Character Matters Because Character Matters

Over the last several years, the American evangelical church has faced a catastrophic credibility crisis. It seems like every day brings word of some kind of evil perpetrated by a church leader. It is heartbreaking and, honestly, infuriating. I hate that we’ve come to this place—that we’ve reached a crisis point that was entirely preventable.

But how did we get here? We forgot what makes a leader a true leader.

What Does it Mean to be a Leader?

Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of the “leadership” category of books and resources. I find most books of this sort are more or less dressed-up self-help books. (Another type of which I’m not the biggest fan.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t valid truths within them. For example, I agree with John Maxwell’s description of leadership as exercising influence. Beyond the activities leaders perform, that’s what leadership is about.

This means that leadership is others-focused. Good leaders inspire and lead less from positional authority (assuming they have any at all) and more from their example—from who they are. They are credible. But to be credible requires personal investment; self-leadership, if you will. A willingness to carefully consider their blindspots, and to judge with right judgment rather than outward appearances (John 7:24).

In other words, if you aspire to be a leader, you need to be concerned about your character.

What Matters Most About a Leader?

Paul got this. I don’t think it was an accident that he so heavily emphasized character as the key qualification for a Christian leader, particularly a pastor or elder. Remember that in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, of the roughly 14 characteristics Paul outlined, only one had anything to do with skills. An overseer must be able to teach. But all the rest—even the somewhat contentious “husband of one wife” one—all have to do with character.

Why? Because a person can be the most gifted charismatic communicator or visionary whatever people who call themselves visionaries do, and it won’t matter a hill of beans. Why? Because character matters most. A Christian leader, especially in the church, “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2 NET).

The Value We Don’t Really Value

Yet, with every report of a new scandal, with every euphemistic utterance of the words “moral failure,” I’m forced to ask if we really believe it. And I don’t like the answer.

As tempted as we might be to look at this problem from an “us vs them” perspective—complementation vs egalitarian, charismatic vs cessationist, or whatever else you can think of—to do so is too simplistic. These scandals transcend our theological distinctives and areas of disagreement. No matter our theological convictions, we have all fallen short in this area—of neglecting the most important aspect of what it means to be a leader in the church and allowing individuals who have no business being in any form of leadership to gain and maintain influence. We focus on the superficial—on oratory skills and charisma. We follow our own desires and find teachers for ourselves who will tell us whatever we want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). Instead of avoiding those who have the appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5), we make them our pastors.

We create celebrities when what we need are shepherds. We neglect the more important matters; what a person is truly like. We forsake the standard we should hold dear, the standard that is there to protect us from the very issues we face right now.

The Hard Work of Beginning to Restore Credibility

Make no mistake: when people describe the American evangelical church’s credibility crisis as a crisis, they are not overselling it. It isn’t sensationalism; it is reality. But restoring credibility is possible. But it won’t be easy. So how do we do it? I think it starts here:

Abandon celebrity-ism.

We should show our leaders respect and honor, without question. But respecting and honoring our leaders requires us to know them. To have a relationship with them. But do you know who we don’t have relationships with? Celebrities. But church leaders are not celebrities who sit above the rest of the church, and we should not treat them as such. They are not the Lord’s anointed against whom no hand should be raised (1 Samuel 24:6). They are not rock stars, isolated from the rest of the congregation in a green room.

Reject euphemisms for sin.

While I realize there are times when naming a specific sin isn’t possible, this should be the exception rather than the norm. This is the main problem I have with phrases like “moral failure.” It’s the euphemism we often use to pretty up sexual sin. It’s used as a junk drawer for everything from committing adultery to the most horrific acts you can imagine. But here’s the thing: people don’t passively have moral failures. They sin. Sometimes, those sins are crimes. “Moral failure” obfuscates; it creates ambiguity where there is clarity, which allows sin to remain in darkness. But we are called to bring sin into the light—to expose it (Ephesians 5:11-13). If we care about restoring credibility, we must reject euphemisms and be people who live in the light, as people who have nothing to hide because we have nothing to hide.

Refuse cheap grace.

Grace is real and beautiful. It is a wonderful gift to the undeserving (which is all of us). But it isn’t gracious to wave a hand every time a church leader sins saying, “Who among us hasn’t…?” That is a sin. It minimizes the severity of sin and the importance of a leader’s qualifications. It is a sin to allow a disqualified leader to continue to serve (and doubly so to allow that person to determine his own qualification). Instead, we must hold our leaders to the standard to which they are called in the ways that Scripture calls us to. And when leaders are guilty of sin, we are to rebuke them in the presence of all as a warning to all (1 Timothy 5:19-20). And why do we do it? Because character matters.

And that’s the point. The American evangelical church’s credibility crisis is a character crisis. But character matters—and character matters because character matters. It matters to God, to our communities, and to the world. And we need to stop pretending that it doesn’t.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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