What makes an ideal elder
James Guthrie (1612-1661) was one of the most prominent Covenanters. Nicknamed “Sicker Foot” (Sure Foot) for his steadfastness and he was vocal in criticising the future Charles II and Oliver Cromwell. He was the first of the Covenanters to be sentenced to public execution by hanging.
9 Nov, 2023

If it is dangerous to any church to have ministers who are not called and qualified for their office, we must be equally concerned to have qualified elders. Zeal for the Lord’s honour and the gospel, love to souls and fear of the Lord’s judgment will make this a priority. One of the key elements contributing to discipline, peace and orderliness in congregations (and the wider community) is an effective eldership. Yet many elders are either unaware of the responsibilities of their office or not conscientious about fulfilling them. To address this, James Guthrie wrote a treatise on elders and deacons. The following excerpt from a recent edition of his treatise presents his explanation of the qualifications of a ruling elder.

The qualifications of a ruling elder

The qualifications of a ruling elder are of two sorts. Some are personal and relate to his way of life as a Christian. Others are official and relate to how he rules as an office-bearer in the household of God.

His personal qualifications, or the duties of his way of life are the same as the apostle requires in a minister (1 Timothy 3:2–7; 1 Timothy 6:11; Titus 1:6–8). In these passages, under the name of episkopos ‘overseer,’ Paul includes all the office-bearers who have the oversight and charge of souls, and sets down what manner of persons they should be in regard to their walk and lifestyle.

It is beyond question that the ruling elder ought to have a blameless and Christian way of life. However, to make it clear what the Holy Spirit requires of ruling elders, I shall show from these passages, first, what Paul says they should not be, and secondly, what he says they should be.

What a ruling elder should not be

A ruling elder must not be given to wine. He must not be a lover nor a follower of strong drink, nor go to excess in reckless debauchery, nor tipple away time in ale-houses and taverns.

He must not be a striker nor a brawler, nor given to quarrelling and contentions.

He must not be covetous, nor greedy of filthy lucre. The love of money is the root of all evil: which while some covet after, they err from the faith, and pierce themselves through with many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10).

He must not be a novice, or one newly come to the faith, lest he be puffed up with pride, and fall into the condemnation of the devil. The spirits of novices are not yet well ballasted, nor have they been brought low enough by frequent exercises of the cross, and so they come to be more easily puffed up. The ruling elder needs to be an exercised soldier of Jesus Christ, someone who has been taught by experience to know the wiles of the devil, and who is able to endure hardship.

He must not be self-willed. He must not adhere obstinately and unreasonably to his own opinion, refusing to listen to the views of his brethren, even when their views are sound and wholesome.

He must not be soon angry, either for real or perceived causes of provocation.

What a ruling elder should be

The elder must be blameless. He must be someone who walks without offence towards God and others.

If married, he must be the husband of one wife. He must be the kind of person who shuns all immoral lusts, satisfying himself with, and keeping himself within the bounds of the remedy provided by God.

He must be vigilant. He must be watchful over his own soul, so that no temptation will prevail on him, and he must be watchful for every good duty, to take hold of every opportunity of well doing.

He must be sober, and temperate, of a sound and humble mind. He must moderate his own appetite and affections, and satisfy himself with a moderate use of created things and the things of this world.

He must be of good behaviour, or modest. He must act in a dignified and respectable, yet friendly and considerate manner, neither light or vain so that he loses his authority and makes himself contemptible, nor sullen and self-important so that the flock are discouraged and scared away by his needless distance and severity.

He must be given to hospitality. He must be ready to receive strangers to his house, especially the poor, and those who are of the household of faith.

He must be apt to teach. He must be a man of knowledge, able to instruct others, someone who has a ready and willing mind to teach others. This does not mean that it is requisite for the ruling elder to have the gift of exhortation and instruction which is competent to the pastor and teacher, or that he may or ought to employ himself in that work. It means rather the fitness and ability to teach that is competent to his calling, which he must be ready and willing to exercise to the extent that teaching is part of his work.

He must take a balanced approach to things. He must not be rigorous or determined to exact the full penalty of the law in his dealings, but be flexible and willing to meet people half way, especially when it comes to his own personal interests, and willing to waive things instead of demanding strict justice.

He must be patient, one who without wearying perseveres in his duty, notwithstanding difficulties, and bears the delays, intractableness, and injuries of others.

He must be someone who rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity. The apostle adds this reason for this requirement, ‘If a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?’ The church of God has a larger extent than one family, and the duties to be performed in it are of greater eminence and difficulty, and require more skill, wisdom and courage than the duties to be performed in a family. To rule his own house well means not only that he has the ability to do it, but also that he makes conscience of it, and actually performs the duties which are required in order for a Christian family to be rightly and well ordered. For example, he must teach and instruct his children and all who belong to the household in the knowledge of God. He must take care about how they sanctify the Lord’s day, and make progress in godliness, and seek God, and regulate their behaviour and lifestyle. He must read the Scriptures, and sing psalms, and pray in the family. With his whole household, he must exhort, admonish, rebuke, and comfort, as each one’s condition requires. For if these duties lie on all heads of families who profess the gospel, then in a special way they lie on elders, who are appointed to stir up others and go before them in performing them.

He must have a love for good men. He must be someone whose soul cleaves to those who fear God, esteeming them above all others, cherishing them, and conversing ordinarily and familiarly with them.

He must be just. He must be someone who is straight and upright in all his dealings with others, deceiving no one, defrauding no one, withholding nothing from any one that is due to him, but giving to every one their due.

He must be holy, careful to express the life of religion and power of godliness in all his conversation.

He must be someone who holds fast the faithful Word that he has been taught. He must be stable in the faith, holding fast the truth of God, without wavering or turning aside to error.

Lastly, he must be someone who has a good report from those who are outside the church, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. He must be the kind of person whose blameless manner of living, and sober and Christian walking extorts a favourable testimony even from those who do not know God — someone who by well-doing puts to silence the ignorance of the foolish, so that if any speak evil of him as of an evil doer, they may be ashamed for speaking falsely against his good way of living in Christ. The apostle summarises all this in two sentences: ‘Be thou an example of the believers in word, in conversation behaviour, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity’ (1 Timothy 4:12), and, ‘follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness’ (1 Timothy 6:11).



Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.