Character and Leadership

By James M. Rochford

All Christian leaders will sooner or later experience the “spiritual high” of making an influence for God. This is not altogether a bad thing. Christ promised happiness and joy from serving him and others (Jn. 13:17; Acts 20:35). However, this can become an end in itself if we’re not careful, and all of us are susceptible to such a danger.

Slowly but surely, following Christ becomes more about seeing fruit, than it is about being faithful. Often fruitfulness and faithfulness go hand in hand, but not always. Paul writes, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9). Sometimes God will call us to be faithful—even when we don’t see the fruit of our work. Like Isaiah or Jeremiah, we might preach our entire lives without seeing any visible fruit. More likely, we will go through periods where fruit is tangible, and times where it isn’t (cf. 2 Tim. 4:2).

The danger of Christian leadership is confusing fruit with faithfulness to Christ. It’s quite possible for God to use you—even when you aren’t close with him at all. Christ even uses non-Christians to perform miracles on others (Mt. 7:22), and yet, he says, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Mt. 7:23). This is a sobering passage for the highly influential believer, who may confuse spiritual fruit with being close with Christ. Even though Christ is using us powerfully, this does not necessarily mean that we are spiritually minded or even close with him at all.

We’ve seen many gifted and charismatic leaders make a huge impact for Christ. Yet they lacked character. Like the flash and bang of a firework in the night sky, they impressed people momentarily, but their effect for Christ wasn’t long lasting. While gifting and charisma are like the muscle or appearance of a spiritual person, character is like the backbone. There is a real danger that a person could overdevelop their gifts and influence for Christ, without developing the necessary backbone of character to support them. Like a bodybuilder using steroids, they look strong on the outside, until one of their bones snap in half under the stress of the barbell! The results are painful and gruesome to watch.

Leaders who haven’t developed character aren’t influential in the long run. Sometimes they crash and burn, being exposed for having a secret double life on the side—a mistress, a drug habit, or even worse! Examples of these leaders could be multiplied. Since they are living for the next spiritual high, they will often manufacture something that stimulates them, instead of waiting patiently on God.

Other leaders without character will not have a secret double life on the side. Instead, they will throw themselves harder and harder into the ministry, looking to manufacture results. Instead of waiting on God to produce the fruit (1 Cor. 3:5-10), they will browbeat or intimidate people to make something happen—not “playing according to the rules” that God gives for Christian leadership (2 Tim. 2:5). Because they lack character, this replicates in the people who follow them, resulting in disaster.

To all those with spiritual gifts: beware! Like King David, you can find yourself being disqualified from serving God, because you lacked the discipline of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Could this happen to you? Why not? What makes you any different from the failed Christian leaders before you?

Character qualities of Christian leaders

While leaders need to be able to functionally lead the church (1 Tim. 5:17), this isn’t Paul’s emphasis in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Instead, he focuses on character and stability. Consider the qualities he gives for elders and deacons in the church:

1. Above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6-7)

Anepilempton (pronounced ah-nep-PEE-lem-ton; 1 Tim. 3:2) means “unaccusable.” Anegkletos (pronounced ah-NEG-lay-toss; Titus 1:6-7) is similar, meaning “unreprovable.” In other words, Christian leaders are not to have any flagrant sin that people could use against them. This also implies a long track record of loving others in ministry. It means that we have earned people’s trust.

Clearly, this does not mean that a leader could not be accused of absolutely anything. Jesus was accused of being deranged (Mk. 3:21), deceitful (Jn. 7:12), drunk (Mt. 11:19), and demon-possessed (Mk. 3:22). Paul was slanderously called an antinomian (Rom. 3:8). However, their lives were so full of character that these accusations carried no weight.

We should ask ourselves these questions: Do the people who really know me feel like they can trust me? Do they feel good about following me, or do they worry that I’ll let them down?

2. Husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6)

Mais gunaikos andros literally means a “one-woman man.” This expression refers to the idea that sexual purity is an established lifestyle in the Christian leader. This would include pornography use, flirting, and even emotional or physical affairs. No one wakes up one day and says, “I’m going to have a sexual fling tonight!” Instead, this is a slow and tacit slip in the heart. We need to recognize when we’re starting to slip in this area, bring it into the light, and refuse the self-righteous notion that we could never fall into such a sin.

3. Must exercise self-control (1 Tim. 3:2)

Nephalios (pronounced nay-FALL-ee-oss) can either refer to alcoholic sobriety or being “restrained in conduct, self-controlled, level-headed” (BDAG). Since alcoholic sobriety is mentioned later in this list, Paul must have the second definition in mind—namely, self-control or balanced. Strong leaders do not panic when circumstances are poor or less than ideal. They communicate strength to their people, because they model faith and trust in God’s sovereignty to overcome circumstances.

When a young child tumbles on the ground, he will often look to his parent to see their reaction. If the parent panics, the child will often mimic their response. While people are obviously not children, they will often follow the emotional reaction of their leaders. Strong leaders learn how to model faith to those who follow them.

4. Must live wisely (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8 NLT)

The word sophron (pronounced SO-fro) can mean “thoughtful,” “sensible,” or “sane.” It suggests the person is mentally healthy, as in Mark 5:15 and 2 Corinthians 5:13. Strong leaders need mental and emotional stability. They have the ability to be reasonable, sensible, and are able to keep their head under stress (Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 4:7). Before we are fit to lead, we need to get our emotional and mental issues under control, getting the help that we need.

5. Must be respectable (1 Tim. 3:2)

The word kosmion (pronounced COSS-mee-on) means “well-ordered.” It suggests orderliness and stability (see 1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:4). BDAG defines it as “having characteristics or qualities that evoke admiration or delight, an expression of high regard for a person, respectable, honorable.” Leaders need to have their functional life together. We need to show that we can (1) hold a job, (2) pay our bills, and (3) take care of basic hygiene. Showing up late to work with bed head and bad breath disqualifies you to others!

6. Hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8)

The word philoxenos (phil-OX-ee-noss) can be rendered “hospitable,” but this is really a poor translation. The word literally means “loving strangers,” which goes well beyond merely hosting people in your home. Of course, hospitality is required of all believers (Rom 12:13; 16:23; cf. Acts 28:7; 1 Pet 4:9), and this is a good place to start. But philoxenos literally means to care about strangers—most likely lost people. When leaders lose this, their people often lose it too. The church becomes a place to take care of my spiritual needs, rather than a place to reach others for Christ. Weak leaders avoid meeting or talking to non-Christians. They become consumed in their Christian culture, rather than being consumed with a passion for the lost. Most evangelism is caught, rather than taught. When people see a leader’s love for the lost, they yearn to develop the same passion.

7. Skilled at teaching (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 3:2)

Didaktikos (pronounced did-oct-ee-COSS) means “apt and skillful in teaching” (BDAG). This doesn’t necessarily imply a gift in teaching. Instead, this means that we’ve developed this ability through practice, repetition, and hard work (1 Tim. 5:17). Of course, the best teachers are also the best learners. Leaders who are unable to develop a love for reading and the study of Scripture become weak teachers. They are “a mile wide and an inch deep.” By contrast, those who have a drive and zeal to study and learn most often become stronger teachers, because their focus is on the content, rather than their own charisma in teaching.

8. Not addicted to wine (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7)

In Greek, “me” (pronounced may) is the negation. Thus me paroinon (pronounced PIE-roy-non) literally means “not a drunk.” BDAG defines this as “one who is given to drinking too much wine, addicted to wine, drunken.” Christian leaders are allowed to drink in moderation, but they must not have a drinking problem. The same would go for drug dependency. The stress of leadership can often drive someone to the bottle, rather than to Christ. We need to learn to take our stimulation from God—not alcohol. Paul writes, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Do you see the connection? When the Holy Spirit fills our hearts, we don’t see the need to get drunk to deal with our stress, problems, or insecurities. This implies self-control, and the ability to admit fault if we drank too much.

9. Not self-willed (Titus 1:7)

Me autheda (pronounced ouw-THOD-uh) means “self-willed, stubborn, or arrogant” (BDAG). Peter links this negative trait with rebelliousness in 2 Peter 2:10, and Paul uses it to refer to usurping rightful authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. Christian leaders should demonstrate the ability to defer to others at times. They shouldn’t always feel compelled to have things their way. We agree with the adage, “We can all get our say, but not always get our way.” This is a clear sign of rank immaturity. By “deferring to others,” we mean actively getting behind another person’s way, helping it to succeed. Those in leadership should also be able to apologize when they are in the wrong.

While a self will is bad, a strong will is good. If a person is using this strong will for God or others, it is a good trait to have. But if they use it to propel their own agenda, it is sinful and a sign of immaturity.

10. Not quick-tempered (Titus 1:7)

Me orgilon (pronounced ore-GEE-lon) means “inclined to anger, quick-tempered” (BDAG). Those in Christian leadership know that their patience is tried often, and those who have not gained control of their temper will discredit themselves (Jas. 1:19-20; 3:1). When a believer throws a temper tantrum, it puts everyone else on edge. It is also incredibly hard to rebuild trust after a violent outburst like this. When leaders misrepresent God by making him seem angrier than he really is, this a serious matter, as Moses learned (Num. 20). Christian leaders may get angry (Eph. 4:26; Jn. 2:13ff), but they should be slow to anger, rather than having a short fuse. Their anger should be controlled, rather than controlling them.

11. Not violent (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:3)

Me plektes (pronounced PLAKE-tace) means “not a striker.” BDAG defines it as a “pugnacious person, bully.” Christian leaders should not be prone to physical or verbal abuse (i.e. slander, put-downs, etc.). They know that they might need to verbally fight and debate in a certain situation, but they shouldn’t enjoy fighting.

12. Gentle (1 Timothy 3:3)

This word epieikes (pronounced epi-eye-CASE) means “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant” (BDAG). This refers to working tenderly with people most of the time—not being dismissive, hard-liners who are excessively rigorous or legalistic in their treatment of people. They should be kind, empathetic and patient with all. People can be fragile, and we need to show much care in working with them. Strong leaders know that their words and actions carry a lot of weight with their people, and they act on this accordingly.

13. Not quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3)

Amachon (pronounced AH-mack-hon) means “peaceable” and “not contentious.” Yes, as Christian leaders, we might need to fight from time to time, but we aren’t seeking for this. The wise leader knows when to fight, and when to preserve unity and peace.

14. Devout (Titus 1:8)

Hosios (pronounced HOSS-ee-oss) is one of the words sometimes translated “holy.” It means to be committed to and serious about spiritual matters. Of course, Christian leaders should embody a zeal for God’s will and ways. These spiritual models serve as strong models for others in the church. These people are not drained by serving God, but rather, they are contagious in spreading their excitement to others. Leaders often go through times where they lose zeal, but they have learned how to regain vision and excitement for following Christ.

15. Loving what is good (Titus 1:8)

This straightforward term implies that a leader’s lifestyle should demonstrate that they enjoy God’s ways (Rom. 12:2). These leaders have a critique of their culture. When reading books, watching movies, or listening to music, they have a running critique of the worldview inherent in it. These leaders are able to love what is good, without being self-righteous or prudish.

16. Free from the love of money (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7)

Aphilarguros (pronounced ah-fee-LOG-gear-oss) literally refers to not being a lover of silver. Christian leaders cannot be greedy or materialistic. They have shown with their lives that they value spiritual things more than money. Since elders are supposed to handle the money in the church, they should have a history of strong character in this area.

The church needs models who know what is important in life, and the devotion needed to become wealthy is incompatible with true spirituality. Mature leaders should give generously to others, and should live a simple lifestyle in order to curb temptation. Spiritual leaders know that their example plays a large impact on others around them. People generally do not go above the examples set by their leaders.

17. Manages their household well (1 Tim. 3:5; Titus 1:6)

It’s easier to fake our reputation with strangers, but not with those closest to us. We often get one view of a person from outside of the home, but another from inside of it. There is a famous theologian whom we have greatly admired and learned from over the years. It was devastating to hear from his daughter that he ruled with an iron fist at home. True spiritual leaders should have a character that is reflected in all aspects of life—not just their outward lives. Moreover, those in eldership can often become workaholics, neglecting their marriages and families. This is just as much a part of our ministry as anything else, and it should be watched closely.

This does not imply dictatorial leadership at home. We should look to garner the respect of our family, but we should not demand it or enforce it with an iron fist. Like all Christian leadership, we lead through example, servant love, and persuasion—only rarely making a display of authority (and then, only for the benefit of others—not ourselves).

18. Not a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6)

Me neophutos (pronounced nay-OFF-fo-toss) means “not newly planted.” Elders should be walking Christians long enough to be tested by God (1 Tim. 3:10). Christian leaders should have experienced success without becoming conceited. This is probably relative to the age of the group (e.g. Acts 14:23).

Of course, this does not mean that age should determine leadership in the church. Some older believers are faithless, and some young believers are faithful. Timothy, himself, was a younger believer (1 Tim. 4:12). This principle implies that a believer should have had some time to grow before entering eldership.

19. Having a good reputation with those outside (1 Tim. 3:7)

This expression means “having a good testimony with those outside,” specifically with non-Christians. Those we recognize as elders should be viewed as good people by non-Christians in their neighborhoods and workplaces. These people are spiritually authentic and not two-faced. They should be sensitive to what leads to good evangelism.

20. Just (Titus 1:8)

To be just (dikaios), leaders should be fair and impartial in their dealings with people (1 Tim. 5:21). People need to feel confident that leaders do not play favorites, which includes favoritism toward family members or friends.

What about deacons?

Paul only gives eleven character qualities for deacons, but most of these are the same as elders. The major differences are their strength in the word and their spiritual age.

Conclusions & Application

After reading through the character requirements for elders and deacons, it’s easy to feel convicted or ashamed. We look at the goal and we think that we just don’t make the cut. But remember, we don’t change ourselves in spiritual growth; that’s God’s role. We simply need to trust that he will change us (1 Thess. 4:3), remember that this picture is actually more accurate of our identity in Christ. We need to grow with God by making ourselves available to the means of growth.

Maybe God was using this study to correct you on your character. Will you respond to his correction and conviction, or will you justify your sin and deflect his correcting hand?

It’s also important to remember that God will typically only convict us on one or two issues at a time, rather than overwhelming us with our inadequacy. What are the one or two issues that strike you as the most glaring area of your character that need to change, so that you can make more of an impact for Christ? Focus on these, rather than being overwhelmed.

Discussion questions

How could you tell if someone was really striving for leadership but failing, versus someone who wasn’t even trying?

How would we know when we have begun to flirt or have an emotional affair with the opposite sex? What are signs that we’ve crossed the line in these areas? At what point should this be confessed to our friends and coworkers?

How could not being level-headed negatively affect ministry? Why would it be difficult to follow a leader like this?

What is the difference between humility and weakness? What does it look like to be falsely humble? What would happen to a Christian worker if they never learned humility? What effects would this have on those around them?

If we don’t have our functional life in order (e.g. money, hygiene, etc.), in what ways do you think this could possibly affect our service for Christ?

What can we do before fellowship to create a mindset of serving others?

Why would it be important that mature Christians be teachable? What are signs in a person’s life that they are teachable?

As Christians, we are permitted to drink alcohol: But how much is too much? What are signs that this has moved from a Christian liberty into being a sin? What are signs that we have developed a dependence on alcohol?

Instead of dominating people with an overwhelming personality, how can the self-willed leader use their strength to God’s glory? How do you differentiate between self-willed and strong-willed?  (Think about Jesus as an example: He was strong-willed but not self-willed)

How does it make you feel when one of your Christian brothers or sisters throws a temper tantrum? How serious should we consider episodes like this?

What are common causes that kill our zeal for following Christ? What are some ways we might regain zeal, if we’ve lost it?

How can we be zealous for what is good without being self-righteous?

What steps can we take now that might help us overcome materialism later on?

What does it look like to have a good reputation at your secular job or at school?