One of the customs of our church is to thoroughly evaluate the men we call to be pastors and elders. Once we identify a candidate for the office, and once he has indicated his interest, we complete a thorough evaluation of his life and character. We work through a document that describes the qualifications the Bible holds out and asks whether he meets them or falls short. The prospective elder and his wife complete this evaluation first before the existing elders and the entire congregation do the same. By the end of the process we feel confident that the men we call are also qualified. (And, to ensure those men remain qualified, we repeat this process every six years or so.)
It never fails to fascinate me that when the Bible describes the qualifications of an elder, its focus is almost entirely on character. There is one qualification related to skill (he must have the ability to teach) and one related to desire (he must want to serve in this way), but beyond that, there is an extensive list of traits of character: he must be gentle, he must be hospitable, he must be generous, he must be devoted to his wife, he must be a faithful father, and so on. Where we are so easily swayed by accomplishments and raw ability, God’s foremost concern is for character. When it comes to the leadership of the church, God demands they be men of upstanding character, men who are above reproach in the eyes of their family members, their church, and even their community.
I recently took some time away from being an elder—a sabbatical that followed more than a decade of constant service. Upon returning, the members of the church re-evaluated me in light of those qualities, a process that is humbling but also encouraging, for Christians love to identify strengths more than weaknesses and graces more than faults. It was a blessing to receive their affirmation that they believe I am qualified to continue to serve among them. Meanwhile, we have just gone through the process of identifying a new elder and examining his suitability for the office. Through those two contexts, I found myself pondering character.
I have often heard it said that character is who you are when no one is looking. This is a well-worn phrase that communicates an essential truth: You tend to be on your best behavior when you are in the public eye. But if you wish to know who you truly are, and if you wish to know what your character is really made of, you need to look at yourself in those times when you are alone and those places where no one is present to spot your behavior or stand in judgment of your actions. You need to consider the situations in which your mind is free to wander and your hands are free to act. The truest gauge of your truest self is known ultimately only to you. Hence, character is who you are when no one is looking.
But as I considered the character of an elder, I also found myself challenged with this: Character is who you are when only your family is looking. I consider this equally important when gauging strength of character, for family knows who you really are just as much as solitude does. After all, when no one is looking, you are not being challenged by other people, you are not being sinned against, you are not being forced to practice courteous conduct and gentle speech. You are not practicing or neglecting discipleship through Word and prayer, you are not failing or succeeding to lead others through trying circumstances. It’s just you and the silence, just you and the screen, just you and your own thoughts. In that way, you learn a lot about yourself when only your family is looking.
One of the elements of my life that concerns me most is my ability to be on my worst behavior around the people who are most important to me. You would think I’d always be at my very best before the people I love the most. Yet somehow I can put on airs before strangers and then let down my guard before my family. Somehow I can live to impress people I barely know while being apathetic toward people I know the best and whose lives are deeply intertwined with mine. There is something about home life that can breed arrogance and apathy, entitlement and hostility.
But before God calls me to serve the church he calls me to serve my family and before he calls me to love the people of my local congregation he calls me to love the people under my own roof. Long before I think about laying down my life in service for my brothers and sisters, he calls me to lay down my life in service for my wife and children. My family knows who I really am in a way neither the crowds nor the solitude do.
Who am I? What kind of man am I? What kind of character do I possess and display? I will learn that in the darkness, in the solitude, in the times when no human eyes sees me. But I will equally learn that when I am before those people who see me constantly and up close, for character is who I am when only my family is looking.