The second, and far more serious problem, is that we focus on skills rather than character in our training. As I read Paul’s criteria for ‘overseers’ in 1 Timothy 3 I am struck by how they are all about character. There is only one that refers to an ability – able to teach. Even then it doesn’t say that they have to be very good at it, just able to do it. Recently someone described me as a ‘godly man’ in a public meeting. This description jarred with me because I had never met him before, he knew nothing about me, all he was basing his assessment on was one sermon of mine he had just listened to. Now maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Yet I suspect that it was an unintentional reflection of our culture. We evaluate someone’s character by their abilities.
And so our culture almost always places ability way above character. The chat I had with the Registrar in Chennai mostly revolved around this issue. I can see how difficult it is to focus on character in a college – how do you do an exam or essay on character? Where is the pass / fail boundary? But being difficult to assess is no excuse for ignoring it. According to the Scriptures it is the MAIN thing. Here, especially, churches take just as much blame as Bible colleges. This is a problem that runs right through the culture today. When churches interview they always look for gifting first. I was on the ‘phone to a friend today who was seeking help in tracking down some references. I was able to point him to people who could provide that for him. As we chatted on the ‘phone he admitted mistakes from the past when references have been ignored or over-looked. But if character is the most important thing then surely this should be key to the selection process, not a mere after thought?
I remember one interview where a candidate got a little upset when I asked a personal question about his marriage. It is quite possible that I could have asked it more sensitively. But it was only one question after lots of others. If Paul says that the way we tell if someone is suitable for church leadership is by looking at their marriage and parenting then why is it rude to ask one question about it?
Again and again this came up in India. Character is not addressed during training and once out of college there is no structural mechanism to watch and develop the character of church leaders. What is the point of knowing Greek and Hebrew if the heart is not serving the Lord? (Now do you see why this post came after the last one?)
It is common for church conferences to refer to the crisis of leadership within the evangelical church. That is true, but it is not always recognised that leadership is primarily (not only, but primarily) about character. Knowing the right thing to do requires biblical wisdom. In my experience that is hard, but nowhere near as hard as having the character to do the right thing… And both pale in to insignificance compared to having the character to lead a whole church to do the right thing!
I was really encouraged by some of the training initiatives I saw in India. Pastor Joshua’s Timothy Training Initiative is exactly what is needed. Personal accountability and 1-2-1 mentoring as well as teaching information and skills. These kind of initiatives need to be simply expected as normal both in colleges and in churches.
What I loved about some of the Pentecostal ministry I saw in Sri Lanka and India is that it expects the gospel to ‘work’. If the gospel is true then it should make a difference to my life. And why should I believe someone about the gospel if it doesn’t make a difference to their life? The same attitude applies to healing and demonic forces. I witnessed a simple (not naive) willingness to take God at his Word. I would make a terrible hair-restorer salesman (because I’ve not got much hair … On the top of my head at least). So similarly is it really surprising that most British people do not want to follow Church leaders when the gospel seems to make so little difference to our lives?
After my last post some might be wondering how it is possible to focus on character AND provide in-depth academic training. Won’t colleges need to drop courses on homiletics and systematic theology? In short, no. This is not so much about content as culture. Not so much what as how. When we lived in Sydney I was very impressed by the culture the then Principal, David Cook, had created at Sydney Missionary & Bible College (SMBC). All lecturers were expected to preach and be involved in local churches regularly. All staff and students went on a mission trip (around Australia or overseas) every year. I’m sure that some lecturers would hate that – ‘but I’m not gifted to preach!?’ Yes, but you don’t have to be brilliant; and you don’t have to do it a lot. Nevertheless this models that the church is the main game; that the point of studying theology is to apply it to the church. I don’t expect lecturers to have the gifts to make excellent Pastors or Sunday School teachers. We need men and women who do the technical study in order to resource the church. But we must never forget that is why we need theologians. What is the point of any lecture if it is does not train people for gospel ministry? According to the Bible the church is God’s main agent of reconciliation in a needy world. There is no plan B. That does not mean that everyone should work for a church. Christians can serve Christ in the secular work place and in the charity sector etc. But they do so as members of Christ’s body, the church. So many parachurch organisations give the impression (maybe unintentionally) that what they do is really the most important thing, and that the church is really holding them back. Which is a bit like saying that my marriage would be perfect if only my wife got more with the program.
We need to recover the notion of catechism from the early church. Didactic teaching goes hand in hand with 1-2-1 discipleship. And this does not stop once we finish our formal training. Once Christians are appointed to any position of leadership within the church the need for training (in wisdom and character) increases, it does not stop. I have been very grateful for the mentors I have had throughout my ministry. A big thank you to Colin Sedgwick who has been doing that job over the past three years but now he has moved to Nottingham I am looking for a new one.
I have been really convicted about this while I’ve been away. I have no political influence in theological colleges (and so it is easy for me to criticise 🙂 ) but I can try to model this in my own church. In the future I want to spend more time focusing on raising up godly leaders. It is the height of hypocrisy to complain about this if I’m not doing all I can to develop this kind of culture.
Later I will make some practical suggestions from what I have learnt while away in Sri Lanka and India…