In recent days, the evangelical church in North America has been particularly cognizant of scandal within her walls: allegations and confirmations and stories of abuses of various kinds have been streaming forth from our newspapers and social media newsfeeds. With that in mind, I daresay it is not a far-fetched presumption that many American Christians have been pondering—negatively—what it is that our churches’ leadership are lacking, and—positively—what it is that our churches’ leadership are needing. And while the practical responses to this are sundry, fundamentally, we are reminded that this is no new problem, but an age-old problem. And this age-old problem would be greatly helped by an ancient solution. A Scriptural solution. What our churches need is godliness, and specifically, godliness in leadership.
Cultivating Healthy Churches
One of the overarching goals of the Gospel Reformation Network is to cultivate healthy Reformed churches. To that end, the GRN has identified 14 attributes or commitments, wedded in 7 couplets (listed here on our website) which we believe to be essential attributes in the life of any congregation if it is to be a truly healthy church. One of those attributes is Godly Leadership.
Biblical Churches Need Leaders
More than simply mitigating against embarrassing public scandals and crises, leaders are essential to the identity and constitution of the church because that is how the church’s Lord, Jesus Christ, has instituted her. Leaders of the church are not incidental, they are intrinsic. The Lord Jesus, through the authoritative ministry of his apostles commanded for leaders (elders) to be established in local churches for the churches’ oversight, care, and governance. The apostles themselves appointed ministers and ordained men to the office of elder (Acts 14:23). Elders are later called overseers of the flock (Acts 20:28), stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1-2), shepherds (1 Pet. 5:3), and ambassadors entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20). They are preachers sent to proclaim the good news (Rom. 10:14) and teachers of the deep things of God (Gal. 6:6). And if the church of Jesus Christ is to be of long-term benefit before the watching world—positively and proactively witnessing, not just retroactively reacting—it is essential that her leaders be godly.
Healthy Churches Need Godly Leaders
Desiring more than a biblical bare minimum to meet the existential qualities of a church, we would hope to aim a little more ambitiously: for our land to be chock-full of healthy churches. Scriptural churches. Vital and flourishing churches. Churches that are filled with the fragrance of Christ and the characteristics of his evident presence among them. And so, more than mere churches, we would desire healthy churches. Likewise, more than mere leaders—men who simply happen to be in positions of authority—we would desire godly leaders.
You’ll notice that in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, as Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers (elders), he places a great premium and lion’s share of qualifications on character more than capability; tenor of life more than talent.
Note I Timothy 3:1 and following:
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Yes, the elder must be able to teach, and an able ministry of the Word is greatly used of the Lord. But such a teaching ministry is not well buttressed—indeed it is undermined!—where godliness is absent. Paul heaps descriptor after descriptor upon Timothy as he articulates the qualities that ought to be evident in a church’s leadership: Above reproach, respectable, hospitable, not a drunkard, not quarrelsome, gentle, etc. The great majority of these qualifications are not so much on what an elder does, but on what he is.
We must not discount the necessary practical elements that must be in place. We would not be naïve and presume that we could mitigate every sinful misdeed with simply enough virtue. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul seemed to understand that scandal and disrepute have a way of withering in places where godliness abounds.
Godliness is essential to a healthy leadership; healthy leadership is intrinsic to a biblically healthy church.
Scripture itself tells us the instrumental usefulness that leaders’ godliness can and will have on a congregation. Paul writes in I Timothy 4:7 and following:
Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. …Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Scripture and life experience would teach us that, by and large, God is pleased to bless the ministries and labors of those who are consecrated to his service—where godliness abounds, there too, would fruit abound.
We’ve already seen in the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to Timothy that the elder would do well to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…[to] practice these things, immerse yourself in them…” (I Timothy 4:12, 15).
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously declared:
In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument will be its success…It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.
In other words: do we want to see a flourishing of godliness amongst the saints of God under our charge? Then let us both preach and live in such a way that godliness cannot go unnoticed.
Model it, brethren! Be an example of godliness and it will inevitably be brought to bear on the lives of your people. They will imitate you as you imitate Christ. This is not a pragmatic, postmodern methodology. This is Scripture (I Corinthians 11:1). If we want godliness in the pews, we must first have godliness in the elders’ chairs. As goes the leadership, so goes the congregation.
May godliness abound in your eldership: model it unabashedly, for the glory of God and for the flourishing of God’s people in our day.