Some years ago, I caused no little consternation when I was invited to speak at a church on the nature of ministry and started my lecture by declaring that it really did not matter if the pastor was an adulterer or not. As you may imagine, this was not something the congregation had heard before, and my guess is that more than a handful of those present probably thought the speaker had either gone mad or was simply ignorant of the most basic aspects of biblical teaching on the nature of church leadership.
In fact, I was making a serious point, and doing so in a way that I knew would cause people to sit up, take notice, and, crucially, reflect upon their own assumptions about ministry. My point was this: the power of the ministry lies in the truth of the Word, driven home by the Spirit, not in the moral qualities of the pastor.
I myself learned a lot of the theology that I still hold dear, and certainly ninety percent of everything I know about preaching, from a man who has since left his wife to live in a homosexual relationship, and the evidence suggests that he had embarked on this lifestyle while I was under his ministry. If it was the quality of his private life that made the difference, I would have to go back, unlearn and then relearn everything I imbibed during my years in his church.
Of course, even a moment’s reflection reveals the truth of this for all of us: if faith comes by hearing the Word, and the moral character of the one who speaks that word to us is that which makes the Word effective, then which of us could ever be sure of our salvation? And which of us would ever bother to speak the Word to another, knowing how morally crippled we ourselves are?
True as this is, however, it is probably the case that an over-emphasis on the moral quality of church leaders is not the problem we face in the contemporary church. Every year, the list of pastors who are caught in serious sin—sexual, financial and otherwise—is startling and depressing. Equally startling and depressing is the list of pastors who are restored to office after a perfunctory repentance and a short period of discipline.
I am probably a hardliner on such issues, but I am a firm believer that an adulterous or sexually profligate elder forfeits his office permanently and, frankly, the restoration to office of those involved in other public crimes should be the exception and not the rule. Restoration of the repentant to fellowship is an imperative; restoration to office is quite another matter, hard as this may be to swallow in an age when anybody can do anything with no long-term damage to their career as long as they appear on Oprah, cry a few tears and say the magic word sorry.
In the tenth century, the church produced one of the worst examples of an immoral church leader in the person of Pope John XII, who reigned from 955 to 964. During his tenure, the Vatican was referred to as being akin to a brothel. Such were his high crimes and misdemeanors that in November 963 a desperate attempt was made by church officials to oust him at a synod in St. Peter’s, where John was variously accused of sacrilege, simony (selling spiritual offices for money), perjury, murder, fornication and incest. John refused to recognize the synod and later took terrible revenge on those who had sought to replace him as pope, having various enemies scourged and physically mutilated. His victory was short-lived, however, as he was to die on May 14, 964, just over a week after having a stroke (at least according to the rumors) while in the act of committing fornication.
John XII is an extreme example of a sleazy church leader, as much for the range of his crimes as for anything else, though it is arguable that the greatness of his evil actions was simply the result of his greater power and opportunity for such immorality compared to many who have come after him. Now, if John had preached the gospel, there is no doubt that the gospel would still have been effective, for, as we noted above, the Word of God is powerful because of what it is, not because the person speaking is a moral superhero. Nevertheless, John was a disgrace to the church, and there is no doubt that, whatever their motives, those who sought to oust him from his position were doing the right thing.
Why is this? If the power of the gospel is not dependent upon moral behavior, why should bribery, adultery and even murder bar someone from being a church leader? Well, the simple answer is, of course, that Paul lists a whole set of characteristics, most of them relating to morals, character, and reputation, as being vital in an elder or a pastor.
Thus, in Titus 1, for example, the candidate for eldership is to be above reproach, happily married to one woman, with good children who behave as those in a Christian household should. He must not be arrogant, nor have what Americans call “anger-management issues.” He should not be greedy or ambitious but rather hospitable, self-controlled, upright and so on. It is important to note that Paul is not here demanding perfection, for then no one would qualify; what he is basically asking for is that an elder should be a decent, honorable person of good reputation within and without the church.
While Paul does not make this explicit, it should be clear that the reason for this is to make sure that the elders bring no public scandal to the name of Christ or lead astray those who have been placed under their pastoral oversight. This is why the behavior of pastors and elders is so important: it is not that this gives some kind of magic power to their preaching and teaching but because they are the most visible representatives, within and without the church, of what a Christian—a follower of Christ—looks like.
This has practical implications for us all. First, it is quite clear that Paul assumes that the typical elder or pastor will be an older person, someone who has already established himself in the church and in the wider community as someone whose life and character match those described by Paul. Of course, it is not vital that the elder be married or a father—it is doubtful that Paul was such—but for Paul to include those qualifications speaks of the kind of person who will normally take up the task: older, mature, with a proven record of competent domestic leadership.
That Paul has to tell Timothy to let no one despise him because of his age does, of course, indicate that the office is not restricted to older men. Yet that he has to issue such an instruction indicates quite clearly that such should be the standard expectation and that Timothy’s youth therefore makes him something of an exception. Most pastors should be men who have proved themselves in all public areas of their lives elsewhere before they are taken into positions of eldership.
Second, while we should not demand perfection of our leaders, we should set the bar pretty high. There are plenty of men around who have their heads full of theological knowledge, but knowledge is not the same as the kind of maturity and reputation that Paul sees as non-negotiable. Questions of theological knowledge are important, but this is no either-or situation but rather a both-and. Potential elders and pastors need to know their theology, but they also need to be of good reputation within and without the church, treat their wives with respect, have children who are not troublemakers and care for people. Eldership should be a joy, but it is also hard work and brings immense responsibility.
Ultimately, John XII’s problem was that he was interested in church leadership for what he could take out of it—money, power and sex. For all I know, his teaching may well have been good and sound. What is clear, however, is that one who seeks church office for personal advancement and gain is the very person who should never be allowed within a million miles of a pulpit or a session, for in trying to bring glory to himself he brings nothing but public disgrace upon the church and the name of Him who purchased her with His blood.