Biblical Elders: Leaders Reflected in Those They Lead

God’s covenant blessing of salvation has come through his line of covenant descendants. Thus, the covenant people of God are not only identified as God’s family, but also every human family is a miniature model of God’s spiritual family, the Church. We see this point reflected in Paul’s emphasis on the qualifications of those authorized by God to lead his church (1Tim. 3:4-5). They manage their own household well, and thereby with all dignity have children who are obedient to him. If a man cannot manage his own household, Paul asks, how can he manage God’s? 

Paul’s question, of course, is rhetorical. The answer is: He can’t. Perhaps we in the church too often fail to understand the substance of Paul’s point. The man who should be given authority to lead God’s people is a man whose character is seen in those with whom he is closest and who, therefore, reflect his leadership. The emphasis is that the man’s children are a means through which one can know the man’s true character.

Now, for clarification let’s note that this point regarding the man’s children holds only if he has children. Can a man who is not married, or does not have children be an elder in the church? It would seem so, otherwise one would have ruled out Paul, as far as we know, and certainly Jesus from the preaching and teaching office. And after all, there are other character qualifications mentioned for the elder (and the deacon) besides how he manages his family. But, if a man is married and has children he must be singularly devoted to his wife and manage his household or family well, with all dignity having children in submission to him, if he is to be considered worthy of the responsibility of elder in the church.

It is interesting to note that the phrase “with all dignity” in 1Tim. 3:4 could refer to how the man exercises his management of his family in order to bring about obedient children, or to the children in their obedience. I would submit that this is one of the numerous times in Scripture where the ambiguity is making the point of drawing our attention to the organic relationship between two realities. Paul’s point appears to be that the man worthy of being an elder in the church is one who is dignified by the way in which he manages his family and this is reflected in how his children respond to him—they too are dignified by their willing obedience. We see and admit the point in other human relationships.

A group of employees managed by one person are often regarded as in some ways reflecting the person managing them. Players reflect, in various ways and to varying degrees their coach. So too students in relation to their teacher. The point is not that the boss, coach, teacher or father automatically, and in every way, can determine the character of those who are subject to their leadership. We are dealing with humans not inanimate objects. Yet, there is an unavoidable effect that a leader of any kind has upon those they lead.

It does not take a genius to figure out how to nurture and produce a timid, fearful athlete lacking confidence—over emphasize criticism, nitpick every little thing they do—even when it is things that really don’t matter much—give praise infrequently and grudgingly, and generally fail to instruct in what the athlete ought to do that is of vital importance. Funny how those are precisely the coaches that complain about their athletes, are frequently exasperated by nearly everything going on in the competition, and are quick to blame everything and everyone other than themselves for their athlete’s results. It’s also not a mystery as to what results when the coach simply tries to be the athlete’s “friend.” The hard difficult matters of discipline are avoided. A good time is had by all, and mediocre to poor results follow.  

Good leadership, as the saying goes, is not “rocket science.” One sees its principles repeatedly in every human communal project—work, military, sports, families, churches. The fact that we have so many books on leadership and that we have a cottage industry of “leadership” gurus is a sure sign that we live in a culture void of biblical truth, void of knowledge regarding the basics of human relationships, void of actual leadership.

Obviously, this matter is only one among many issues regarding biblical elders, but it is also quite significant—the man’s character is reflected in those with whom he is closest, in those who are subject to his leadership.     

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith