A qualification of elders is that they are to practice self-control. What does this mean? This qualification is also used of women (1 Timothy 3:11) and older men (Titus 2:2). Temperate and sober are the usual translations for the adjective nephalios. The verb means to be sober, well balanced and self-controlled. For example, Paul warned Timothy about a time when people would not put up with sound doctrine and gather for themselves false teachers. In view of this, Timothy must have the clarity of mind to “keep your head” (NIV) and “always be sober” (NRSV, 2 Timothy 4:5). In classical Greek, the word meant sobriety as opposed to intoxication. It is probably used figuratively by Paul to indicate the clarity of mind and good judgment necessary to refute the false teachers. “The main point in these contexts is the selfcontrol necessary for effective ministry.”
Now let us apply this word in a practical way to the work of elders. One of the great challenges facing the church in Ephesus, which was the destination of the letter of 1 Timothy (1:3), was the danger of false teachers. The elders, as leaders of the church, were in a unique position to guard against the destructive effects of false doctrine. In the chapter following the list of leadership qualifications (4:14) and in Acts (20:1722), Paul warned of the threat of false teaching at Ephesus. These elders must have the discipline and soberness of mind to oppose these teachers. Later, Paul wrote to Timothy, “and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). To Titus, Paul said, “you must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The sober (nephalios) mind is one that will not falter or panic in the face of opposition.
Ask yourself this question about a potential elder candidate: Does he use good judgment and clear thinking when discussing the Bible with others? A sober mind requires one to be open-minded. We cannot expect others to hear our arguments if we ourselves are not open to the truth. Also, a temperate and sober mind will not be inflamed with prejudice. Neither will the sober-minded man be overcome with pride to the extent that he cannot learn the truth. Paul said, “examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5) and “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Likewise, an elder must be able to discern the truth relative to conflicts among Christians within the congregation. Although these disputes may not involve the interpretation of Scripture, the same objectivity and open mindedness is required. Elders are expected to be impartial and righteous judges of such matters.
Over the years, I have witnessed two extremes among elders that do not exemplify a sober mind. First, when problems arise, some elders refuse to investigate the facts in an attempt to minimize the danger. For example, information may come to the attention of the elders that one of the Bible teachers is teaching false doctrine. Instead of investigating for themselves, the elders dismiss the concerns by refusing to make an inquiry about what is being taught. Or, if they make an inquiry, it is only superficial and does not address the concerns being raised. Why would they not take effective action? Perhaps they do not want to offend any of the parties involved by investigating the charges, or they do not want to become involved in controversy. In taking this course of action, the elders do a disservice to the one whose teaching is questioned as well as to those who are concerned about what is taught. A sober mind will investigate the facts and recognize whether the problem is serious or not.
Second, a sober mind will not exaggerate a problem. If the elders hear a few complaints about the preacher, youth minister, song leader, or some other worker in the church, they should not exaggerate the significance of the criticism. Upon a sober investigation, the elders may learn the complaints are baseless and represent only a few individuals. A sober-minded elder will not panic at the first negative comment he hears and imagine a problem that does not exist. This reminds me of my childhood growing up in the hills of Arkansas. At night, during certain times of the summer, the sound of tree frogs would lead one to believe the trees were full of such animals. Actually, these little noisemakers were far fewer than their noise would suggest. It also reminds me of a class I taught once where there were two individuals who objected to the views I held. This made me very uncomfortable and I wrongly concluded that most of the class felt this way; however, once I began to hear from others I began to realize that the rest of the class felt as I did. Sober-minded elders and preachers will reserve judgment until they find out all of the facts.
J B Myers