A Shepherd's Character

Following from last week's article by Pastor Ian on the roles of an elder, this week Pastor Eugene deliberates on the character that an elder should have. 

The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered.” (Ezek 34:1-5)

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that nothing is more harmful to the well-being of God’s people than bad shepherds, who use the sheep for their own selfish ends. As a result, the sheep end up weak, impoverished, defenceless and scattered.

Bad shepherds not only hurt the sheep, they also lie about the character of God. The Bible speaks of God as the ultimate Shepherd of His people. Church elders[1] are called by the Chief Shepherd to serve as faithful under-shepherds, for the good of God’s flock. Therefore elders are to emulate and reflect the character of the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. They should be Christ-like examples for the other sheep to follow. 

Hence character is key in assessing a man’s suitability to serve as an elder. The qualifying criteria focus on the kind of man he is, not on his charisma, abilities, academic accomplishments, success, popularity or influence. Leadership in the Bible is very different from leadership in the world. As Jesus said: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:42-45)  

Elders are to be servant-hearted shepherds. What sort of character should they have?  

The two key passages that address this question are found in 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Tit 1:5-9. The qualifications listed in both passages can be sub-divided into moral qualifications, family qualifications, situational qualifications and spiritual gifting. We’ll examine the first three here, and look at spiritual gifting next week.  

Moral qualifications

  1. Above reproach: This means blameless, in the sense that no one can point a finger at an elder’s character or behaviour with an accurate accusation. This requirement does not call for perfection but for godliness. 
  1. Sober-minded: Such a man is able to think clearly and spiritually about important matters. He is not careless or frivolous, but watchful and circumspect. 
  1. Self-controlled: An elder should demonstrate discipline in living a godly life (1 Tim 4:7b, 16). 
  1. Respectable: His character should be worthy of others’ respect. He is characterised by spiritual maturity. 
  1. Hospitable: An elder shows love to others, including those whom he does not know. He shows no partiality or prejudice (Jas 2:1), and welcomes others even as Christ has welcomed him (Rom 15:7). Being hospitable means that an elder’s life is open so that others can be a part of it. He makes time for others. He invests in building relationships, in order to better shepherd God’s flock.  
  1. Gentle: This means to be kind, gracious and forbearing. 
  1. A lover of good: This involves willingly helping others and seeking their good. In its essence, it is to love God and others (Matt 22:36-40; Gal 5:14). 
  1. Upright: Elders abide by God’s righteous standard, revealed in Scripture. 
  1. Holy: This means being wholly devoted to God and His truth. It is to be set apart to God for His glory. An elder is not spiritually complacent, but demonstrates a holy discontentment that drives him towards the goal of becoming more like Jesus (Phil 3:12-16). 
  1. Disciplined: An elder fights sin and strives for godliness. 
  1. Not a drunkard: A man is disqualified from the office of elder if he is addicted to alcohol (or other substances). 
  1. Not violent: A violent or pugnacious person is easily irritated and bad-tempered. In contrast, an elder must be gentle, peaceable and patient. 
  1. Not quarrelsome: An elder’s life and ministry should foster unity in the church. 
  1. Not a lover of money: Elders are to be grateful and content with what God has provided (Heb 13:5). They should be free from the controlling influence of money. Instead, elders should be characterised by generosity. 
  1. Not arrogant: An elder must be a protector of God’s concerns rather than his own self-centred agenda. Humility is indispensable. An elder should work well with the other elders in the team. 
  1. Not quick-tempered: Elders should exemplify patient love.


Family qualifications

  1. Husband of one wife: This phrase literally says “one-woman man”. An elder, if he is married, must be faithful to his wife in a monogamous relationship. This qualification does not exclude single men from serving as elders, but it emphasises the need for sexual purity and relational faithfulness. 
  1. Manages his own household well: An elder, if he has children, must be a godly father who reflects the character of our Heavenly Father in how he relates to his children. How a man leads his family demonstrates whether he is fit to lead in God’s church. By neglecting his family—even for the sake of 'ministry'—a man can become disqualified from being an elder. A man’s family is an integral part of his ministry. An elder’s children should be respectful and obedient. 


Situational qualifications

  1. Not a recent convert: An elder must not be a new believer. If a man does not have deep, time-tested spiritual maturity, he may become proud while serving as an elder. 
  1. Well thought of by outsiders: An elder should have a good reputation with those outside the church, such as his neighbours, work colleagues, family members, etc. An elder who is well regarded commends the gospel to the watching world by his faithful witness. 

Most of these qualities are actually not unique to elders; they are expected of all believers. Biblically qualified elders are not 'super-spiritual' people, but those who are mature in the faith and live consistent, humble lives. Elders should be men who rely on the grace of Jesus Christ, who works in us by His Spirit to produce the good fruit of godliness. By his life and example, an elder should point others to Christ and encourage them to follow the Lord as he does. 

Christ-like shepherds are God’s gift to His church. He uses faithful elders to feed His flock and build up His people. As we prepare to recognise new elders, let’s be praying for godly wisdom to affirm godly men for the noble task of shepherding God’s church! 

This Sunday:

  • We will be starting a new sermon series on the book of Hosea. Let’s prepare our hearts to hear from God, who remains ever faithful in spite of our faithlessness. 
  • Let’s prepare ourselves to partake of the Lord’s Supper. May we come to the table with humble and repentant hearts, as we give thanks for the salvation and unity we enjoy in Jesus Christ. 
  • A new round of Seekers’ classes begins this Sunday, 11am-12.30pm. Held over seven sessions, these are aimed at explaining Christianity in an engaging and accessible way. Do come and invite others to hear about what it means to know and follow Jesus!


[1] In the Bible, the terms “elder”, “pastor” and “overseer” all refer to the same office. Therefore, the qualifications for an elder are the same for pastors and overseers.