The Vocation of Elder

“An overseer must be above reproach” (v. 2).

- 1 Timothy 3:1–7

Vocation was an important topic for the Protestant Reformers, who recognized that all lawful work was a vehicle through which God could be glorified and honored. However, to say that the vocations of ordained ministry and the vocations of the laity are both valuable for the kingdom did not mean for the Reformers that there is no distinction between clergy and laity. With Scripture, they recognized that ordained men have responsibilities and callings that nonordained people do not have.

The New Testament recognizes two basic ordained offices in the church: elder and deacon. Within the office of elder, some churches distinguish between ruling elders who focus on governing the church and teaching elders who focus on teaching the church, but the basic two-office structure remains. Both the office of deacon and the office of elder are filled by men who meet specific requirements.

Today’s passage gives us the qualifications for serving as an elder, and it also helps us understand the tasks of elders. Note first that 1 Timothy 3:1–7 refers to the office of “overseer,” which translates the Greek word episkopos. Other passages use the word episkopos interchangeably with the Greek word presbuteros, which is usually translated as “elder” (Titus 1:5–9). Thus we see that elder and overseer are the same office.

To refer to an elder also as an overseer indicates that the office of elder has to do with oversight of the church. The title of episkopos could be used in the broader first-century culture to refer to an official who exercised leadership and authority in any number of areas. Paul adopted the term in order to refer to those who were tasked with leading and shepherding the church, which is borne out in the list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. Many of the qualifications are necessary for effective leadership in any situation: sober-mindedness, self-control, respectability. There is also the note that the elder “must manage his own household well,” for good home management is a prerequisite for managing the church of Christ well (vv. 4–5).

The leadership in view with the office of elder is spiritual leadership, for the elder must be “able to teach” (v. 2). Note also Acts 6:1–6, where we see that the Apostles devoted themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This text has long been seen as establishing the paradigm for elder ministry. Elders, through prayer and study, lead the church according to the teaching of Scripture.

Coram Deo

Elders are God’s gift to the church to teach us the Word of God, exercise church discipline, and make decisions for the good of the Lord’s people. God has placed them in authority over us, and we are bound to follow the lawful directions of church elders and to pray for them that they would govern the church wisely.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 18
Numbers 11:16–25
Acts 15:1–29
Hebrews 13:7

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