Eldership: A Noble Task
The Bible commends the desire to serve the church as an elder, calling it a “noble task” (1 Tim 3:1, ESV). Thus, it is not surprising or problematic when a man ardently aspires to the office because of this nobility. It is startling and dangerous to the church, however, when a man desires personal nobility instead of noble service. When Paul wrote this commendation of an elder’s ministry he chose his words very carefully to protect the church from self-aggrandizing men: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task (1 Tim 3:1, ESV).”
This verse begins the list of qualifications for an elder in the church. One of the first things we notice about this qualification for eldership is that Paul uses two different words to describe it: “aspire” and “desire.” The word translated “aspire” is the Greek word orego, which means to “reach out for something” or to “move towards something.” Or as one noted lexicon defined it: “to seek to accomplish a specific goal, aspire to” (BDAG). Paul has in mind the man who has made it his aim to become an elder and is taking the practical steps toward achieving that goal. The other word Paul uses is epithumeo, which signifies an inward or internal desire. In contrast with taking the necessary external steps toward eldership, this word focuses on the internal motivation driving a man toward eldership. Thus, this qualification requires that a man possess an internal desire to be an elder and that he takes the necessary steps toward ministry in a practical and disciplined way. He must personally want to become an elder and willingly undergo the proper process of being affirmed by the church (Titus 1:5).
Paul’s language allows us to elaborate even further on the nature of a qualified man’s desire. He is pursuing (orego) the office of overseer through practical steps, but what he really desires (epithumeo) is the work! The inward desire is for the noble work of shepherding souls, not a conferred title or position of power. It is the desire to give his life to the work of ministry that compels this man to aspire to the office. Thus, a man pursuing or remaining in eldership must be a man who desires backbreaking work on behalf of other people. And make no mistake about it: Paul is consistently clear that the office of elder does require work (1 Thess 5:12-13). It is not glamorous, and many times it results in very little recognition. But for the qualified man that’s ok. He doesn’t desire his own glory. He desires to faithfully pour out his energies as a slave to his Master (Lk 17:7-10). He is a man who has a heart for ministry that beats on the same pulse as the heart of the Great Shepherd (Mark 6:34). A qualified elder loves the sheep and desires the opportunity to give up his life on their behalf. He understands that the nobility of the office is wrapped up in the nobility of the task, and the nobility of the task cannot be separated from the burden of the task.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.