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Legalism in Eldership

by Tim O'Hearn

Sometimes people accuse others of legalism as a way of excusing their unwillingness to follow the teachings of God. At other times people throw out the word “legalism” in condemnation of those who are trying to save themselves without relying on God’s grace. Still other times the accusation of legalism (and it is usually made as an accusation) is for those who would make requirements where none exist in order to keep people as far away from wrong as possible, what is known as “putting a fence around God’s word.” It is in this latter sense that some people interpret the passages about the “requirements” for elders, rather than just reading what the passages say.

Whether you call them qualities or qualifications, most of the things listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9 are pretty straightforward. Most people have no problem understanding what it means that a man not be greedy or a brawler. Most people even have no problem understanding that no man will meet all of these qualities all of the time. That is, if a man gets into one fistfight, that doesn’t One wonders if “believing children” is more interpretation than translation.necessarily disqualify him from being an elder, depending on the reasons for the fight. There are only a few of these qualities that are unclear to some people, and so they require their interpretations to be correct.

Given to Hospitality

Perhaps the easiest misconception to clear up relates to the phrase “given to hospitality” (1 Tim 3:2) in the King James Version. I have known of Christians who would complain because the elders, as a whole or one individual, never invite anyone over for dinner. While it would be nice, and while that would be one way for the shepherds to get to know their flock, that is not what this quality is talking about. The Greek word used here literally means “a lover of strangers.” Before a man becomes an elder he should have shown hospitality or love to those outside of his own congregation. Furthermore, love extends far beyond just feeding a person. It can be shown in many quiet ways that don’t involve bringing someone into the house.

The point of this requirement is not to hold a man’s kitchen hostage. Instead, it means that a man who loves those outside of his circle of friends is one who will be an example of Christianity to his congregation and the world. Of course, if he shows hospitality to those outside the church, how much more is he likely to do so to those he knows in his congregation.

Having Faithful Children

Another qualification that has gotten a significant workout is “having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.” (Tit 1:6) That last phrase is not the problem, although it is the point of the qualification. People have no problem with the quality of the children. Instead they focus on the first phrase, “having faithful children”. (And how does the Roman Catholic Church get around this requirement when they forbid their bishops to marry? But that would be another article.) Even each part of that phrase comes under legalistic scrutiny.

What does it mean to have faithful children? Several other translations complicate the issue. They read “having children who believe.” While this is one possible translation of the Greek word, one wonders if it is more of an interpretation, albeit a common one. The legalists among us will say that all the children of a man who is an elder must be “members in good standing” of a congregation somewhere. If an elder and his wife have a late child, some would say the elder must resign, at least until that child is old enough to become a faithful child of God. It doesn’t matter that all the elder’s older children have been lifelong believers. Because one child is too young to be a believer, he must step down. Others would say that a man who has a retarded child who is incapable of becoming a believer is automatically disqualified from the eldership, even though he may show himself to be more qualified in other ways because of raising a disabled child. Some children who are too young or mentally incapable of belief show themselves more faithful than one who professes belief but rarely darkens the door of a church building.

Other legalists focus on the word “children.” Because it is a plural word, they argue, an elder must have more than one child. There have been congregations that have gone without appointing men to be elders because they could not find otherwise qualified men who had more than one child. Never mind that language often uses plural words in singular ways. Ask a number of men on the street the question, “do you have children?” For everyone that says yes, then ask, “how many?” You will probably never find one that answers the first question, “No, but I have one child.” You will find several that will say they have children, but when asked the second question will answer that they have only one. We understand children to be a generic term that includes one or more when asked that way. And yet some people who understand that cannot understand that it could be used in the same way in this passage. Should a congregation have a man as an elder who has only one child? That is up to the congregation and its situation. Can a congregation that maintains that in their congregation elders must have two or more faithful/believing children disassociate themselves from congregations that have elders with only one child? That would be legalistically binding on someone else that which is their own interpretation of a scripture that could go either way.

Elders in Every City

Closely related to that point is the argument over how many elders a congregation should have. Titus was told to appoint “elders in every city.” (Tit 1:5) Churches of Christ, especially, have for many years stated that this means that every congregation that has elders must have more than one. Even those that allow elders to have one child will insist that there be a multiplicity of elders. (One preacher has said outright that children can mean only one but elders must mean more than one.) This is a good idea. It is sound policy. It prevents one man from taking down a whole congregation by himself. But it is not what this passage says.

If the Bible were to have said that Paul went throughout Asia Minor establishing churches in every city, would people interpret this to mean that a city of four hundred, in which forty people became Christians, must split those people into two congregations of approximately twenty each? No, people would understand that some cities might have multiple congregations and others have only one. It would even be possible to say that each city had one congregation and still make the statement true.

Take an actual scripture instead. “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” (Eph 5:24) The format of the final phrase is identical; plural noun “in every” noun. If the passage in Titus 1 requires every congregation with elders to have more than one, then why do they not also require all the married women to have more than one husband? The grammar is the same.

Again, it must be pointed out that it is smartest to have multiple elders. It may even be smarter to have an odd number of elders. But while it may be smart, neither of those things is absolutely and unquestionably required by scripture.

Interestingly, while congregations will say this passage requires more than one elder, few congregations interpret “every city” to mean that a young congregation that does not have qualified men must name elders anyway. Elders must be plural, but “every” can mean some. Ain’t legalism a funny thing?

Husband of One Wife

Perhaps the biggest barrier to some otherwise qualified men being chosen as elders is the phrase, “husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2) or, as some “translations” put it “husband of only one wife.” This takes several forms. A divorced man (regardless of the reason for the divorce) cannot be an elder. A widower who marries again cannot be an elder. A bishop whose wife dies must give up his eldership. How much of this is legalism and how much is God’s doctrine?

There are congregations where one would almost believe that the only qualification to be a bishop is that the man has only once been married. Some people concentrate so much on this one qualification that they seem to ignore all the others, except, perhaps, having children. He can be a secret drinker, no problem, but having been married twice is all that matters.

Perhaps all of this argument has come about because the committee that translated the King James Version It may be smart to have more than one elder, but it is not unquestionably required by scripture.interpreted what they saw. Literally, the Greek translates to “a one-woman man.” Every other quality listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is based on actions over time. Why would this one qualification be based on a one-time event? The quality Paul is emphasizing is that the man is faithful to his wife. If he has shown that he is a one-woman man, how much more will he be a one-God man as well. This may disqualify some, or even most, men who are divorced. This may not disqualify a man who has just lost his wife to cancer.

When Paul told Timothy and Titus what to look for in an elder he was looking for leadership qualities. Should an elder exhibit all of the qualities listed? Probably. Should these passages be used as a checklist to determine a “legal” elder? Possibly not. Should they be used, as many congregations have, to begin a “witch hunt” to make sure a man has never violated any of these qualities? Certainly not. Be careful how you judge potential elders, because with that same judgement you may also be judged.