King David’s words describe the goodness and blessing of well-exercised authority:
The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam. 23:2–4)
Rulers who rule justly and humbly spread blessing and hope among those they serve. This is true not only in the civil arena but also in the church. Paul says that elders who rule well should be “considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). For a man to do this, he must not be quarrelsome. That is one of five negative qualifications that Paul lists for overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1–8.
“An overseer must be . . . not quarrelsome” (v. 3). That is, he must not be the kind of person who is always angling for a fight. He must not be irritable. To state it positively, he must be a peaceable person.
This is an important character quality for every Christian because it is a reflection of our Creator, who Himself is the “God of peace” (Rom. 15:33). He makes peace between Himself and sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (5:1) and through Him creates the basis on which believers can live in peace with each other (Eph. 2:14).
Believers are called to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14) and to seek to live with that wisdom that comes from above that is characterized as “peaceable” (James 3:17). As we do so, we will be enabled to stand firm with readiness to share the “gospel of peace” with anyone and everyone (Eph. 6:15).
It is particularly important for elders not to be quarrelsome. As men who are called by God to shepherd the church into greater conformity to Christ, they themselves are to be exemplary in Christian character. The way of Christ that they teach and commend to others should be noticeably evident in their own lives. A contentious, quarrelsome spirit will undermine an elder’s effectiveness in leading the church.
It will also affect the work of the eldership as a whole. A church is greatly blessed to have a team of competent, qualified men to serve as elders. A plurality of elders can watch over the flock far more effectively than a single elder or pastor can. As a church grows, the need for more elders grows.
An elder must love and contend for truth without being quarrelsome.
Serving well as part of church eldership necessarily involves dealing with delicate, complex, and confusing issues. Those issues are important to the health and vitality of the church. The collective wisdom of those whom the Lord has called to serve together in the eldership is required to navigate such issues with grace and biblical fidelity.
A quarrelsome elder can short-circuit the process of cultivating that wisdom. To pursue wisdom with others, there must be the freedom to speak candidly, to make suggestions, and to entertain points of view that may not be familiar. Humble, considerate, respectful men who love and trust each other will welcome this type of interaction in an elders’ meeting because they have a common goal, and they will not ignite controversy by thinking out loud. Add a quarrelsome man to the mix, however, and an eldership can find itself hamstrung and its ability to work through difficult cases stifled.
If an elder is confident that a suggestion or idea is going to provoke the ire of a fellow elder, he may be tempted to leave it unspoken or, at best, to voice it with such caution and so many qualifiers that its meaning is clouded or significance blunted. The result is that the eldership—and thus, the church—is robbed of potentially helpful insight.
If nothing else, a quarrelsome elder can cause what often are already long meetings to drag on unnecessarily without benefit. Weariness and a sense that one’s time is being wasted combine to inhibit the kind of joyful service that a church needs from those who watch over their souls.
This does not mean that an elder must simply be a yes-man or be hesitant to contend for what is right and true. Rather, not to be quarrelsome means that a man is committed to contending for right causes without being contentious.
The best elders are like Valiant-for-truth, a hero in The Pilgrim’s Progress. But like Bunyan’s character, elders must also learn to contend to the death with those three enemies who represent the greatest threat to all who love and stand for truth: Wild-Head, Inconsiderate, and Pragmatic (which in Bunyan’s day meant “meddlesome”).
When we first meet Valiant-for-truth, his face is all bloody and his sword is drawn. He has just finished an intense, three-hour battle with those foes. What Bunyan wants us to see is that those enemies reside not out there somewhere, but within the very soul of the one who is valiant for truth.
An elder must love and contend for truth without being quarrelsome. The way he does that is the same way that every Christian must do it—by seriously applying the Word of God to himself before he applies it to others. In this way, the Word operates as the Holy Spirit’s sword in his own life, and he will be empowered to put to death the pride that makes a man always ready to argue. It is also through the Word that the Spirit cultivates His fruit in an elder (as in every believer): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Where these prevail, a quarrelsome spirit cannot survive.
Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.
Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention, Traditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous.
Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.