We mean by this, experience in the life of a Christian. Paul says that an Elder should not be a new convert, lest, being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 1 Ti. 3:6. The reason here given shows that the office was one of high honor and responsibility; otherwise, the occupant of it would incur no danger of being lifted up with pride. The condemnation of the devil is the condemnation into which [53] the devil fell, which, according to Paul's understanding of it, resulted from pride. A new convert would be more likely to fall into this sin than an experienced Christian, because he would more recently have escaped the habitual service of Satan, and would have led power to resist temptation. In assigning this qualification, the apostle shows how important it is that pride of office shall not characterize the Eldership. It is the same important lesson that Jesus taught the disciples when he said, "He that would be greatest among you, let him be servant of all."

      Within what period after his immersion a man ceases to be a new convert, is not here indicated. It is left to the decision of those interested in the selection and ordination of Elders. It is not at all difficult for men of common sense to decide what members of a given church are new converts, although it would be difficult to express the idea more definitely than it is done by the apostle.

      2. Reputation. The good which a church is capable of accomplishing in a community depends very much upon its reputation, and the reputation of the church depends much upon that of its representative men. Most wisely, therefore, it is required that an Elder shall have a "good report of them that are without, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil." 1. Ti. iii: 7. If he fall into reproach, not only is the church reproached with him, but he must soon lose his influence over the membership of the church, and it is difficult for the devil to construct a snare more likely to catch his victim than when he brings an Elder into reproach within the church. Both the Elder himself [54] and many members of his flock are exposed to almost certain ruin in that event. Many brethren can be found who have been caught in this snare, and who are now either standing aloof from the church, or coldly and sourly looking on and criticising those who do the work which they once failed to do.

      This qualification has a necessary limitation. When they that are without are men who despise what is good, and hold in bad repute the man who acts according to the will of Christ, we can not understand the apostle to mean that the Elder shall have a good report from them; nor, indeed, does he refer to men of that character, whether many or few in the community. He refers to men whose opinion is worth considering, and who know the habits of the Elder. He must have a good report from them in regard to his moral and religious character.

      It is seldom, according to our observation, that a church has been so thoughtless as to select a man for the Elder's office who was very deficient in this qualification, but it often happens that in the course of his career, an Elder falls into bad repute, sometimes unjustly, but oftener, justly. Many churches are now languishing under the incubus of an Eldership composed partly of such material, and they can never flourish till relieved by the death or resignation of the unfortunate party. It is too hazardous, in such cases, to wait for death to bring the desired relief, and voluntary resignations are least likely to occur with just that class of men. It is the duty, therefore, of all churches thus afflicted, to call upon the party to resign the office. It is a duty of a most delicate nature, requiring all the wisdom and prudence of which the leading men of the church [55] are capable, but it must, at all hazards, be done. A conference of a large number of the more intelligent and disinterested members, conducted in the most private manner possible, and its decision communicated in the most considerate manner, will always effect the object with a man whose feelings are at all delicate. If, in any case, this should fail, more open and public means should be resorted to; for an Elder must have a good report from them that are without, and upon the church rests the responsibility of seeing that no man is retained in the office who does not possess this qualification.

      3. Domestic relations. To Timothy and Titus both, the apostle prescribes that the overseer shall be the husband of one wife. There has been a vast amount of disputation as to whether this requires him to be a married man. It is alleged, in opposition to this idea, that when churches were planted among a people practicing polygamy, men would frequently be immersed who had a plurality of wives, and that the apostle intends only to prohibit such from being made overseers. Undoubtedly the use of the numeral one in the text has this force, and it would be unlawful to place a polygamist or bigamist in the office. But while the expression has this force, we think that candor requires the admission that it also has the effect of requiring a man to be a married man. That he should be the husband of one wife, forbids having less than one as clearly as it forbids having more than one. If it be said that a man owns but one farm, it is just as clearly implied that he owns one as that he owns no more than one. Moreover, the context confirms the conclusion; for the apostle proceeds in both epistles to state how the overseer must govern his household, [56] and especially his children; which statements imply that he is to be a man of family.

      It has been urged as an objection to this conclusion, that it would disqualify Paul himself, and Barnabas and Timothy for the office of Elder although they held offices or positions of much greater responsibility. But this objection can have no force, unless it be made to appear that these brethren were qualified for the Elder's office, or that the qualifications of an Apostle or an Evangelist include those of an Elder. Neither of the two, however, can be made to appear, and therefore the objection has no force whatever. Indeed, it seems most fitting that men whose chief work led them from city to city and nation to nation, through all kinds of danger and hardship, should be freed from the care of a family, and equally fitting that the shepherd, whose work was always at home and in the midst of the families of his flock, should be a man of family. A married man certainly possess advantages for such work that are impossible to an unmarried man, and the experience of the world must confirm the wisdom of the requirement that the overseer shall be the husband of one wife. It may be well to add that one living wife is clearly meant, and that there is no allusion to the number of deceased wives a man may have had. If my wife is dead, I am not now her husband.

      It in also required that the candidate for the Eldership shall "rule well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;" or, as it is expressed in Titus, "having faithful children not accused of riot, or unruly." The reason given for this requirement is this: "For if a man know not how [57] to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" The figure of interrogation is here employed in order to assert, most emphatically, that if a man does not know how to rule his own house, he can not take care of the Church of God--he is incompetent to fill the office of overseer. It is altogether vain for uninspired men to demur against a decision so emphatically rendered by an apostle; we therefore accept it without qualification.

      4. Character. The traits of character prescribed for an Elder are numerous, and when considered as a whole they present a very rare combination. The first of these in logical order, and the first mentioned in both of the epistles which treat of the subject, is blamelessness. When it is, said that an overseer must be blameless, we must of necessity understand the term in a comparative, not in an absolute sense. This necessity arises from the fact acknowledged and insisted upon by the apostles, that no man is entirely blameless when his character stands a fair comparison with the characters of other good men. The apostle seems, to have his eye upon the counterpart of the good reputation which we have already mentioned. If a man possessing a good repute among them who are without, is known to have a character corresponding to this, he is blameless in the only sense in which men in the flesh can be blameless. We may remark further, that this qualification, from the very fact of its being comparative, must admit of different degrees, and that some qualified Elders may be more blameless than others. The degree which is requisite to eligibility in any given case, must be determined by those who are immediately concerned in the selection and ordination of the Elder. [58]

      To be blameless, is merely to be free from faults. Not content with this general prohibition, the apostle proceeds to specify some faults which it is especially important for the overseer to avoid. He must not be covetous. We have already spoken of the importance of this prohibition, while treating of the example which the Elders should set before their brethren. A covetous Eldership will make a covetous church, and a covetous church is a dead church.

      As the Elder must not be covetous, so, according to the reading of our common version, he must not be "greedy of filthy lucre." The Greek adjective, of which this expression is the rendering, is aischrokerdos, compounded of aischros, base, and kerdos, gain. There is a slight difference of opinion as to its meaning. Some critics render it "greedy of gain," and some, "making money by base means." The latter understand the apostle as prohibiting any disreputable business; and the former, as prohibiting the greed for gain which would lead to such a business. By either rendering, a disreputable occupation is prohibited--such, for example, as dealing in intoxicating liquors, jockey trading, rearing sporting stock, renting property for improper uses, and such like, in none of which can a man engage unless his greed for gain overrides his regard for the welfare of the community. Any other course of life by which a man betrays an excessive greed for gain is undoubtedly prohibited.

      The apostle also specifies among prohibited faults, self-will. The Elder must not be self-willed. No man is fit to hold office jointly with other men, who is not content to often yield his own will to that of his compeers. Neither is any man capable of [59] exercising moral sway over a community, who, possesses an iron will that never bends to the wishes of others. We speak now of matters which are lawfully subject to the will of man, not of those in which God's will has been declared. Within the limits of the latter there is no room for the human will to play--it has only to submit.

      In the third place, the overseer is to avoid every thing which would disturb the peace of the church. He is not to be a "striker," nor a "brawler," nor even "soon angry," but in opposition to all these, he is to be "temperate" and "patient." He will have frequent occasions for the trial of his patience, if he makes vigorous efforts to discharge his duties; and unless he be well supplied with it, though he may not fall to brawling and striking, he will become ill-tempered and discouraged. Nothing is more wisely said, than that he must be patient.

      Besides the negative qualifications, or traits of character which an overseer must not possess, the apostle names a number of positive elements of character. He must be "just," for he is a judicial functionary of the church; he must be "sober," that is sober minded, for levity, which sobriety forbids, argues a want of piety; he must be a "lover of hospitality," for otherwise he is devoid of that sympathy which is necessary in order to secure the affection of others; he must be "a lover of good men," for all good men love one another; he must be "holy," for he is set apart to a holy office, and his official acts concern the most holy relations which bind mere to one another and to their God.

      5. Habits. A man's habits grow out of his character, but they also react upon his character, [60] tending constantly to make it either better or worse. A habit of vigilance, or watchfulness, is enjoined upon the Elder, because without it many things most deleterious to the congregation would escape his notice. A want of this habit is a very common fault. While the overseer should be far better informed as to the condition of the members of the church than any other person in it or outside of it, it is often the case that through mere want of watchfulness he is the last to learn what is going on. A habit of watchfulness in matters of business is apt to follow a man into the office of overseer; hence the importance of requiring it as a condition of eligibility.

      It is not more important for the overseer to be watchful, than that he should avoid the only other habits mentioned by the apostle, and not implied in the qualifications already discussed. He must not be "given to much wine." It is not merely drunkenness that is here prohibited; if it was, we would doubtless have the word which is appropriated to the expression of that idea. Neither is the idea of much in the original. The term is paroinon, by wine, and means simply, given to wine. It doubtless contemplates a man who is given to a freer use of wine than was customary among strictly sober people even though he might never become intoxicated.

      We have now glanced rapidly at the rare combination of moral traits and habits which must characterize the overseer, and will next discuss the intellectual qualifications which are necessary to his usefulness as a teacher.

[ATOTE 53-61]

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