Few things poison the church, and sully her reputation in the world, like arrogant pastors. Manifest arrogance in politicians, lamentable as it is, we might expect. But arrogance in the pulpit — this is a great blight on the church and in the community where she is to shine her light.
It’s not as though the New Testament didn’t foresee the danger, or that somehow this is a recent development for the church. Christians have always known to keep conceited men from church office. If the Scriptures’ pervasive condemnations of pride and arrogance weren’t enough, then the express qualifications for pastor-elder make it all the clearer:
He must not be arrogant. (Titus 1:7)
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:6)
“Recent convert” (Greek neophytos) means, literally, “newly planted.” It’s a fitting image for a new convert to Christianity. New plants haven’t yet had time to grow their roots deep and wide. New plants — whether transplanted or from the seed — are much easier to uproot than trees that have grown deep into the soil over a matter of month and years, rather than days and weeks.
Elsewhere, when Paul addresses the formal appointing of pastors and elders, he charges Timothy, and the churches, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). This principle of patience in appointment to office applies not only to pastors, but to deacons as well: “Let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Timothy 3:10).
A thread holds these warnings together: Swelling pride in a leader endangers the whole church, and the longer a man has faithfully walked with God, the less likely the remaining pride in him is growing rather than shrinking.
Why No New Plants
Pastoral ministry can be very trying emotionally — not typically at every step, but acutely so in crisis moments. It’s only a matter of time until pastoral ministry proves more emotionally challenging than anticipated. Certain kinds of spiritual trauma are inevitable because pastors are more regularly exposed to the depths of human depravity.
The surprising depths of indwelling sin in professing Christians, multiplied across a congregation, can be enough to damage, if not uproot, young plants. New plants aren’t yet ready to endure every kind of storm. They need to send roots down and out and strengthen stalks and sprout leaves and bear some initial fruit. Soon enough they will be ready for the hard winds and driving rains of pastoral ministry, but not right away.
Added to that, Satan loves to target the opposing lieutenants, and all the more when one is manifestly young and weak. A new convert among the pastors can be an easy target, a convenient foothold for the devil’s efforts (Ephesians 4:27). Wise churches arm themselves against such schemes (Ephesians 6:11).
These are real dangers with putting new plants in leadership, but the specific danger Paul mentions — and so deserves the most attention — is that the new plant might be “puffed up with conceit” (1 Timothy 3:6). Such conceit apparently had become a problem in the Ephesian church (1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 3:4). The false teachers there may have arisen in precisely this way. Newly converted, and manifestly gifted in teaching and looked to as natural leaders, perhaps they were hastily ordained to the pastoral office, which may have produced two effects at once: (1) they were not given sufficient testing to see what these men were really made of spiritually and (2) the appointment itself, and serving in office, may have altered the trajectory of what otherwise could have been healthy growth and development.
1. How Has Old Pride Persisted?
In the first case, the new convert’s arrogance may simply remain from his former life of unbelief. Paul lists “swollen with conceit” as characteristic of those outside the church (2 Timothy 3:4). Accordingly, new converts need some time in the faith to let the swelling go down. The caution may be more than simply the concern that being put in leadership may make an immature man arrogant, but that being a new convert, he hasn’t yet had as much conceit pounded out of him yet. His mind is still being brought under the authority of God in fundamental ways. Not only does the dust need to settle; the roots need to go down deep.
Pastors must not be arrogant (Titus 1:7), among other reasons, because they are to be men under authority, stewards of, and under, the words of Christ and his apostles. Paul identifies one who is “puffed up with conceit” with one who “teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3–4). The very heart of the pastoral task is teaching — and not teaching self or preference but teaching “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul mentions “the condemnation of the devil,” who in his pride and swollen conceit was unwilling to bow to God’s authority.
2. Will Leadership Provoke New Pride?
But not only does a new convert need time for the swelling of his old pride to go down, but also we should consider how the appointment to leadership might affect a man. Will being put forward as a church officer be the occasion of a new kind of puffing up? This seems to be the main concern Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 3:6: not just getting over former conceit, but will he be puffed up by the leadership role itself and thus fall into the same (prideful) condemnation as Satan?
In seeking to fill positions and opportunities for leadership, we often take one of two approaches: “man for the job” or “job for the man.” “Man for the job” means the need is such that the candidate should fill the role and its expectations from day one. “Job for the man” means the role is an opportunity for a developing leader to grow into the role and expectations as he serves. While the pastorate is never fully a man-for-the-job scenario (who is sufficient for these things?), we should not approach our search with a job-for-the-man mentality when it comes to pride and arrogance.
A man may be able to grow into teaching, and aspects of pastoral manner, and a host of other things while serving, but not so with humility. We are not to think of the pastorate as a helpful crucible that might make an arrogant man humble. The pastorate is indeed a crucible. It will make a humble man all the more humble (2 Corinthians 12:7), but it is not a lab for arrogant men.
Keeping new converts from the council serves not only the church but also the new convert. It is healthy to be established for a season as a Christian, to first soak in one’s identity being in Christ, not his office. Before attempting, in ministry, to have the spirits subject to us, we first need a good, solid season of rejoicing that our “names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
But how recent a convert? How new a plant? Here the wisdom of plurality in local-church leadership is on display. The New Testament doesn’t give us a particular timeframe, whether a year or five. As with the other elder qualifications, “not a new convert” is analog, not digital. It’s not that a man goes to sleep one night a “new plant” and wakes up the next day ready to weather the storms. Rather, such maturity — and in particular, humility — is incremental and on a spectrum. And Paul leaves such to be determined collectively by the plurality of elders, confirmed by the church, given the age and maturity of both the candidate and the church and other relevant circumstances, not least of which is the present needs of the church.
Observe the differences between the well-established Ephesian church (1 Timothy) and the fledgling Cretan church (Titus). When writing to Ephesus, Paul specifies “not a new convert.” The Ephesian church was old enough, likely a decade old or more, that relatively new converts would not be needed in leadership. Crete didn’t have the same luxury. The whole church was newly planted, and as Titus went to appoint elders, it was inevitable that they all would be, in some sense, new plants. However, the underlying concern remained: conceit. And so Paul specifies for the Cretans, “he must not be arrogant” (Titus 1:7).
An important qualification is that “not a new convert” does not necessarily mean “not young.” We know that Timothy himself was relatively young, likely in his upper twenties or early thirties. Yet Paul writes to him not to let the church look down on him for his youth, but to set an example (1 Timothy 4:12), including fleeing youthful passions (2 Timothy 2:22). As Elihu spoke truthfully to Job, it is not age that makes a man wise but the Spirit of God (Job 32:8–9). Pray that the passage of time increases the Spirit’s work of wisdom in a man, but don’t assume such merely by the passing of years.
Two Key Questions
To make the pursuit of pastoral humility tangible — for churches and councils searching for a pastor and for men aspiring to ministry — consider two particular manifestations of humility essential in pastors and elders:
1. Does he think with sober judgment?
Here the question is not only about sober judgment in general (which is vital, called sober-mindedness, 1 Timothy 3:2), but in particular related to self-assessment. Romans 12:3 says, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Is he self-deprecating? Is he willing to admit faults? Is he regularly angling to build himself up in others’ minds with his own words? Does he give evidence of thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think?
2. Does he count others more significant than himself?
Paul writes to all Christians in Philippians 2:3–4 a word that is especially pressing for church leaders: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Counting others more significant than self cuts to the very heart of the pastoral calling, and to the heart of the faith. Jesus himself, the great Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25), is the paradigmatic humble leader who took note of, looked to, and gave himself for the ultimate interests of others (Philippians 2:5–8). Pastoral labor never eclipses or replaces the perfect humility of Christ, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), but it does seek to echo his humility, and so point to it, in our daily efforts.
Give Us Humble Pastors
When God does the double miracle of producing humble men and giving them as pastor-teachers to local churches, what kind of men might we expect to find teaching and leading our churches? Humble pastors love the Scriptures and “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:3). They receive their calling as undershepherds, gladly embracing their role under the authority of their Chief. Humble pastors love preaching not themselves but Christ Jesus as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Humble pastors give benefit of the doubt and expect the best (not assume the worst) from each other and from the flock. They don’t let cynicism about their people develop and fester in their hearts. They have a kind of gentleness of spirit, and no less zeal for God’s honor, that keeps them from being afraid of being wrong and, therefore, feeling a constant need to self-protect.
Humble pastors are transparent rather than evasive; authentic (in the best of senses) rather than superficial. Not defensive but eager to learn and grow and improve. Humble pastors listen. They are the kind of men not inclined to absorb others’ attention, more interested in hearing from others than telling others about themselves. If we could sum up, in one word, what one attribute we need most in the pastorate today, as in every generation, few would come close to humility.
God, give us humble pastors.