The Church of Corinth must have felt like they were hit with a verbal right-hook when the Apostle Paul asked,
“Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (I Corinthians 6:5).
This question was loaded with rhetorical indictment. But it wasn’t the first question raised against them. Earlier the apostle asked a question that exposed their failure to respect their sacred identity as God’s assembly.
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (I Corinthians 3:16-17).
Failure to honor their identity as the dwelling place of God resulted in serious violations of the gospel. They allowed,
- man-centered personality conflicts (chapter 3)
- blatantly permissive immorality (chapter 5)
- selfish classism (chapter 11)
- divisive individualism (chapters 12-14)
Behind these and other issues were doctrinal errors and an overall anti-authoritarian spirit (as they distanced themselves from the spiritual leadership of the apostle Paul). All of this was exacerbated by a pervasive leadership crisis in their Church.
Listen again to this question, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (I Corinthians 6:5).
A contemporary dilemma
Many pastors today find themselves overwhelmed with issues in the Church because they lack wise leaders to share the work.
Should they train leaders? Yes. But this takes significant time and devotion. As a result, these pastors find themselves working with leaders who are not known for their wisdom.
In my interactions with pastors, I repeatedly hear of how difficult ministry is because of the unqualified leaders on their boards. Although church constitutions and by-laws require minimal quorums and term limits for governing boards, they often lack procedures for selecting leaders that respect the emphasis on qualification found in Titus 1 and I Timothy 3.
A lesson from one man’s mistake
It’s clearly best to share the work of ministry with other leaders and plurality of leadership is God’s design for the Church. One leader can only effectively oversee a small number of people. This was the lesson Jethro taught Moses. We learn in Exodus 18 that “Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people and they stood around him from morning till evening.” But Jethro asked him, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
Moses explained his dilemma, “… the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” Jethro correctly warned Moses, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.”
What should Moses do? The people need leadership and he is called by God to provide it. Jethro came up with a wise plan for shared leadership.
“… select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.”
Emphasis on qualified leadership
Moses must choose capable and trustworthy men. They must have a reputation for personal integrity and be known as men who fear God. Don’t miss the emphasis on fearing God because “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
Such men are not in great supply today. Male leadership problems are pervasive to both our culture and to our Churches. Yet imagine what would have happened if Moses decided to fudge on the qualifications. What if he faced a lack of qualified men and lowered the bar for leadership? It happens all the time.
Pastors and people say, “He seems like a God-fearing man.” “I think he’ll be an honest leader.” “He runs a good business so I guess he’ll be a good leader in the Church.” But “seems like” and “I guess” should never be the basis for leadership appointment in Christ’s Church!
Perhaps the only thing worse for a pastor than having an inadequate number of leaders is working with unqualified leaders. Jethro’s idea is wise and one could argue that it’s God’s plan for New Testament Church leadership.
I understand that there are no perfect people to appoint as leaders. I also realize that our expectations must be realistic. This is partly why I often remind our leadership team that leaders struggle with the issues common to humanity.
Leaders face temptations and become discouraged. Leaders must fight against sinful pride. James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The important part is how one responds to temptations, discouragement and pride. Leaders should be chief repenters in the Church. So ask the following questions when considering potential leaders:
- What is the primary pattern of a potential leader’s life?
- Is the potential leader mature and secure in his identity in Christ?
- Is the potential leader grounded in sound teaching and able to apply the truth to himself and others (Titus 1:9).
I also know what it’s like (from my early years as a pastor) to work with unqualified men. If a man is self-serving and fears people more than God, his leadership will lack wisdom and hurt others. If he is interested in dishonest gain, he will not be true to the leadership team or the Church. He will serve his own interests. He will seek his own following and divide people from other leaders. If he lacks wisdom, he will apply the wrong solutions to problems.
What about seminaries?
I’d like to report that our ministry training institutions are preparing the kinds of leaders we need but I don’t have a great deal of confidence in seminary as the place for this kind of training. I am not suggesting it doesn’t happen anywhere because I believe there are institutions committed to this task. Yet so often these institutions are not focused or equipped to move the emphasis from the academic to character development to local church life.
Many training institutions will acknowledge it’s up to churches to fill the practical gaps of training. Yet if they really believed this should be a priority, why wouldn’t they strategically balance academic and institutional requirements with local Church ministry and accountability? A one semester internship in a Church won’t cut it for those who hope to lead a Church.
It is deeply misguided to think you can spend three or four years studying about the Church while separated from one and be ready to lead a Church when you have a degree.
We need renewed discussions about how to identify and train wise leaders for local Churches.