Speaking of Jews who knew the law but failed to keep it, Paul said in sacred Scripture, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The Apostle might just as well have been pointing the finger at many of today’s Christian leaders.
Anyone who’s been paying even the slightest attention to the myriad recent scandals of Christian leaders—whether from evangelical churches or educational institutions, authors, denominations, the Orthodox Church, or the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church—knows that something is deeply wrong with the way we choose and sustain those who would be shepherds over the flock of God.
Perhaps reflecting the philosophical pragmatism pervading so much of American culture—that whatever works is good—we Christians often fail to look below the surface when choosing our leaders. Those who can speak smoothly and raise money effortlessly flatter our sense of self-importance. We require professional training and excellence and assume character will be included in the bargain.
That isn’t always the case. Sometimes there is no relationship between external giftedness and internal godliness. In our natural desire for talented visionaries or accomplished leaders with the right diploma, charisma and credentials sometimes matter more than competence and character.
And every time we make this mistake, we undermine our witness. Worse, we undercut the case for a Christian worldview that makes Christian faith thinkable in a culture that has severed itself from its Christian roots.
Worldview isn’t just about ideas but about living out those ideas through our practices and character. If our Christian worldview doesn’t produce a Christian lifestyle, particularly in our leaders, then our neighbors have every right to question its truth. But a Christian worldview truly lived encourages us to look past superficial appearances and value what God values.
After all, worldview isn’t just about ideas but about living out those ideas through our practices and character. If our Christian worldview doesn’t produce a Christian lifestyle, particularly in our leaders, then our neighbors have every right to question its truth. But a Christian worldview truly lived encourages us to look past superficial appearances and value what God values.
And what does God value? The example of David is instructive. God tells Samuel to go to Jesse’s home in Bethlehem to anoint Israel’s next king. First handsome Eliab passes in front of the prophet, then Abinadab, then Shammah, then four more. None of these young men passes the test. Then, under Samuel’s instruction, Jesse sends for David, his youngest, who is God’s choice. Why?
As the Lord tells Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Only the Lord can see into a man’s (or woman’s) heart. Part of the heartache of the current ministry scandals is surely the surprise of learning that you have chosen an Eliab rather than a David. We human beings mostly see appearances. The older we get, the more we learn the bitter truth that only the Lord knows what is in each person’s heart.
God’s Word tells us that such unhappy surprises are to be expected. For every Barnabas who leads with integrity we will discover an Ananias or Sapphira who seeks to deceive. The tares will grow up with the wheat, only to be uprooted and burned at the final judgment. We are commanded to earnestly contend for the faith against leaders who “have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Thus, knowing there are no guarantees, we must measure those who would lead us by Scripture. Jesus chose twelve imperfect men who were unknown entities—fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary—to carry on His ministry. Jesus knew their characters, giving several of them special names that reflected who they were and would become under His tutelage.
Excellence honors the One who made all things good and who calls us to steward His creation. As Martin Luther said, “In our daily work no matter how important or mundane we serve God by serving the neighbor and we also participate in God’s on-going providence for the human race.”
Being made of fallible dust as all of us are, they sometimes failed him mightily, but He painstakingly prepared them to carry out the work fearlessly and with integrity. It is no wonder that when the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
As Paul said to the Corinthian believers, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Scripture provides markers by which to evaluate potential leaders. Those who would lead God’s flock must have the character qualities of a shepherd. In his book Am I Called? The Summons to Pastoral Ministry, Dave Harvey looks at the Pastoral Epistles to discern signs of God’s calling. His Christ-focused approach invites potential pastors to evaluate whether they are godly, have the requisite home life, are able to preach and shepherd, and love lost people. Most of the markers deal with character, not skills. While not all Christian leaders are called to be pastors, certainly we can tell when they are fleecing the flock in defiance of the Great Shepherd.
This is not a call to ignore skills, education, or giftedness. Good intentions are not enough. We all have jobs to do. Excellence honors the One who made all things good and who calls us to steward His creation. As Martin Luther said, “In our daily work no matter how important or mundane we serve God by serving the neighbor and we also participate in God’s on-going providence for the human race.”
So by all means, seek excellence. But remember that character without excellence leads only to disappointment. Excellence without character leads to scandal.
Stan Guthrie’s latest book is Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.