“An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach” (I Timothy 3:2, CSV).
A good friend of mine, a brilliant Bible teacher, once made the statement, “What a man builds with his gift he destroys with his character.”
That was uttered during a time when many well-known television evangelists and preachers were exposed for sexual misconduct, financial misgivings, and ill-treatment of staff. His point was that while many of these ministers were powerfully gifted individuals who built their entire ministries on their unique giftedness, they didn’t have the character to sustain them. In other words, giftedness could only take them so far. It was what they were (or weren’t) in their essential character that failed to sustain them when crisis came.
We have all heard the axiom in political science, which says that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The spiritual counterpart to that is “crisis reveals, and absolute crisis reveals absolutely.” Crisis comes to every leader in order to expose the foundation upon which they have built their lives and ministries. In the selection of church leaders, Paul instructs Timothy to be sure to choose those who are not merely gifted (though gifting is important), but those who reveal godly living. For Paul, this isn’t difficult to assess; Timothy should drill down to the basic character of the person evident in such things as his daily habits, his marriage, and his relationships. “Above reproach” sums up nicely the character of those who are potential candidates.
We ignore such advice to our peril. How many ministries and leaders—men like King Saul, were chosen because of their outward charisma, turned out to be disasters waiting to happen. Like Saul, in the moment of crisis (which comes to all leaders), they crumble, thus revealing that godliness was not the foundation upon which they built their lives. When Saul was selected as king, it was because he was “head and shoulder above the people.” Born of an illustrious tribe, from a family of leaders, he gave all appearance of being successful. Few realized that, while he gave the appearance of a strong leader, he had not the inward preparation of godliness and holiness to sustain him when crisis would come. And come it did, revealing the shallowness upon which he had built his life.
When we judge candidates for leadership, we are often impressed with pulpit gifts and miraculous signs. Paul tells Timothy to look instead to how a man has managed his family and how he is in his essential relationships. That is not to suggest that gifting should not be considered at all; indeed, a man who does not display an aptitude to lead should avoid church leadership like the plague. But gifting alone will not sustain a man when the pressure is on—what he is in his essential person is what matters most.
That is why God takes his time when it comes to forming leaders. While Saul was personally imploding, having been rushed on to the stage of public ministry before having the time to develop godly character in secret, God was preparing his successor off the stage of public display until the time was right. David was learning lessons such as faithfulness; trust in God, worship, and personal holiness in secret, which would sustain him through forty years of public acclaim. And even at that moment when his own lack of godly character caused his own to implosion, he demonstrated how important godly remorse is when one fails a test.
Paul insists that a candidate for eldership “not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil” (3:7). There are some things that can only be learned through God’s patient dealing over time. God is in no hurry to rush leaders on to the stage of public ministry who have not first been adequately prepared in secret. Right at the top of the list of qualifications is faithfulness in marriage (3:2b). Do you want to know if a person has the character commensurate with leadership? Don’t look only at how he conducts himself in church on Sunday—look at his marriage. The first test of whether a person is a leader is how he handles his first church: the home.