As I woke up this morning, several thoughts ran through my head that I felt compelled to share (in light of the recent ministry course I took here in Tokyo). This is part 2, following my previous post on Effective Elderships: Fostering Clear Roles, Healthy Function, and Strong Leadership. ______________________________________________________________________
“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” (I Tim. 4: 16).
Academically Astute But Dramatically Immature.
In a church ministry, especially in a mission field, there is always a need for more workers–a need for new ministries and good leadership. While some people come with good recommendations, in one camp we tend to stress on the importance of education; so we are eager to put people on positions of authority (and/or leadership) on the basis of their educational qualifications. This tends to be the more traditional camp approach. Think of conservative Presbyterians, Baptists, conservative Methodists and few other theologically conservative Evangelicals or non-denominational churches etc. We put a very high priority on educational qualifications for the right reasons in some, but also for the wrong reasons in some circles because, to put it plainly, we idolize educational qualifications. There’s much idolatry in Institutions, because Institutions are part of the fallen world. Therefore, educational qualification seems to be the justifier of many things at the end of the day. But, we rarely admit or confess this idol. Hence the measure of our own worth and the way we measure the worth of others also tends to be their educational qualifications. In simple words, if someone has a PHD our preference for that person tends to be ten times higher than someone who does not have the same qualifications. After all, it’s the highest educational qualification one can achieve as one climbs the Academic ladder. So we may often be biased in our judgments, because our prejudices can drive our preferences. It may well be that we tend to like people if they have our idols. Nonetheless, we all know that educational qualifications do not equal spiritual maturity.
“One of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education in itself.” (C.S. Lewis)
On the other camp (like in some or most Pentecostal/Charismatic circles) we tend to put people in leadership positions on the basis of giftings. The more charismatic a person is, the better it seems to work for us. So young men are often given responsibilities quickly and placed on positions of leadership and authority based, sometimes solely, on their giftings. To be fair, we do look for visible fruits in the person’s life. None of us are too spiritually dumb to not be able to see a bad fruit in a person’s life. But if the person can speak well, even without much training, we tend to put them to task immediately. Again, to be fair, there’s always a pressure to fill a need in a small church, or in a mission field, especially if their giftings or educational qualifications match with the current need. I can attest to these tendencies as I’ve been on both camps, and (by the way) I have good friends on both camps. So what is the problem here? Somewhere between these two extreme poles, we do have other camps who take both character and educational qualifications or giftings seriously. This is a good thing. But, by educational qualifications, I do not mean academic training alone. Some theological training and ongoing education is necessary because doing church in a modern technologically driven context is going to be much more complex than one can imagine. We need to handle the scriptures well, and give it the proper treatment it deserves. And we’re going to have to pay careful attention to our lives. This is what Paul said to young Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” Someone once said: it’s not your gifts that keeps you on top of the mountain, but your character. And Paul is saying: We’ve got to keep a close watch on our lives (character) and our teaching (doctrine), lest we fall on either or both sides. According to the apostle Paul: if you’re a leader, you don’t get a pass on “the fruit of the Spirit” and you don’t get a pass on unsound near heretical doctrines.
The more theologically astute or conservative churches tend to test a person’s character and educational qualifications before they appoint them into any positions of authority or leadership roles (e,g; Church elder). In some cases, their educational qualifications are too demanding or high to the neglect of character testing and gift discernment. Or they tend to be too suspicious of young gifted men to an extent that young men feel they’re being spied on without being properly equipped for the work of the ministry. And in a context like Japan, we’ve got an aging population with low birth rates. The aging population is true of the Church as well, and young men are much needed in ministry. Rightly so, some of these churches are to be commended well for taking the biblical qualifications of an elder seriously (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-16,). And we have seen that most of the elder qualifications have to do with character and sound doctrine. But we must soberly consider here that none of these qualifications are met fully (not to mention perfectly), though there should be measurable outcomes as the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of men. Only Jesus meets these qualifications perfectly and fully, without failure at all times in all places, in all of history.
Gifted But Without Character And Training.
Also Paul says the elder/pastor “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1: 9). In some Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, we put a lot of emphasis on the giftedness of an individual (including in the operation of the gifts of the Spirit). So we may focus more on the “able to give instruction” part, and tend to neglect on the following words and phrases. It says, “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” not just any doctrine, but sound (healthy teaching). And he says the elder must “rebuke those who contradict it.” But we rarely rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine because many of us are entirely anti-doctrine (it feels a little weird I used that word). So we throw around words like, “Doctrine does not matter!” which is a doctrine in itself and a dangerous position to hold.
Furthermore, rebuking seems to go against some “psychologically laden positive theology,” so we shy away from using Bible verses that might sound negative to modern people’s sentiments–like God’s wrath or the condemned state of the unbelievers mentioned all over the New Testament (By the way, I said New Testament, not Old Testament!). Beneath it really may be the fear of people and wanting to please them–which is idolatry. Besides, we’re not really focused on “sound doctrine” because all that really seems to matter to us is the anointing, the giftings and the experiences. Hence, we either fall on one of these sides, if not both–i, e; the character on the one hand (like tax embezzlement or sexual immorality or pornography), or the sound doctrine on the other hand (like the health and wealth–prosperity gospel).
Elsewhere, Paul said that the elder must be “able to teach” (I Tim.3: 2). We must not equate this to hermeneutic or homiletic classes, though they can help. So while Seminaries can give us tools for ministry and help nurture the gifts and calling, they cannot impart this ability to teach. Teachers are gifts from God to the Church (Eph. 4:11). For instance, we have many Church elders in the North Eastern part of India, who are able bible teachers but have never been to a Seminary. These men have their character tested in a local church context over time; and they go through rigorous written exams to evaluate if they have a proper working knowledge of the whole counsel of God’s Word. So character shaped during 3 to 4 years of Seminary studies are simply not enough. Real life examples can be found everywhere. Education does not end in the classroom. Education is a life-long thing, growing in the Gospel is a life-long thing; and we must continue to remain teachable throughout our lives. This also means that the task of Ephesians 4, to equip and train those who will in turn equip the saints for the work of the ministry is a long-term vision and goal of the Church and should not be rushed simply to fill a need. Paul said this task must go on– “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (vv.13,14). Our character and sound doctrine must be tested in a local church context over an extended period of time. As a matter of fact, Paul said to Titus (chapter 1):
5 “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
Plurality of Elders and Strong Accountability.
First, he said to “put what remained into order and appoint elders.” Right there: order is necessary in a messy church full of people with sinful natures. And that order is put in place by appointing elders. It’s clear that you can’t have a lone ranger riding the saddle back of the church. Paul calls for plurality of elders. James instructed his readers to “call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14). The word there again is “elders”- plural. When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). Again, “elders” is plural. In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the apostle referred to “the elders who rule well” at the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:17; the word is “the elders”-plural again. So there were ruling or governing elders to keep other leaders accountable (See also Acts 20:17, where Paul addresses “the elders of the church” at Ephesus). The book of Acts indicates that there were “elders” at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4; 21:18). Time and again, reference is made to a plurality of elders. In every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (greek word for “elder”) is used it is plural, except where the apostle John uses it of himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter uses it of himself in 1 Peter 5:1. So some of us solo Charismatic types who idolize power and authority need to have accountability of elders; not the ones that are under us or those that are in our good books, but are equals and above us who can speak truths that are hard to hear, in order to keep us from deceiving, misleading, abusive and domineering. I know an organization once where all the top leaders who needed to be held accountable by the Mission Board are the only ones from whom the Board can receive information. And most of the top leaders turned out to be family members. In that kind of structure, no one can speak truth to power because nepotism always had the last say. It’s unhealthy for the Church.
Again, from Titus 1 verses 6 to 8, Paul’s focus on the qualifications of an elder are all on the person’s character, while verse 9 has to do with sound doctrine. He says, an elder must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” (v. 6). That’s character–which becomes visible overtime. The fruits of the Spirit (Gal.5) must increasingly be evident over a period of time, in the life of a person who walks with Jesus. His children must be true believers and not open to charge. How many of us know pastor’s kids and missionary kids that are insubordinate, and have left the faith or have nothing to do with Christianity? Can some of us leaders say that we are confident our children won’t become apostate? Or that our wives won’t commit adultery because we’re too busy meeting ministry demands? Or that we won’t give in to other temptations and disqualify ourselves from ministry? Verse 7 says, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8. but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” Now how many of us think we’re truly qualified after reading that list, unless you’re trying to keep the law. Isn’t arrogance the heart of all other issues? If anything, pride should disqualify us for ministry because pride is the mother of all our sins.
I’ll end with this: If any good fruit is seen in our lives, the lives of our family, it’s all owing to the grace and mercy of God working in and through us. So, there’s zero ground for boasting in the fact that we’re still standing! I’ve been in a meeting where several Church elders felt the need to talk of their ministry credentials saying, “Hi, my name is so and so. I am an ordained elder at such and such a Church.” I can’t judge the heart, but I often pause to wonder if it’s really insecurity and our need for human respect and approval that often drives self-congratulatory tones. I find that Gospel identity crisis is a big problem in the Church (and in the lives of Church leaders). It may well be that it’s the root of all our other surface problems. Lastly, whether or not we’re an elder, all of us must take to heart I Cor. 10: 12 “…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” It’s a miracle of grace that some of us are still standing! Grace to you!
- For more on Church Elders, go to: Effective Elderships: Fostering Clear Roles, Healthy Function, and Strong Leadership- Part 1.