Presented in Uganda and Kenya, July, 2006
1 Tim. 3:1 It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. 2 An overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. 4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); 6 and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
I have been asked to come to Africa and speak to you on the topic of “Excellence in Christian Leadership.” The world is running over with books and seminars on leadership, many of them specifically on Christian leadership. Most of these books deal with the techniques of leadership: do this, say that, follow this program, they tell us, and you will be an effective leader. Some of this advice is good, and I am not here to disparage it. But we have all noticed that the most serious problems in the church do not come from people using poor techniques of leadership but from the wrong people, the wrong kind of people, being in positions of leadership, or from potentially right people being in leadership for the wrong reasons. This is true in both Africa and in America, but in Africa the phenomenon takes some interesting forms. My friend Pastor Martin Sebbugo of Kampala sent me an e-mail just before I came which I thought was insightful, for what he says has been echoed by many other African leaders. He said a person in Uganda can get saved, and then two weeks later he declares himself a pastor and starts preaching and gathering believers into a church. There are plenty of people naïve enough to follow him because of his charismatic personality and the false air of confidence he projects; there are plenty of people ignorant enough to have no idea how badly they are being deceived by his so-called teaching. Apparently, noble Bereans who are committed to searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things be so are in short supply.
Why does this happen? For many people—not just the pastor—the church is the small pond in which they think they can be the big fish. That happens all over the world. But when literacy rates are not high and Bibles not readily available, then people are particularly vulnerable to these charlatans. Many are so impressed by the aura of authority projected by these charismatic “prophets” that they are intimidated. They sense something is wrong, but they do not have a clear biblical basis for challenging such a person or disabusing his followers. Yet such a basis exists, and it is clear and plain. Leadership in Christ’s church is not something a person can take upon himself (Heb. 5:4). You have to be called by God. But how do we know if we have been called? How do we know whether someone else who puts himself forward is called? This is the first thing we need to know in order to think about Christian leadership, and Paul answers these questions in First Timothy chapter three. [Please see also under “Timothy Epistles” in the sermon menu “The Office of Elder: Universal Priesthood and the Call,” 1 Tim. 3:1-7, and “The Qualities of God’s Servants,” 1 Tim. 3:1-13.] And there we encounter the same principle that we see everywhere in the New Testament when Christian leadership is spoken of. The first qualification for Christian leadership is Christlike character.
If anyone aspires to the office of an overseer, Paul says, it is a fine work he desires to do. The Apostle assumes that in the natural course of the Christian life, people who love Jesus are going to desire to serve him, which means they will be attracted to the ministry. There are many other ways to serve the Lord besides the pastorate, of course, but because it is the most visible way, it is just natural that people who especially love the Lord and love his church will wonder if it is something they should consider. So the call to the ministry begins with desire. It does not end there, but it does begin there. The biblical picture is not that of the person who would rather do anything but be a pastor or missionary, but who is dragged kicking and screaming into the ministry because the “call” is just irresistible. I won’t claim that no one is ever called that way, but it is not the biblical picture; it is not the biblical expectation. In a healthy church, people will naturally want to serve. That is the desire which is the first step in being called: not the desire to be a “big man,” the desire to have the respect and praise admiration of other people, the desire to be important. How could such a desire be placed in our hearts by the One who came to be the Servant of all and to give his life for the flock? No. The calling to the ministry begins with the desire to serve.
That desire by itself does not constitute a call to the ministry, however. It raises the question whether the service in question will involve leadership, and that question still needs an answer, which will be provided in verses 2-7. The office in direct view here is the office of “overseer” (later Paul will say similar things about deacons). Overseer is the word episkopos, which is sometimes translated “bishop.” But in the New Testament, the words poimen (pastor, literally “shepherd”), presbyteros (elder), and episkopos (overseer or bishop) are used interchangeably. Jews were used to elders in their synagogues, so the New Testament tends to use that word when talking to a Jewish audience, and switch to episkopos with Greeks, who had no idea what an “elder” was. Only later in Church History (though it did begin fairly early) were “bishops” separated from the other elders and given a higher level of authority. So what Paul is talking about here is basically elders, i.e., pastors. This is the call to pastoral ministry. That is the primary reference, but the principles are applicable to other positions of leadership as well, as Paul shows by applying a very similar set of standards to deacons in the very next paragraph. So what we are saying here applies to all Christian leaders, including deacons, youth workers, Sunday School teachers, etc., but especially to pastors.
That calling begins with desire, but it then proceeds to a list of qualifications. Are you interested in the ministry? That might be the first indication that God is calling you, but then that subjective desire needs to be objectively confirmed by the presence of the qualifications for leadership listed in verses 2-7. Only when other mature Christians recognize these qualities in you are you justified in thinking your inner desire might be the calling of God; only when the church itself recognizes those qualities formally through ordination is that calling complete and official. It is when the inward desire and the outward recognition of the requisite qualifications come together that a person is called by God.
Now, before we examine these qualifications for Christian leadership individually, I want you to look at them as a group. Most of them are not about ability. Most of them are about character. The only one which is unambiguously focused on ability is “able to teach.” All the rest are either directly concerned with character or are related to it. The pastor must be able to teach, but the focus is not on whether he is a powerful, persuasive, and impressive man but on whether he is a good man, a trustworthy man, a humble man, a man of integrity. The first qualification for Christian leadership is Christlike character.
First, the person called to leadership in Christ’s church must be “above reproach.” To reproach someone is to find fault with him, to rebuke him. This does not mean that the Christian leader must be perfect—otherwise there would be no leaders in the church at all! But it does mean that he is a man of integrity who, as they say, “keeps short accounts.” When he sins, he confesses and repents. He does not allow sin to remain in his life undealt with. When his brother has something against him, he goes to him immediately and makes it right, so that it does not remain and be given the opportunity to fester into something which could put him in the position of needing to be rebuked or reproached with it. This is a spiritual discipline which has become a habit with him. That is the only way for a fallen human being to live above reproach. And the person who is truly called into the ministry must be one who has already established such a track record in his Christian life.
Second, he must be “the husband of one wife.” I have dealt with this requirement in detail in a separate session [Please see “The Biblical Sexual Ethic.”] So I will say here only that it means he must be monogamous. It does not require him to be married—for Paul was not—but it requires him to be a person of such character that if God does give him a wife, he will marry only one and be faithful to her.
Third, he must be “temperate.” Temperate means “moderate,” a person who is on an even keel. He does not run from one extreme to the other but is stable, dependably tracking down the middle of the King’s highway and not veering off to the right or the left. Then he must be “prudent.” Prudent means “wise.” This is not a person who makes hasty decisions, but one who thinks things through carefully in the light of biblical principles, in the light of the whole counsel of God. “Respectable” means one who is worthy of respect—that’s pretty straightforward. “Hospitable” is the Greek philoxenos, literally “a lover of strangers.” It refers not so much to one’s domestic skills at entertaining as to an attitude toward people that would enable them to be comfortable in your home.
The last requirement in verse 2 is “able to teach.” Since this is the only qualification which refers mainly to ability, it must be a pretty significant ability. Indeed, teaching the Word of God by both precept and example is the pastor’s most important job, as Paul makes clear by yoking the words “pastor” and “teacher” in one phrase in Ephesians 4:11. “Able to teach” implies at least two things. First, it means that the pastor must be a person who has learned something, so that he has something to teach. And second, it means that he has to have at least some rudimentary gifts in communication, so that he can impart that teaching effectively. Hear me plainly—and here I speak as much to American preachers as to Africans. A man who is not a life-long learner, who is not committed to teaching the whole Bible for the whole person, to proclaiming the whole counsel of God as relevant to all of life, is not qualified to be in the ministry, has not been called to the ministry, and is usurping his office in plain disobedience to Scripture! And a church which calls him and puts up with him is equally disobedient.
In verse 3 we learn that the overseer must not be “addicted to wine.” Indeed, a person who is “temperate” will not be addicted to anything. Therefore addiction to alcohol, to drugs, to pornography, to anything, if it is not repented of and dealt with, is a prima facie disqualification from pastoral office. “Pugnacious” means itching for a fight. The shepherd must be prepared to defend the sheep against false teachers and other ravening wolves, but he should not be one who likes a fight for its own sake. We have all heard preachers who spend all their time criticizing other teachers or churches. That is not the kind of ministry the Lord wants in his church. “Uncontentious” emphasizes the point by repetition, for it is a near synonym. And “gentle” makes the same point in a positive rather than a negative way.
Then we come to “free from the love of money.” Is Africa as bad as America in this area? If between now and next Sunday every preacher who loves money was miraculously removed from the world, how many of your churches would be able to function at all? Not many? I thought so. Now, for those of you who are church board members, God did not call you to enforce this provision as if it read “free from money!” Pastors must be free from the love of money because they cannot serve two masters; they cannot serve God and mammon. This is very important because so many non Christians think the church is only after their money—and sometimes they are right! But pastors cannot be free from the use of money. Their children have to pay the same school fees as yours, do they not? It takes the same number of shillings to feed and clothe their children as yours--yes? The laborer is worthy of his hire. Let us demand that our pastors not be lovers of money, but when we find such men let us support them so they are free to do the work!
Verse 4 looks for a man who manages his own household well. Paul’s explanation of that requirement needs no further comment: if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God? Then verse 6 speaks directly to the African situation as described by Rev. Sebbugo. “Not a new convert.” Do you see? Anyone who claims to be called by God when he is a new convert is either lying or is himself deceived, and there is no reason for God’s people to listen to him. The practical question here is, how new is new? At what point does one cease to be a new convert? Let me suggest a very practical pair of guidelines. Before anyone can credibly claim to have been called to the ministry, let him have been a Christian with a good testimony for at least a full year, and let him be a person who has read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation at least once! By that criterion, there are many people who got saved thirty years ago who are still new converts. I do not say that these are adequate criteria; they are minimal. But surely one must pass at least these hurdles before laying aside the title of new convert. And if the church would apply these criteria it would save itself much grief and embarrassment. Finally, our leaders should be people with good reputations with those outside the church. If they are above reproach and have the character implied by the rest of these qualifications, this should not be a problem.
Christian leadership begins with God’s calling, and that call comes in two parts. First, he gives you a desire to serve him, and second, the church recognizes in you those elements of character and those gifts which qualify you to serve in leadership. In those qualifications, character is much more prominent than gifts. The first qualification for Christian leadership is Christlike character. If we are to lead Christ’s people in Christ’s way, we must ourselves be men who have walked with Christ—on the Calvary road. May God help us to be such men as we lead his church. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated Aug 27, 2006