One of the top things that churches evaluate in pastoral candidates is a man’s character. While sadly some if not many churches look first to a pastor’s personality and charisma before evaluating his character (Joseph Umidi, Confirming the Pastoral Call, p. 53). Nevertheless, on average, churches admit that a pastoral candidate’s character is one of the top five things they are looking for. This is encouraging due to the overwhelming biblical witness to the importance of a pastor’s character.
It is vital to notice first that every Christian is expected to exhibit high character because of their calling and response to follow Christ. From the beginning of our salvation, through justification by grace through faith alone, our broken character inherited from Adam is being renewed and radically transformed by means of sanctification. In fact one glorious purpose for which we were predestined by God to become his sons and daughters is that we be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). In a real sense, our conformity to Jesus who is the perfect image of God is the reason for which we are saved. So, does personal holiness matter to God? This verse along with a more direct teaching in Hebrews answers with a resounding, “yes”. “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Scripture is clear that personal holiness is a vital component and necessity in every Christian’s life. In fact, it is what separates nominal Christians from those branches who are connected to the Vine (John 15). We are each to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
What bearing does this have on the pastor, the shepherd of the flock? Indeed, the pastor or teacher of the Word is held to an even higher standard than the flock (James 3:1). Therefore, the character of a pastor is of utmost importance. Since the pastor is not to be some distant figure who writes sermons from the solitude of some ivory tower, but rather a leader who suffers, grieves, and rejoices with his followers, his character will be on constant display and will be a mighty role in which he shepherds his flock. Many other roles of the pastor are dependent on his character and Christ-likeness. In the words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “How awful a weapon in the hand of God is a holy minister” (quoted from On Being a Pastor, Prime and Begg, Moody: Chicago, 2004).
A church body will be hesitant to heed the words from the pulpit where an immoral man is standing. The counsel from a pastor who is not striving for similar holiness will fall on deaf ears. The ministry in the community led by a pastor whose reputation is corrupted by moral compromise will fail. The entire ministry of a pastor is dependent on his commitment to the will of God of which personal holiness is of high importance (see Rom. 8:29 again).
Scripture is clear that personal holiness for a pastor is not a suggestion or merely a benefit to be received on our own terms. It is much more than this. It is necessary. It is necessary in two lights. Firstly, personal holiness (character) is necessary for a pastor in the sense that it is embedded and central in the pastoral qualifications. Secondly, personal holiness is necessary for a pastor in the sense of being a shepherd leading a flock.
Qualifications for a Pastor
Two places in Scripture we find qualifications for overseers or elders—in 1 Timothy and Titus. Paul includes many qualifications, most of which deal with a man’s character. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul instructs that an elder or pastor is to be “above reproach”, “sober-minded”, “self-controlled”, “respectable”, “hospitable”, “not a drunkard”, “not violent but gentle”, “not quarrelsome”, and “he must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil”.
Further, Paul exhorts in Titus 1:5-9 that an elder or pastor must be “above reproach”, “not arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” The other qualifications deal with a pastor’s ability to teach and defend sound doctrine and these should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice that the overwhelming aspect of a man’s worthiness to the call of pastor has to deal with his character or personal holiness. While there isn’t a pastor who will exhaustively fulfill each of these qualifications, the point is that a pastor must be pursuing greater Christ-likeness. His character must be sufficient for the task to which God calls him to—leadership of his people in the local church.
Thus a pastor’s character is of utmost importance in the evaluation of whether he is qualified to be an elder or not. In the words of Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, “the fruit of the Spirit is as important as the gifts of the Spirit in the life of a shepherd and teacher” (On Being a Pastor, p. 36). Being able to teach and preach (gifts of the Spirit) are no more important to a pastor than being able to love and exhibit self-control (fruits of the Spirit). All are gifts of God’s grace. All are necessary for ministry. But who will listen to a great teacher who has not loved nor has self-control in his personal life? We are not called to be professionals who put on a show on Sunday mornings. We are to “[fulfill] our tasks as shepherds and teachers [by] pursuing our Christian privilege and duty of knowing God better and becoming more like him” (Prime and Begg, 41).
A Shepherd Who Leads
Pastors are to be shepherds. And shepherds lead sheep—in this case, the people of God. The humbling thing about this is that we ourselves are to be followers. We are not leaders with our own agenda and kingdom, but merely agents of the Good Shepherd ultimately following his lead. We are to ask our people to follow us as we follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Again, this is an extremely humbling reality when considering the character of a pastor. I like Prime and Begg here as well: “When any Christian falls into sin, he hurts others. When a Christian leader falls into sin, he hurts many others” (38).
My heart sinks when I read that. What a task the minister of God is called to! But it is true. Paul constantly referred to his own character as something for his followers to follow. And it is clear that this wasn’t out of pride, but instead was an honest evaluation of his own character—the character of a man who was personally growing in personal holiness as he worked out his own salvation in his conformity to the image of Christ.
Here are just a few examples:
- He exhorts Timothy to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
- Paul warns the believers in Thessalonica to keep away from brothers with low character and to imitate him since he exhibited his character by not being idle among them (1 Thessalonians 3:6-7).
- And to the saints at Philippi, Paul writes for them to practice the things they had seen him do (Phil. 4:9).
Similarly, Peter exhorts elders to shepherd the flock willingly, but not domineeringly, as examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3). And if there is any motivation for this type of leading, he gives it in verse 4: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” Praise God! Shepherds are leaders and our leadership is dependent highly on our character, which is daily being conformed from one degree of glory to another into the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 3:18). To quote Prime and Begg once more: “Whatever else a shepherd and teacher provides for God’s people, he is to give them an example to follow” (36). And this example is one from a man of God who is following the God-Man, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
Pastors are shepherds, and shepherds lead, one way or another. We will either, by our lack character, lead our flock by our example into sin and destruction; or we will lead our flock as a result of our character into further obedience to Christ as we follow in the footsteps of our chief Shepherd who embodied perfect character and forgives by his blood all of our faulty character. The words of C.F. Collins sums it up for me concerning the pastor and character: “Character is everything, and character is what pastors must have—and is the very reason why any church calls them as her pastor” (H3F: A Model for Christian Living, p. 54)! May all pastors strive to be more like Him and lead the people of God in His paths—all for His glory.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.