Christian leaders must be people of character.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 July 2022

The only biblical qualification for Christian leadership is good character.

Yeah, I know; churches pick and qualify leaders for all sorts of other reasons. Usually for two reasons: They’re willing, and they’re able.

Willing means they actually wanna minister. Because so few Christians do! Or they may want to, but they’re timid, or don’t think they’re ready (sometimes for good reason), or they’re already super busy with other stuff… or to be honest, they like the idea of pitching in, but gah, the commitment. Now you gotta actually be at the Sunday morning services every single week; you can’t just decide, “Y’know, I’m taking this Sunday off to sleep in like a pagan,” because now you obligated yourself. Don’t you feel dumb.

Able means you can actually do the job. If the task is to run a Sunday school class, you actually know how to keep the kids’ attention, maintain order, and legitimately teach them something. Or, y’know, you know how to stand back and stream the video which does all the teaching for you, and be available in case any of the kids made a boom-boom in their pants—or know how to text their parents. The way some churches work, the “job” might be something a chimpanzee with a hammer could do… but hey, so can you!

But even if your church throws up their hands, contacts the zoo, and gets that chimpanzee: According to the scriptures, that chimp had better have good character. Otherwise she’s not qualified to minister whatsoever. And neither is any willing ’n able human who wants the job.

Character matters. Always has. Because when your leaders have bad character, you can’t trust ’em. They’ll be hypocrites and lie to cover up their misbehavior. They’ll break laws, get the other leaders to back ’em up, and take the entire church down with them. They’ll seize power and exploit people. They’ll abuse them, manipulate them, rob them of their time and money and dignity, and give ’em the worst advice about how to follow Jesus. In fact characterless leaders would much rather have you follow them than Jesus. And when you won’t—when you no longer serve their purposes or their lusts—they’ll threaten you with hell, drive you out of the church, or even convince you to quit Jesus. Because they’ll get you to believe Jesus is sending you to hell; or at least that Jesus is immoral, because how could a good Lord permit such evil people to run his churches?

Character used to matter in other positions of leadership as well. Namely secular leaders: The heads of corporations, the people who run clubs and civic organizations, the people we elect to office. Unfortunately, our larger society seems to have forgotten why character matters, and figure it’s more important to put people with talent and skill—capable people—in charge. ’Cause these folks get stuff done, and isn’t that what we want? And while yes, it’d be nice if our leaders were actually competent… you realize what happens when you put an evil but capable person in charge? You get even more evil, y’know.

Churches want capable people to lead ministries. I don’t blame ’em; it makes sense! So when they pick leaders, they tend to go with people with skills and talents. You want a pastor who’s taken counseling classes and knows how to empathetically guide and pray for lost and wayward people. You want a preacher who knows how to correctly research the bible, present a practical lecture on the findings, and not bore the listeners to sleep. You want musicians who can play an instrument well, remember the spotlight is supposed to be on Jesus not them, and grows in ability instead of playing the same 20 songs and nothing else. You want a facilities manager who knows how to keep the building in good, working condition. You want janitors who realize the little kids of your church touch everything, so make it clean! There oughta be job descriptions and expectations, and degrees and certificates where appropriate. And of course all of them need to believe your church’s faith statement, ’cause everybody who works for a church is gonna be seen as a leader, and therefore oughta know Jesus and his gospel, and basic doctrine.

But without good character, their skills and talents aren’t gonna contribute to God’s kingdom. They’re gonna use those abilities only to further themselves. At the expense of God’s kingdom.

“Benign” characterless leaders.

I’ve been in churches which had leaders of bad character. It happens. Even when the churches totally don’t mean to put such people in charge: The leader just happened to be a really convincing liar, and looked so good, people never bothered to double-check with the Holy Spirit. Happens all the time. Happened to Joshua ben Nun, when the people of Gibeon tricked him into thinking they lived much farther away. Js 9.12-16 Frauds can look perfect for the job… until they begin to prey on the church.

So yep, there have been thieves. Serial adulterers. People who shirked their duties, or made huge errors of judgment, then lied to cover it up. Leaders with little to no spiritual maturity; in my experience, most of these have been pastors’ kids who weren’t at all ready for leadership, but their parents insisted. Or artists who had undeniable talent, but talent ain’t character.

Now a lot of the leaders with bad character, don’t take the position planning to do evil. They’re not plotting, “Once they make me the youth pastor, I’m gonna befriend all the teenage girls!” (Well usually not. I use this example ’cause I knew this one guy… who lost his job pretty quickly once they saw what a horndog he was. He’s hardly the only one; just lousy at hiding it.) They plan to do their job, do it competently, and stay there long enough to get decent references for their next job… or who knows?—maybe they’ll love the job and stick around.

And then temptation happens.

Because it just does. Temptation is part of life, folks. All sorts of things in life are gonna try to get us to react wrongly to them. But when you’re involved in spiritual leadership of any sort, you’re definitely gonna get tempted, because many people have a vested interest in seeing you fail. Evil people wanna knock you down, either to get you out of the way, corrupt you for their own purposes, or mock you after you’ve fallen. Evil spirits do too—and evil spirits get way too much blame for Christian failings. Because Christians of good character can easily defeat evil spirits. But Christians of poor character aren’t gonna bother: They don’t think, “Resist temptation,” but “How can I get away with it?” Then try to get away with it.

A Christian is always gonna get tempted. Always. It’s inevitable. So we shouldn’t be surprised when Christian leaders get tempted too. And y’notice we’re regularly surprised when they embrace temptations, and are found out. They’re in leadership; shouldn’t they know better? But when we permit Christians without character to be leaders in the first place—and we regularly do—this should come as no surprise at all.

The only reason Christians are still surprised by this, is because Christians keep aping the trends of popular culture, of business, and of politics. Too many of us densely don’t care that character matters. It’s the only thing mandatory; not talent. Not pesonal charisma. Not the number of people one can draw to our Sunday morning services. Not how much money one can raise. Not fame. Not academic qualifications. Not the length of time one’s been Christian. Not parentage, not personal connections, not friends, not the number of people who vote for them, not one’s number of Twitter followers. Character.

Christian leaders without character, who were hired because they’re competent but aren’t necessarily all that moral, aren’t gonna remain benign for long. Power corrupts. Heck, power can corrupt even Christians of good character; what chance does a Christian of no character have? They’ll be fine in the position for a little while, but something’s invariably gonna trip them up. And then another. And depending on how much the church is willing to overlook (and some of us overlook some egregious things!), these failings are gonna escalate to the point of scandal. Hopefully nothing more than a minor scandal, and the church realizes its mistake and takes ’em out of leadership. But I’ve seen churches split apart, or close their doors, over such people. Happens way too often.

Mature Christians only.

Acts 6.1-6 ESV
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

The above passage is about the first Christians and their food bank. When people were needy, they fed ’em. But the “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Christians) were complaining the “Hebrews” (Aramaic-speaking Christians) weren’t adequately feeding their widows. Maybe it was bigotry; maybe they honestly couldn’t understand requests made in Greek. Either way the Twelve didn’t want to drop what they were doing to supervise it themselves. So they said, “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” In other words—duh—good character.

Now, were these guys running churches or ministries or giant charitable programs? Well it was a large church, but all they really did was “wait tables,” as the Twelve put it: They simply served the needy. The Greek word for serve is διακονέω/diakonéo, from which we get our word “deacon.” We’ve turned that into a grand title for church board members, but in the bible it only means a servant.

But still: In God’s kingdom, servants are leaders, and leaders are servants. And servant-leaders must still be people of good character.

So if you’re gonna pick servant-leaders, you’re gonna want to choose them from among your church’s elders, the spiritually mature Christians who produce good fruit—and whom you know produces good fruit, and really whom everyone knows produces good fruit, whether they’re in your church or outside. Tt 2.2

Yes, outside: If the people of your city thinks one of your “elders” is a real jerk, they’re disqualified. I’m not kidding. That’s bible, folks. Your elders have to exhibit good character to everyone, not just fellow Christians, and if they’re kind to fellow Christians but asses to everyone else, I’m gonna quote Jesus here: “What good is that?” Mt 5.46 Too many Christians make exceptions for inconsistent people like this, on the grounds that they’re nice to them… and shouldn’t the world hate us? But the world should only hate Christians for no reason, same as the people who hate Jesus. Jn 15.25 Never give ’em reasons!

When you look up the scriptures’ qualifications for leadership, whether elders/presbyters, deacons, or pastors/bishops, all of them list character. Not skillsets, not degrees; surprisingly, not even orthodoxy! They stick to character. Not that leaders shouldn’t be orthodox, have skillsets, and sometimes have degrees, but that’s just commonsense. (Commonsense certain churches seem to lack, but that’s another rant.) But what might not occur to people—same as it’s not occurred to a lot of churches these days—is character matters. Matters a lot. Never appoint leaders who lack it.