Is It a Good Thing to Want to Be an Elder?
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”
On first reading it sounds like Paul is saying something to the effect that the men ought to desire eldership, that this is a good and noble desire. But I think my reading has for a long time been coloured by the way I’ve heard this passage preached, where the ambition to leadership is held up (like a rabbit before a pack of greyhounds) as something to help motivate men to grow up and mature. In fact, I’ve preached it this way myself.
But on a second reading I’m not at all sure that is what Paul’s saying. For one thing, he’s not addressing all the men in the room, but only a selection — notice the “if”. And furthermore, by saying “he desires a noble task” he is not necessarily saying “his desire itself is noble”. I think the meaning is not so much an affirmation of ambition, but an affirmation of the dignity of the role. It’s like saying: “If anyone wants to climb Everest, he has set his sights very high.”
The qualifications that follow in verses 2–7 are then not so much to be treated as goals to attain, though they are worthy goals for any Christian, but rather as a checklist before daring to step into such a role as eldership. So, the overall meaning is like this: “If you want to climb Everest (which is very high) you had better be fit, well-funded, well-trained, and well-bearded.” There is not, to my mind, any comment on whether someone ought to make this a goal in the first place.
What of the ambition to lead? The reality is that many men in churches do want to be elders, and that this desire can spur them on. Is this ambition good, or is it bad?
Calvin thinks that Paul is gently permitting the desire to eldership (the very fact that Paul is addressing such men shows a tacit acceptance of the desire; he doesn’t say the desire is wrong, after all). But Calvin adds some helpful words of caution and advice:
If ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in ‘the office of a bishop.’ But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church. For, if it were altogether unlawful to desire the office of a teacher, why should they who spend all their youth in reading the Holy Scriptures prepare themselves by learning? What are the theological schools but nurseries of pastors?
So there are men whose passions and interests have led them to pursue vigorous study, and if that is coupled with desire, it may be a good thing for them to find outlet for their gifts for the benefit of the church. He goes on:
Accordingly, they who have been thus instructed not only may lawfully devote themselves and their labours to God by a voluntary offering, but even ought to do so, and that too, before they have been admitted unto the office; provided that, nevertheless, they do not thrust themselves forward, and do not, even by their own wish, make themselves bishops, but are only ready to discharge the office, if their labours shall be required.
That is, if a man has been trained he should start finding any and every opportunity to use what he’s got long before he gets ordained. But don’t push for ordination, wait for a summons.
And if it turn out that, according to the lawful order; they are not called, let them know that such was the will of God, and let them not take it in that others have been preferred to them. But they who, without any selfish motive, shall have no other wish than to serve God and the Church, will be affected in this manner; and, at the same time, will have such modesty that they will not be at all envious, if others be preferred to them as being more worthy.
This is undoubtedly the test of whether ambition for leadership is well-motivated or not: how a guy reacts when he’s refused the place on the leadership team. Will he have this modesty and complete absence of envy? Will he take it as God’s will?