A minister who once preached from this passage borrowed his title from one of its key phrases. The sermon was supposed to be called “Above Reproach: The Qualifications of Elders.” When the bulletin came back from the printer, however, it stated that elders were “Above Approach” rather than “Above Reproach.”
“Above Approach”—the phrase reflects the way Christians sometimes feel about their spiritual leaders. Few things seem to cause greater fear than meeting with the elders of the church. I remember how I felt, as a youngster, when I waited to give my testimony of faith in Jesus Christ to the session. There I sat in the church hallway, rubbing sweaty palms on my good church trousers and trying desperately to remember my salvation verse. The feeling returned with greater force when I appeared before my presbytery to be examined for ordination to pastoral ministry.
The officers of the church have not always made Christians so nervous. Back in the nineteenth century a churchman from Edinburgh named David Dickson wrote: “Our people know well the necessity and usefulness of the office of the eldership. All over Scotland there is a happy prejudice in favor of an elder’s visit. No elder could ever say that they did not welcome his visits. The houses and hearts of the people are ever open to those whom they have called to the office.”1 This is how elders ought to be treated: with affection.
A NOBLE TASK
Elders should also be treated with respect, for the Bible holds their office in high esteem: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). This is the second time the apostle has taken a popular saying and given it divine approval. Walter Lock offers a clever paraphrase to give it the flavor of a proverb: “He who would play a leader’s part, / On noble task has set his heart.”2
The Greek word for “overseer” is episkopos, which is sometimes translated as “bishop.” Episkopos is the word that gives the Episcopal Church its name. It is synonymous with the biblical word presbyteros, which means “elder” and gives the Presbyterian Church its name. In the New Testament—in Acts 20:17–38, for example—the words for pastor (poimēn), elder (presbyteros), and bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably (see also 1 Peter 5:1–2; Titus 1:5–7). This is true in 1 Timothy as well, since Paul later calls the overseers “elders” (1 Tim. 5:17).
We are bound to conclude from the biblical usage that there is no difference in rank among the elders of the church, and that therefore hierarchical forms of church government go beyond the teaching of Scripture. They did not develop, in fact, until after the close of the New Testament, especially in the ministry of Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, who died several decades into the second century.
The biblical pattern for the church is spiritual government by a plurality of elders. All the overseers are brothers in ministry. As we shall see, there is a difference between teaching elders (sometimes known as pastors or ministers) and ruling elders (see 1 Tim. 5:17). But the difference lies only in their function, not in their authority. A pastor is not superior in rank to a ruling elder.
Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Daniel M. Doriani, and Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 58–60.
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