Respectability and hospitality (and Friendship & Fidelity)

The qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 mention that for a man to be a minister he must be a one-woman man, be sober-minded, and be self-controlled. In my experience, these and other qualifications are commonly noted in letters of reference for potential pastors. And this makes sense: after all, the Apostle Paul’s inspired letters to pastors put far more emphasis on character and godliness than they do on a candidate’s aptitude to teach.

Nonetheless, there are two packages of pastoral attributes that are not often emphasized by presbyteries or congregations when a man is being examined or called. I am not saying that most ministers do not meet these qualifications, or pastoral attributes. I believe that the vast majority of orthodox ministers do. But I am not sure that churches consistently ask about these qualifications, and I am concerned that presbyteries’ examination of men regarding these qualifications is often insufficient. Perhaps it is time to address both of these when search committees are considering candidates, or when presbyteries are conducting examinations.

First, there is the matter of reputation. Paul twice tells Titus that potential elders must be “above reproach.” This point is repeated in his first epistle to Timothy, to which the Apostle also adds that an elder candidate must be “respectable,” to which he further adds that an elder “must be well thought of by outsiders.” The last requirement is arresting, thought-provoking, and should perhaps be action-provoking. Actually, it seems to me that we need to take these qualifications more seriously than we have in the past and, in order to do so, Presbyterian churches should probably do two things.

On the one hand, we should require all incoming elders to have a letter of reference from an “outsider” – someone who is not a member of a church, and yet who knows the candidate well enough to vouch for his orderly conduct – perhaps a former employer (for a newly minted minister), or a neighbour (for an existing minister moving to a new church). We should ask the man or woman writing the letter of reference to address any concerns that he or she might have; character flaws that could inhibit good leadership; patterns of speech that fall short of the highest moral standards – or positive traits that they think would be an asset. This is not a high bar for a pastor, but if he could not produce such a letter, or it proved to be a hardship for him to do so, it would surely be telling to those seeking to call him.

On the other hand, we should require legal background checks, ensuring that a candidate’s disclosures of any past sins and lapses of judgement are honest and complete, so that any heart-work and repentance that needs to be done is addressed prior to the commencement of a ministry – if, after a careful review, we determine that there can be any ministry at all. Such accountability is no cure-all. But it seems like a must-do.

Second, there is the matter of hospitality. The Bible contains three infallible pastoral epistles and two of them stress that elders be hospitable. In his letter to Titus, Paul places “hospitality” in direct opposition to egotistical sins such as arrogance, quick temper, and greed. There we also see hospitality presented as a leading virtue, listed at the head of a brief catalogue of character strengths, such as the love of the good, self-control and discipline. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul closes his opening list of personal pastoral characteristics with an insistance that the elder be “hospitable.”

It may help to remind ourselves that hospitality is not “entertainment.” Hospitality is done for the good of the guest, not for the fun of the host. Hospitality can involve serving hotdogs; with us it often does. And we are not alone: when we were moving to a new town and didn’t know anyone, a pastor of a large church invited us to his home – for hotdogs. Hospitality is especially important for elders because their teaching and ruling responsibilities do not necessarily require them, unlike deacons, to be mixing regularly with strangers, the lonely, widows, and the poor. And yet in too many churches pastors and other elders are not expected to exercise hospitality.

Now this may be because churches are sensitive to the fact that pastors and their wives have a lot going on. They may have a lot of children, or young children, or especially difficult children, or the family may be dealing with chronic illness, financial stress, or constant care for aging parents, to mention only a few possibilities. But churches should at least ask about this gift, and seek to pray for and help pastors who are not exercising hospitality or, if necessary, have other elders pick up the slack if the pastoral household is unable to do this work. While hospitality is principally a gift for the receiver, God has designed it to also bless the giver, and if we love our pastors, we will want these blessings for them.

The tendency to avoid talking about this task may be especially true for today’s senior ministers and celebrity authors, and that is a problem that needs special attention. In the medieval and early-modern church, many of the worst moral offenders were bishops and abbots, the leaders over other clergy and over other monks. Presbyterians have rightly done away with these positions, but we have retained our rough equivalents in the form of senior pastors and seminary presidents. Now let me be quick to say that bigger-name ministers hardly hold a monoply on sin, and of those whom I know best, I count them among the godliest men I know. As well, my prayer list for fallen ministers contains only one who pastored a large church; the remainder pastored small to mid-sized churches. But there are dangers attendant to these more prominent positions. Power and isolation can enable ministerial sin, and when churches permit -- even encourage -- ministries that are all public and rarely private, all outside the home and never inside the home, we become enablers of situations where key qualifications of an elder cannot be measured, and where key gifts are not used.

We will never have, and surely don’t want, windows into men’s souls. But we do want windows into marriage and home life. God’s inclusion of hospitality on his inspired list of essential elder responsibilities has many benefits.

Negatively, it offers a window, or a door: it allows visitors to notice – inadvertently -- if there are overt patterns of abuse or disrespect. Hospitality does not rule out hidden sins; one can open a home and live a life that shuts out others. But hospitality makes hiding harder.

Positively, and unlike speaking in public, practicing hospitality puts the shepherd in close touch with real sheep; it reminds him of his fundamental duties as pastor, and of the work and relationships and lives that would be undone if he flirts with pornography, let alone flirt with people. The constant ambition of Reformers and puritans was for an under-shepherd to be resident among his flock, or at least near where his flock gathers to worship. This tends to be better for a church, better for a pastor’s accountibility, and not only better for a ministry of hospitality.

Generalization invites qualification. Here’s one qualifier: residence among, and hospitality towards, the people of the church is no panacea for pastoral problems. It is not the root cause of the disasters unfolding before the eyes of long-suffering brothers and sisters in churches where a pastor has been unfaithful. After all, there is a small segment of pastors who ensure that no one is welcomed, let alone invited, to give them honest input, either in the church membership, among their elders, or in their wider circle of friends. Here’s another qualifier: there really are unique homes or seasons that keep those longing to exercise hospitality from being able to do so (I know, I said that already; but it bears repeating).

But the generalizations still hold. And occasional revelations of private patterns of pastoral sin serve as a reminder to me, and perhaps should serve as a reminder to others, that when ministers are being called to a church or seminary, or when on occasion their work is being reviewed by others, that we should ask about all the qualifications for eldership, including hospitality. And if this is absent, or infrequent with a pastor we already do have, we might ask how we might help that pastor and his family in exercising this gift.

And if this is a pastoral responsibility, let us recognize this fact not in order to press upon our pastors yet another duty, but to see how we can graciously make this duty sweeter and easier for the servants of God whom we love. My wife and I benefited from singles and couples who would read stories to our children, or help tidy, clean or cook – or bring the whole meal! – so that we could have people in our home more often. We don’t know how we could exercise hospitality without the help of a small core of regular guests and many loving church members. But the churches where we served had line-items for pastoral hospitality, and desired to pay pastors well enough that we could live close to the church and have space for guests.

When churches bless their pastors in this way, and encourage these gifts, they indirectly improve our reputations, and they help pastors to be more accountable to more people and bless both saints and strangers. And by God’s grace, and odd as it sounds, collective diligence in these things may also offer a little more protection against pastoral infidelity through something as simple as a ministry of hospitality.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte. A leading expert on the work of the Westminster Assembly.