The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
1 Timothy 3:1 (ESV)
The work of an elder is good, noble, or honorable. This work requires Christ-like character to be done well. When we look at the biblical requirements for being an elder, they focus primarily on character rather than skills (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9). So what does the heart of an elder look like? Here are five signs the elder’s heart is right and true:
5 Signs Your Desire to Be an Elder Is True
Use each of these characteristics for self-examination. If you are an elder, or if you desire to be one, each of these characteristics should be clearly present in your life. If they are not, you may need to step down for a while to work on your character. In my next post, I’ll share some ways you can grow in this Christ-like character.
You love people.
One of the most important characteristics of an elder is that they love all people. Consider Jesus’s commands to his disciples. They are to love the church (1 John 4:7), love their families (Ephesians 5:28), love their neighbors (Matthew 22:39), love their enemies (Matthew 5:44), and love their fellow elders (John15:12). If a person is not loving, they are not qualified to be an elder.
Now, love doesn’t look the same to all people. Some love through service, others love through words, and still others love through presence. So we must be careful to know the heart of the person and the motive for their actions. Some things that may not appear “loving” may actually be very loving when we understand the person’s motives. For example, rebuke can hurt but it can be loving at the same time. Are you motivated by love?
You welcome strangers.
An elder must be hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2). The word “hospitable” literally means “one who welcomes strangers.” Everyone welcomes people whom they know and love. There is nothing special about someone who welcomes family into their home. However, Jesus often welcomed social outcasts, foreigners, and sinners into his presence. The sick, those with birth defects, women, children, and the extreme poor were often overlooked in Jesus’s culture. However, he made it a priority to show them love. On several occasions Jesus welcomed and talked with foreigners (a Roman centurion, a Samaritan woman, etc.). He even spent time with people who were considered great sinners. Do you welcome everyone into your home and your church? Are you willing to take responsibility for their comfort and need?
You protect the hurting and vulnerable.
The office of elder is often equated with shepherding the church (1 Peter 5:2). A shepherd not only leads the flock but takes responsibility for the health of the sheep. The elders share the work of watching for the hurting and vulnerable in the flock to make sure they receive the attention needed to become strong and healthy. Sometimes this means protecting them from people in the church (bullies, critics, gossips). Sometimes it means making sure they have food, clothing, and shelter. Often this work is delegated to others (as in Acts 6:1-6), but it is the elders’ responsibility to make sure this caregiving gets done. Are you someone who cares for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others?
You guard the unity of the church.
Titus 1:9 says that an elder must “hold firm to 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.” The elders of the church are the keepers of the unity of the church through love and sound doctrine. They do this by first watching over themselves, then over all the church (Acts 20:28). In this they are to be humble but not timid as they submit to God and resist Satan (1 Peter 5:1-11). Are you someone who both knows and teaches sound doctrine with boldness, love, and humility?
You follow the Head Shepherd.
The most important characteristic of elders is that they know that they are not in charge (this includes the pastor). Instead, they recognize that Jesus is the head of his church and the elders work under his leadership as under-shepherds. Ruth Haley Barton says that spiritual leadership is both knowing and doing the will of God. One of the most important works of the elders is to set aside their own desires in order to fully submit to God’s will. They should have regular spiritual practices to ensure they are seeking God’s will both personally and as one body. The elders should also have a prior commitment to follow Christ’s direction no matter where he leads. For this they need to encourage (give courage to) one another so they will be ready to do the will of God without delay. Do you have regular spiritual practices to help you know and do the will of God?