Read 1 Timothy 3.
If you were starting an organization and looking for leaders to help it succeed, what kind of person would you look for?
- You might look for wealthy people who could donate financially to the organization and help manage the money the organization receives.
- You might look for people who have been successful elsewhere—starting a successful business, becoming a college president, holding a prestigious political office.
- You might look for someone famous who can draw attention to your organization.
These are all reasonable things to look for, humanly speaking, but not one of them is reflected in the list of qualities God tells us to look for in church leaders.
Here in 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes out for Timothy a description of the kind of man (or woman, in the case of deacons, see verse 11) that the church in Ephesus should be choosing. Paul had no interest in finding those who were successful in business or politics. He said nothing about finding someone famous. He also, by the way, didn’t tell them to look for someone who can speak piously or impress people with their spiritual-sounding words or unique theological insights.
Instead, Paul commended as leaders those who live a life consistent with a heart that has been changed by the grace of God in salvation. That kind of leader is “above reproach,” meaning that nobody can bring forth evidence that would call into question his moral character.
The phrase “above reproach” in verse 2a, and the similar phrase “worthy of respect” in verses 8a & 11a are blanket statements that summarize a person’s character. The phrases that follow “above reproach” such as “faithful to his wife, temperate,” etc. give more specifics about all the areas Timothy should consider when he judges whether a potential elder or deacon is truly “above reproach.”
All the things on this list are outward evidences of godly character within. The only task-oriented qualification is for the overseer (which is an other word for the office of pastor or elder) is that he must be “able to teach” (v. 2).
Our world cares about people who can perform in the marketplace. If a man can sell, his employer doesn’t care if he is “faithful to his wife” (v.2) or if “his children obey him” (v. 4).
Verse 3 details several sins that must not be true of elders in God’s church; these sins—drunkenness, violence, quarrelsome, lover of money—have led leaders of secular organizations into sins and crimes that embarrassed and tarnished the entire organization. Those are bad enough when you’re trying to sell a product but when you represent God and claim to have a life-changing message of grace that transforms and liberates sinners from these kinds of sins, an elder or deacon who is known for such things undermines the message of Christ.
In addition to giving us guidance about what kind of leaders to choose for our church, these paragraphs give us some character qualities to evaluate in our own lives. Not every Christian will become an elder or deacon, but all of us should desire and strive for a genuine walk with God that leads us to holiness. As we become holy by the power of God’s grace, these qualities will emerge like fruit in our lives. If you find yourself convicted because you’re lacking one of the godly characteristics elders/deacons should have or if you see in your life one of the sinful qualities that should not be true of godly leaders, ask God for grace and help to grow in that area because you want to be like Jesus.