Disaster can come when godliness is left in the shadow of gifting. But the New Testament urges church leaders to pursue both.
This article was first published in Indie Issues, November 2021.
The recent tragic stories of leadership abuse have broken my heart. You will no doubt feel the same.
For as long as I’ve been helping to train leaders in the church, I’ve tried to elevate godliness to its rightful place alongside gifting. But it sometimes seems that it’s a message that’s been lost or sidelined.
I can understand the temptation, and at times I’ve given into it myself.
Results, results, results
People want results. Or, to make it sound more Christian, congregations love a faithful and lively preacher; they value a clear lead in a confused world; they want to turn up to church and have everything sorted. Gifting, for too long, has been paramount.
It’s not that the New Testament ignores gifting. Far from it. The point is sometimes made that Paul’s qualifications for leadership in 1 Timothy 3 say virtually nothing about gifting. But that’s the line of someone who has barely troubled to read the rest of the pastoral letters, which have a significant focus on the exercise of gifting, both explicitly and implicitly.
Many of us will have heard of churches which have declined, struggled, or even imploded through leaders who simply are not gifted. Yet the truth is that our evangelical error has not been to overplay gifting, it has been to underplay godliness.
Pursue godliness and gifting
In one of the most remarkable passages in the pastoral letters, Paul points out to Timothy how he must pursue both. In 1 Timothy 4:11-16, Paul exhorts the young pastor to pursue godliness (summed up in five wonderful nouns: speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity) while at the same time making progress in gifting (v14).
This vocabulary is entirely relational. We need to see leadership godliness not just in terms of how we relate to our Heavenly Father, but in the context of relationships worked out in the local church. We often miss this connection. For us who serve as leaders, how we relate to others is at the heart of holy living.
Together these twin pursuits are to be Timothy’s mission:
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
Most remarkably, in this last sentence, Paul tells his young protégé that it is his commitment to, and progress in, both godliness and gifting that will make all the difference to effectiveness.
Such a statement does not deny God’s sovereign purpose; instead, Paul is stating the human side of the equation.
For those of us who lead, denying this link puts us in dangerous territory. None of us wants to labour in vain. And whilst we know that we need the Lord’s blessing in order to thrive (Psalm 127:1-2), Paul also reveals to us the part we must play.
Train yourself to be godly
I recently reread some of what I wrote about godliness in a little book called Progress: “It is also right to put [godliness] first on our list as it is an often-neglected component of Christian ministry and many a work has come to nothing (or worse) because the leader lacks godliness.”
Those words are almost five years old. Standing where I am now, I wonder if I might have expressed that even more strongly. In fact, I’m sure I should have.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, naturally, but – if nothing else – the abuse scandals of the past few years must surely give every leader a whole-hearted desire to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
I’m humbled to recommit myself to Christlike humility and gentleness all over again. How about you?
Ideas to promote leadership godliness
- Make sure some of your leadership or staff meetings are given over to praying for one another’s spiritual walk. It takes time to build trust, but honesty and prayerfulness are the bedrock of promoting godliness in leaders.
- In any review process, make sure you ask and answer questions about godliness topics and not just about gifting.
- The list in 1 Timothy 4:12 is a succinct and helpful place to start with self-evaluation, prayer, and repentance.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your congregation about this topic. They need to see the need for their leaders to make progress in godliness and the public nature of this discussion is confirmed by Paul in 1 Timothy 4:15.
- In your teams, help one another to develop godly patterns. Whether that be times of rest and refreshment, attending conferences that will do your soul good, or releasing time to spend with ministry friends.