A missionary’s goal must be to “appoint elders in every city.” And in Titus 1:5-9, Paul lists the qualifications required of any potential elders. It’s worth noting that the parallel list in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 was written regarding the church in Ephesus, a church with previously established elders. But Paul’s letter to Titus was written regarding the churches in Crete, where the one thing still “lacking” (1:5) was qualified church leadership. Titus’s missionary work was to identify men who matched this description, and cultivate these characteristics in their lives.
“Appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach… for the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward.” (Titus 1:5-6a, 7a)
The overarching requirement for an elder is that he be “above reproach.” All the other qualities listed in verses 6-9 are summed up in this one primary qualification.
“Above reproach” describes untouchable blamelessness. The purity of an elder’s conduct should be so evident that any accusation to the contrary seems ridiculous. In today’s #MeToo culture, that may seem an impossibly high standard. Moral failure is practically par for the course among today’s leaders, and sadly, it scarcely seems any different in the church. But the standard is indeed very high for those who shepherd God’s flock. In verse 7, Paul refers to an elder as “God’s steward.” This Greek term (oikonomos) refers to someone who manages a household or estate, someone who is entrusted with the care of his master’s most precious resources. Any sensible employer runs a background check on his employees, to ensure he’s not putting a thief in charge of his most precious belongings. How much more valuable are God’s own people, His precious, blood-bought saints?
In a parallel passage, Paul explains why an elder’s blamelessness is so important. “I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Not only is the church “the household of God,” but it is also described as “the pillar and support of the truth.” The church is, so to speak, load-bearing. In the world’s eyes, the truth of the gospel is either validated or invalidated by the conduct of those who preach it. Christian conduct validates the Christian confession. James issues this severe warning: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). And Paul is telling Titus exactly the same thing here. “The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward” (Titus 1:7a). If Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3 comprise the “job description” of an elder, then moral failure is a fireable offense. An elder must be above reproach.
This unflinching requirement is measured in three consecutive areas of a man’s life: his family, his personal character, and his abilities.
“Namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” (Titus 1:6)
Good stewardship in the family is the most fundamental requirement of an elder. Paul wrote to Timothy, “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim 3:5). His family life showcases the principles he will practice in leading the church. His family life reveals who he really is. As Elizabeth Elliot put it, “A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.” It’s important to note that this text doesn’t necessarily require an elder to have a wife and/or children (see 1 Cor 7:6-9). But for those who do, this text requires adherence to God’s design in those relationships. This orderliness must be examined in two areas: his marriage and his children.
He must be “the husband of one wife,” or in the Greek literally “a one-woman man.” In polygamist societies, this requirement is especially crucial to observe. Yet even in more conservative cultures, there are many ways that a man might disqualify himself here. The principle for all God-honoring sexual conduct is found in Genesis 2:24. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” In other words, a man must emotionally and socially separate himself from both of his parents, and emotionally, socially, and physically join himself to one woman. If an elder violates any part of this principle, that failure is a structural weakness within “the pillar and support of the truth.” Like any structural weakness, it’s not static, and it’s not harmless. It’s only a matter of time before it manifests itself openly, and when it does, great damage will ensue. That man is disqualified from eldership in the church of God.
He must also have “children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” The simple but difficult truth is: if an elder has children, they must be born again. The adjective pistos (here translated “believing”) is somewhat flexible. Its semantic range includes both the active idea of “having faith” and the reflexive idea of “being faithful.” This fact has led some to downgrade this requirement to simply “having faithful children.” This “faithfulness” is generically taken to mean honoring one’s parents and living responsibly in the world. However, this term pistos appears adjectivally 67 times in the Greek New Testament, and never once describes an unbeliever. There is no contextual reason to believe that Paul is simply referring to “well-behaved” unbelievers. (In fact, according to Psalm 5:9-10, 14:1-3, and Romans 3:10-18, there’s no such thing!) Rather, in both its active and reflexive senses, pistos here refers to believing children.
This requirement is modified by the phrase “not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” Since young children could hardly be accused of dissipation (i.e. drunkenness), it seems that an elder’s adult children are not exempt from Paul’s standard here. In fact, grown children are the more likely focus of this text. Admittedly, this is a difficult teaching. It is no less difficult today than it was, surely, to the Cretan men training under Titus. Sometimes, circumstances outside a man’s control may disqualify him from ministry for some period of time. To be clear: it’s not a sin to have unbelieving children. A father can’t bear his son’s sin anymore than a son can bear his father’s (Eze 18:20). However, an elder with unbelieving children is not entirely above reproach in his family life.
In Part 2, we’ll look at Paul’s standards for an elder’s personal character.