“More About the Elder Portrait”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

Last Monday, I posted a bulletin article in which I argued that we should understand the “elder texts” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as elder portraits rather than elder checklists.  Not surprisingly, I collected some pushback.  Primarily, it came from those who were concerned that I had converted requirements into recommendations and muddied the clear truth of the text.

I will acknowledge that applying the elder portrait to a man requires a great deal of judgment from the congregation.  Unless he flatly does not possess a character attribute (the lifelong bachelor cannot be said to be a one-woman man), analyzing his spiritual strengths and weaknesses is not a black-and-white matter.  Instead, we ought to consider all of them in order to determine whether he rises to the overall standard of blamelessness.

 Philosophically, I’m OK with that.  God calls us to develop and exercise wisdom and good judgment, and brethren frequently are too quick to convert the judgment calls in Scripture (modesty is one example of such, but there are others) into bright-line rules.  We too often prefer clarity to uncertainty, even when clarity is the result of us seating ourselves in the chair of Moses. 

Additionally, I believe that whatever brethren may teach, in practice they make all kinds of judgment calls when appointing elders anyway.  Even if we read these passages as binary checklists, where’s the breakpoint between Y and N?  Is a man who lost his temper on Facebook five years ago still self-controlled?  Does a man who has strangers in his home twice a year qualify as hospitable?  And so forth.

This is true even of the “math qualifications”.  Take “husband of one wife”, for instance.  In theory, this seems simple and straightforward.  In practice, it proves to be anything but.  It can mean A) married, B) married, and not a polygamist, C) married only once, or D) known to be faithful to his wife.   

I believe D) is correct because it’s the only interpretation that speaks to a man’s blamelessness.  However, short of adopting the elder-portrait position, I’m not aware of any way to distinguish among the four.  There are no relevant Scriptures, and the extrabiblical evidence is a morass.  There’s even a case to be made for C); the Romans believed it was virtuous to have only one spouse throughout life.

In short, we are forced back on intuition in interpreting “husband of one wife”, and if our intuitions are not influenced by our convictions about a man’s overall character, we’re probably not human.  Of course, this is to say nothing of “faithful children”.  Entire forests have been slaughtered in vain efforts to prove what that means!

What we are left with, then, is not a contrast between confusion on one side and clarity on the other.  Instead, it is between one judgment call about blamelessness and a whole bunch of judgment calls about every item on the two lists, any one of which can mean the difference between qualified and not.  We have a great deal of inspired guidance in determining whether a man is blameless; we have very little in determining what “faithful children” means.  2/2?  2/3?  1/2?  1/1?  Not necessarily Christians, but personally devoted to Dad?  We can claim any of these answers for our own, but once we start insisting that it is the only right answer, we run into that chair-of-Moses problem again.

Rather than heading down such a fraught path, we should frankly admit what we’re doing.  We’re deciding whether it would be a good idea to make a man a leader over the local congregation.  What do we know about this guy’s character?  What do we see in his family?  Does he have flaws that will crack wide open under the stresses of eldership? 

The elder portraits are meant to guide and shape our inquiry, but they do not make the decision for us, and we should not pretend that they do.  We would be fools to ignore the Holy Spirit, but neither does the Spirit deprive us of the opportunity to be wise.  Is a man blameless?  Once we answer that question rightly, we have what we need.