Since the work of an elder is noble (1 Tim. 3:1), one that must be performed according to the highest standards, only select men may be chosen for the office. The kind of man who is fit to be an elder is described in the New Testament in other places besides 1 Timothy 3:1–7, particularly in Titus 1:5–9, and the qualities in each passage overlap. Thus, many character traits we are unable to get to in the next few days will be examined when we study Titus 1.
Paul is more concerned with who an elder is than with what he does. We are not given a list of duties but qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, all of which can be observed by other people. A man is ordained not only because he senses the call of the Lord, he is appointed to the office because the church recognizes that God has chosen him for leadership, which is clear from his manner of life.
At the top of his list, Paul puts the qualifier “above reproach” (v. 2). This is the chief trait, the one manifested in all the other qualities. To be above reproach is not to be perfect, for no man (aside from Jesus) is sinless (1 John 1:8–9); rather, it is to be a man of repentance, guilty of no heinous evil since his conversion. He “must not be under any scandal” (Matthew Henry) because, as John MacArthur says, “no overt, flagrant sin can mar the life of a person who must be an example for his people to follow” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1, 785).
The elder is to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2), literally, “a man of one woman.” This certainly cannot mean that only married men are qualified to be elders because Paul and probably Timothy as well were single men who ruled over the Lord’s church. It also does not prohibit divorced men from holding the office — if their divorce had biblical warrant (Matt. 19:1–9; 1 Cor. 7:12–16). Otherwise, we make divorce a sin even in cases where God permits it.
Church elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), which, John Calvin tells us, is not artful speaking but “wisdom in applying the word of God judiciously to the advantage of the people.” Not every pastor or elder can be a Charles Spurgeon or an Augustine, and it is wrong to expect them to be. All we need is someone who lives and preaches the Word of God faithfully and clearly.
As we consider the qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon over the next few days, note that what the church is to look for is the quality of life since the candidate has professed faith. A man married multiple times before his conversion or who was sexually immoral is not unfit for office if he has lived a life of repentance since first confessing the faith. It is faithfulness to the Savior that we must desire to see in church members and leaders alike.