My name is Chris Thomas. I’m a fortunate husband, a father of three and Dad to five. I’m an advocate of foster care as an expression of the gospel. I’m a pastor at Raymond Terrace Community Church, a regional church based in the Hunter Valley, Australia. I mostly write about the gospel and how it informs both work and rest.

Character Over Competence

Character Over Competence


‘Why you should choose a godly man who is an average preacher, over the worldly man who can preach up a storm.'


You will notice that I use the the words, ‘Elder’, ‘Shepherd’, ‘Pastor’, and ‘Overseer’ interchangeably. This is because that is exactly how the Bible uses these terms. The office of an Elder is the office of a Pastor—an Elder is a Shepherd—a Pastor is a Shepherd. That is why, if you were to join our church, you would experience the care of a ‘Pastoral Team’—which we could just as accurately call an ‘Eldership’. Here, we have a blend of ‘vocational’ pastors (men who are financially released to shepherd), and ‘non-vocational’ pastors (men who are no less a pastor simply because they volunteer their time).

‘Character Over Competence’ is an issue that relates to far more than leadership in the local church; it is a significant truth any disciple of Christ must come to terms with. God is far more concerned with the type of person you are, than what you can (or cannot) do in his kingdom. Yet, when it comes to considering leadership in the local church, ‘Character Over Competence’ is of vital importance.

To help address this important subject, I want to do it by addressing three reasons why you should consider the subtitle I’ve used above. Namely, ‘Why you should choose a godly man who is an average preacher, over the worldly man who can preach up a storm.'

Because not all who carry a crook are shepherds

Just because someone looks like a shepherd, sounds like a shepherd, and hangs around sheep all day, doesn't make them a shepherd. Appearances can be deceiving. The well-known phrase, ‘a wolf in sheep clothing’, is well-known for a reason. And since the church is likened repeatedly throughout Scripture as the flock of God, we ought to take this truth seriously.

Just because someone dresses like a pastor, sounds like a pastor, and hangs around Christians all day (even attends good conferences and has a blog), doesn't mean they are a pastor! For thousands of years, God has shown himself deeply concerned for his people—his sheep—and therefore has been deeply concerned about those he has called to care for them. Take the time to read through the scathing words of condemnation God had against the so-called shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34:1-16; at the very least this warning should ignite the church to pray for their pastors, and if you are a pastor—well, this passage should drive you to your knees!

Consider Jesus. As John records his account of the gospel, he presents Jesus through a number of significant “I Am” statements. One of these is found in John 10.

John 10:11–14 (ESV) — 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

We can clearly see that Jesus knew that not everyone who hangs around sheep can truly be called a shepherd. Just as the ‘hired hand’ existed in Israel, he exists in the church today. There is a defining characteristic of the shepherd—he cares for the sheep.

Or consider Paul; on a stony beach he wept with his dear friends, the elders from Ephesus, as he journeyed toward Jerusalem. There, by the sea, Paul warns them of the trials they will face in the days ahead.

Acts 20:28–31 (ESV) — 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

Paul knew that wolves would come, and they would not spare the flock. So often, in this age of ‘culture-wars’, we too often expect the attack to come from the enemy over the fence. But note where Paul says the wolves would arise from—that’s right—from within. Sobering isn’t it?

It is of vital importance that we look for men to shepherd the flock of God who demonstrate character over competence. Give me a godly man with an average gift, over the orator of the ages whose character hasn’t been shaped by the gospel.

Look for character.

Because pastoring isn’t a profession

Pastoring is not a career path. You become a shepherd because you are called to be a shepherd. There should be no such thing as being ‘promoted’ to Pastor. You do not do your dues in some ‘lesser’ ministry in the hope that one day you will get your ‘call-up’ into the big league.

Pastoring is a gift, given by God, to serve the church. Just as all the other gifts are given, so also the shepherd is given to build up the church.

Ephesians 4:11–12 (ESV) — 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

The pastor/teacher of Ephesians 4 is the under-shepherd of the church; he is a gift to the church in order to see it furnished for the work of ministry. Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of this fundamental truth, we have twisted this good gift and called the pastor a ‘professional minister of the gospel’. We have employed shepherds to do the work of ministry on the church’s behalf, and in doing so we have short-changed the world in the demonstration of the gospel’s power.

Your pastor is not a professional. We each have our part to play. Paul’s famous ‘body’ image of the church needs to be understood in its entirety.

1 Corinthians 12:1 (ESV) — 1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.

1 Corinthians 12:4–11 (ESV) — 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

1 Corinthians 12:27–30 (ESV) — 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

Pastors may in fact be paid to shepherd, but pastoring is not a profession. We would do better to understand ‘vocational’ pastors as being men who have had ‘time’ bought for them. A paid pastor does not need to concern himself with how he will provide for the needs of his family and himself, instead, with time ‘paid’ for, he is free to shepherd the church without distraction. 

Leadership in God’s kingdom should be seen as distinctly different to leadership in the world.

Mark 10:42–45 (ESV) — 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It is of vital importance that we look for men to shepherd the flock of God who demonstrate character over competence. I don’t want a professional—I want someone who can faithfully point me to the Great Shepherd.

Look for character.

Because that is where the Bible rests its emphasis

Character over competence is a biblical idea. Note that I’m not saying that competence doesn’t matter—we’ll soon see that it does—but that the vast weight of Scripture leads me to believe that God is primarily concerned with the type of man who shepherds, rather than the skills that man brings to the role.

There are two ‘go-to’ passages that deal with the qualification of a shepherd, both are found in letters written by Paul to emerging leaders of the first century church.

1 Timothy 3:1–7 (ESV) — 1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Of all the qualifications listed, only two are primarily about competence. The ability to teach, and the ability to manage your own household well, are the only two qualifications that define someones aptitude for the role of shepherd. All the others describe the type of man Timothy ought to look for.

Yet it should not be said that competence in these matters doesn’t matter, because they obviously do. In the parallel passage to Paul’s instruction to Timothy, we can see the significance the ability to teach God’s Word has.

Titus 1:5–9 (ESV) — 5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

A shepherd must be able to handle the Word well. Paul cites two reasons why that is so (see verse 9). Firstly, so that he may be able to instruct, and secondly, so that he may be able to defend. Both instruction and defence are necessary requirements of the role of a shepherd.

It is of vital importance that we look for men to shepherd the flock of God who demonstrate character over competence. I want good teaching, but I want it from a man who has had his life shaped and moulded by the gospel.

Look for character.


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