The Able Man
Elders are like fathers in that the well-being of a household is entrusted to them. It is their responsibility to look after the souls in the household of God. This is why the writer of Hebrews 13:17 says:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.”
So here we see that the responsibility to watch over souls is one charged with authority. You are to obey and submit to your leaders. Now, obey and submit are words we don’t like, just like the word “rule.” 1 Timothy 5:17 says that elders rule in the church.
Obey, submit, and rule are all “biblical words.” But since they are offensive to the modern mind, we try to avoid them or replace them with something softer like “listen, follow, lead.”
We do this because we know many people will immediately leave a church if they hear something they slightly disagree with, and we think that by accommodating them, they might hang around long enough that they’ll change.
I agree that there is no reason to be needlessly provocative. We don’t want shock jocks as pastors. But “biblical words” biblically used shouldn’t be labeled needlessly provocative by Christians. If you’re shocked by them, it is you that needs to be corrected.
That being said, there is a legitimate reason people are uncomfortable with the words obey, submit, and rule.
It’s because they have been under the rule of incompetent, manipulative, and even truly abusive leaders who used these words to excuse their behavior. But we can’t let the misuse of something invalidate the right use of that same thing. We need to reclaim these words and rightly nest them back in their full biblical meaning.
There are three essential components to biblical leadership: responsibility, authority, and ability.
Authority and responsibility should always be at a relative parity. Authority is given by God to fulfill particular responsibilities and not to exceed the limits of those responsibilities. Responsibilities cannot be fulfilled unless they’re accompanied by the authority to do so. So these two must be paired together.
Great responsibility, great authority. Small responsibility, small authority.
But this cord of leadership is made of three strains. The leader must possess the ability to get the job done. By ability, I mean skills and character.
Think of a cop. He has the responsibility to enforce certain laws. He is not allowed to make new laws and can’t intervene in the lives of those keeping the law. So his responsibility is real but limited. He also has the power to enforce those laws. The authority is represented in his badge. But does he have the ability?
Does he know when to draw and not draw his gun? Can he keep a cool head in hot situations? Is he a corrupt man who can be bribed out of fulfilling his duty? Is he qualified to be a cop? Does he possess the qualities to exercise such authority? Is he an “able man?”
Responsibility, authority, ability. All three must be present when holding an authoritative office.
That’s why we have a long list of qualities that an elder must possess. No one except Christ himself possesses these qualities perfectly, but these qualities must be generally representative of the elder’s life. He must be a man who rules himself well. He must be a mature Christian man.
That is the idea behind elders: maturity. Not that he is older, though maturity does usually require age. However, age is not a requirement for eldership. We know this isn’t the case because in this very letter, in 4:12, Paul tells Timothy:
“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
He is saying to Timothy, "Don’t get stuck on your age; rather, demonstrate the qualities of a mature Christian man." That is a good aim for all of us.