Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness”.
It is a truism to say that a minister needs to be godly. It is taken as read. Yet, sadly, there have been too many examples these past few years of ministers, often in high-profile leadership positions, who have failed to live godly lives. And the fallout from this can be devastating, for both the local congregation and the reputation of Christ.
Perhaps the problem is that we assume too much of what McCheyne said. The danger of truisms is that they are ignored because everyone knows them to be true. But do we really believe what McCheyne says, that the greatest need people have of their ministers is their personal holiness? Is that what we are looking for when we choose a new minister for our church? Is that how we evaluate the ministers we have? Perhaps it is worth asking: why is godliness so important for church leaders?
Godliness is the goal
In his letter to Titus, Paul begins by outlining the goal of his ministry:
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness – in the hope of eternal life (Titus 1:1-2a).
Paul’s job was not only to bring people to a knowledge of the truth, but a knowledge that leads to godliness. That is his goal. As you read through the book of Titus, it becomes abundantly clear that what Paul is primarily concerned about is that the Christians in Crete are living God’s way, conforming their life to him. Older men must be temperate, older women must teach what is good, younger women must be pure and young men self-controlled, and slaves should not talk back or steal from their masters (Titus 2:1-10).
But of course, this is not simply Paul’s concern. It is God’s concern:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14).
God’s grace toward us in Christ is transformative. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and to live godly lives. This is salvation – not only to be rescued from God’s judgment (as wonderful as this mercy is), but to be rescued for godly living – to be redeemed from all wickedness and purified as God’s very own people, eager to do what is good.
This is God’s great plan, to bring all things under Christ (Eph 1:10); to call all people to the obedience that comes from faith (Rom 1:5); to create a people for himself, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his special possession (1 Pet 2:9).
Put simply, godliness is the goal. To create God-oriented people – people who love God, live God’s way, and so give glory to God. Godliness is why Jesus came to die for us, and godliness is why Jesus will return to perfect us. Godliness is the goal.
Godliness is the job
It is only when we know that godliness is the goal that we can understand why godliness is the primary criterion for being a minister. When Paul urges Timothy to appoint elders in every town, he provides a rough job description:
An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless – not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:6-9).
Our problem is that we often treat this list as a baseline for what we are looking for in a minister. “Of course, he needs to be godly,” we might say, before turning to more practical criteria. But godliness for Paul is not simply the prerequisite requirement before beginning the job. It is the job. To be a minister is to be godly – and in so doing, help others to grow in godliness.
One of the most common ways we talk about the criteria for ministry is by referring to the three Cs: character, conviction and competency. These are great things to look for in a minister and the three Cs have served us well in considering who would be suitable for such a high calling.
The danger with the three Cs, however, is that we can start to think these are three separate categories, as if someone could be competent for the job but simply lack the character and conviction. This is absurd. If someone doesn’t have character and conviction, they are not competent for the job. Because the job is character and conviction. That’s what godliness looks like in Paul’s list. Someone who lives God’s way and holds firm to God’s message.
If the job of a minister were simply to get more people into a church, or to be a dynamic and engaging speaker, or to be an excellent manager that can run a team of volunteers, then you might not need godliness. But that is not the job. The job is to grow godly Christians. And you can’t do that if you are not godly.
It’s interesting that Paul’s critique of the false teachers in Crete was not only their teaching, but ultimately their lives: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him” (Titus 1:16). Likewise, Paul warns Timothy against those teachers who live ungodly lives, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5).
Unlike them, Paul urges Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim 4:12), and to “watch your life and doctrine closely”, because in doing so he will save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim 4:16). Only a godly minister will grow a godly church.
Helping your godly minister
None of this is to say that ministers can’t improve in practical skills. Over the past few years, ministers in Sydney (including myself) have genuinely benefited from training that draws on skills learned in business and management. This has allowed us to better manage the household of God that has been entrusted to us. But we must be very careful not to think that this is ministry. At best, this is what helps us do ministry better. But ministry is godliness.
When we forget that ministry is godliness, we forget that godliness is the goal. Churches can begin to exist simply for the purpose of increasing the number of people coming on a Sunday. Ministers can begin to overlook the sinful habits in their own lives, perhaps even justifying them or rationalising them away, because of the good “ministry” that they are doing. And individual Christians in the church can begin to measure their own Christian walk simply by how involved or active they are.
Before long, our church can resemble little more than a pyramid scheme – a growing, bustling organisation full of energy and enthusiasm on the outside, but empty on the inside. This is what we will face if we ever forget that godliness is the goal, and that ministry is godliness.
One of the best ways, then, that we can help our ministers, is to encourage them in their godliness. In my role at Moore College, this means that my primary concern for students training for ministry is their personal godliness. And their greatest need from me is my personal godliness. In churches, let us support our ministers by valuing their godliness, praying for them and encouraging them in their godliness, as they encourage us.
With McCheyne, let us remind ourselves that the greatest need we have of our ministers is their personal holiness.
The Rev Dr Tom Habib lectures in New Testament at Moore College.