3 Characteristics of Biblically Qualified Elders

Excerpted From
The New Elder’s Handbook
By Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok

”For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ezra 7:10

”I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Romans 15:14

Knowledge, obedience and teaching all belong together. I have already pointed out in the introduction that Ezra 7:10 and Romans 15:14 highlight these same three attributes. What Ezra exemplified, Paul observed and affirmed in the Christians at Rome, not merely in the leaders but in the followers too. Now I want to make the case that these three characteristics go together. I do this because the temptation that all prospective elders face is to play to our strengths and develop them to the exclusion of weaker areas.

At one level, building on our strengths is the very thing to do. Indeed, God designed the local church to have multiple elders so that each of us can do what God has gifted us to do. As we do that, we can trust God to raise up other elders who are strong where we are weak. That is a good strategy when it comes to spiritual gifts but not, I want to argue, when it comes to these three characteristics: knowledge, obedience and teaching.

Knowledge and Obedience: A Virtuous Cycle

Let’s start with the interplay between knowledge and obedience. In Scripture, these always belong together. To eliminate or shortchange either one undermines the other and may nullify it altogether. Here is why: Knowledge of Scripture is the way we come to know Christ and find salvation through him (2 Tim. 3:15). But the way we know Christ is rarely, if ever, only from reading or hearing the Bible. We also know Christ through the people who taught us the gospel. We are like Timothy, of whom Paul wrote, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14–15, emphasis added). To be the kind of elders who can teach the Bible, as 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9 say we must be, we have to know it, and that requires study. But to teach it effectively, our lives must reflect it. Think of Philippians 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (emphasis added).

Part of our teaching is what is seen in us through practice. Our lives are to show the transforming power of the gospel. That is why obedience (Ezra 7:10) and its fruit, goodness (Rom. 15:14)—what in this book we often call “character”—are necessary. Thankfully, this does not mean that we need to be perfect. Indeed, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). But the jars-of-clay image means not that we may persist in sin but only that we are fragile, imperfect containers for the treasure of the gospel. That is why Paul could describe himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) and, without contradiction, could invite others to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1).

Paul’s strategy for the spread of the gospel was always verbal proclamation reinforced by visible, consistent demonstration of daily cross-bearing and the attendant resurrection power. Notice that Paul sent Timothy to Corinth not merely to restate the gospel message verbally but to provide the visual aid of a gospel-shaped life. Paul writes, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:16–17). Paul does not separate his message proclaimed “everywhere in every church” from his “ways in Christ.” The two belong together. I don’t think Timothy merely said, “Remember the sort of life Paul lived among you.” I think that, along with verbal proclamation, he too lived that life and proclaimed the gospel message. He was Paul’s faithful child in the faith and bore the family resemblance. People heard the gospel from him and saw the gospel displayed in his life.

We see this same dynamic in 1 Thessalonians 1–2. Paul considered the faith, hope, and love that he saw in the Thessalonian converts to be evidence that they had received the gospel as what it is, the word of God that goes to work in those who believe. But they did not just accept some doctrinally true ideas. The Thessalonian Christians became imitators of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy (1:6) and also of the Judean churches they represented (2:14). Crucially, it was only because they were imitators that they could become examples: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6–7, emphasis added).

How to Increase in the Knowledge of God

Let’s take this one step further. In Colossians 1, the apostle Paul rejoices that the Colossian Christians heard the true gospel and “understood the grace of God in truth” (1:6). That is doctrine. That prompted Paul to keep on praying “that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:9–10). That is godliness.

What should strike us is not merely that we should be praying this for ourselves and others—we should—nor that we should be aiming for mere knowledge. Rather, we should be aiming for knowledge characterized by all wisdom and understanding. This is only part of the good news of this passage. When God grants this sort of knowledge in answer to prayer, we can walk in ways that please the Lord. These ways are not only that we bear fruit in every good work but also that we increase in the knowledge of God. The last phrase is significant because it affirms from another angle what I have been arguing in this chapter—namely, that we cannot really grow in our knowledge of God without good works. We should treat this as a positive promise. When we grow in this kind of wise, understanding knowledge and the good works that by definition accompany it, we will be able to further grow in wise knowledge. We might call this a virtuous cycle. Growth in wise knowledge leads to godliness, which leads to greater wise knowledge of God, which paves the way for growing godliness.

So don’t think filling a notebook with truth is what you are aiming for as you engage in this training process. Yes, fill your notebook with truth, but when the truth in your notebook is the right kind of truth—that is, knowledge characterized by wisdom and understanding—that sort of gospel truth will bear the fruit of good works. That will put you in a position to see more truth in Scripture and to respond more fully to the God of truth, who will reward you with the capacity to keep growing into his likeness.

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Excerpted from The New Elder’s Handbook: A Biblical Guide to Developing Faithful Leaders by Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok. Copyright 2019. Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.

Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok
Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok

Greg R. Scharf is professor emeritus of homiletics and pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Arthur Kok is director of training for the Orchard Network.