We who inhabit the particular tribe of Christians known as the Campbellites are perhaps an overly pragmatic people. We tend to interpret Scripture as a recipe or technical manual. We are very fond of lists, especially checklists, to which we give fancy-sounding names, such as:

  • “The Marks of the True Church”

And we come up with these lists in the name of a supremely practical dictum: “Let’s call Bible things by Bible names, and do Bible things in Bible ways.” I’m not saying this to make fun of my people or to suggest that we are lazy in our interpretation of the Bible or that we are stranger than any other tribe. Sufficient to each denomination is the oddness thereof is what I always say.

One of the “checklists” that determines how we in Churches of Christ go about the business of being ourselves is how we determine who gets to be an elder (or overseer/bishop/pastor/shepherd–we are sure we at least pay lip service to these other descriptions of the function of church leadership). We have found Titus 1.6-9 to be a handy checklist for sorting out who is “qualified” to be an elder and who is not. This passage reads:

if any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having children that believe, who are not accused of riot or unruly. For the bishop must be blameless, as God’s steward; not self-willed, not soon angry, no brawler, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but given to hospitality, as lover of good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled; holding to the faithful word which is according to the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in the sound doctrine, and to convict the gainsayers. (KJV)


Of course, we may not be sure what all these words mean, so we basically abbreviate our “qualifications” even further, I suppose in a nod to modesty. In practice, what the qualifications amount to is:

  1. The husband of one wife. This means that he has to be a dude, first. Beyond that, we tend to quibble over the meaning of “the husband of one wife.” Does this mean not divorced? Not divorced and remarried? Not polygamous? If his wife dies, he has to quit being an elder? If he was widowed and then remarried, does this “disqualify” him? But assuming that it is a dude and the particular church has a working definition of “husband of one wife,” they move on to the next checkmark.
  2. Having children that believe, who are not accused of riot or unruly. In practice this typically means that all his young ‘uns are baptized and aren’t as bad heathens as the preacher’s kids. Unless of course you’re “installing” your preacher as an elder.
  3. Not self-willed. This one seems to conflict too much with American boot-strapsism, so we sort of nod and chuckle and check this one off with our fingers crossed behind our backs, which is typically a source of grief and strife later on.
  4. No brawler, no striker … a lover of good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled. We tend to lump these all together into one category. Assuming Joe Bob meets qualifications 1 and 2 and hasn’t been in a fistfight since at least the early 1980s, and he’s a pretty good old boy, we’ll go ahead and give him a pass here, too.
  5. Not greedy of filthy lucre. But it helps if he is a successful businessman. 
  6. Given to hospitality. Is he apt to throw a good barbecue? Does his wife serve a mean casserole? Hospitality so defined is generally treated as a plus rather than a necessity. Check.
  7. Holding to the faithful word which is according to the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in the sound doctrine, and to convict the gainsayers. In practice this often means that he is capable of conducting a Bible class with Gospel Advocate Quarterlies.

One thing that always got my goat from the time I was a very young fellow was the nagging inclination that these “qualifications” ought to obtain in any Christian (except for the being a dude part, since women are Christians, too). But seriously–shouldn’t all Christians be faithful to their spouses? Shouldn’t Christian parents raise their brood in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? Shouldn’t we all be self-controlled, not self-willed folk who get angry at the drop of a hat and get drunk and brawl? Shouldn’t we all be hospitable? Shouldn’t none of us be greedy for filthy lucre? Shouldn’t we all be able to articulate what we believe? It seemed to me that what we were really doing by using Titus 1.6-9 as a go-to checklist to determine which middle-aged guy was “qualified” to be an elder was advocating our own brand of counsels of perfection, which frankly went against the grain of everything I had been taught we were about. I am still inclined to believe that this is what we are doing in practice.

The more I got to reading Paul, the more it struck me that Paul was not in the least bit interested in sending out letters chock full of checklists for us to mark off to assure ourselves that we are doing church “right.” Paul’s letters are occasional–he is responding to flesh-and-blood problems involving real people at particular places in history. For more on this, read my recent post, “People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation.” This is as true for Titus as it is for, say, Galatians. In other words, if Paul is writing to Titus and he lists some positive traits elders in the church need to embody, it can only mean that the church where Titus was embedded had some elders among them who were lecherous and greedy, prone to drunkenness and fighting, not self-controlled, not hospitable, and forcing strange doctrines on the church. My hunch is proven right in v10 when Paul gives his rationale for the characteristics he names in vv6-9: For there are many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers. It was because some of the fellows functioning as elders in Crete were “unruly men, vain talkers, and deceivers,” that Paul called Titus to appoint their contrasts to serve in shepherding the flocks there.

My point is, there must be some qualities in those selected as elders that are prior to (in terms of both chronology–prior as before–and importance–e.g., priority) those named by Paul in Titus 1.6-9. For these, I would look to Jesus’ words to his disciples about leadership in the days when there was no such thing as a congregation with the specific function of elder in it:

An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.24-27 CEB)

Someone qualified to be an elder is the sort of person who serves others. Someone who will learn from the wisdom of others. Someone who will pay rapt attention to the “least of these” (Matt. 25.40). Someone who is concerned about the dignity of “the parts of the body that people think are the weakest,” and who ascribe the most honor to the parts of the body often dismissed as least honorable (1 Cor. 12.22-23). In other words, if an elder prospect ain’t the kind of person you could imagine holding a hardened criminal in his arms as the guy weeps like the wounded man-child he is mourning for his sins and the wreckage of his life; if changing his decrepit father’s diaper is a job he feels best left up to “professionals”; if you suspect he might be prone to breaking “bent reeds” and snuffing out “smoldering wicks” (i.e., being harsh with the weak and dismissive of the aggrieved), he ain’t elder material. I don’t give a flying flip about Titus 1.6-9 then; if the elder prospect doesn’t embody Luke 22.24-27, for Christ’s sake and the sake of his sheep, I implore you put that fellow to work cleaning the bathrooms and working with the nursing home ministry or the AIDS hospice until God makes a servant out of him.

Jesus makes the point in these verses that, The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. This means that leadership in the church must display a striking contrast to what leadership means in the world. Too often we select men as elders because they have been successful “leaders” in business, politics, or the military. I would suggest that this is a fatal flaw in our reasoning. We assume that if a man knows how to run a business or a platoon or pacify the city council, he must possess the skills necessary to lead the church. Not so, says Jesus. Those who know how to lead according to the standards of the world may in fact be least qualified to lead in the church. I’d like to suggest that we start looking for elders among the janitors, bricklayers, nurses, teachers, plumbers, firefighters, and veterinarians among us rather than the CEOs, managers, and administrators. Leading in a bureaucracy does necessarily not equip one to lead in a church.

One more thing. I have noticed a promising trend in a lot of Churches of Christ in deemphasizing the elder/overseer language (precisely because such language can be bent in such a hierarchical and bureaucratic manner foreign to the intention of the biblical authors) in order to reemphasize the pastoral function of church leaders that we see in passages like 1 Pet. 5.2: Like shepherds, tend the flock of God among you. Watch over it. Don’t shepherd because you must, but do it voluntarily for God. Don’t shepherd greedily, but do it eagerly. While I find this shift helpful, because language shapes perceptions, simply using a different word to describe the same reality accomplishes nothing but the devaluation of a friendly metaphor. Look, if you constantly have to remind your “flock” that you are a shepherd or an elder, there’s a problem. There’s a leadership crisis and I’d suspect it’s not all their fault. What was it Jesus said about shepherding?

The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep … He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice. (John 10.2, 3b-5 CEB)

To you who constantly find yourselves reminding your flock that you, after all, are their shepherd, I have this to say: Your sheep may not be rebellious or stupid. They may simply recognize a voice that sounds like Jesus’, and your voice is not it. If your flock is running like the dickens to get away from you, it may be because they saw you climb over the wall instead of being let in through the gate.