The composition of the typical Presbyterian session is familiar enough. Professionals, prosperous businessmen, and community leaders predominate. Some are devout, some less so. Most were chosen, truth be known, because of their prominence in endeavors outside the realm of the church. Successful leadership in the world, it is assumed, should translate into successful leadership in the church.
The single outstanding feature of the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 is the complete absence of any concern for a potential officer’s success in the world. There is a concern for one’s reputation in the world (v. 7), that is, the world’s opinion of one’s character and conduct. But wealth, success, status, and power in the world are completely ignored. Prominence in the world is not a criteria by which the church should choose its leaders, the apostles would counsel, however awkward it may be for us to pass over one of the great ones of the earth when leaders are being picked.
What, then, are the criteria by which the church should choose its leaders? The criteria are character and the behavior that reveals character. Leaders are to demonstrate significant self-mastery: temperance, prudence, respectability, moderation, gentleness, and self-control. They are to be “above reproach,” that is, above accusation (v. 2). They are to be ones about whom it is said, “They would never do that,” when those who know them respond to an accusation levelled against them. We should not easily be able to imagine their entanglement in notorious sin. They are to be apt to teach in the church, showing some ability to articulate the faith and correct error (v. 2; see also Titus 1:9). They are to have been faithful in marriage and to have managed their households well. They are to be experienced. Novices are not to be elevated to the offices of the church.
We can roughly say that character is the criterion, and the church, the family, and the world are the proving grounds. What has been observed about a candidate over time? How has he conducted himself in the church? What is his family life like? What is his reputation in the community? If his virtues are genuine, they will endure over time and in changing settings.
“But none of us fulfills those qualities,” an elder said with a chuckle, as he and his peers began the hard task of examining officers for church office. This is a common observation and a typical objection. His point was that we need to be realistic and back off the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 because no one is able to fulfill them. Since no one does, the logic runs, we are free, well, not to ignore them, but just to get the best men we can.
No, the qualifications are there to qualify. The apostles gave the church these standards because they must be fulfilled by officers, though imperfectly. Granted, no one is able perfectly to fulfill the qualifications, except Jesus. We understand this. Still, there are those officers who fulfill them, though they do so imperfectly. We insist that there is a difference between fulfilling the qualifications imperfectly and not fulfilling them at all. There is a difference, and we are able to recognize the difference, and we are able to speak meaningfully of the difference.
I remember back when as a young Christian I first began to see that Christian truth was interrelated and far reaching. Knowing Jesus and reading the Bible led to theological study, which led to ethical considerations, which led to models of family life, which led to educational principles, which led to formulation of political ideals, which led to just-war theories, and so on. For me, this was like a second conversion. The Christian religion was not only emotionally satisfying but intellectually stimulating as well. The Christian faith leaves no realm untouched. Its blessed tentacles reach into every corner of existence.
Officer qualifications may seem to some a bit ho-hum, but it all connects. Officers are responsible to keep the church in the Bible; officers are responsible for biblically sound theological formulation; officers are responsible for upholding solid ethical principles; officers are responsible for teaching practical models of family life; officers are responsible for advancing the cause of Christian education; officers are responsible for formulating Christian political ideals; officers are responsible for articulating proper and improper use of military might. There is, in a sense, no square inch of existence (with apologies to Kuyper) about which the officers are not required to lead the thinking of the people of God as they fulfill their responsibilities as churchmen, family members, and citizens.
A church will rise no higher than its leadership. Devout, mature, wise leadership is crucial for the health and fruitfulness of the church and its ministry. With the apostles’ criteria, the church will be guided through the rough waters it inevitably faces by proven leaders whose “success” has been demonstrated not in the world according to worldly standards, but in Christ’s kingdom according to the standards of eternity.