Before I was a Christian, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Jimmy Swaggart and Billy Graham. I still remember the shock on a Christian friend’s face when I got them confused. Astonished, she made it clear to me—in no uncertain terms—Billy Graham is a man of integrity.
Eventually, the Lord saved me, and I began to understand what set these two popular speakers apart from one another. Billy Graham was a gospel-man who lived out his faith. Swaggart? Not so much.
As the years went on, I began to connect—unwisely—orthodoxy to moral purity. Though I knew better theologically (I’d heard great sermons on 1 Timothy 4:16), I practically assumed robust theology went hand-in-hand with moral integrity.
I was wrong.
In recent months, I’ve seen good preachers, faithful churchmen, and fine theologians fall from ministry. I don’t know any specifics, just enough to understand the causes are legion: pride, isolation, anger, and sexual immorality—to name just a few. These sins consume too many “good” preachers with the ferocity of a California wildfire.
Pastors like myself must be more than good communicators and able theologians—we must be humble, holy, servants of Christ.
I’m not writing from an ivory tower of moral purity. Pornography invaded my life at a young age, before the Internet took off. I’m still no stranger to the battle against lust and harshness. I’m a work in progress. Furthermore, another article in defense of holiness is hardly enough to halt the rising flood of pastoral malpractice.
Nonetheless, I want to remind you that “able to teach” is just one qualification of elder ministry. And, like a gem embedded in a stone wall, “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3 is surrounded by over a dozen virtues we cannot ignore:
- Above reproach
- Husband of one wife
- Able to teach
- Cannot be a drunkard
- Gentle and not violent
- Not quarrelsome
- Not a lover of money
- Able to manage his household well
- Not be a recent convert
Interestingly, “able to teach” is smack-dab in the middle of this list. Perhaps Paul is arguing the ability to teach is central to an elder’s ministry but not the whole of it. Competency in communication must be surrounded by moral virtue. Again, it’s a gem embedded in a wall filled with other, crucial stones.
It is Possible (by God’s Grace)
I tend to read quickly through this list and, just as quickly, fall back on the gospel: No one can meet these qualifications, that’s why I need Jesus. But that’s not true! However imperfectly, and by God’s grace and power, these qualifications can be met. This list is to be drunk down slowly, carefully, methodically. Like a surgeon exploring an organ for any sign of cancer, the elder (or man who aspires to be an elder) is to probe his own heart for any evidence of moral compromise.
The work of pursuing holiness in the pastorate is hard but necessary. As John Piper told pastors years ago, “Our business is to strain forward to the holiness of Christ and the prize of the upward call of God (Philippians 3:14); to pummel our bodies and subdue them lest we be cast away (1 Corinthians 9:27); to deny ourselves and take up the blood-splattered cross daily (Luke 9:23).”[i] The nineteenth-century Anglican pastor, Charles Bridges, made the identical point several generations earlier: “. . . unless our work exhibit the self-denying character of the cross of Christ, it is Christian Ministry in the letter only, not in spirit.”[ii] Our churches need preachers, but they also need models.
I don’t understand how Satan works, not exactly, but I know he loves it when the eyes of a pastor are off of Christ and put on himself. Also, I know Satan rejoices the moment a pastor neglects God’s Word for Netflix, forsakes prayer for sleep, and makes a woman other than his wife the apple of his eye. Satan loves a pastor who gains a following only to fall because he preaches about the “self-denying character of the cross” without actually practicing self-denial.
A Living Example
How does a congregation benefit from a self-denying pastor?
- It is able to see, in living color, what a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit looks like (Galatians 5:22–23).
- The members of this church can point to the pastor and say to their skeptical family members and friends, “All Christian leaders are frail, but not all Christian leaders fail.”
- Perhaps, most importantly, they can enjoy the promise that when they are both Spirit-filled and well-trained, the godliness of their pastor will be theirs as well (Luke 6:40).
If you are a church member, do pray for your pastor; pray he’d zealously pursue Christ. And if you are an elder, take heart, the God who called you into ministry is quite able to sustain you through the fire of temptation. Keep your eyes fixed on him.