The Character of True Leadership

(Exodus 18:13-23; 1 Timothy 3:1-13)

We’ve seen a spate of high-profile sexual scandals lately; among pastors, the big name was Gary Lamb down in Georgia, and of course in politics we’ve seen the revelations about Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. I have to say, even as strange as politics can get sometimes, the whole story with Sanford is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a long while. Usually those sorts of affairs are targets of opportunity—but Argentina isn’t exactly the next office over; and then to abandon his wife and four sons and the government of South Carolina to sneak down to Buenos Aires for a week (over Father’s Day, no less!), turning his disappearance into the talk of the tabloids . . . it’s hard to imagine how a man that smart could be that stupid. And this was a guy who would have been a real player in the presidential primaries next time around, if his life had matched his image; but now he’s wrecked himself.

The thing that blows my mind, though, is to see people popping up and defending these wretches on the grounds that “people deserve a private life,” and “what they do in private is nobody’s business but their own.” To which I say—and not just me; I say it with St. Paul—no! That is, and I say this very precisely, a damnable lie, because it’s a lie that can bring damnation. The first job of leadership is self-leadership; the first challenge of leadership is whether one can keep in honor the vows one swears. Someone who has failed in leading themselves to the extent of breaking the highest and holiest vow they will ever swear cannot be trusted to lead anyone else, or to be faithful to any other task.

Now, is that permanent? Does that mean that if your sin is bad enough, you can never be trusted to be faithful? No, for there is forgiveness and redemption with the Lord; restoration is possible, with repentance, and time for growth. But leadership isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, and the first qualification is real and demonstrated character. 

That’s why, when Paul lays out what must be expected of the leaders of the church—overseers, whom we would call elders and pastors, and deacons—he doesn’t talk much about gifts or experience or skills; indeed, even though we know overseers were expected to teach, he doesn’t even focus on their knowledge of God’s word, though that’s mentioned. Mostly, he talks about character; he talks about what kind of people should be overseers and deacons. Put another way, he talks about leadership not as a job but as a way of life, and how it must be lived, and what people must be like to be ready to live it.

This goes to the heart of the problem with the false teachers in Ephesus. The crisis in the church was, at bottom, a question of leadership—who would the church follow? Who should the church follow?—and the issue with the false teachers was at its root not an issue of intellect but of character. The folks pushing the heresy in Ephesus weren’t innocent seekers after truth who’d gotten a few of their points wrong—they were doing it deliberately. They were people like the late science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who said repeatedly that he wanted to get rich, and that the best way to do that would be to start a religion; thus we have Scientology, and Tom Cruise has never been the same since.

 The false teachers in Ephesus had much the same approach, and much the same spirit. They had been given some authority—it seems pretty clear that at least some of them were among the leaders of the congregation—but they wanted more; they wanted to take the church away from Timothy and run it themselves. What their reasons were, we don’t know; but it’s clear that they were determined enough to refuse to listen to any voices telling them they were wrong, even the voice of God.

As such, Paul sets out to tell the church what kind of people they ought to listen to, and what kind of people they ought to follow. He’s already made it clear what message they ought to follow—namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which he had proclaimed to them and which Timothy was continuing to preach; now he connects the character of the gospel to the character of those who are fit to lead—namely, people whose lives incarnate the gospel, showing its truth by the way they live. Overseers, Paul says, most be “above reproach,” and deacons must be “worthy of respect”; the whole picture of their lives has to add up, with no glaring flaws and nothing that dishonors God—to the extent that even those outside the church honor and respect them.

This is not to say that only perfect people are qualified to lead—were that so, no one would be qualified—but it rules out those who are living unrepentantly in sin of some kind or another, and those who have simply surrendered to their sin. A certain level of maturity in dealing with one’s own sin is necessary for anyone who would lead others in confronting, turning away from and refusing to turn back to their sin. We don’t need sinless leaders, but we do need leaders who show us by their honest example that growth in holiness is possible.

This is true across a range of areas. Sexual morality was a major one in that day, which tolerated a broader range of sexual sin than even our own; as the Presbyterian pastor-scholar Philip Ryken says, “Marriage was undermined by frequent divorce, widespread adultery, and rampant homosexuality.” Thus Paul insists that leaders in the church must, in the words of our denomination’s Book of Order, “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” (Not the most elegant way of putting it, I know, but it does make the point perfectly clear.) Sexual morality is not optional; it’s not something where you can say, “The culture knows better than that dusty old book”; it’s not something that’s private and has no bearing on one’s fitness to lead. It’s a necessity; it’s a requirement; it’s non-negotiable.

Why? Well, in the first place, because wrong is wrong, whether we like it or not. And as a practical matter, there’s probably no sin short of open idolatry that damages people as deeply as sexual sin; it warps us at the core of our being, and has power like few things do to pull us loose from the vows and commitments and promises that anchor and buttress us for godly living. We can’t simply accommodate ourselves to the way the culture wants to do things—which means we can’t afford to follow people who do. Christian leadership is, in part, an act of standing up to the world and saying, “There’s a better way—let me show you.” We need leaders who are willing and able to do that.

You can see this theme in other qualifications Paul lays out for leadership as well. Leaders must not be greedy—aside from an uncontrolled libido, there’s likely nothing that corrupts leadership faster than greed—but must be able to manage themselves; sins of lack of self-control are explicitly ruled out, and so Paul says that leaders must not be drunkards, must not be violent, must not be quarrelsome. Rather, they must have proven their ability to lead themselves and others, beginning at the most intimate level—with their households. (Even those who were single might well have had households, by the way, of servants or slaves.) As Paul says, if you can’t handle the people who are closest to you, those for whom you bear the most immediate and intimate responsibility, and if you can’t lead them in a godly way, how can you claim to be able to lead God’s church?

There are other things here as well—deacons must not be double-tongued, for instance; this makes sense, because the church entrusts its deacons with the care of those who are vulnerable. Elders must not be recent converts—it’s important to give people time to steady down and grow a bit before handing them that responsibility; name someone an elder before they’ve had time to learn how much they have to learn, you run the risk that they’ll figure they’re mature already and never learn otherwise. Elders must be hospitable, which seems odd to us because we undervalue the gift of hospitality; but it makes sense, because the leaders of the church should be people who make others feel welcome here. And most of all, elders must be able to teach, and deacons must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience: the leaders of the church should be people of the truth, people who know Jesus Christ and his gospel and are able to communicate that with others. That’s what this all comes back to, because that’s what this is all about. This is why Paul cares, because the church is being led astray by people teaching lies, and they need to sit up, realize what they’re doing, and start following the right leaders.

The bottom line here is that those who lead the church need to be people who embody what it means to live the gospel life, and who model that for the church as a whole. Elders, including pastors, and deacons need to be people who understand what it means to do all these things that Paul talks about here—sexual morality, gentleness, hospitality, not being greedy, honesty, integrity, the whole ball of wax—not out of a sense of duty or morality or compulsion, but out of gratitude for grace received. The people whom we call as leaders—whom God calls through us—need to be people who don’t just know the gospel up here as a bunch of things we say, but who know it down here, and in our guts; we need to be people who are viscerally aware of our own sin, and who feel the power and the significance of Christ’s redemption and God’s grace all the way down, and for whom love and gratitude for what God has done for us are driving factors in how we live each day. We need to be people for whom that reality shines through, so that others can see it in what we say and how we live our lives. That’s what it means, first and foremost, to be a pastor, an elder, a deacon; that’s our first and greatest responsibility.

Additional note on the text:

For reasons of length, I opted not to take time in the sermon to address one much-disputed question on this passage:  when Paul addresses women, what wo­men does he mean? Most people offer one of two answers:  either wives of deacons (which makes no sense to me at all), or female deacons. These answers attempt to make verse 11 part of the flow of the paragraph, which is understandable—but, I believe, misguided. It doesn’t fit, and it doesn’t need to.

Remember, Paul didn’t actually write his letters, he dictated them—which meant he had a tendency to forget to say things at one point and then stick them in later. I think that’s what happened here:  in the middle of talking about deacons, Paul remembered something he’d meant to say and just stuck it in. On my read, this is a general comment about women in leadership (whether as deacons or as overseers) which is prompted by the fact that the false teachers in Ephesus were particularly successful among the women of the church.  In describing the qualifications for Christian leadership, he adds a comment specifically about women, not because he’s saying anything new or different—he isn’t—but just to underscore the point that under the circumstances, any women in leadership positions needed to be particularly careful.

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