We are a generation crying wolf.
Jesus said to beware “ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Paul warned of “fierce wolves” (Acts 20:29). And for two millennia, one of our enemy’s best schemes has been to quietly infiltrate the flock with predators. There have always been wolves.
Yet our awareness of wolves, and access to their stories, is particularly acute in our times, and with it has come hair-trigger suspicion of even worthy leaders. In an effort to expose wolves in sheep’s clothing, some today imagine real shepherds to be wearing wolves’ underwear. The contagion is tragic. In the end, those who will be hurt most are the genuine victims, whose real cries for help will become harder to hear in the din of over-eager accusations.
In confused days like ours, as in every generation, we’re called afresh to take our cues from Scripture, rather than what’s trending in an unbelieving society. We need God’s word on how to watch for wolves, and we also need a positive vision of what to look for in our leaders. As the list grows longer of what to beware, do we have any corresponding clarity on what to pursue?
Three Big Categories
Into one of the great questions of our time, the risen Christ provides some bracing and clear answers. First comes his own words, while among us, in Mark 10:42–45: his leaders don’t “lord it over,” but serve. Then, we have Paul’s remarkable words to the Ephesian elders captured in Acts 20. Add Peter’s charge to “fellow elders” in 1 Peter 5. Hebrews also sounds a clarion call in its final chapter (Hebrews 13:7–8, 13). And most extensive of all, we have the letters of Paul. Especially the Pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. There, among other passages, we find the “elder qualifications” of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, where the apostle lays out a bounty of fifteen traits in each list, with the two lists largely overlapping.
We have not been left without direction.
However, sometimes we do get lost in plentiful data. In fact, we have so much guidance available for us on what makes for true, enduring, trustworthy leaders that it might help to have some simple, memorable categories to bring organizing clarity to the many details.
Consider one such effort to slice the pie into three pieces, based on the graces catalogued in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The three each start with an H (or H sound). And I’ll show the work on which specific traits go under each heading.
First and foremost comes the man before his God, that is, “in secret” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). The man is his truest self alone before God, with no human eyes watching. This is the man that family, church, and world may not see directly, but they will most definitely see him indirectly by his fruit. Over time, this man, the real man, comes out. And perhaps the chief manifestation will be a genuine, compelling humility that cannot be faked. “He must not be arrogant” (Titus 1:7).
A pastor might pretend to have first steeped his soul in hearing God’s voice in Bible meditation and having God’s ear in prayer, but he can’t pretend it for weeks on end. His spiritual thinness will manifest. The sheep will know in time.
To be clear, the humility we’re looking for here is not a virtue that a man “grows from scratch,” as if he had been born without pride and just needed to develop the opposite. Rather, he was born a sinner, with deep native conceit — and apart from the grace of God, this original pride will deepen and calcify. And God does not typically purge a man of the main roots of his pride through quiet, painless processes alone. He usually roughs him up in painful moments. He humbles him. It can be ugly. And in time, a different kind of man, by grace, emerges on the other side.
Tim Keller tells of Martyn Lloyd-Jones sitting in a gathering of older pastors who were discussing some younger preacher with extraordinary gifts:
This man was being acclaimed, and there was real hope that God could use him to renew and revive his church. The ministers were hopeful. But then one of them said to the others: “Well, all well and good, but you know, I don’t think he’s been humbled yet.” And the other ministers looked very grave.
Lloyd-Jones, says Keller, was hit hard that “unless something comes into your life that breaks you of your self-righteousness and pride, you may say you believe the gospel of grace but . . . the penny hasn’t dropped” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, 119).
Humbled to Lead and Feed
We need humbled pastors. And for most, if not all, God designs the calling process to the pastorate to be part of this humbling. Aspiring to the office is critical, as 1 Timothy 3:1 notes — because in this line of work it is vital to labor “not under compulsion” or “for shameful gain” but willingly and eagerly (1 Peter 5:2). Yet aspiration alone does not make a pastor. He also needs the affirmation over time of fellows in his local church, and then, and often most humbling, the specific real-life appointment of some local church to the office. He may aspire to pastor, but he is not yet called to pastor until some real church appoints him.
“We pray for humbled, whole, and honorable pastors who together will face the challenges that come at each local church.”
So too, under this banner of the humbled man before his Lord, comes the requirement that pastor-elders be (1) “able to teach” and (2) “sober-minded.” Christ calls his undershepherds to lead and feed the flock — that is, to govern and to teach. Which relates to the particular call of church leaders to the word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4). Faithful pastors teach God’s word, not their own preferences, and they lead prayerfully, with God-given sober-mindedness, not natural human wisdom.
Such humbled men “keep their heads” (sober-minded) in conflicted and trying times. They’re calm, settled, secure, and wise — and wise enough not to go off on their own but contribute to and receive wisdom in the context of team leadership, that is, a plurality of local pastors. And such humbled men, when matched with teaching ability (able to teach), are a powerful combination in the leading and feeding of the flock, where genuine skill and ability in teaching is required and where we do not “teach ourselves” as our subject but the stewardship of Scripture we have from Christ.
Second, then, growing out from a man’s devotional life, and life of humility before his God, is the man before those who know him best. We might say “in private.” Does he have integrity? Is he whole, the same in public and private?
One aspect of his wholeness is the broad (and beautiful) banner of self-control (prominent in 1 Timothy 3 and mentioned twice in Titus 1). Has he gained a relative, settled, and holy mastery of his own appetites and bodily passions? Does he seem, by the Spirit, to control his own gut, or is he controlled by it? Related are the two disqualifiers “not a drunkard” and “not a lover of money.”
Intimately connected with “self-control” biblically is sexual holiness and being (literally) a “one-woman man,” which is not simply a box to check (“husband of one wife”) that he’s married and not divorced. Rather, “one-woman man” presses deeper to the fidelity of the man’s soul. Is he faithful to his wife in body, mind, heart, and words? Does he care for her as Christ does for his church? As one of the pastors, he will be part of the team of leaders caring for a particular local church.
Such wholeness, then, also relates to his own household management: “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?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5). Distraction and abdication at home make him unfit for the leadership the church needs.
Finally, we have the inevitable public dimension: the man before the watching church and world. At first blush, we might find it strange that spiritual leadership relates so much to public perception and reputation, but we should keep in mind the public nature of church office. It is vital that our pastors be honorable.
The express trait that gets at this most clearly is “respectable,” that is, the man’s life and words make it easier (rather than harder) to respect him, both within the church and in the broader community. So, leading the lists in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is “above reproach.” This likely begins with Christian eyes, though it’s complemented with “outsiders” in 1 Timothy 3:7: “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
One aspect of this honorable public life is hospitality, which is literally “love of strangers.” Rather than defaulting to fear or dislike of unknown persons, he extends welcome in Christ, whether to the church or into his own home or into conversation.
One final piece of honorable public bearing is how the man carries himself in conflict and when upset. Paul says “not violent but gentle.” Gentleness is not the absence of strength, but the addition of virtue to strength. It applies strength in life-giving, rather than life-harming, ways. One last disqualifier is “not quarrelsome.” Mature Christian leaders aren’t afraid to engage when they must, but they don’t go around picking fights for sport (2 Timothy 2:24–26).
Resilient in Conflict
The nature of the Christian faith is such that good leaders are perennially important. Yet, as many of us have learned in tough times, good leaders prove even more precious in conflict. That’s the setting in both Ephesus and Crete, as Paul writes to Timothy and Titus, and it’s foregrounded in 2 Timothy 2:24–26 and in 1 Peter 5:1–5.
“Good pastors, as a local team of sober-minded teachers, shine all the brighter in tough times.”
Good pastors, as a local team of sober-minded teachers, shine all the brighter in tough times, in the times of difficulty and suffering that already were in the first century, that many face today, and that are coming in the days ahead. And so, we pray for humbled, whole, and honorable pastors who together will meet the challenges that come to each local church.
Even as our generation cries wolf, we pray and look expectantly, knowing that such worthy leaders do not emerge by accident, nor are they as rare as some may suspect. Rather, they are divine gifts, sovereignly appointed and provided, supplied by the risen Christ, for the joy and health of his church.