G. C. Tuland wrote this article as pastor of the Illinois Conference.

In order to evaluate the profile of a Christian elder we should not analyze the position or the office, but we should try to describe the personalities with certain characteristics. The requirements are so comprehensive that the apostle exclaimed, "Who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor. 2:16). In his first epistle to Timothy the apostle enumerates the qualifications of a bishop or, as we call him, an elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7). In Phillips' translation the following words are used to describe him: self-control, discretion, disciplined life, hospitable, gift of teaching, gentleness. There are many additional qualities which, when summarized, describe the sum total of a Christian elder's personality, natural abilities, intellectual capabilities, and spirituality.

It seems to be quite natural that when we elect some people as elders we choose those who have a certain social standing and are gifted with some degree of eloquence, for they are not only public representatives of the church but they also should be able to express themselves in a clear and convincing manner when standing in the pulpit.

Nevertheless, the question is whether these are the most important criteria on which we should make our choice.

The Personality

Sometimes people chosen as elders because of their eloquence lacked the more important qualities of eldership. Moses was a poor speaker while Aaron was an eloquent man (Ex. 4:10). Yet the Biblical record indicates that Aaron did not possess the wisdom, stamina, and the moral strength required for this position. Aaron gave in to the demands of the people and made the golden calf for them. And when he was accused of having led the people astray, he laid the blame upon the people he should have guided in the ways of God (Ex. 32:21, ff.). It was Moses, the man without oratorial ability, who not only had the courage to face the idolatrous masses but who also possessed the spirit of selflessness and offered his life for the wayward flock (Ex. 32:32). Strength paired with humility, resistance against evil, complete devotion to the saving of the erring these were the characteristics of the greatest of all leaders of Israel.

Such qualities are still needed today because the elders of the church have to preserve the unadulterated gospel. They come up against many influences and sometimes insidious teachings.

There are the so-called independent ministries that have to be dealt with in order to protect the church against false teachings and divisions. Such a defense has to be made intelligently, in a well-informed manner, justly, and in a Christian spirit. There are also some within the church who try to bring "new light" that is neither sound nor Biblical. The elders have to deal with such persons firmly, factually, and tactfully. Such matters have to be clarified in a brotherly and humble spirit, lest some turn away from the church, not because of the new teaching but on account of an unchristian attitude.

A true elder strives for unity. When people of different opinions and strong conviction meet in church board meetings, the qualities of an elder become apparent through the wisdom with which he deals with problems. To be able to distinguish between principle and opinion, the important and the trivial, to be willing to give up an opinion but stand firm on principle that is true leadership. To do this without giving offense and to be willing to suffer for that which is right are also characteristic of an elder. True elders are true Christians in the first place; men, as Ellen G. White says, "who will stand for the right though the heavens fall" (Education, p. 57). God calls for men and women of stability, of firm purpose, who can be relied upon in seasons of danger and trial, who are as firmly rooted and grounded in the truth as the eternal hills, who cannot be swayed to the right or to the left, but who move straight onward and are always found on the right side" (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 75).

The Natural Abilities

What are the natural administrative abilities of an elder? Determination to impose his will upon people and congregations? Such an attitude is wrong, and we do well to heed the admonition of the apostle Peter when he says that elders should not be domineering (1 Peter 5:1-3).

The elder's capacity is best expressed in his relationship to his fellow officers and his congregation. No man should ever expect uniformity of opinion among all in all matters. Diversity of opinion can and should be made a cause of fruitfulness and advancement of the church. But it should never cause division. The ability to work together with men who know their own minds and have plans or methods shows the maturity of a man.

Again, any person is a true elder if he succeeds in gaining the cooperation of the congregation in accepting and carrying into effect the plans of the church. Our denomination is continually involved in one campaign or another. Thus a true elder must know how and to what extent he can urge his flock. An episode from Jacob's life will illustrate this point. When he had made peace with his brother Esau, he declined to rush his caravan, saying, "My lord knows that the children are frail, and the flocks and herds giving suck are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die" (Gen. 33:13, RSV). The care for the flock, the spiritual welfare of the church, is still the greatest responsibility of both the minister and elders.

It is easy to lose our sense of values in our race for goals. We can easily lose balance in religion when we judge the church by achievement instead of spirituality the elder or ministers by their success in Ingathering, by their performance instead of by their motivation, by their activity instead of by their spirit.

Let the term "officer" not be misunderstood, for though a man is an elder or officer, he is not a commander but a man endowed with the gift and the spirit of a shepherd. To be a successful elder requires more of deep human understanding, patience, the capacity to bear and to endure the frailties of humanity than it requires pure intellect or administrative know-how.

The Intellectual Capabilities

We are living in an age when knowledge has tremendously increased. Unfortunately, we as a people do not always measure up to our own preaching. Too often we stand before the congregation with old "warmed-up" sermons of yesteryear, or a collection of newspaper quotations, or we use the pulpit for reading exercises. Well should we remember that there is no substitute for preaching the Word of God, and to do so effectively, we must study the Bible. We must not only read it, we must dig deep, search, and increase our knowledge of it. There is more to it than archeological confirmation or speculation on the meaning of some complicated passage. The essence of preaching has most aptly been expressed by the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 (Phillips*). "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man's life and training him in good living."

And again, in order to achieve this purpose, Paul states that: "The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God, and fit him fully for all branches of his work" (verse 17, Phillips*).

Preaching the Word is serious business. It will not do to pick up the Bible on Sabbath morning, place it on the pulpit, and then preach on a text found where the Bible happens to fall open.

We do not feed the sheep; we do not feed the lambs. The church of God is starved and thus unable to grow into a greater Christian experience. There is no other way to give to the church the Bread of Life than to do it spiritually, intelligently, and with sound knowledge. This is the responsibility of any elder who has been called to stand in the pulpit.

The Spirituality

There is not a single soul in this world who does not have some kind of problem. Many church members are unable to cope with their problems. There are social problems, there is sin, there are young people who need guidance, and there are older ones who seem to belong to the forgotten ones. Some have become bitter, some selfrighteous, some callous. The church elder has to meet all of these; in fact, he has to look out for them, for his work is not only in the pulpit.

Many years ago some of our elders "governed" through church "discipline." It may be that some use this method even today. But let us look to our Lord for guidance. Jesus loved the rich young ruler who turned away from Him. He would keep alive the smoldering wick, the waning faith, in the heart of the ruler of the synagogue (Mark 5:36).

Halfhearted Nicodemus, doubting Thomas, despairing Peter all found in Jesus the One they could trust, to whom they could turn, knowing that He would understand. That is the kind of spirit people still desire to find in their elders.

As we search our hearts today let us confess our shortcomings as elders of the church, and in humility and with renewed consecration let us make a new beginning in order to fulfill this task. The primitive church used a chant in the Greek language, "Kyrie eleison," meaning "Lord, have mercy upon us." Let that be our prayer, and let us believe that He will hear us and make our ministry fruitful for the salvation of His church, for the time to save His people has come.


*From The New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips. Copyright 1958. Used by permission of the Macmillan Company.

C. G. Tuland was a pastor in the Illinois Conference when he wrote this article.