What To Look For In A Leader

1 Timothy provides us with some guidelines to follow.

We live in an era where people tend to overlook character flaws in leaders “if they can do their job.” This is even the case in a few modern churches that are more business than church. However, this is not the case with God, who is very “old-fashioned” when it comes to a person’s character. To God, being a Christian leader is first and foremost about being in an active and fruitful relationship with God Himself. God does not need “business” of any kind. He does not need money, power, popularity, a big building, or anything else that the “business” of Church can provide.

God loves people. He loves them so much He sent His only Son to die for them. What kind of leaders do you think God wants to lead His beloved people? He wants leaders who are of sterling character, those who will love and take care of His people, provide them with a good example to follow, and show them how to have a meaningful relationship with Him. To help the Church recognize the people who have the kind of character God is looking for, the books of Timothy and Titus have a list of character traits and behaviors that leaders should exhibit. This short article will not be able to cover all the character traits mentioned in Timothy and Titus, but will cover the opening list in 1 Timothy 3 and add a couple other important considerations for leaders.

1 Timothy 3:2 (Author’s translation)
It is necessary, then, that the overseer be above reproach; the husband of one wife; temperate; sensible; respectable; given to hospitality; skilful in teaching;

This verse opens by telling us that the character traits about to be listed are “necessary.” [1] Good character is not optional for leaders, it is essential. Above all, a leader leads people to God. God will not be mocked, and He will not stand behind or bless a leader who leads in name only and who is not interested in obeying God or loving His people. God’s relationships with King Saul and King Solomon make that very plain.

Above reproach

The first character quality listed in 1 Timothy is “above reproach.” The Greek word is anepileptos (Strong’s #423), and it literally means, “that which cannot be taken hold of.” One of the uses of anepileptos in Greek writings was of a wrestler who is so completely prepared that he cannot be grabbed and thrown by his opponent. A leader is to exhibit positive qualities that set an example, and carefully avoid behaviors that can be used against him or the ministry. As well as sinful or illegal actions, reproachful behavior includes unwise behaviors that the Adversary can use against a person. God is holy, and wants to be in relationship with people who take holiness seriously. Furthermore, through the ages unbelievers have mocked God because His people have behaved badly (cp. Rom. 2:24). God wants His leaders to have a good reputation so they best represent Him to outsiders.

The husband of one wife

This character issue is also spoken of in Titus 1:6 (and in 1 Tim. 3:12 is mentioned in reference to deacons). In the first century, monogamy was not always practiced, so the primary meaning of the verse is “not a polygamist.” For example, harems were common in the Eastern world, and not unknown in the Western world. However, there are other cultural overtones that must be considered. For one thing, this verse is not forbidding singles, divorcees, or women. When women are ordained, this would be the “wife of but one husband.” [2]

Furthermore, given God’s transforming power, it is clear from the context of Timothy that the traits mentioned in this list refer to present behaviors, and do not include past behavior. To understand this, let us take the example of alcohol use, which comes up later in the list. A person is not disqualified from being a leader if he abused alcohol in his past. This is true for all the character traits. The leader must be above reproach now, not violent now, not a novice now, and so on. Thus, “the husband of one wife” is not forbidding a divorced person from being a minister, but rather is saying that he cannot be the husband of more than one wife now. [3]

Another overtone in the Greek text that must be considered is that the Greek words for “wife” and “woman” are exactly the same. This was culturally due to the fact that women were expected to marry, and married young. Thus although the primary meaning of the verse is that a minister cannot have more than one wife, it is also clear that a minister cannot have more than one “woman.” He cannot be an adulterer or have mental obsessions about other women.

It is important to make the point that Christian leaders are to be sexually pure, because there were in Paul’s time, and are today, many opportunities for sexual impurity. In Rome, prostitution was common, and if a man visited a prostitute it was usually overlooked. Furthermore, it was the common custom in Rome that a husband and wife slept in separate bedrooms if their house afforded the luxury of extra rooms. [4] That fact, together with the fact that any household slave was sexually available to the master, made adultery quite common, leading the Roman historian Carcopino to write, “…slavery degrades and besmirches marriage if it does not wholly stamp it out.” [5] In our modern world legalized prostitution is making a comeback, and there are a lot of sexually uninhibited men and women to tempt Christian leaders. Furthermore, the Internet makes sexual fanaticizing an easy reality.

From the scope of Scripture it is clear that the Christian leader must be a “one woman man” in his marriage contract and with his heart and eyes as well. Ogling women and making inappropriate comments about their form is not acceptable behavior for a Christian leader. Similarly, women leaders are not to be flirts, immodest dressers, teases, or sexually immoral.


“Temperate” is the Greek word nephalios (#3524); it is also used in 1 Timothy 3:11 concerning deacons and the base meaning is “temperate concerning wine.” That developed into the further meaning of “clear-minded, temperate, watchful, and vigilant” (all which are necessary for leaders, and all of which tipsy people are not). The temperate person has a clear perspective, is watchful, and has a proper orientation in life. Temperance is essential for leaders.


“Sensible” is the Greek word sophron (#4998), and it appears in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8. It means “sensible; self-controlled.” Sometimes it gets translated as “sober-minded,” but that too often is thought to mean “serious,” as if a leader could not laugh. Sophron is used of one who follows sound reason. A leader who is sensible does not have arrogant elevation or pride about himself, and also no unreasonable self-hate or self-degradation. It also involves the restraint of passions.


“Respectable.” The Greek word is kosmios (#2887), and it means “orderly or decent.” It refers to one who is modest, well behaved, respectable, and orderly in his life and also in the way he dresses. In fact, the only other use of this word in the New Testament is in 1 Timothy 2:9, where women are told to be of modest or respectable appearance. It refers to a person who quietly fulfils his duties and is not on an ego trip, trying to draw attention to himself. Respectable people are not disorderly, nor a cause of disorder.

Given to hospitality

The Greek word is philoxenos (#5382), and literally means “love to strangers.” “Given to hospitality” is perhaps a better translation than “hospitable,” which seems too much like “friendly.” It is more than “friendly,” because it involves opening one’s home and life to others. It was important for Christians to open their homes and lives to one another for mutual support, protection, and even outreach. Furthermore, every Christian is an ambassador for the Lord (2 Cor. 5:20), and one of the ways we win people is by being “given to hospitality.” We should be willing to house and feed one another, and inviting a visitor at church to a home-cooked meal and fellowship should be commonplace among Christians, especially those who lead and thus set the example.

In the Roman world, it was important that local Christians house other Christians who were traveling through the area, because travel was dangerous. Paul writes of being “…in danger from bandits…in danger in the city, in danger in the country… (2 Cor. 11:26b). Spending the night in the open was dangerous, and staying in an inn or tavern was almost as bad. Innkeepers had such a horrible reputation that they were not even allowed to join the Roman army. [6] Unlike hotels of today, an innkeeper could put as many people in a room as would fit, and what happened in the room at night was certainly not regulated in any way. Innkeepers would regularly make extra money by using the staff, who were mostly slaves, as prostitutes. The matting, if there was any, was likely to be old and so full of bedbugs that they were known as “the summertime creatures of the inns.” “Check in” was whenever anyone arrived, and the inns were usually the local gambling dens. Between the sexual antics and other night activities, the rooms were always noisy, so “rest” was impossible, but a really tired person might actually sleep. The meals were questionable. The wine was almost certainly watered down, and the food was rarely of good quality. In fact, it was not unknown (but it was illegal) for an innkeeper to make off with a dead body from the local coliseum and serve it to the guests, enriching himself by not having to pay for the meat he served. The physician Galen warned travelers to examine the food they were served closely to make sure it was really what the innkeeper claimed it was.

Travel is not as bad now as it was when Paul went from city to city, but it is still important that Christians, and especially Christian leaders, show hospitality to their fellow Christians, newcomers, and visitors. [7]

Skillful in teaching

The Greek word didaktikos (#1317), means “skillful in teaching,” not just “able to teach,” as many versions have. It is important to note that this is the only thing on the list of qualifications for an overseer that is a skill or ability. Everything else on the list involves personal character. However, it is important for those who are going to oversee others that they learn to teach well. This requires meekness, because teaching does not always come easily to people, and many people think they are far better at it than they are. It is very important that teachers receive feedback about their teachings to become the best teachers possible. Being skilled in teaching also requires grounding in the Word of God. The overseer must be grounded in Scripture to the end that he or she can teach the truth and refute error (Titus 1:9).

Not an excessive drinker

1 Timothy 3:3 (Author’s translation)
not an excessive drinker; not violent, but reasonable; not quarrelsome; not a lover of money;

The Greek is me paroinos, (me is “not,” and #3943), which means “not lingering over wine.” A leader’s relation to alcohol is also mentioned in Titus 1:7, and for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8. A leader is not to be an excessive drinker. Since Ephesians 5:18 tells all Christians not to get drunk, drunkenness is wrong for any Christian. Thus this verse in Timothy does not specifically refer to drunkenness, although drunkenness is included. There are times when drinking in any amount causes one’s behavior to become more sarcastic, more quick tempered, or less orderly, Alcohol also significantly lowers one’s sexual inhibitions, making inappropriate behavior more likely. Also, consumption of alcohol may simply be a bad example at the time. Especially among leaders, all alcoholic consumption should be watched closely. Also, getting tipsy or drunk “when you are not at work” is not an option for God’s leaders. Our holy God is not interested in intimate relationships with those who make Him a part-time hobby, obeying only while they are “on the clock” for the ministry. God wants a full time relationship. Furthermore, God’s leaders are always on call should a need arise among the people, and they are always setting an example, either leading people to God or away from Him.

This requirement about alcohol should be taken in the “wider” sense as well as the “narrower” sense. God mentions alcohol here, but surely no one would suggest that because other “mind altering” substances were not mentioned, they are okay with God. The Christian minister is to be available to serve at any time, and in the larger scope of Scripture this directive applies to any substance taken for pleasure that can affect one’s ability to minister. For example, a Christian leader should never get “high” on drugs just because God did not specifically mention it in Timothy or Titus.

Not violent

The Greek is me plektes (me is “not,” and #4131), and it means “not ready with a blow,” i.e., not contentious or quarrelsome. A leader is not one who puts others down with words or fists, is not a bully or “hard” leader, and does not have a belligerent attitude because of his or her position.


The Greek word is epieikes (#1933), and there is not a good English equivalent for it. The concepts of moderation, forbearance, gentleness, and “sweet reasonableness” all touch a side of the full meaning of this word. The meaning also includes being yielding, not insisting on legal rights to the end that they become moral wrongs. Of course, this does not include a yielding of truth to error or of right to wrong. Nevertheless, there are times when “rules” need to be bent to minister the grace of God effectively. This word covers exactly that situation—the true leader is “reasonable,” not rigid.

Not quarrelsome

The Greek is amachos (#269) not always wanting to pick a fight. Not a prickly person with a chip on his or her shoulder who seems to be in a fight or quarrel about anything or everything. A leader is a person of peace.

Not a lover of money

The Greek is aphilarguros (#866) from “a” which is “not;” philos, which is “like or love,” and arguros “silver.” It is not loving money. Part of the character of a godly overseer is that he or she has a good perspective on money. God is his or her sufficiency, not money. It can be easy for the shrewd overseer to “pump” people for money, but a godly overseer never does this. Because this is connected with other kinds of gain, we connect this entry with the one below.

Not eager for dishonorable gain (Titus 1:7 Author’s translation)

The Greek is me aischrokerdes (me is “not,” and #146) and means, “not eager for dishonorable gain.” This refers to all kinds of gain, not just money. Of course it does include money, and historically there have been many ministers who have laid guilt trips on people, and bullied or threatened them to get money. However, the phrase also refers to other kinds of gain that can be acquired in a dishonorable manner, such as gaining popularity by adulterating the Gospel to attract more people to the congregation. Greed for money, power, recognition, etc., can cloud the mind and ruin the ministries of Christian leaders.

1 Timothy 3:4 and 5 (Author’s translation)
(4) one who is leading his own house well, having his children in subjection with all dignity;
(5) (indeed, if a man does not know how to lead his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)

Family responsibilities

The minister’s own family is always to be his or her primary responsibility. Running a family is difficult, and requires a lot of time and energy. Running the church is not to be an escape from family responsibilities, or an excuse to put them on a back burner. The minister is attentive to his own family such that things are not out of control there. A leader will generally lead people the way he leads those in his own house. If he is a dictator at home, he will usually eventually be one in his ministry, and if he provides no effective leadership in his house, that will probably show up in his ministry also.

Children who are disobedient, disrespectful, or generally out of control reflect on any person’s ministry. However, we should not go overboard with this in regard to older children. In Bible times, a girl was usually married and on her own by her mid-teens, and a boy by his late teens. Today it is common to see children who were well behaved until 14 or 15 become rebellious at 17 or 18. Just because an older teen is rebelling against parental authority does not mean the parents are disqualified for the ministry, although it might, depending on the circumstances. On the other hand, there are men and women who just cannot seem to handle their smaller children, and the chances are that if they allow themselves to be pushed around by a self-willed child, they will be pushed around by strong willed people in the Church.

Not a novice

1 Timothy 3:6 (Author’s translation)
not a novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the Slanderer.

The Greek is me neophutos (me is “not,” and #3504) and it means “not newly planted,” not a neophyte. There are many temptations and hardships in Christianity, and even more so in Christian leadership. A leader should be one who has been tested and stayed faithful through a period of time, and in hard times. There is just no effective way to do this quickly. Many prospective leaders do well as long as they are contributing and not leading, but begin to abuse their authority or do not stand up to the pressure when given leadership. Other people lead well for a short time, but have no longevity. There is simply no way to tell how a person is going to do except that he is tested through time. Thus ministers are not ordained when their ministries are first noticed in the Body, but rather after they have been functioning in their ministry for a period of time.

The opinion of outsiders

1 Timothy 3:7 (Author’s translation)
Moreover, he must have good report from those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach, and the snare of the Slanderer.

Sometimes a minister will treat his own group of people well, but look at others with disdain or disrespect. Ministers need to be so Christ-like that they are well thought of by people outside their immediate “group.” This discourages “cult” mentality and encourages evangelism.

The book of 1 Timothy goes on to mention deacons and women, and both sections begin with “similarly.” Thus the qualifications for overseers in the Church apply to them as well. There is one last qualification that, due to its importance, we will mention in this list, and it is in the list of qualifications for deacons.

Holding the Sacred Secret

1 Timothy 3:9 (Author’s translation)
holding the sacred secret of the faith in a pure conscience.

The Greek word translated “sacred secret” is musterion (#3466), and our book, The Gift of Holy Spirit: The Power to Be Like Christ, has a thorough discussion of both musterion and the Sacred Secret. The Administration of Grace (Eph. 3:2), God’s Sacred Secret (Eph. 3:9 Rotherham), is one of the greatest things God has ever done for mankind. God sent His Son to die so that, via the gift of everlasting life, we in the Church can be part of Christ’s very Body. We Christians have the gift of holy spirit sealed in us, permanent salvation, nine manifestations, are joint heirs with Israel, and more. What we have is so awesome and amazing that had Satan known it, he would not have crucified Jesus (1 Cor. 2:8). Yet today the Sacred Secret is practically unknown. The NIV does not even hint at the fact that ministers are to hold the Sacred Secret, translating it by the phrase “deep truths.”

The Administration of the Sacred Secret is very important to the Lord, and leaders are charged to keep hold of it. To be “holding” it means more than just knowing about it. “Holding” is the common Greek word, echo (#2192), and here, as in Philippians 1:7 and John 14:21, it means “to have in one’s heart, to keep in mind.” Leaders are to teach about it, and should also hold the Sacred Secret by walking in the power available to them and setting an example by boldly operating the manifestations of the spirit.

God tells us in 1 Timothy 3:1 “…if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (NASB). He and the Lord Jesus are ready, willing, and able to help any believer who wants to serve by “going first” and encouraging others to follow him toward the Lord.


[1] For more on the translation “necessary,” see R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1937), p. 579.
[2] There is neither male nor female in Christ (Gal. 3:28), and both genders have ministries. Junia, for example, was an apostle; Jason Beduhn, Truth in Translation (University Press of America, New York, 2003) pp. 72 and 73 and our audio tape, “The Role of Women in the Church.”
[3] Many commentators disagree with this conclusion, asserting the verse is stating that a divorced person is not eligible for leadership, and quoting early “Church fathers” to back that up. However, there are other Church fathers who agree with our conclusion. Later Church fathers were so obsessed with sexual purity that eventually marriage was forbidden for priests. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 7 gives examples when a divorced person can remarry, and there is no stipulation such as, “you can remarry, but you will not be able to be a leader” (1 Cor. 7:15, 27 and 28).
[4] Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1968), pp. 164-166.
[5] Ibid., p. 101.
[6] Dora J. Hamblin and Mary J. Grunsfeld, The Appian Way (Random House, New York, 1974), p. 58.
[7] For much more on the conditions of travel in Rome, see Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Book Club Associates, London, 1974)

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