Here are my thoughts about the next item from our whiteboard offered in the interests of keeping the church leadership conversation going: Qualities versus qualifications—the spirit versus the letter of selection criteria.
A lot of what was said last month applies here also, so it might be helpful to review the previous correspondence which highlighted the need to be both biblical and reasonable in our expectations of church leaders.
Surveying the many interpretations of Paul’s description of those he deemed suitable to shepherd God’s flock (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) brings into view a broad range of opinions and conclusions.
Some are inclined to rationalise Paul’s instructions making them almost meaningless: The candidate for eldership needs to be a faithful husband (but only if he happens to be married) whose children respect him (but only if he happens to have any children) and who shows some degree of spiritual maturity (but let’s not get too judgemental here)—and who, by the way, could as well be a woman as a man today because Paul was only reflecting and/or accommodating the Patriarchal Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of his own day. Frankly, the whole antiquated eldership thing needs revising to reflect modern and more enlightened standards of political correctness and best practice corporate governance anyway!
Others are inclined to add to or qualify Paul’s instructions making them a stringent and largely prohibitive set of conditions: The candidate for eldership must not be a former polygamist or be divorced or widowed and remarried (for that would make him the husband of more than one wife). He must have more than one child (because everyone knows that “children” is always plural, never singular) and each one of his children must be a faithful Christian, whether they are ten years old or fifty years old (and should any appointed elder’s wife or any number of his children die leaving him with only one child, or should one of his children denounce the faith at any later stage of their life; he must immediately cease from serving as an elder because, though he still has all the experience, he no longer has but one wife and/or a plurality of Christian children). And, of course, he must demonstrate moral and spiritual perfection in the present—and for as long as anyone can remember (otherwise he would not be blameless). It’s hard to find good Christian men qualified to be elders these days … we thank God he has given us the men’s business meeting as an expedient Plan B!
I imagine the former would take pride in seeing themselves as champions of the spirit of Paul’s teaching against those Bible thumping legalists, while the latter would be equally proud of their scrupulous defence of the letter of Paul’s teaching against those Bible denying libertines. But these sorts of oppositional either/or extremes are not helpful to understanding Paul’s instructions. These sorts of extremes (which say much more about the person’s attitude towards Scripture than the actual meaning of Scripture itself) are not what I have in mind when thinking about the spirit and the letter of God’s will. Nor are we speaking here of Paul’s contrast between the old and new covenants expressed as the “letter that kills” versus the “Spirit that gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:1-18). Rather, following Jesus’ lead in his exposition of the Law and the Prophets in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17ff.), I am thinking of the importance of discerning God’s intent behind his instruction. For example, one command is expressed as “Do not commit adultery.” The letter here, without consideration of the command’s intention, could easily be misunderstood to condone sexual misbehaviour so long as it stops short of adultery. But Jesus invites us to look beyond the letter (instruction) to its spirit (intent), and so he traces the root of the sin of adultery all the way back to entertaining lust (Matthew 5:27-28; cf. James 1:12-15). Relationally speaking, agape—which is the intent behind the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40)—calls for unconditionally willing and doing what is best for the other … seeking to bless the other, not to use or abuse them.
Does Paul speak of “qualities” or “qualifications” when he instructs Timothy and Titus about the criteria to look for when appointing bishops? A bit of both I think. And, of course, Paul’s criteria for service as a shepherd of God’s flock needs to be understood in the much broader context of a biblical theology of leadership. In that regard we reach back into the Old Testament Scriptures as well as the New Testament Scriptures for relevant principles and examples (e.g. Moses and Nehemiah, the apostles and the early church). Of primary interest would be God’s own care and leadership of his covenant people, focusing especially upon the incarnation and Jesus’ example of leadership (e.g. Matthew 4:1-11; John 10:1-18; 13:1-17; Philippians 2:5-11) as well as his teaching about leadership (e.g. Matthew 11:28-30; 18:1-4; 20:25-28).
Being a leader in God’s kingdom (where the first is last and the last is first and greatness is measured in terms of servitude) is a responsibility of stewardship, not a position of privileged power and prestige. We ought not be surprised therefore that the relevant life experience and spiritual maturity required of a congregational shepherd bears little resemblance to the credentials most would seek in selecting a modern company board member or CEO. For example, looking to discern the spirit behind the letter, I don’t think Paul’s insisting that the potential elder must be (literally) a one-woman-man who has raised obedient child(ren) is an arbitrary rule that inadvertently discriminates and excludes single men or childless husbands from eldership. It is a practical acknowledgement that successfully fulfilling the role of both faithful husband and respected father is the primary relational context in which a potential shepherd/bishop/elder is formed and refined over a period of many years. These are “qualifications” in that the man who lacks the qualities developed and demonstrated in the context of being a faithful husband and father is “disqualified” because he lacks the competence to biblically shepherd God’s people (not simply because he’s not married and/or without kids). As Paul put it, “if anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5). Conversely, one is equipped and prepared to take care of God’s church by first learning how to manage his own family well.
It seems to me that seeking to understand God’s intent (spirit) behind his instruction (letter) helps us steer a path between the extremes of libertinism and legalism and enables us to honour God’s will and purpose without rationalising it away or making it much harder than it is. What do you think?
Looking forward to seeing you all in Melbourne at the APEDS2020 Conference!
Grace and peace,