Let us spend some time considering an important aspect of the qualifications of elders as established in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9– their duration. There are many who believe and teach that these qualifications are more introductory qualifications, especially those regarding marriage and family. In such belief systems, a man could still serve as an elder even if his wife or children die or if his children depart from the faith. Is this what Paul intended in these passages?
It is important for us to understand exactly what Paul says in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in terms of the qualifications. All of the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and the relevant qualifications of Titus 1 are all governed by an opening clause, seen in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6:
The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality, apt to teach…
If any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having children that believe, who are not accused of riot or unruly.
In both verses, the listed qualifications are modified by the opening clause: the bishop must be without reproach, the bishop must be the husband of one wife, the bishop must be temperate, etc. in 1 Timothy, and the elder is (to be) blameless, is (to be) the husband of one wife, is (to be) having children that believe, etc. in Titus.
The key to understanding may be found in the Greek tense used in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:5 for the phrases under discussion. In 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul literally uses the phraseology “it is necessary to be”; “to be” is, in Greek, einai, and represents a present infinitive. In Titus 1:5, the verb “is” is Greek estin, a third person singular present indicative active form of the same verb. Greek tenses do not just give a sense of time– they also give a sense of aspect, or how the action relates to the subject at hand. The present tense maintains a “progressive/repeated” aspect in Greek, indicating either that the action is continual (i.e., “I am a student” indicates that one is, over a given span of time, continually a student) or that it happens often (i.e., “I assemble with the saints” indicates that one repeatedly assembles, even if the person is not presently assembled with the saints). While it may not be the clearest in English, the Greek is evident: an elder is to continually manifest the qualifications.
Most people recognize that this is true for most of the qualifications. If an elder becomes contentious, covetous, loses self-control, or no longer meets many other qualifications, he will most likely be asked to step aside. An exception, however, is made for the qualifications of being the husband of one wife and for having believing children, and this exception is most often based on the fact that such things are outside of his control and that it is unfair for him to lose his position because of such.
This reasoning, however, is not based in the Scriptures. Paul does not distinguish between qualifications; it is as necessary for an elder to be temperate as to be apt to teach, to be the husband of one wife is as necessary as to be given to hospitality, and so on and so forth. If there is any distinction, especially in 1 Timothy 3, it would be for “above reproach”: in his sentence structure, Paul singles “above reproach” out, and one can view the qualifications as various ways in which an elder can be considered “above reproach” (the same concept is true with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:21-22: “love” is singled out by structure, and the rest of the fruit can be viewed in terms of love).
Nevertheless, is there any merit in weighing the “fairness” of qualifications? Such a view betrays a more fundamental difficulty– how we understand the position of an elder. In the church, we (rightly) emphasize the need for young men to make it their goal to become elders. While it is true that few will become elders without making it their goal, we must also make it clear that not everyone will become elders or elder’s wives. One can be an excellent Christian and never an elder, Paul himself being a prime example (cf. 1 Corinthians 7). Being an elder is not a prize or a guaranteed path to salvation or even necessary for salvation– as Paul indicates in 1 Timothy 3:1, it is a “work”. The eldership represents responsibility and labor that is to be conducted by men who meet certain qualifications. If this is clear before they begin the work, it should be clear as they do the work. If we would not install a man as an elder whose wife died two years before (by no fault of his own), why should a man be maintained as an elder when his wife dies? It is not a statement of indictment against the elder– it is no negative at all. The man’s salvation is not at risk because his wife dies or because his children die. He simply no longer meets the qualifications for the particular task of the eldership.
The qualifications of the eldership are there to make sure that elders are “above reproach”, and therefore there are some qualifications present that are beyond what God requires for salvation. God established the qualifications in His wisdom, and whether we find it “fair” or not, God established them to be continual. God did not distinguish between qualifications that are “under the elder’s control” from those “outside the elder’s control”, and therefore neither should we. Elders must continually be above reproach, apt to teach, hospitable, not covetous– and the husband of one wife with believing children. Let us understand God’s truth in regards to these matters, and have a proper understanding of the eldership of a local church.