“…an overseer must be above reproach…” From I Timothy 3:2 (ESV)
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” I Timothy 5:21-22 (ESV)
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves, will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-30 (ESV)
I’ve just completed listening to a thought-provoking series of Christianity Today podcasts on “The Rise And Fall of Mars Hill.” The podcasts were exceptionally well done but emotionally jarring. On the heels of this I also heard Carey Nieuwhof’s interview of Steve Carter, former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church.
There’s no end to the discussions we could have about the lessons to be learned from these sad stories. Today I want to zero in on one thought that has been keeping me up at night:
We ignore the “partiality clause” of I Timothy 5:21 (above) to our peril.
As the Apostle Paul wrote these words, he had already explained the qualifications for church leaders in chapter three. In chapter five he writes about the compensation of elders (we usually call them “pastors”), the handling of allegations against elders and how they must be publicly rebuked if they persist in sin. He then emphasizes the need to not prejudge these cases and to make sure that our judgment is not clouded by “partiality.”
I’m used to hearing these warnings about partiality applied to the selection of non-vocational elders (or church leaders by any other name), and this is a legitimate application:
“We must not choose church leaders because they’re big givers, related to the right people, long-time members, bullies whom we are afraid to cross, highly invested church workers, formerly, but not currently, vibrant Christians, outspoken with their opinions, etc.”
Time and time again church lay leaders who know better look the other way as their often-intimidating leaders refuse to be confronted, show callous disregard for others, violate basic Christian moral standards, re-arrange church structures to give themselves dictatorial authority, arrange obscenely high salaries for themselves, etc.
Having said this, I have to make my own confession: there was a time in my life when I also failed as a church board member, allowing a troubled and intimidating pastor to morph into a near cult-leader.
It’s oh-so-easily done.
In some situations the church board member – whose God-given role includes the protection of the flock from his fellow leadership team members (see Acts 20:28-30, above) – is seduced by the effectiveness of the pastor-leader. “God must be okay with him; look at how he’s blessing him.”
In other situations – including the one I was in – the board member is simply intimidated, frightened, afraid of losing prestige, friends, family or a place at the table in a highly successful ministry.
It comes down to five lessons:
(1) Churches must be structured in such a way that there is real accountability among their leaders. Senior pastors can be dynamic leaders while also being subject to the oversight of their fellow elders (or again, board members by any other name).
(2) Having said that, structure is of minor importance compared to the character of the individuals involved. The wrong people can by-pass the best structure almost every time.
(3) Humility is out of style in our culture, but it’s still a vital quality for all church leaders, including the most gifted among us. Let’s go further and say: the greater your giftedness, the greater your need for humility: a serious consciousness of your own sinful tendencies. Whoever you are, you are your own worst enemy. I can’t destroy you, but you can.
(4) Meekness is so far out of style that it has been all but eliminated from our Bible translations, but it is as vital as ever. Meekness is the willingness to not get our own way. Pastors who lack meekness should get jobs in the fast-food industry, at least temporarily.
(5) Biblically qualified church leaders are people who have the courage to confront their peers, even if their peers are “superstar pastors.” The more dynamically gifted our pastors are, the more assertive they are (and assertiveness is required of leaders), the greater the need for courageous church board members.
We ignore the partiality clause to our own peril.