Over this past weekend I had the joy of meeting and conversing with a fellow Reformed Baptist pastor who shared many of the life-experiences I had in the pastoral ministry. One of the common scars he and I discovered was sharing the eldership with a man who proved to be disqualified. In his case, as in my own, the man who ministered with him as a co-elder was not only a trusted partner in ministry but one he counted as a best friend. But over time, this seeming credible elder and bosom buddy turned out to be nothing but a self-willed traitor to both this brother and the church which called him to the ministry. As we discussed this mutual experience, the question that surfaced was what did we learn from it as pastors? And for the both us, the lesson we took was the same: Don’t be hasty but wait patiently on the Lord to make men qualified elders.
This lesson comes straight from God’s Word. It is the Spirit-inspired directive Paul the apostle gave Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” These words have to do with the ordination of church elders. And the imperative which stands out in bold relief is the absolute necessity for overt caution in the matter of selecting men to serve the church as qualified elders. In fact, Paul lays so much stress on this matter to not be hasty ordaining men as elders, that he adds a solemn warning to Timothy for such impetuousness: “nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” What does this mean? What is it referring to? If we act with haste to ordain a man to the eldership, who later proves himself disqualified, then we make ourselves culpable in the man’s sins. In other words, it’s not just the disqualified man who has to answer for his sins, but its the pastoral leadership who laid hands on him that will answer for it as well – combined with the church who affirmed the man’s ordination. Observing therefore the caution needed in this matter, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) wrote: “It is a common human tendency to make premature and ill-considered decisions, to be hasty when we should rather be cautious. Although the opposite fault is to be indecisive, yet in leaders it is better to take time to form judgments and make decisions than to be precipitate and live to regret it.”
Take time to form judgments and make decisions. This is so wise because it’s so biblical. Yet, I fear that many of us (like myself), even when we believe sincerely that we’ve taken the needed time to evaluate and judge properly the potential candidate for the ministry, we still end up suffering the reproach of a disqualified man we affirmed as qualified. So what can pastors do to follow more carefully the imperative and admonition of 1 Timothy 5:22? My answers to this question are shared as one who is continuing to learn from the misjudgments and errors I made in the past, when I recommended men to the eldership who should’ve never been appointed. My only comfort in this is God’s providence, which overrules even our foolishness to make us more like Christ (Rom. 8:28-29). Nevertheless, we’re still responsible for our actions and should thereby strive to learn all the Lord would teach us from choices we made that should’ve been reconsidered with more counsel.
The first lesson then would be this: Remember it is the Holy Spirit who makes the man a qualified elder. Paul reminded the Ephesian elders of this truth in Acts 20:28 when he said it was the Holy Spirit who made them overseers. This tells us that such a call to the pastoral office is supernatural. It’s not what men decide they want to be but what God sets men apart to be. Hence, it is the Holy Spirit who fashions and prunes and fits the man for the ministry.
Second, since it is the Holy Spirit who fits the man for the eldership, then He will raise up such men in a church in His timing. This is where we must learn patience in waiting on the Lord to do what only He can do. If we rush ahead in this matter, then we’ll have elders of our making rather than God’s. The Holy Spirit is the One ordering and governing the season and time when a church is ready for more pastors. We must trust Him in this because it is only His men we should desire.
Third, since it is the Holy Spirit who fits the man for the eldership, then we should look for the graces the Spirit fashions and declares as making a man qualified for this office. This is where 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 are so crucial for a church to understand and take serious as the only credible grid to judge a man fit to be an elder. But when we study these passages, it becomes apparent how that we’re looking at a man’s life as a whole, not just what he’s able to do but what he is in his character. What is he then as a Christian man? And the answer to this question as it pertains to the eldership gets very specific with character traits that should be seen already present and making progress though not yet perfect. The main point here though, is that we’re looking for a very distinctive Christian man whose life carries those graces which can only be the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Fourth, since God has given us a divine grid to judge a man’s life by as a potential elder, then our investigation must be thorough and without haste. This means that both the pastor and the congregation must have ample time to get up close and personal in the man’s life, so that a sound judgment can be made as to his fitness for this office. If there are any doubts to his qualifications that requires questions to be asked, then we should meet with this man and ask away. Making assumptions about such a man without having credible answers to our inquires; and yet, affirming him to be ordained is both folly and shame on our part (Prov. 18:13). All we have is time. There is no rush in this matter for any reason whatsoever. Thus, we should be painstakingly extensive with how much time we give in making a proper judgment as governed by 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. And let it be remembered under this context what Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:24 – “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” While the sins of some men are clearly evident, making the judgment of the church easy as to the man’s disqualification as an elder; yet, there are other men whose sins are not so clear. They make a flawless first impression. They appear sound in all the right places. However, as tempting as it is to quickly ordain such a man, God’s Word seems to say in 1 Timothy 5:24: “Wait a minute! How well do you really know this man? Remember: the sins of some appear later. So, give it time. Slow down. Hold off. Keep investigating. Get to know this man so that your judgment can be truly credible and thereby in conformity to the Word of God.”
Fifth, don’t turn a blind eye to anything you believe could make a man unqualified as an elder. This lesson is an extra layer from the last but needs to stand out on its own. If you see things in a man’s character, his marriage or family that may not disqualify him but presently unqualify him as an elder – do not proceed to ordain him! Rather, help the brother to see whatever these things may be and endeavor to aid him in how he can grow and mature in such areas. But don’t ordain him when there is greater maturity needed in those places that will hinder him for any effective ministry, if not worked on.
Finally, beware of any man who shows up and insists the church ordain him because he knows he’s “called,” despite whatever judgment the pastor or church may have otherwise. A man like this is what the Bible calls, “self-willed” (Titus 1:7), which is what a potential elder is forbidden to be. I once engaged with a man like this in a former church I served as pastor. He was convinced he was called to the pastoral ministry, though he did not have the official support of either the present eldership nor the congregation. But in his mind and by his own personal judgment, he didn’t believe himself to be disqualified and challenged our eldership to prove he was. I tried to explain to him that the New Testament qualifications of an elder were not for the potential elder to judge himself by, but for the leadership and congregation to make their judgment of the man. Sadly, he didn’t see it this way. For him, neither the church nor its leadership had any real authority to make a qualified judgment of his life. It was his own personal judgment that was his final court of appeal. He thus departed to look for a church that would agree with him. This is a self-willed man. It is that man in 3 John 9 named, “Diotrephes,” who we’re told, “likes to put himself first” and had no regard for the authority of the apostles nor the church.
These then are the lessons I’ve learned thus far as it pertains to ordaining men as elders. I’m sure there are many more to come. As hard as it may be though to serve as a single elder, the difficulties of serving with disqualified men far surpass the trials of a lone pastor. So then, I pray and wait patiently with eager expectation for the Lord to make His move with raising up His men in the time and season of His choosing.