Why character surpasses professionalism (1 Timothy 3)

(Note – This is a post that was supposed to have been put up on 5/18, but did not get sent. We are putting it out there to have in our collection of devotionals and themes in our library of such.)

What makes a great leader?  It’s probably tempting to think of a leader in terms of their accomplishments or their skill set.  It’s about metrics; it’s about performance.  But it’s not the case for everyone.

Some years ago Jim Collins published a famous book on leadership called Good to Great.  He found that the CEO’s and great leaders of the business world were rarely great visionary leaders. Usually they were quiet, humble men who found something they were good at—and kept on doing it.

In a way, it’s not terribly different for Christian leadership.  Paul, writing to the young pastor Timothy, clarifies that leadership isn’t driven by performance, but by character.  He does this by listing the qualifications for elders as well as deacons.


First, Paul addresses the “office of overseer,” which we might broadly see as referring to the shepherds of the Church—the “elder-level” positions we looked at earlier including elders, pastors, and bishops.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

When we look through this list, we don’t find a lengthy set of job skills.  What we find is an ethical portrait of a leader.  God’s leaders are not meant to be “professional;” they are meant to be Godly.  So this list has more to do with a leader’s heart than what a leader achieves.  The only actual skill listed, in fact, is the ability to teach (v. 2), but even that might look different in, say, children’s ministry versus high school youth group versus a Sunday sermon.


Paul lists a similar set of moral characteristics for those serving in the church more broadly—that is, the deacons:

8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Now, at Tri-State Fellowship we don’t have men and women who bear the title of “deacon.”  But we have many people who serve in lay leadership as high school youth leaders, children’s ministry volunteers, serving in our hospitality team, musicians for our Sunday service, not to mention the wide variety of volunteers for outreach projects, etc.  We might see different levels of expectations for such diverse positions, but it’s our greater hope that we see all leaders of the church reflect the character of the Son.


Here’s where the rubber meets the road.  Every year we ask the members of Tri-State Fellowship to “affirm” our elders.  This is not a performance review.  What we do is we hand out a ballot with a list of our elders on it.  Members may either vote “yes” or “no” as to whether they affirm our elder board.  Why might you vote “no?”  Well, again, it’s tempting to evaluate Christian leaders based on their accomplishments.  But as we’ve just seen, God is more interested in Godliness than professionalism. If you knew that one of our elders was involved in something shady—an affair, an addiction, any sort of unrepentant sin—then this would be a reason to vote “no.”  In other cases, we might vote “no” if we see elders whose households and families are in disarray—and we recognize their greater responsibility toward their own household.

One of the hardest things about this is understanding how we can evaluate people as being “blameless” as Paul says in verse 10.  Who among us is blameless?  The answer, of course, is no one.  The gospel isn’t about being perfect, but it’s about allowing ourselves to be shaped as we continue our journey of faith.  Being “blameless” isn’t about perfection—though it is about maturity.

This is a helpful remedy for those who have been the recipients (or even victims) of unhealthy, ungodly leadership.  Moral character is necessary not because we’re raising an organization of professionals, but because the church, the body of Christ, is a living breathing organism.  The health of the body depends on the health of all its members.  Where sin exists, dis-order flourishes.

All of this means that one of the greatest ways to honor and serve church leaders—not just pastors, but everyone who serves the church—is through prayer.  And I don’t mean praying for shorter sermons, but praying that our leaders would lean into the grace of God rather than their own understanding, that they measure themselves not by the opinion of those they serve (which can be damaging), but according to the grace of God alone.


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