By Gene Tharp
As we consider the question of whether a man who is successful in business necessarily makes a good elder, we first need to consider the questions: what makes a successful businessman? What makes a good elder? Can the two be reconciled? Foremost in our minds, however, should be the questions: what does God want?
While we consider the elements that determine whether or not a man is a success in business, bear in mind that there is a difference in the definition of success as determined by the world and success as defined by the word of God. When people consider a businessman as successful, I believe that they see a man who has acquired knowledge and expertise in his field. He has also accumulated some wealth through his business and is recognized as having achieved these things by others. He usually is active in social clubs and community activities. He has met the standards of being successful by the society in which he lives. Someone who merely makes enough to get by is not considered to be successful. In recent months we have read in the news about men who have made their livelihood by dealing in stocks, bonds and securities. These men made fortunes in their work and were considered very successful in their field. but when all of the facts were revealed, these men had used their knowledge and ability in an illegal way. Were these men successful? Most people would consider them to be successful.
While men like these are the exception rather than the rule, those who do desire to be successful have to dedicate their lives to their business. Many hours a day are put into their business so that they can got ahead in life. The things they possess reflect if they are a success. Expensive homes in good neighborhoods, expensive cars, fancy clothes, living in elite society are indications of being a successful businessman. Consider Psalms 49:18, “Though while he lived he blessed his soul; and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.”
The World’s Concept Of Success
As we have considered the world’s definition of success, now consider what God has to say about those who desire to be successful or rich. While God never condemns someone because he is rich, he does condemn the attitude of obtaining or using riches for one’s self. Look at the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:16-21. He was a successful farmer whose ground was very fruitful. He had such a bountiful crop that his barns would not hold his increase. His attitude was not to help others with his goods, but rather to lay aside all for himself. God’s answer to him was that his soul would be required of him that night, then whose would be those things that he had provided? In verse 21, Christ said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” Also the rich young ruler trusted in his riches (Matt. 19:16-30; Mk. 10:17-22). When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, he went away grieved because he had great possessions and would have to lose all of them. Jesus observed this and said to his disciples that it was hard for those who trusted in riches to enter the kingdom of God (Mk. 10:23-24). Paul said that those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts. He said that some have strayed from the faith in their greed and pierced themselves through with many sorrows (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Men whose goal in life is to obtain wealth and fame spend most of their time and energy in reaching their goal, using whatever means are available, even if these means are not legal, ethical or moral. Paul’s admonition to those who are rich is not to be haughty or to trust in uncertain riches, but rather to trust in God and to do good, to be rich in good works, ready to give, and willing to share (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
God’s View of Success
Turning now from what is the worldly view of success and looking in the Scriptures we can see that God’s view of success is quite different. While we often look at a person and judge him on his appearance, God does not do so. For example, when Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint the one whom God had selected to be king, Eliab, one of Jesse’s sons, came before him. Samuel said that surely the Lord’s anointed was before him. God then said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or at the height of his stature because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:1-13). Although we cannot look into a person’s heart and see what he thinks, his words and deeds indicate what is in his heart (Matt. 15:18-20; Mk. 7:2023). Jesus said that we will know men by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20). The things that men say and do indicate the objects upon which they place their trust.
God’s will is for men to be spiritually-minded, not trusting in material possessions. When Jesus came preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God, he emphasized the change from the physical law of Moses to the spiritual law of Christ. The Sermon on the Mount indicates this. Read through Matthew 5-7 and see the attitude change that Christ was seeking. The change from “Thou shalt not” (Ex. 20) to “Let this mind be in you” (Phil. 2:5) is indicated throughout the whole sermon. The Hebrew letter, chapters 7-10, emphasizes the change from the old physical law to the new spiritual law of Christ. Chapter 9:6-15 compares the Levitical High Priest with Christ the spiritual High Priest. All the letters of the New Testament emphasize the qualities of being spiritually-minded. As we look through the book of Acts and see the maturing of the church, we can see the emphasis on being spiritually-minded. In Acts 6:1-7, the quality of being spiritually-minded was stressed in the selection of the seven men to take care of the widows. They were to be of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. After Paul and Barnabas went through Asia preaching, they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch and strengthened the souls of the disciples as they exhorted them to continue in the faith (Acts 14:21-22). Paul stressed spirituality, the need to trust in God and to remain faithful through tribulation. The Colossians were urged to seek the things above and to set their mind on things above and not on the things of the earth (Col. 3:1-2). Their hope and trust was to be on things eternal and not on the possessions of material things. Peter cited the need for spirituality when he wrote, “. . . rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ, as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct because it written, be holy for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). A good description of being spiritually-minded is in Romans 8:4-5: “that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their mind on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.”
Simply put, these Scriptures say that the one who is spiritually-minded lives his life according to the laws of God, trying always to please him. Those who are worldly-minded try to please themselves. We observe these things by people’s actions. Numerous Scriptures state that we are to be heaven-oriented and not to be worldly-minded. A person who has as his goal obtaining heaven and eternal life, not only lives his life for God, but tries to help others to do the same. That is why God wants men who have demonstrated this spiritual-mindedness for elders. The qualifications for an elder are mostly spiritual and not worldly qualities. Even the requirement of being married and having children stresses the aspect of spiritual qualities, i.e., ruling his own house well and having his children in submission with all reverence. The overseers of the congregation cannot afford to be anything less than spiritually-minded because of the example that they set, not only to the congregation, but to the world as well.
The necessity for elders to be spiritually-minded is paramount as they feed the congregation (1 Pet. 5:2) by arranging Bible classes and class material, teaching, encouraging, admonishing those who are contrary to God’s word. Much prayer, thought and discussion about the spiritual needs of the members is given. People observe the actions of elders and can tell whether or not an elder is of a spiritual nature. How can an elder instruct someone to be more faithful in service to God if the elder’s priorities are on material things? Encouraging a weak brother or sister, a new convert, an elderly Christian, a young mother, etc. to be more faithful requires one who is without doubt a faithful Christian. A pleasant and rewarding aspect of being an elder is to see a member grow in faith and knowledge and see the application of his growth in his prayers, teaching Bible classes, preaching, etc. This encourages an elder as he sees this Christian trying to please God in all that he does. As we observe the work of the elders, we recognize that a good elder is a man who is spirituallyminded, seeking to please God in all that he does.
As the elders oversee the congregation, their leadership will determine how effective the church is in the task of evangelism and teaching. Great care, therefore, needs to be taken when elders are appointed by a congregation. The need to appoint only godly, spiritually-minded men who meet those qualifications as set forth by the word of God is inescapable. The question of why they seek to be elders needs to be handled before they are appointed, rather than afterwards. Do they want to be elders so that they can be in charge of church affairs? Do they seek the office for prestige? Or is it for other reasons such as increasing the size of the building or a larger bank account? Do they really care about people’s souls and want to help them as Christians? The past conduct of those being considered for elders should be closely examined. The things on which they placed priorities will indicate whether they are more worldly minded than spiritually-minded. If the church is to remain steadfast in the faith and in efforts to spread the gospel of Christ, then only spiritually qualified men should be appointed elders.
An Elder’s Occupation
Problems can arise in a congregation because of an elder’s occupation. When an elder has a successful business, his business expertise plays a role in his oversight of the congregation. Practices and ideas that are sound in business are used to decide spiritual practices. A large bank account is accumulated for a rainy day or an emergency. Demand is placed on physical results such as more contribution, adding to the building in order to make it comparable to buildings of denominations in the community. Numerical growth is stressed more than spiritual growth. Less thought is given to the spiritual growth of the members and more to the physical aspect. As more thought is given to pleasing the outward man, the church becomes weaker and less of a positive influence for Christ in the community.
Other difficulties may arise when an elder’s business affairs demand a large. part of his time. The time available for his family may cause dissension in his family. Decisions affecting the local congregation may be put off because he is not available to help make them. His ability to meet with members for teaching, encouraging or admonishing them depends upon the opportunity to get away from his business. Also his standing in the community could affect the elders in leading the church in withdrawing from the disorderly. You may think of other problems involving a successful businessman as an elder. You also may not see these as problems.
A business experience can be helpful in dealing with the decisions of the church, such as using his expertise in business to make financial decisions. Sound business decisions need to be made when the congregation needs to expand the building in order to accommodate growth of the congregation. Sound financial plans need to be made, considering the spiritual rewards from the decisions. A businessman’s knowledge in such a case can be a plus for the congregation.
However you may feel about the situation of a successful businessman being an elder, remember that God has set the standards for an elder and we have, no right to ignore or change any of them. An elder has to hold fast the faithful word so that he can teach and exhort by sound doctrine those who are teaching things contrary to sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9-11). The need for elders to be sound in the faith in teaching and admonishing, and in guiding the flock cannot be taken too lightly.
In conclusion, God’s requirements for being successful is not how much a person has accumulated in material possessions or fame (Luke 12: 15). A truly successful person is one who has placed his priorities properly, that is, loving God and being desirous of serving him with all his heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37-38). God does not recognize a man for this wealth. His recognition of man is based on man being spiritually minded. When elders oversee the congregation, how well they perform in the office depends upon the spiritual qualities of each and not on how successful they are in business.
You may agree with all you have read so far, but applying these thoughts to yourself may be difficult. If a man in your congregation who lived in a poor neighborhood was being considered for an elder, would you want him selected as an elder over you? Would you agree to an highly successful businessman who is spiritually-minded being chosen as an elder over you?
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 1, pp. 6-8
January 5, 1989