The New Testament clearly, repeatedly, and unapologetically lays out the qualifications of a pastor. What is so remarkable yet so often overlooked is this: Pastors are called and qualified to their ministry not first through their raw talent, their finely-honed skill, or their great accomplishments, but through their godly character. Of all the many qualifications laid out in the New Testament, there is just one related to skill (he must have the ability to teach others) and one related to experience (he must not be a recent convert). The rest of the nearly 20 qualifications are based on character. What fits a man to ministry is not first accomplishment or capability but character.
We cannot emphasize this too strongly or too often. I really mean that: We cannot overemphasize the primacy of character. A great many of the problems we see in the local and global church today are caused by the failure to heed this simple principle. So many Christians could be spared so much trauma if only their churches would refuse to put a man in leadership who is lacking such character. So many congregations would be spared so much pain if only they would remove men who prove they don’t have the kind of character God demands. This failure to heed what God makes plain is a terrible blight upon the Christian church.
From a human perspective, it’s not difficult to understand why the church gets this wrong. We are naturally drawn to people of remarkable charisma and outstanding talent. We love to listen to naturally-skilled communicators and to be led by accomplished leaders. We rejoice to bask in the residual glory of respected men and their noteworthy achievements. We convince ourselves that our measure of success is undeniable proof of God’s blessing. We are willing to overlook character if only we can have results.
Perhaps we need to ask why it is that God so values character. Why is it that God entrusts his church to men of character rather than men of talent or achievement? Why would he prefer that his church be led by unremarkable men instead of accomplished ones? Why would he choose an undistinguished but honorable man over a talented man who is known and celebrated for his many skills?
For one, while any man can teach what the Bible says, only a man of character can live what the Bible demands. Only he can live in a way that is respectable and worthy of emulation. The pastor who is carrying on an illicit affair has no right to call his congregation to purity no matter what he has accomplished in life. The pastor who is tight-fisted has lost his prerogative to instruct others in generous living, even if he can preach a powerful sermon. The pastor whose life is crumbling under the weight of his depravity has no authority to say, “be imitators of me.” On the other hand, the pastor who is known as a one-woman man serves as a model of love and affection. The pastor who lives simply and gives generously can show what it means to be freed from the love of money. The pastor whose leadership shows gentleness and humility can say, “Follow my example.” A pastor is to lead his church by setting direction and making decisions, but first by modeling godliness. Godliness is a matter of character, not accomplishment.
There’s more. The Bible calls all leaders to look to the example of Jesus Christ and to learn leadership from him. Only a man of character is capable of this kind of Christ-like leadership. Jesus led with love, he led at the expense of his own comfort, he led as a servant who humbled himself before the ones who followed him. Before he was a man of accomplishment he was a man of character. It was his love of the law of God and his compliance to the will of God that made him the perfect leader. The pastor who lacks character will inevitably lead selfishly instead of selflessly, to care more for his own reputation than his people’s godliness. The pastor who is selected on the basis of his accomplishments will stop at nothing to accumulate more and greater trophies and accolades. But the pastor of deep Christian character will suffer harm to protect the ones he loves, he will endure trials to do what benefits them. The man of character will lead like Jesus.
And then there is this: Human weakness provides the perfect backdrop for displaying divine strength. As Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The man who is strong will tend toward self-sufficiency. Instead of relying on God, he may rely on his natural talent, his inherent skill, his in-born advantages. The man of outstanding skill can hold the attention of an audience even with a meaningless message. The man of exceptional charisma can lead in any direction he pleases and people will follow. Yet they may listen only for their own amusement and follow to their own destruction. It is the man of character who knows that talent, skill, and gifting must all be entrusted to God. It is the man of character whose confidence is not in the messenger but the message. It is the man of character who cries out to God in his weakness and pleads with God to display his strength. Because he cannot rely on his human skill, he must rely on divine power. And the gospel shines through his weakness.
I am sure there are many more reasons we could provide, but the point is clear: When it comes to the men who will lead his church, God values character far ahead of accomplishment. When it comes to pastors, God looks past men of great talent or achievement to call men of character. We must do the same.