We live in a day and age when character means very little to most people. By the term “character,” I’m referring to the moral strength of an individual. Character therefore centers on whether a person is honest or dishonest, self-controlled or given to excess, diligent or lazy, trustworthy or deceitful. Sadly, our culture has become a society that favors one’s abilities over their character.
For example, in 1998, news broke of an illicit extra-marital affair between President Bill Clinton and a twenty-two year old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The adulterous scandal ultimately led to President Clinton’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives. But one of the greatest tragedies surrounding the entire event was the public opinion of American citizens. It appeared that for nearly half, if not more than half, of all Americans were not concerned over President Clinton’s glaring lack of character. Their attitude was basically this: “As long as he can get his job done, we don’t care what he’s like as a person.” In short, Clinton’s abilities eclipsed his character. For many Americans, they did not see any connection between Clinton’s disposition and how that would affect his leadership of the nation. They affirmed: “What he does in ‘private’ has no bearing on what he does in the ‘public.’ ”
But if a married man betrays the single greatest trust he has on earth – namely, the marriage-covenant with his wife – then how can he still be trusted to lead a nation with integrity? The question answers itself. Yet when Bill Clinton left the presidential office in January 2001, his approval rating as president was at an all-time high of 68%!
There’s something terribly wrong with this picture. Our American culture does not esteem having strong moral character as necessary for effective leadership – much less anything else. What is praised is how talented and gifted and smart and attractive one is, as opposed to how honest and trustworthy they are.
However, what’s even more disconcerting than this hard fact, is that this way of thinking has infected much of the church. Observing this rising bias among evangelicals, David Hegg wrote: “It seems in our day that talent, and more to the point, spiritual productivity (e.g., getting the job done in a way that ‘blesses’ people, and brings them back) carries vastly more weight than the personal character of the man when it comes to affirming a man for pastoral ministry.” Adding to Pastor Hegg’s observation, we could also say that if a man possesses a PhD, holds a record of building large churches, has potentially written a best-selling book, and has a growing reputation as a sought after conference speaker – then whatever he is as a man is irrelevant, when considering him as a pastor. And of course for most churches, as long as a man is a “good preacher” and will visit the sick, then what he is in his character is a moot point.
But in spite of where so many churches overlook character for abilities when choosing a man for pastoral leadership; yet the most pressing question in the face of this, is whether God values a man’s abilities for ministry more than his character? Answering this question, I quote again from David Hegg: “God makes the man, and extends to him the gifts and graces necessary. To determine that a particular man is necessary to the Kingdom regardless of known character flaws, is to forget that God can raise up all the men He wants. He is not so in need of [preachers] that He can be forced by man’s indiscretion to use those whose character is lacking. We must never forget that should He so desire, [God] can draft the rocks and cause them to cry out! Character matters, and it is a man’s character that forms the foundation of his ministry because it gives credibility to his message. While great talent and ministerial ability are necessary, they are not sufficient. Where personal integrity and godly character are lacking, no amount of brilliance can compensate. As Robert Murray McCheyne so [aptly] put it: ‘It is not great gifts that God blesses so much as it is great likeness to Christ.’ ”
The bottom line is this: By God’s standard, proven character is a prelude to ministerial position. This is why the Apostle Paul admonished Timothy to only develop and disciple “faithful men” for pastoral leadership (2 Timothy 2:2). To enter therefore the service of Christ as a leader in the church without approved character is dangerous to the man and the church. Consequently, it is hypocritical to proclaim a message with your words that is not matched by your life. A fruitful ministry and a healthy church is thus dependent upon the godly character of its leaders.