My childhood wish-dream was to become a professional golfer. My grandfather bought me my first set of clubs the day I was born. By the time I was old enough to swing he had me on the driving range. My summer break was filled with weekly youth tournaments. I was the captain of my high school golf team. I dreamed of one day walking the tightly manicured greens of Augusta. And my family was always supportive.
All of us had a “when I grow up” wish-dream. Perhaps you wanted to become a fire-fighter or an astronaut? Some of you more ambitious types imagined one day becoming the President of the United States! And, more often than not, our families supported our aspirations. Did they really think I’d become a pro golfer or that you’d become the Leader of the Free World? Maybe. Anything can happen, I guess. Realistically, though, they knew before you did that not everybody who wants to be the President will end up in oval office. Even so, the virtue lied not so much in whether our youthful wish-dreams were fulfilled, but in our aspirations.
For many of us, our aspirations shaped us. Our character and our priorities were (at least for a time) influenced by them. Even though many of us never saw our aspirations fulfilled, we would nevertheless say they were valuable in forming our character, which is why we treat our own children’s aspirations the same way. We encourage them to dream big not because we are certain all of their dreams will come true, but because aspirations set trajectories. There is a kind of virtue in aspiring to something great.
The apostle Paul thought so. Writing to his young pastor-disciple Timothy, he says:
“The saying is trustworthy: If any one aspires to the office of overseer he desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1).”
I imagine Paul knew that not all men who aspire to be an elder will actually fill the office. However, the aspiration itself, even if unfulfilled, carries its own kind of virtue. Why? Because aspirations set trajectories. And the trajectory on which Paul wants all men to travel—the trajectory that will shape the character and convictions of all Christian men—is that they become godly men who serve the good of the church to the glory of God.
ASPIRING TO BE AN ELDER SETS A TRAJECTORY FOR GROWTH IN GODLINESS.
Testament scholar D.A. Carson observes that when reading through the list of qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, “what’s most striking is how unremarkable it is.” That’s right!
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:1-9, God is not creating a second class of Christian. There isn’t a varsity team (elders) on the one hand, and the “junior varsity” (church members) on the other. God isn’t distinguishing between the elite special ops (elders) and the ordinary “ground troops” or “civilians” (church members).
Quite the opposite! While not every person can be a varsity quarterback or a Navy Seal, Paul writes that “any body can aspire to office of overseer.” Any bodies implies all bodies. The marks of an elder, with the exception of his ability “to teach,” should be the marks of every Christian man because they are the marks of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Overseer of our souls.
And all Christian men should, by God’s grace, desire to imitate Christ by actively pursuing godliness in their own life and in the lives of Christian brothers and sisters around them (John 13:15; Rom. 13:14; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:21-25; 1 John 2:6). Aspiring to be an elder sets men on a trajectory for Christ-likeness.
Thabiti Anyabwile, in his helpful book Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons, makes the following comment:
“Practically speaking, one of the first things a pastor must do is clarify and teach godly ambition, including the godliness of aspiring to be an elder. Faithful pastors will regularly encourage young men (including twenty-somethings) to include in their personal aspirations the goal of becoming an elder. After all, every characteristic that Paul lists for elders in 1 Timothy 3, except for the quality of being “able to teach (v.2),” should mark every Christian man.”
Sadly, well-intentioned Christians too often import foreign leadership concepts into the church. Many men unnecessarily disqualify themselves before ever vetting themselves by God’s Word because they see themselves as not fitting some pre-conceived, secularized notion of leadership. Many godly men wrongly believe that aspiring to the office of elder is for “other guys” because they don’t possess a dynamic personality, own an IQ above 130, have a seminary degree, or have any skill at running an organization.
But God is interested in a much different leader than those found in the world. Jeremy Rinne, author of Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus says it better than anybody: “Better a godly elder with mediocre leadership gifts than a charismatic leader with glaring moral flaws.”
All men should aspire to be an elder because it sets them on a trajectory to become more like Christ.
ASPIRING TO BE AN ELDER SETS A TRAJECTORY FOR SERVING THE CHURCH.
Not only that, Jesus has commanded that all believers (not just elders) “make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).” Jude tells church members (not just elders) to be “building yourselves (one another) up in your most holy faith (Jude 20-21).” Peter tells church members (not just elders) to use their “gifts…to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:10).” Paul tells church members (not just elders) to “speak the truth in love so that your church will “grow up” and be “built up” and “mature” (Eph. 4:13,15).
All Christians (not just elders) have been saved by God’s grace to be a disciple-making disciple in the context of the local church. Discipleship is neither as sexy nor as formulaic as many books and blogs would have you believe. If you’re a Christian, here’s what it means to disciple others:
You’ve been called by God to seek the spiritual good of the members of your church in order that, through your church, the glory of God might be displayed to the world (Eph. 3:10).
If you’re a Christian, “making disciples” means that you’re actively helping other Christians faithfully follow Jesus as you do the same.
Since all men are called to make disciples, it stands that Paul’s great commission to elders to “shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:28)” falls within the boundaries of our Lord’s Great(er) Commission to “make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20).” Simply, elders are godly, disciple-making disciples who actively seek the spiritual good of their church, and have been uniquely gifted by God to glorify him by shepherding his church through the regular preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
All Christian men should aspire to reflect the character of Christ in their motivation to bring glory to God by serving the spiritual good of the members of their church. They should dream of becoming disciple-making disciples.
In other words, all men should aspire to be an elder because it sets them on a trajectory for helping others become more like Christ.
BROTHERS, ASPIRE TO SOMETHING GREAT!
To this point, I’ve tried to briefly argue that all men should aspire to be an elder because it sets them on a trajectory to become godly men who serve the good of the church to the glory of God. But where should a man begin?
If any man in my church, regardless of age or experience, told me, “I think that I want to serve as an elder one day,” my response would be, “Praise God! Brother, you desire a good thing. Can you teach?”
At that point, it’s incumbent upon me (and, Lord willing, other elders) to assess his spiritual maturity in order to best encourage and equip him in the coming months or years while he continues to serve as a faithful member. I want him to get a big vision for the purpose of the church in the world and why he’s a indispensable part of our church reflecting the glory of God. When appropriate, we’d look to provide opportunities for him to grow as an evangelist and be tested as a teacher and leader (small group, Wednesday night Bible study, Sunday school, etc.).
Maybe he becomes an elder. Maybe he doesn’t. Over time, God will make it clear to the church whether or not this is a man called to lead them. More significantly, this man has set himself on a trajectory to grow in godliness as he learns to become a disciple-making disciple in the context of our church.
On the other hand, there may be a godly man in our church who loves others well and is a competent teacher. He has served faithfully and has seen his spiritual influence grow. Yet, for one reason or another, he doesn’t aspire to be an elder. Maybe I and others see the potential but he doesn’t. I’d want to know why. Perhaps he’s prematurely disqualified himself due to some flawed ideas about spiritual leadership (see above). Maybe he’s restrained by false humility, thinking (wrongly) that ambition is always a bad thing. Maybe nobody’s ever challenged him: “Have you ever thought that maybe God has gifted you to lead as an elder in the church?” I want to help this brother dream a bit. I want to see godly ambition welling up inside of him–ambition for the good of our church and the glory of God!
Maybe he becomes an elder. Maybe he doesn’t. Time and truth will tell. God will make it clear to the church whether or not He has appointed this man to help shepherd His flock. More significantly, whether he fills the office or not, this man has set himself on a trajectory to continue growing in godliness as a disciple-making disciple in the context of our church.
For this reasons, I’ll never stop calling all men in our church to be dreamers! I want all men in our church to aspire to be elders because I want all my brothers to become men who seek the spiritual good of the church to the glory of God.
Perhaps some, by God’s grace, will one day help shepherd the flock of God. Lord willing, all of us will look a lot more like Jesus.