Monday, April 23, 2007

Looking For A Few Good Men

By Mark Dever and Paul Alexander

Excerpted from The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel

How do you go about looking for elders, and what exactly is it that you’re looking for? Answering this question requires us to consider what exactly an elder is not, and then what an elder is.[1]


A biblical elder is not simply an older male. There are plenty of godly older men who do meet the character qualifications for biblical eldership. I hope the Lord blesses our church with more! But bare chronological advancement, even when married to upstanding church membership, is not sufficient to satisfy the requirements outlined in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1. In fact, there are some thirty year old men (or even younger) who are more qualified to be elders than some men twice their age. Life experience alone does not qualify a man as an elder.

A biblical elder is not simply a successful businessman.

In fact, some of the very principles or character traits that get some businessmen to the top of the business ladder may actually put them on the bottom rung of the church leadership ladder.[2] We’re not looking for people who "know what they want and know how to get it." Nor are we looking for people who know how to manage people, raise money, climb the ladder, or close the deal. Leadership in the church is fundamentally different than leadership in the business world.[3] The church is not simply a non-profit business. It is the body of Christ, and as such is the most unique corporate institution in the world. It operates on principles of distinctively Christian doctrine, servant-hood, holiness, faith, hope, and love. This is not, of course, to say that it is impossible to be a biblically qualified elder and a successful business man at the same time. It is simply to say that success and leadership in the business world do not always or necessarily bode well for eldership in the local church.

A biblical elder is not simply an involved community member.

Being elected to sit on a city or neighborhood council is a wonderful privilege and a unique evangelistic opportunity for any Christian. But again, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for meeting the qualifications of elder. A man can be the president of the PTA, coach little league, be an alderman, and lead a boy scout troop and still not be qualified as an elder. Serving the community in these ways certainly doesn’t preclude a man from qualifying. But as we look around to see who might meet the biblical requirements, community service alone cannot be our ultimate criteria.

A biblical elder is not simply a "good ole’ boy".

Living in the same location and having the same friends or even being a member of the same church for 30+ years doesn’t make a man an elder. Serving in the capacity of elder in a local church should not be dependent on whether a man is willing to "play ball", or whether he is a part of the right social network, or whether he’s from the right part of the country (or county, depending on where you live!). Likeability can often be deceptive.

A biblical elder is not a female.

The criteria laid out in 1Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 assume male leadership in the church. The office of elder is an office that requires the ones holding it to be able to teach. Teaching is an authoritative act, and women are forbidden to exercise authority over men in the church (1Tim 2:9-15). Paul roots that prohibition in the order of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 – Adam was created before Eve, revealing Adam’s God-given place of headship over her. Both are equally created in the image of God, but God has given them different yet complementary roles to fill both in the home and in the church.[4]

A biblical elder is not a politician.

The biblical office of elder is an elected office. But the man who fills it should not be one who subtly or overtly campaigns for it, or one who is noticeably vocal about promoting political positions in the context of the local church.

What, then, is a biblical elder?


Our question can be answered first in terms of the office and second in terms of the man. The office of elder is an office designed for the leadership of the church through the teaching of the Word.[5] The character of the man who qualifies to fulfill that office is described in 1Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. An elder is simply a man of exemplary, Christ-like character who is able to lead God’s people by teaching them God’s Word in a way that profits them spiritually. We are looking, then, for men who display this character and demonstrate both an aptitude for and fruitfulness in teaching God’s Word to others in an edifying way.[6] This definition might serve as a good spiritual snapshot or profile of the kind of men you’re looking for to be elders.

Qualification Quadrants

A helpful way to think about the criteria for choosing leaders might be in terms of the quadrants below. Again, the call to being an elder is a call to leadership through biblical teaching. This means that at a bare minimum, you need men who, first and foremost, share a deep, biblical understanding of the fundamentals of Christian theology and the Gospel. Areas to consider first are the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, God’s sovereignty, the divinity and exclusivity of Christ, and the atonement. No man who falters in the basics of biblical doctrine should be considered for eldership, no matter how gifted or likeable he may be. The Word builds the church, and as such it simply can’t be healthy for any of our elders to have reservations about fundamental Christian truths.

Once it’s been determined that a candidate is sound in the central Bible doctrines, it is our practice to confirm that the candidate shares our particular doctrinal distinctives; namely, the necessity of believers’ baptism for local church membership [note: Mark Dever is a Baptist]. These issues, while not saving, are nevertheless important for how we decide to conduct our life together as a church. Such distinctives will obviously vary depending on the convictions of the congregation. The principle, however, is simply that the leaders of a congregation should understand and be conscientious advocates of a local church’s distinctive doctrines. The elders need to be agreed on these matters so that their own unity doesn’t fracture, and so that they can provide a unified lead for the congregation to follow.

Third, it is extremely helpful to ensure that the candidate is courageous enough to stand against the culture on certain clear biblical issues, such as the role of women in the church. An elder must model for the congregation both a strength and a willingness to live a counter-cultural lifestyle in areas where Christ and culture conflict. If, as an elder, a man caves in to the conforming pressures of the culture on well-defined biblical issues, his example and teaching will eventually lead the church to look more like the world.

Finally, we need to be able to discern from the candidate’s relational involvement in the church that he loves the congregation. We want to be able to recognize his love for the other members of the church by the fact that he’s already involved in doing elder-type work, even before he’s given the title. So we might reasonably expect a man who is recognized as an elder to be attending regularly, initiating with others to do them spiritual good, and serving the church as faithfully as he can.


One of the most significant human dynamics in the church’s continuing spiritual growth and health is the kind of leadership it is following. When biblically qualified men are leading a church with character and skill, it is a deep and wide blessing for the unity, holiness, and spiritual growth of the church. Put somewhat negatively, so many potential mistakes and heartaches can be avoided simply by ensuring that only those men who are biblically qualified become elders.


1. With the exception of the opening paragraph, this entire article is excerpted from the chapter "Looking For a Few Good Men" in The Deliberate Church, by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander (Crossway, 2005).
2. E.g., being a lover of money, being argumentative, not being gentle, not managing his own household well (1Tim 3:1-7).
3. Mark 10:35-45; John 13:1-17.
4. For a full exegetical and practical treatment of gender-based roles in the home and church, see John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Biblical Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993). For a specific treatment of 1Tim 2:9-15, see Andreas Kostenberger, Thomas Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin, eds., Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
5. This is distinguished from the office of deacon, which is designed for the service of the church through tending to the physical and financial matters of the corporate body.
6. We will think more carefully about the practical necessity of this character in chapter 15, and what it means to be "able to teach" in chapter 16.

Mark Dever is the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Paul Alexander is the pastor of Fox Valley Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.


Spiritual Israel said...

Vincent, this is a much better post.

Jenson said...

Hi Vincent,

I find it quite amazing to find good Christian men desiring to be elders (like 1 Tim 3), but for all the wrong reasons (e.g. as a sounding board for their pet-topics, fame, spend all day reading thick theological treatises, etc).

Spurgeon jokingly said of these men to be like "God, invisible during the weekdays, incomprehensible on Sundays". Quite often it is due to a misconception of the term "office".

As I prefer the older works, I would recommend David Dickson's The Elder and His Work - or some would say "The Ruling Elder and how he supports the church and his Teaching Elder".

vincit omnia veritas said...

The elder (presbuteros) is a shepherd (poimen); it is clear from Scripture that presbuteros, episkopos, & poimen all refer to the same office. The work of the elder is that of the episkopos/poimen.

I always find it interesting to see a range of views from the two to the three offices poisition. Most Reformed churches take the 2.5 or 3.0 position. Perhaps I am of the 2.14159265 persuation: this places me dangerously close to the 2.0 position, which some may say is not as "Reformed." From the 0.14159265, it is also clear that I recognize some distinction. Perhaps that can be explored further.

Thanks for your recommendation on Dickson's book. Will try and get a copy for further study.

"Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership" by Phil A. Newton is also a good book to check out.

vincit omnia veritas said...

Dear Jenson,

I refer you to the following two articles, one by Torrance and the other by Murray. Murray leans towards the classic Presbyterian view of 2.5 offices, and his arguments against the 2.0 offices view is based on pragmatic reasoning. Nevertheless, I applaud their openness to Scripture and their willingness to explore this controversial issue further.

Professor T. F. Torrance, The Eldership in the Reformed Church, SCOTTISH JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY, VOLUME 37, No.4.

So wrote Torrance:

“It was inevitable that in Scotland, as in the U.S.A., the theory of 'the ruling elder' would prove troublesome and indeed that the whole concept of the eldership should be reopened. That is what happened in the nineteenth century after the publication in 1831 of the book by Samuel Miller of Princeton on The Ruling Elder. The case for the theory that ministers and elders were both 'presbyters', differing only in respect of their particular functions, was now subjected to a thorough examination, if only because it was held to have associations with 'Brownist' or 'Congregationalist' notions of the Church and Ministry. In the U.S.A. this theory of the eldership was demolished by Smyth of Charlston [sic] and Hodge of Princeton with immense learning, but the same thing was done much more lucidly and succinctly by Peter Colin Campbell of Aberdeen, to name only one of those who entered the debate.

Clearly the biblical grounds for the conception of elders in the Reformed Church had to be examined more thoroughly than before. As a result Reformed scholars found themselves forced more and more to the conclusion that there is no clear evidence in the New Testament for what we call 'elders', let alone the theory that there are two kinds of presbyter. The biblical passages to which appeal is made, when objectively considered, cannot be taken to bear the interpretation Presbyterians put upon them. Moreover, they were never understood in this sense by any of the Church Fathers, not even by Pseudo-Ambrose who did not make use of 1Tim. 5.17 in the way that was sometimes alleged. It is also the case that outside Presbyterian Churches, there is no Church that interprets the New Testament passages adduced by them in this way. Hence Presbyterians are isolated from the rest of Christendom past and present in claiming that these biblical texts provide evidence for 'elders' in their sense. The conclusion seems inescapable: Presbyterians adduced this 'biblical evidence' in order to have some authoritative justification for an eldership they found, not within the New Testament itself; but within certain sections of the The 4th/5th century North African Church. And yet even there, as we have noted, there is no evidence that these 'elders' were ever called 'presbyters'.

Even if the Church were to follow Calvin and the Westminster Divines (different as they were) in their approach to the eldership, it would still not be possible for it to do more than get biblical evidence for some office similar to that of the Old Testament 'elders of the people' who served in communities of Israel in a civil capacity and thereby shared with the religious leaders responsibility for governing the public life of the people of God. Calvin himself; however, never advanced biblical evidence for what we call 'elders', but only, and then very tentatively, for what he called 'elders'. He was definitely not a Presbyterian! In Scotland, with the Melvillean revolution, the Church embarked upon a course in which it was to substitute elders, set apart for life, in place of Calvin's deacons, transferring to them the functions ascribed to deacons in the New Testament, and detailed by Calvin in his description of their office in the Early Church, while restricting the functions of deacons in the Church of Scotland mainly to the gathering and distributing of the alms of the congregation in its social care of the needy. Perhaps we may put a better gloss on this departure from Calvin's model by claiming that actually our 'elders' are the nearest thing in any Church today to what the Pastoral Epistles speak of as 'deacons'.[11] However, the fact that our elders are called 'elders' and not 'deacons' means that they cannot draw support from what the New Testament has to say about deacons, and are thus unable to find in the New Testament any description of their specific office as elders. Consequently they can only turn to Presbyterian tradition rather than to Holy Scripture for any guidance in the fulfilment of their duties. …”

He continues,

“a)The eldership in the Reformed Church, like the diaconate in the Early Church, is essentially a sacramental office closely associated with the celebration and administration of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. Thus it has long been a primary function of Scottish elders, meeting as a Kirk Session, to join corporately with the presiding minister at the celebration of Holy Communion, rather after the pattern set by Jesus and his disciples at their last celebration of the Passover together, when he solemnly inaugurated the New Covenant in his Body and Blood, thereby instituting the Holy Supper in the Church. In the early centuries deacons acted as ministerial assistants to presbyters and/or bishops.[20] They were given an important part in the regular liturgy of the Church, such as in reading the Scripture, prompting the responses and leading the praise, while also assisting in a subsidiary way at the celebration of the Eucharist, but also exercised a stewardship over the gifts that were brought to it for the Agape or 'Love-feast'. Hence deacons were charged with the distribution of goods and alms to the poor, as well as with assisting the presiding presbyter or bishop in taking Communion from the central celebration to house-churches within the paroichia or 'diocese'. This association of elders and deacons the the celebration of the Lord's Supper would seem to argue for an integration of their duties in the Church of Scotland. Moreover, it would have the effect of recovering something of the wholeness of their office and of reinforcing the fact that it is essentially spiritual. In their own distinctive way elder-deacons are 'stewards of the mysteries of God' in the life and mission of Christ's Church.

(b)The fact that the ministry in the Church is essentially corporate with a two-fold activity as 'service of the Word' and as 'service of response to the Word', argues that our elder-deacons, like deacons in the Early Church, should be regarded as members of the kleros, no less than presbyters. It might be claimed, as it was by Clement of Rome (I Clem. 40), that they have a status within the Church of Christ similar to that of the Levites in the Church of Old Testament who had the Lord himself as their peculiar 'allotment' or 'inheritance' (Deut. 18.2; cf. Acts 1.17), even though they did not belong to the priesthood as such.[21] That is to say, while elder-deacons are not to be regarded as included within the order of those ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, nevertheless they are to be regarded among those who have been solemnly set apart and sanctified for holy office within the corporate priesthood of the Church.[22]”


Even William Cunningham wrote, “I have never been able to make up my mind fully as to the precise grounds on which the office and functions of the ruling elder ought to be maintained and defended. For some time before I went to America I had come to lean pretty strongly to the view that all ecclesiastical office-bearers were presbyters, and that there were sufficiently clear indications in Scripture that there were two distinct classes of those presbyrers, viz, ministers and ruling elders; though not insensible to the difficulty attaching to this theory from the consideration that it fairly implies that wherever presbyters or bishops are spoken of in Scripture ruling elders are included. I have been a good deal shaken in my attachment to this theory by the views I have heard from you, but I have not yet been able to abandon it entirely.” (Letter of July 1844 in Life of Charles Hodge (T. Nelson: L,ondon, 1881), p. 425.)

In my humble opinion, I believe the truth is found somewhere between the 2.0 and the 2.5 view of church offices.

Yours truly,
Vincent - who holds to the "Pi" minus 1 view.

vincit omnia veritas said...

The truly Reformed position is set out in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin wrote, "But in indiscriminately calling those who rule the church "bishops," "presbyters," "pastors," and "ministers," I did so according to Scriptural usage, which interchanges these terms. For to all who carry out the ministry of the Word it accords the title of "bishops." So in Paul, when he has bidden Titus to appoint presbyters for each town (Titus 1:5), there follows immediately, "for a bishop...must be blameless" (Titus 1:7; cf. 1Timothy 3:1), etc. Elsewhere he greets a number of bishops in one church (Philippians 1:1). And in The Acts it is related that he convened the Ephesian presbyters (Acts 20:17), whom he calls "bishops" in his speech (Acts 20:28)" (Book IV, ch.III, 8).

It is therefore strange that Darby had been credited with the invention of the 2.0 offices view. If all elders within the presbytery are rightly called Bishops, Pastors or Elders, what scriptural reasoning can there be to elevate one man above all other elders, and to assign him with the sole authority of ministry of the Word and Sacraments? I nevertheless emphasize that among the elders, one man may be so gifted that most of the pulpit ministry is committed to him. That would be a natural and wise decision among the presbytery. And again, this man may be the elder who commits his entire time to the Word, also known as the “full-time ministry.”

There is perhaps room for Reformation. Are we Reformed and reforming?