Have we confused the qualifications for eldership with Middle Class values and business acumen?

When considering a pastor or elder for your church, I wonder what you start looking for? Most Bible-believing churches will land on the eldership criteria laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and look for someone who meets those criteria. They read as follows:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)

Leaving out the duplications, the criteria are as follows:

  1. Above reproach
  2. Husband of one wife
  3. Sober-minded
  4. Self-controlled
  5. Respectable
  6. Hospitable
  7. Able to teach
  8. Not a drunkard
  9. Not violent
  10. Gentle
  11. Not quarrelsome
  12. Not a lover of money
  13. Manages his household well
  14. Not a recent convert
  15. Well thought of by outsiders
  16. Not arrogant
  17. Not greedy
  18. Not prone to anger
  19. Upright
  20. Holy
  21. Disciplined
  22. Orthodox

The first thing to notice is that all of these things are required of all believers. As Don Carson notes:

The Christian minister is supposed to be gentle, not supposed to get drunk, and so forth: the list is remarkable for being unremarkable. Indeed, with only a couple of exceptions, all of the qualifications listed here are elsewhere in the New Testament demanded of all Christians. For instance, this elder is supposed to be given to hospitality. But that is demanded of all Christians in Hebrews 13. What this means, then, is that the Christian pastor must exemplify in his own life the virtues and graces that are demanded of all the people of God. There are only a couple of entries here that cannot be demanded of all Christians, viz. “not a novice” and “able to teach.” Everything else is the responsibility of all believers, not just the pastors of believers.

Carson elsewhere notes of ‘not a novice’, whilst it is not demanded of all believers it is clearly the case that all believers are commanded not to stay there. Thus we can say the criteria for eldership do not exist to identify super-Christians who have advanced to the point of Christian greatness. Rather, it is a basic list of what is demanded for all Christians and elders are simply those who are pressing on and evidencing these aspects of Christian living in their everyday life. In short, the elders we are looking for are simply godly Christian blokes who are able to teach.

When we look at the UK Evangelical church, it is striking just how few genuinely working class elders are leading British churches. Presuming we accept this is the case, how do we account for it? It is possible that Evangelicalism as a whole is white and middle class and thus there simply aren’t the working class people to put into positions of leadership. But, even if they are not in the majority, there are clearly working class people in the church and churches exist in working class areas bringing locals in.

It seems more likely to me that we have confused the criteria for eldership with middle class values and business acumen. How many churches are happy to accept an elder simply because his kids aren’t insubordinate, he isn’t an angry, quarrelsome, money-grubbing drunkard but is capable of teaching and seems to be a generally godly Christian bloke? It seems we so often aren’t happy with the criteria given by scripture. We want those with fundraising skills, experience of managing volunteers, administration abilities as well as organisational and presentational skills. All potentially very helpful in the church; none demanded by the Lord of his undershepherds.

Not only do we add our own criteria to those laid down by the Lord, we often reinterpret the biblical qualifications in accord with our values. We look for those who are good readers (not demanded), evidence a tendency to save money (not demanded) and who aspire to certain occupations (not demanded). We deem that which is ‘respectable’ and ‘upright’ not according to biblical understandings of those things but according to social understandings. In many middle class circles, for example, it is ‘respectable’ to own a home and to hold a professional job. But, of course, if that sort of thing makes it into our understanding of ‘respectable’, Jesus wouldn’t get a look in as a carpenter who had ‘nowhere to lay his head’. All too often our definitions of the Biblical criteria are based more on our social attitudes than they are on Biblical definitions.

I have heard it said, with no irony whatsoever, when working class converts come into the church they will inevitably become ‘more middle class’. If this is the presumption, is it any wonder that we have a dearth of working class people in church leadership? Working class folk are never going to out middle class the middle classes. The real issue is that the Bible doesn’t call them to do so and doesn’t make middle class pretensions a criteria of eldership.

We have too readily confused biblical eldership with middle class values. We have too quickly ditched gospel-heartedness for business sense. We have reinterpreted and added to the qualifications demanded by Jesus and, unsurprisingly, we’ve locked vast numbers of people out of eldership that Jesus deems perfectly suitable. There is nothing in the criteria demanding a university education, a professional job nor a particular inclination to saving over spending (both can evince greed and both can be wise).

Let us consider these things:

  1. How many of your church elders have no university degree?
  2. How many of your church elders are low-income workers?
  3. How many of your church elders rent their home?
  4. How many of your church elders have no experience in a professional environment?

If all your elders are homogeneous, drawn largely from white middle class privileged backgrounds, it seems worth asking why? Is it that working class people are simply unable to attain to the Biblical criteria? Or, perhaps, we have misinterpreted the criteria such that we now demand middle class, university trained people with professional/business nous? Maybe ask yourself this honestly: would Jesus even make it onto your eldership team?


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