What is your experience and background with the Church? Do you believe that God is an angry sovereign ready to smite you for every mistake that you make? Or do you believe that God is love and accepts everyone, regardless of their belief system and backgrounds? Are you predisposed to pride and arrogance? Or are you prone to doubt and insecurity? It is remarkable how our personalities and worldviews affect our assumptions and expectations towards God. And typically, having one disposition blinds us from truly comprehending the personality makeup of those on the opposite extreme. We might understand academically that some people wrestle with depression, but having a strong personality and high self esteem we think others are exaggerating or just looking for attention through their insecurity. Or, wrestling with depression or doubt we might think that others have it all together and never have moments of weakness.
Along those lines, if you have experience in any fundamental legalistic church, you might have been trained to believe that while grace is free and abundant and that God forgives sins, there are many sins that simply disqualify us from serving God. You might even be condemned for a life situation over which you had no control! If, however, you have attended a liberal, “grace” driven church, you might believe that your actions have absolutely no bearing on your service to or standing before God. Thankfully, we have the Bible to clearly teach us about grace and our worth before God, and we can walk in confidence if someone (even ourselves) has tried to convince us we have been disqualified from serving God.
First of all, God hates sin. There are lists of sins that God hates throughout Scripture, the entire Law from the Old Testament was written to define sin and keep people from it, and the reason Jesus came to the world was to save us from our sin by paying the due punishment we deserve for it. There is a problem in the world, there is a problem in every single human being and that is sin. Until mankind had sinned, he was not separated from God, and after one little sin he was damned to Hell and the entire world was cursed. Sin is a big deal. It is that which separates us from God and causes us to need a savior. God hates sin, He pours out His wrath against sin, and He will not overlook even the smallest sin. His righteousness and justice demands that every single sin be judged by the harshest punishment because His standard is perfection.
We, as sinners, cannot rectify this sin problem. Therefore, God sent Jesus to live a perfect life so that He, though not deserving punishment for sin, could take our place and pay the punishment that we deserve by dying a horrific death on a cross, descending to Hell for three days, and raising back to life – conquering death and offering us His righteousness. Jesus offers us the free gift of salvation which is essentially the switching of places with Him. If we have faith in His work and repent of our sins, then He takes the punishment for our sins and we take His perfection – in the eyes of God.
This exchange is no limited to the little sins. Pretty much any sin for which you might condemn yourself (or someone else) is exemplified by the greatest men and women of the Bible. Murder (Moses, Paul), Adultery (David), Prostitution (Rahab), Lying (Abraham), Theft (Matthew, Zacchaeus, David), Denying Christ (Peter and ten other apostles), Idolatry (Solomon, Rachel), and even Killing off Christians and the Church! (Paul). God chose to use people who had committed the most heinous of crimes to be some of the most monumental people in history and in the Church. Many of these crimes were even committed while these people were known to be following God! God is not shocked by our sins and our failure, and He is ready and willing to forgive anything. Not only that, we see then that the sin itself does not in any way mark us with a scarlet letter as unworthy or unusable before God. The simple fact is that none of us who have committed any sin, ever, are worthy to serve God until we switch places with Jesus and take on His righteousness.
Where this gets tricky, however, is the reality that the process of us switching places with Jesus and taking on His righteousness is marked by our repentance. None of us, while in the flesh, will fully conquer sin. We will wrestle with sin until our dying day. We must, however, allow God to be authoritative over our lives and define sin, and we must repent of it – continually giving our hearts and efforts over to God and dying to sin. What this means, for example, is that you cannot plan a sin and carry it out with the expectation of God’s forgiveness later. We cannot say, “I will just cheat on this test and I will confess it later and God will forgive me.” We cannot say, “I am going to have an affair on my wife and/or divorce her, but God will forgive me.” We cannot say, “I hate him, and I will just keep my distance from him. It’ll fade away and God will forgive me.” If we hate sin, we run from it, we despise it’s pleasures and we seek to make right what was wronged by it. God will forgive the cheating or abandoning spouse if he recognizes that he sinned by having an affair and leaving his wife if he is broken over his sin, confesses it to God and to her, and tries to make restitution. God will forgive the cheating student if he confesses it to God and the teacher and seeks to make it right – either by retaking the test or taking a consequential fail. If we love the benefits and pleasures of sin, then we have made peace with that sin, and we have not repented. This is perhaps the most dangerous of situations. Scripture says,
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”
– Heb 10.6-27
If we have confessed our sins, repented of them, and are striving to honor God in our lives then there is nothing that can disqualify us from serving God!
Now, this is the point where we need to examine the Biblical outlines for church leadership. God loves His Church. We are His body. The head of that body is Jesus Christ, and the rest of us make up parts of it both in our local congregations and globally. Within this body, the Bible gives us clear instructions for two specific roles: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons.
A pastor or overseer is one who teaches the body regularly. You might say that he is the mouth of the body. He is not the head, Jesus alone is the head. But he does have a leadership and authoritative role over the body, and will be help accountable to God for how he led the flock and cared for our souls. Thus he must meet these requirements:
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
1 Tim 3.1-7
First of all, we see that he desires to serve in the office. We should never appoint someone to be our pastor who is not called, and does not desire the office. It was trendy in the 90’s for people to say that they fought against it and did not desire the office. It is wise advice for one to follow that if there is anything else they would like to do, then they should do that. The rest of the qualifications are character assessments rooted in maturity of the faith. This is a man, who is not a new convert, and has proven himself to be above reproach, free from the love of money, able to teach, and hospitable. Of course even pastors and overseers will sin, but is his life marked by repentance? And is he free from being characterized as a sinner in any of these ways? Congregations value and appreciate transparency, but being “real” does not mean Spiritual immaturity and inability to fight sin. This also interestingly notes that the pastor should have one wife. It has been an issue of strife amongst the church that some would disqualify anyone who had been divorced for any reason, but I argue here that culturally and because of the nature of God and grace, that it means polygamy. God can even forgive un-Biblical divorce: He forgave and used David.
Deacons are people who serve the church. They are appointed as men to oversee and make sure that the needs within the church are met well. They do not have authority as teachers (though some of them may teach), but their office is one of service. As such, their qualifications are slightly different:
“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.”
– 1 Tim 3.8-10
Again we see that God is primarily concerned with character. Deacons must have dignity, they must speak truth boldly (not double tongued), and above reproach. They should be tested or interviewed to be found above reproach, and then should have good reputation.
All believers will serve God in a variety of ways. No one committed sin can permanently disqualify us from any form of service. There may be times when a person serving as a pastor or deacon sins and needs to be removed from office for a season, but he can be restored with proven repentance and regained trust. Here is what Allistair Begg had to say on the topic:
“Much of what we regard as disqualifications for serving Christ, God in His sovereign wisdom and purpose turns them in to stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks. That as we rehearse the details of our lives and as we look back over our days and as we are confronted by our disappointments and as we are made painfully aware of our failures and as we see what a basket case in many ways we have been, we are forced to conclude that an individual such as we could never be useful in the service of Christ. That is a lie of the devil. That is one of the most clever ways that the evil one sidelines useful people from Christian service. To tell us that actually, the mess of our past disqualifies us. And I want to say to you as individuals, let us be about the business of the Phil 3:14 perspective: Forgetting those things that lie behind, once we have learned from them, whether in success or in failure, let us press on towards the goal, to win the prize for which God has called us Heavenward in Christ Jesus. God is in the business of putting people like you and me, warts and all, into the front lines of service for Him, even in our days.”
– Alistair Begg
So let’s get busy about recognizing and repenting from our sins. Let’s get busy about joining the front lines of the battle, pushing back the enemy and engaging in the battle for people’s souls. Let’s get busy about serving God in every way that we can. Let’s remember that God works all things together for our good and for His glory, even our sins and failures. Let’s allow Him to use our past as a testimony to His grace and goodness. Let’s not believe lies and get sidelined because of something we have done, and let’s not sin boldly expecting God’s forgiveness. Let’s revel in grace, repent of our sins, and boldly proclaim the Gospel that all who believe and repent can be saved!