Who is Worthy to Lead the Way?

If you have done any job searching recently then you are familiar with the long lists of “Required” and “Preferred” experiences that employers provide.  These give you a sense of the bare minimum required, as well as some idea of what may set a candidate apart.  What is incredibly frustrating is that it is very rare to find a job listing where I meet all of the required specifications and a majority of the preferred.  Inevitably, I meet half-to-most of the former and quite a bit of the latter.  Unfortunately, this quite often discourages me from even applying!!  What if I am the best candidate for that job but reading those lists–and taking the word “required” seriously–takes me out of the running without even an interview? 

Early in my life of faith, about 15 years ago, I had an interesting conversation with my father.  My father, who had 20+ years of experience as an elder and teacher in the church at the time, posed a hypothetical situation for me.  “Son, lets say that we need to expand our church’s leadership team to account for our growing membership.  Given the fact that we (as church leaders) desire to be true to the teachings in the New Testament, and specifically its description of who is qualified to be Elders (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-7), what do we do if no one fully meets the requirements?  What if they meet all but one of the listed specs for leaders but they fail to lead their family well, or they are a relatively new Christian, or they have a temper, or they are divorced and remarried?  Do we choose the best available or do we wait until the proper candidate comes along?”  If no one meets all the criteria then must we confess that “No one is worthy to lead!”?

To take the matter a step further, what if we assume that the list Paul provides to Timothy was meant to be interpreted as a guide, a list of preferences rather than requirements? If that be the case then are there portions of the list that are of greater relevance than others? Are any of them deal-breakers or is it simply a matter of personal preference and prayer? What’s the criteria for deciding which item should be ranked higher on the list?  Whether he knew it or not, my Father had stumbled upon a crucial dilemma for Evangelical Christians, for at the heart of my Father’s question lies the uneasy marriage of the Evangelical’s desire to be “true to the Word” (matters of interpretation & the moral life) and the messy realities of life (sin, loss & redemption).

Over the past 15 years I have discovered that Evangelicals are perversely preoccupied with this question of “Who is Worthy?” and we ask it in a multitude of ways.

As an academic, I attended a national conference of Evangelical scholars, a theological society if you will.  Nearly every one of the 7 years that I attended these conferences there was a (disturbingly large) minority of members that banded together to ask the Society to redefine who should be a part of this group and who should not.  Their rationale for this behavior was invariably their concern for preserving the faith from heresy (false beliefs), they were concerned with being true to the Word. But this kind of behavior, unchecked, only leads to one person, alone, standing on their soapbox preaching to no one. So the question is raised: What beliefs make one worthy?

For that matter, what makes one worthy to serve in the church in general? If you are a convicted felon can you no longer teach Sunday School?  If you suffer a divorce can you no longer lead worship? If you physically assault someone can you ever lead the youth again? If you are a pastor who steals from your church can you ever lead again? What about adultery, lust, serious doubts about the faith, depression….

The only answer to the question “Who is Worthy?” is: NO ONE IS WORTHY. What is needed is a little perspective.

I recall with incredible clarity the first time that I was called upon to preach in my college church.  As the day approached I had my sermon completed and knew what I wanted to say but an overwhelming feeling of unease settled over me.  It was dawning upon me that I was about to stand in front a room of my peers and pretend to proclaim a Word from God that they should heed.  Who was I to proclaim such a thing?  In a panic I phoned a close friend and mentor, and in a panic-induced sweat proclaimed that I was unfit to do this thing and begged him to replace me on Sunday.  I was too dirty, too shameful, too unworthy.

His response was simple but loaded with perspective.  He said, “If every preacher had to be worthy then no one would do it.  Own up to your failings as a man, beg their forgiveness, and lead with humility.”  And that is it in a nutshell folks.  Perspective.  That cold cup of reality-water dumped on our sleep-addled holier-than-thou heads.  At the intersection of your desire to be true to your faith and the filthiness of being human you should find a bright neon sign that says “Welcome to Perspective.”

After fifteen years, my biggest disappointment with Christianity it too often lacks perspective.  Do you remember when you came to your faith?  You came with a sense of your failings and need for something bigger than you to redeem you; you needed to be made new.  Then you were taught that the Christian life is a slow but steady growth that involves striving for godliness, failing, confessing, being renewed, and back to striving for godliness.  If we know that being a Christian, being human for that matter, involves failure then why do we allow failure to preclude certain kinds of service?  Abraham gave his wife up to Pharaoh to avoid trouble and yet was seen as having a faith that is in some way exemplary.  Jacob is the father of the 12 tribes and yet was a deceiving, double-crossing schemer.  Faith is believing in things unseen yet Gideon is listed in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, even though he needed to see proof of God’s promise.  God didn’t let David build his temple because of the blood on his hands, but his son was allowed to and he turned out to be a polygamist who defied the requirements of a king, as laid down in Deuteronomy.

My point is this: If we are to believe that God used that messiness in the Old Testament (and I barely scratched the surface there) then how can we be so quick to eliminate people who are willing and able to serve on account of their failings?  We began seeking redemption and somewhere lost redemption and replaced it with a trumped up false morality.  Where is the morality in finding no place for redemption and reconciliation post conversion?

I often compare the Christian life to that of a blue chip stock. Blue Chip stocks can be counted on for a life-cycle of slow but steady growth.  Over a 40 year period you can have confidence that it will be more valuable than when you purchased it.  However, that line of growth is never a straight line.  There will be periods of decline and periods of growth. Some will be great and some will be small.  But you don’t react to a negative month, quarter, or year and sell your blue chip stock; you hang on to it, sure in the knowledge that it has value and will rebound to greater heights.

So, I ask you the reader, why do we sell off our Christian workers when they hit a period of decline, a bump in their road?  Unfortunately, there are too many divorcees who aren’t being allowed to lead anything, convicted felons who can never redeem themselves enough to look out for our children, people who have been unfaithful never again allowed to mentor our teens.  Sure, the church still has a place for them, it’s called the back row.  Such a shame.

If you happen to be in a church that has a program of reconciliation and redemption for its leaders then I invite you to share your stories to balance out my observations here. Signs of a healthy church  and a mature perspective are always welcome.

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