The Evangelical Christian world is particularly small in the UK. It is not at all unusual to meet people I knew growing up, or from university, in a new town or at some other church. It leads to that strange feeling of meeting someone ‘out of context’. It is also not at all unusual to find friends and acquaintances from one context befriend, marrying or doing work with friends and acquaintances from an entirely different context, where it often feels like worlds colliding. And as small as the Evangelical Christian world is, the theologically reformed Evangelical world is smaller still. And so it is even more common to find people I knew from years ago, some 15, 20 or 25 years later, in ministry posts of one sort of another.
I suspect I am not alone in looking at some of those set apart for ministry, who I knew from another context, and thinking to myself ‘you sent him to there!’. Usually behind that is the sense that, if he is anything like he was when I knew him, he is surely not qualified or cut out for ministry. I have no doubt people will have looked at me and had exactly the same sort of thoughts. And how could they not?
People who know you from particular contexts, and then don’t see you for some time, have an idea of you that is effectively frozen in time. There are those who remember me from when I was 3 and simply cannot reconcile the fact that the little toddler they remember is an adult at all. There are those who knew me as a teenager who cannot fathom how that rebellious oik can be a church minister. There are those who knew me as a student and… well, the less said about that the better really. And, of course, the reality is that if I were precisely the same as I was then their shock and concern would be entirely appropriate. Any minister who behaved like I did at any of those points is neither cut out, nor qualified, for ministry. That is the brutal truth.
Yet, happily, I can say truly with John Newton ‘I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am’. Indeed, if God’s Spirit is at work within me at all – and, as a believer in Christ, he must be – Paul tells us, ‘we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:18). Indeed, Paul tells us such progressive sanctification is God’s overtly stated will (1 Thess 4:3). This is the very purpose of Christ:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 6:25b-27)
If the Spirit of God is at work – and the Bible is clear that he must be if the person is truly a believer – we should not be surprised when people we knew in one context, at one point in time, move on to serve the Lord in ways that we would never have seen at the time. It is simply not fair to remember what someone was like at university and think ‘how have they gotten into ministry?’ I know what I was like as a student and I would hate for anyone to use that as a legitimate reason to preclude me from serving the Lord today.
If the Lord can work in such a sinner as me, why on earth should he not do the same in others? If it’s not fair for people to remember my teenage years and suggest I am incapable of ministry, it is no more right for me to do it to others – especially when I was almost certainly worse than them! The Biblical criteria for eldership are pointedly not retrospective, they demand the character criteria in the person we know today. Indeed, how could they – as Paul says:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)
If the character criteria for church leadership were retrospective, not one person would be capable of meeting them. Nor are they criteria demanding perfection, as Paul again says ‘Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own’ (Phi 3:12). This means that the character criteria for ministry are neither retrospective nor demands for spiritual perfection.
It means, when looking for leaders of the church, we deal with the person we see today. Does the person standing immediately before us meet the character criteria now or not? We are not asking whether this guy was a great witness at school or if they were the most theologically deep student (neither of which, incidentally, are listed as qualifications for eldership). Rather, we ask whether the person before us today clearly exhibits the criteria Jesus demands of his undershepherds. We ask these questions with a few others at the forefront of our minds. If I was to be judged today as the child/teenager/student/unbeliever I was, (1) would I be able to stand?, (2) would that be fair?, and (3) would we expect those in whom the Spirit is at work to be the same?