To Lead Is Noble

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Timothy 3:1-7

Christian leadership is a great and noble calling. Pastors, elders, priests, call them what you want, are doing the most significant work God has given anyone to do.

Recent years have proven to be rough on Christian leaders in America as a group. Most notably, the sex scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church have brought a dark cloud over the whole Catholic priesthood. A recent internal investigation conducted on behalf of the Church itself revealed that almost 5,000 priests may have been involved in the sexual abuse of minors. But I don’t think Protestants should necessarily feel superior. We have had our own high-profile scandals, and if all the Protestant churches were lumped together and investigated as thoroughly as the Catholic Church has been, I doubt that our statistics would be very much different.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Christian ministers are sinful, sometimes notoriously so. Considering the pool of candidates for the ministry that we draw from namely, a church where sinners comprise 100% of the membership it would be unusual, to say the least, if it were any other way.

But even without the public relations disasters of huge scandals, I think there is a real image problem for Christian leaders in our society today. After all, how often do pastors appear as significant, positive characters on television programs or in Hollywood films? If a priest is depicted, it’s probably either a horror film about the demonic, or he is a buffoon in a sit-com. Protestant ministers generally show up only as background figures, sort of human props in wedding or funeral scenes.

Most people wouldn’t guess from our contemporary media that there are over 400,000 churches in America today. Or that on any given Sunday 40% of the population is attending one of them, or that in times of trauma or personal crisis the majority of Americans turn not to a therapist but to a pastor for comfort, guidance and support.

There was a time when the clergy were members of the most admired and respected profession in the country, when the pastor was the leading authority figure in the local community. But that time is long gone. Today, for many in our society, and especially among our social elites in media and academic circles, Christian leaders are viewed either as rogues and scoundrels or as non-entities. A pastor has no social prestige today, but then, neither did Jesus of Nazareth. So perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

A Noble Task

This is what the world thinks of the Christian church and its leaders. But the question I’m interested in is: What does God think? We can get a pretty good idea of that by looking at what the Bible says about Christian leadership. For example, here is one of the most important New Testament passages on leaders in the church. It’s 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

The saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop (or overseer) desires a noble task. Now an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher . . . not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money . . . not a recent convert . . . well thought of by outsiders.

This is the second of the five “trustworthy sayings” recorded in the pastoral epistles. In each of these five passages Paul wrote a statement to which he attached the phrase, “faithful is the word.” “What I’m now telling you,” Paul means us to understand, “is utterly reliable. This statement is sure, it’s worthy of trust and acceptance. It’s not just true. It’s not simply a piece of factual information; this is something you can count on. You can stake your life on it!”

“So here it is,” says Paul; “here’s another thing you can count on: whoever aspires to leadership in the church desires a noble task.” Whatever the world may say, God views ministry as a high calling, perhaps even the highest calling. On this matter, as on so many other things, we are invited to choose whether or not we believe what the Bible says. If we take our stand on the truth of scripture, then this is a trustworthy saying: Christian leadership is a great and noble calling. Pastors, elders, priests, call them what you want, are doing the most significant work God has given anyone to do.

The Qualifications of a Christian Leader

But before we get too ambitious and all line up requesting ordination as bishops, perhaps we should think about both what it means to lead in the church of Jesus Christ that is, what leadership involves and what it takes to be a leader.

Different churches are organized and led in different ways. Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, are hierarchical, with a highly developed “top down” organization. Others belong to denominations that link congregations with a common form of church government. Still other churches are completely independent, with no ties or connections beyond the local congregation.

Some churches have bishops; others don’t. Some churches call their leaders “priests”; others call them “ministers” or “pastors.” Some churches are led by elders, some by deacons, some by both, some by neither. But whatever the church, and whatever the nomenclature, a congregation is a voluntary association of its members, which means that its leaders must lead by persuasion and example, not coercively, and by serving the needs of their people, not by issuing orders with a heavy-handed authority.

And whatever structure or terminology we use, the qualifications of a Christian leader are the same in every case. The Apostle Paul spells them out here in 1 Timothy 3. Specifically he is speaking about a person he describes as a “bishop.” The word he uses there literally means “overseer.”

The New Testament has a good deal to say about leadership for and within the church. It does not envision congregations where no one exercises any kind of authority over the membership. Rather, the apostles themselves possessed unique authority as leaders because they were personally commissioned by the Lord Jesus, and they themselves commissioned others to lead in their place after them. The members of the early church in Jerusalem are said to have “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Authentic Christian believers have done the same ever since.

As the church began to grow and other leaders were chosen, Paul could write to the Ephesian Christians that the Lord’s gifts to his church included not only apostles but “prophets, evangelist, pastors and teachers” as well (Ephesians 4:11). In addition, other passages mention “deacons” (1 Timothy 3:8ff., Acts 6:1-6), “elders” (Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5-6), and, of course, “bishops” or “overseers” (in addition to 1 Timothy 3 see Titus 1:7ff.).

It seems that many of these terms for leadership and oversight in the New Testament church are interchangeable and overlapping. In other words, pastor, teacher, elder and overseer all could describe more or less the same function and could be used of the same persons. The leadership of congregations was entrusted to those whose special gifts and responsibilities were for preaching and teaching the Word of God. As time went on, these offices became differentiated from one another.

In particular, as the Christian church grew in numbers, influence and wealth, the office of bishop evolved into a position of great status and power. A bishop’s authority extended over an entire region. In the New Testament, this is obviously not yet the case, so in describing the requirements for bishop Paul is really talking about the qualifications of any Christian leader.

So what are these qualifications? Paul lists many characteristics here, both positive and negative: “temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher . . . not quarrelsome, not a lover of money . . . not a recent convert,” and so on. Many of these qualities have to do with one’s reputation and image; a Christian leader must be “above reproach,” Paul says, and “well thought of by outsiders.” Even the appearance of evil is to be avoided. Other qualities involve the leader’s personal life. He must be “the husband of one wife.” “He must manage his own household [family] well.”

When I look carefully at all the qualifications for Christian leadership, I’m tempted to ask, “Who could ever measure up?” It reminds me a little bit of a classified ad I once read in a church magazine. It went like this: “Pastor Wanted: 180-member church seeks pastor strong in preaching, youth, counseling, calling, administration, and evangelism.” I remember thinking to myself: on the one hand, anybody who is truly strong in all those areas probably was not going to be the pastor of a 180-member church, and on the other hand, even Paul probably could not have fulfilled that job description. In the end, Christian leadership is not about making out lists and ticking off qualities that no one possesses fully. It’s not about grading applicants’ skills and evaluating their character according to some sure-fire formula.

Several years ago an interviewer asked Billy Graham what was required to be an effective evangelist. He replied: “The main thing is prayer and study of the Word, backed by a personal life of integrity. That hasn’t changed. . . . People are hungry for that sort of thing.” And you know what? They still are. And that’s what it takes to be a leader in the church of Jesus Christ.

A Noble Task?

So if you aspire to be a leader, if you want to pray and study and share God’s Word with others, and back it all with a life of integrity, then you “desire a noble task” no matter what the world thinks or says. And I believe you will find that if you serve humbly in Jesus’ name and speak the truth in love, you will find that people are really hungry for just that sort of thing.