The Ruling Elder: What to Look for
In God’s wisdom, ministry in a local church is to be led by faithful men, a plurality of godly elders who through the ministry of the word lead every member to partake in and do the work of ministry. It has frequently been noted that the requirements for elders are requirements common to all believers, the only exception really being that they are capable of rightly handling and teaching God’s word. Of course this is because their ability to rightly teach the word is how they will rightly enable and build-up every other member to rightly do the work of ministry. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Being able to rightly teach God’s word presupposes that they themselves have been taught by God’s word; that they are men who are controlled by and in submission to God’s word. In what follows, I want to lay out three ways this evidences itself. I want to do so precisely because judging a man on his “ability to teach” alone can be deceptive and even detrimental. Even Paul himself warns us that there “are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-14). So, what are some things that demonstrate an ability to articulate and desire to live out the Gospel on the part of potential elders?
Firstly, are they men of prayer? Prayer tells you a lot. The Apostles picked seven deacons who could help with the work of the ministry so that they could devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word. Godly elders will put a priority on the ministry of prayer. These should be men who are known not only for their public prayers but as men who give themselves to communing with God in private. If you were to ask their wives about their prayer lives what would they say? Do they lead their families in prayer? When they pray publicly is it clear that they spend much time upon their knees at home?
Prayer is evidence of a disciplined and faithful heart, which takes seriously the need for God’s grace in ministry. A man’s prayer shows his reliance upon God and not his own ingenuity and strength. An elder who places a premium on praying for the church will not be a man who easily falls for pragmatic gimmicks and business models in order to grow his church. That’s the kind of man that is grounded in the Gospel; an elder who will be able to equip the congregation to similarly live prayerful, Gospel-dependent lives.
Secondly, are their homes a reflection of the Gospel? This no doubt comes through in Paul’s instructions that an elder ought to be a man who “manages his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” What does this actually look like?
If we take Paul’s instruction about the church and work backwards to the home we can say at least a few things. Elders are exhorted to shepherd God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2), and so too ought a man shepherd his own family, selflessly caring for them physically and spiritually; feeding them on God’s word day and night. An elder is known and described as an overseer (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1). So too ought a man of God rightly lead and oversee his family, lovingly guiding them in godliness and not abdicating his role as a husband and father and the head of his household. Peter instructs elders to give oversight with “eagerness, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). It is good to see if he acts this way at home. Rather than abdicating his role as a leader does he perhaps swing too far the other way and abuse his role? Is he domineering or gentle? Does he eagerly serve or selfishly demand? Is he a model to his children on what mature faithfulness looks like? Because in becoming an elder he will be called to be model of mature godliness for the church.
Thirdly, are they courageous? Serving as an elder will require plenty of opportunities for awkward confrontation and will demand from a man a certain level of courage. He will, if shepherding rightly, be put in positions where he will cry out along with Paul, “who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
It takes courage to tell a person who for some reason is wrongly desiring to join your church, “I’m sorry, but I do not see any evidence that you either know the Gospel or believe in Jesus Christ.” It takes a level of courage to tell the daughter of a well-known member, “You should not marry the young man you’ve fallen in love with because he is not a Christian.” It’ll take courage to speak openly about the sinfulness of homosexuality and at the same time confront church members for failing to love their gay neighbors. Elders are men called to model mature faithfulness to the Gospel, and so they must be men who are willing to offend when it comes to Gospel truths. This means that they fear God and not men; that they are zealous to stand up for the Gospel even when it hurts. And this will take courage.
All three of these characteristics - prayerfulness, godliness in the home, and courage (and there are many more we could look at) - are characteristics grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A man who prays is a man who believes in God’s promises for him, that in Christ he can approach God as his Abba, Father. A man who is godly at home and has a godly home is a man who’s religion is not just for show. He is no hypocrite and desires Christ to rule in all his life, not just on Sunday mornings. A man who is courageous is a man who has begun to learn the treasure of losing his life for Christ. He will follow his savior anywhere to bring God glory, even (and especially) when it goes against the ways of the world.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.