Called or Qualified? On the Character of Pastors
In the age of celebrity pastors and moral failings, we are as confused as we have ever been about what we should look for in pastors and elders. In recent decades, the emphasis has been on calling—the internal and somewhat mystical experience of sensing God’s leadership into ministry. While I'm not dismissing the idea of calling, the most important question we can ask of a pastor or potential pastor is not “Is he called?” but “Is he qualified?”
The Qualifications for Elders
In the New Testament, pastors are elders, and elders are pastors, and Paul lists the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 and Titus 1:3-9, and they are combined and organized below:
In the two most comprehensive passages concerning the selection of pastors/elders, Paul lists a total of twenty six traits to look for in potential spiritual leaders. Only two of the twenty six traits are about skill. The rest are about character. Please don’t miss the importance of this—when Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus about the selection, roles, and functions of pastors, it’s as if he screamed through his letters “Find men of incredible character!” and then calmly added, “By the way, they should be able to teach too.”
If You Aren’t Qualified, Then You Aren’t Called
“I’ve been called to preach!” I remember sharing that exciting news with friends and family as a teenager, and I still remember the place and process God use to draw me into a life and preaching and teaching His Word. In spite of my experience, however, “calling” is a very obscure subject in the New Testament. Do I think God called me into ministry? No. I know God called me into ministry, and it was a process in which I sensed the internal leadership of the Holy Spirit—that’s what people often refer to as a mystical experience. Does a call to ministry have to be mystical, like mine, in order to be from God? I don’t think so. At least I can’t find anything to suggest that in the New Testament.
It seems God can call people by simply giving them a desire to serve in a teaching and shepherding role (1 Timothy 3:1) and/or by giving them gifts fit for a teaching and shepherding roles (Romans 12:6-8). In any case, however, the call to ministry must be confirmed by local churches as they examine the life of a potential pastor/elder. In other words, someone can say, “I’m called to be a pastor,” but if his character, upon examination, does not measure up to the qualifications given in Scripture, then he is not called by God to serve as a pastor. God will not contradict Himself by mystically and internally calling someone who does not meet the qualifications He has given in His Word. Furthermore, if someone is truly called to pastoral ministry but later disqualifies himself because of a failure in character, he is no longer called to pastoral ministry. That is not to say he can’t be restored through a process, but it is illegitimate to say, “I know I am disqualified for ministry according to the traits given in Scripture, but I am still called to be the pastor of this church.” That cannot be!
Character, Character, Character, Character, and then Ability
Those of us who serve as pastors ought to work hard to become better preachers and leaders. If I am not a better preacher today than I was this time last year, then I am not stewarding the gifts and opportunities God has given me. We must not, however, develop our abilities at the expense of or while neglecting our character. The unfortunate reality is that everything around us presses us to build our abilities and rewards us for being great preachers and leaders even if our character starts to show signs of cracking and fading. People give us the humbling and deadly honor of assuming we are men of character simply because we talk so much about God and His Word, and out of a misplaced notion of respect, they will ignore sure signs of concern in our actions and attitudes. In many ways, it is up to us—pastors, elders, men of the Word—to train our congregations to hold us accountable and to develop systems which will serve as character check points for us and those on our teams.
Stepping Off the Edge of A Cliff
“It’s this way,” my friend Aaron said as he turned right, headed down a trail, and suddenly disappeared. We were hiking at night, without flashlights, on trails we weren’t familiar with, in a canyon. Ladies and gentlemen, witness the marvelous wisdom of teenage boys. Aaron had stepped off a small cliff and fallen about five feet. Once we realized what had happened, we laughed really hard, pulled him up, and continued with our camping adventures that evening. The next day, we went back to the same spot to relive the moment and the laughter only to realize, in the light of day, that when Aaron fell the night before, he had landed on another small cliff that was just a few feet wide. Had Aaron landed differently or taken a wrong step, he would have fallen hundreds of feet to certain death. It wasn’t funny anymore.
The modern evangelical church is treading on paths we do not know, and we often refuse to turn on the light that would guide our steps. The New Testament is clear—above everything else, character matters. Rather than elevating pastors to larger and larger platforms based on the size of their churches and ability to communicate with little or no regard for the doctrinal strength of their messages and often while ignoring obvious flaws in their character, we must hold our pastors to the high moral standard given to us in God’s Word. Rather than accepting someone’s call to ministry as unquestionable because it’s an internal matter between the person and God, we must recognize the role of the church in confirming the call to and qualifications for ministry. Otherwise, we are ignoring what will lead to certain destruction of those pastors, their families, and the churches they lead.
For those of use who serve as pastors, may we hear the words of Paul to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16 with soberness and resolve, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”