12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” ~ Romans 10:12-15 (NIV)
If God could communicate His Gospel in any way He wanted, then why does He choose sinful humans to be His messengers? Put another way, why does God continue to entrust imperfect creatures with His perfect message?
This is a question that I have been struggling with continuously, especially as I reflect on my own sin that manifests itself in word and deed. I can be harsh in my speech, talking about people behind their back, and flippant while talking to someone who cares deeply that I give them time and attention. On top of that, I struggle with my own temptations and insecurities, fully realising that there is not one day that I can look back on without feeling conviction for my selfishness. At a greater level, we see public falls of respected ministers, due to whatever failings, and I watch as sisters and brothers deal with trying to comprehend where everything went wrong.
Perhaps the answer is to separate the message from the messenger, focusing on what a Christian says and proclaims, but ignoring their life. After all, everyone sins (1 John 1:8). No life is perfect, so stop looking for perfection in the life and just receive the truth and good things that are being done in the name of Christ. God’s Gospel being faithfully proclaimed is all that matters, and even if the messenger’s witness is flawed then just take the good and ignore the bad. But a niggling part of some inner voice may be heard whispering ever so quietly “surely character matters though…no?”
The Apostle Paul writes in Titus 1:1-9 to his friend, and fellow partner in being a minister of the Gospel, in Crete and says that Titus was to appoint elders (or overseers/ministers) in the cities on the island. He lists a series of criteria, ranging from ‘blameless’, ‘holy’, and ‘self-controlled’ to holding ‘firmly to the trustworthy message’. What’s going on here? What we see is that Paul directs Titus to examine the character and righteousness of potential elders, as well as what it is that they believe. Why? So that, as verse 9 says, they can encourage others in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. What is key, though, is to see that Paul does not separate the necessity of character from the orthodoxy of belief. In other words, Paul wants Titus to find godly, (in this case) male Christians who know and speak the truth. For Paul, the character of the messenger and the soundness of the message must go together.
But why? It is a glorious aspect of the story that God is telling throughout time that in redeeming a people through the Gospel of Jesus Christ He also invites them to become part of the project of testifying to the work God has begun in them. In Titus 1:1 Paul wrote that he was an apostle of the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness. For Paul, knowing the truth of God, and His word, could not be divorced from the reality that the truth changes who we are. It leads to godliness. And the promise of God, for His people, is that as they continue to behold the glory of the message of who Jesus is they are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into more Christ-likeness (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
As Christians accept the Gospel, are transformed by it, convicted by sin, driven to repentance, and continue to cling to the Cross they are living witnesses to the truth of the Gospel. For the witness of the Christian in going out to the world and shining as lights is the God-ordained means of carrying the perfect message of the Gospel and showing the world that Christ’s love compels us because it is real. Jesus Himself prayed that Christians would demonstrate one-ness, unity, and love for one another as the Father and the Son are so that the world would see that He is who He says He is (John 17:20-23). God chooses sinful people to communicate His perfect Gospel because the truth of His word must be embodied by the lives that He is changing.
What a privilege! But gosh, what a calling. Even as I write this my mind is filled with fear and trepidation. God, why do you call me to this? I can’t be a witness to who you are. I fail everyday. I have thought, said, and done things that I am ashamed of, let alone realise are in direct violation of your righteousness. I…
And there is the problem. I. I. I. It is not an ungodly thing to be convicted by the weightiness of our depravity and imperfection, except when we let the emptiness of the darkness drown out the fullness of the Son. For in Jesus Christ there is no condemnation. We are forgiven, we are a new creation, and we are washed clean. The redeemed of God can’t opt in or out from being witnesses – our salvation itself is a witness to the life of the Gospel itself. And a preoccupation with self betrays the reality that the God who has saved us did not save us for ourselves but for Himself. What I mean by that last sentence is to say that we are not alone in our struggle to grow in righteousness and our witnessing to the truth.
Godliness matters, big time. But let us never forget that being ‘blameless’ before God in character cannot be distinguished from being continuously repentant. That is to say that part of what it means to be a godly Christian is to unceasingly come back to Christ for forgiveness and prayerful dependence on His Spirit to help us put sin to death. But indeed, character matters so greatly that an unrepentant moral failing necessitates removing leaders from positions (God-willing, for a short while) to protect the brothers and sisters and to show the world that Christians are not in the business of saying one thing and doing another.
At which point, then, can we say that a leader who has a moral failing may be disqualified from leading even if they repent? I don’t have any clear answers to that. I don’t know how to speak into public falls of leaders and what they can, or should do, and the fact is that I don’t have to. These matters usually don’t concern me directly, and (as I have been reminded of recently) I should not speak into, or advise, situations that I am removed from. I do know two things though:
- We can’t ignore the character of leaders, choosing to focus on their speech, their acts, their successes, their charisma, without seeing how the truth they claim to know is leading to the godliness God promises to give.
- We must prayerfully entrust them to God, that His Spirit would bring growth and conviction, and that in His kindness there would be peace and resolution brought into the body of the church.
But the purpose of my reflection is the realisation that the messenger and the message must go together, and as we speak the truth in love we must love the truth in deed.
I finish with three extended excerpts from Stanley Hauerwas’ book “With the Grain of the Universe”, in a chapter titled ‘The Necessity of Witness’:
“The witness of Christians may or may not take the form of argument at different times and places, but if the Holy Spirit does not witness to the Father and Son through the witnesses of Christians, then Christians have no arguments to make…Witnesses must exist if Christians are to be intelligible to themselves and hopefully to those who are not Christians…” (pp. 210-212)
“…Christians believe that they should trust the gospel even when they fail to live lives congruent with it, and even when such trust requires that they die. Christians behave in this way because they understand themselves to have become characters in the story that God continues to enact through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Lives that seem like failures do not disconfirm the gospel, because Christians learn to confess their sins by being made part of the work of the Spirit.” (p. 212)
“…when Christians get their theology wrong, they cannot help but get their lives and their accounts of the world wrong as well. Or rather, more accurately, Christians often get their theology wrong because they have gotten their lives wrong…Christianity is not a “position,” just another set of beliefs, but a story at once simple and complex that encompasses all that is. Christians, therefore, are people who, via a community called church, witness to the creator of all that is.” (p. 215)