How to Evaluate Christian Leaders?

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of Christian leaders be criticized or criticize, and even call other Christian leaders names because of disagreement on such things as politics, the pandemic, and policies regarding justice. And not surprisingly, those who are not leaders are also jumping into the fray and lobbing grenades too.

How many people, however, actually think through the appropriate way to evaluate Christian leaders? And how many people know what reasons Scripture gives for concern? How many Christians have a sort of theological triage they use to evaluate and make these important decisions?

There are doctrines of “prime importance and great weight” that we must insist on.[1] “There is a time to fight. There are certain hills that must not be surrendered, even if the cost is losing our lives.”[2] Some of the hills that we must be willing to die on are the deity, life, death, resurrection, and Second Coming of the Lord Messiah Jesus. 

Other doctrines, beliefs, and convictions are, or should be, a little further down the list of importance. Just as a doctor would jump to help the patient with a gunshot wound to the chest before she would help someone with a broken pinky finger. It is not that the pinky finger is not important; it is that the gunshot wound is more important and dire.

So, let’s look at some biblical criteria by which to evaluate Christian leaders. It should be understood that these criteria do not have the same weight. The criteria of “Christology,” for example, should be given more weight of importance than “Clarity.”

1. Christology (& sound doctrine)

Christian leaders have the duty to communicate God’s transforming truth, exalt Jesus Christ, teach the Bible so that people understand and apply what God has said, and encourage conformity to Christ (see e.g. Neh. 8:7-8; 1 Tim. 3:2). Faithfulness to the revelation of God and preaching Christ are paramount (Col. 1:28). If the word of God and Jesus the Messiah are not being preached then you have reason for concern.

If false or unhealthy things are said or taught about God, His word, or Jesus the Messiah then you have great reason for concern and should share your concern and likely leave that individual’s leadership. It is important that we are aware that leaders sometimes don’t preach the truth. Peter told us that there will be false teachers among us, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought us (2 Pet. 2:1).

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions” (1 Tim. 6:3-4).

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Does this person preach/teach true, healthy doctrine? Does this person preach/teach the goodness and glory of Messiah Jesus?”

Don’t ask:

  • “Do I like the style etc. of the person?”

See also: Deut. 13:1-5; 1 Jn. 4:1-3; 1 Cor. 12:3; Col. 1:28; 2:8 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13.

2. Character

The leaders own life should be in order. That is, the leader should have Christ-like character. Leaders and teachers can “profess to know God” and yet “deny Him by their works” (Titus 1:16). That’s partly why it’s so important that Christian leaders meet the biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:1-9).

One of the problems with the false teachers Paul is concerned within his letter to Titus is that they are “teaching for shameful gain” (Titus 1:11). Those who teach must do so out of love for Christ and others and must have character that commends the message (v. 6-9).

Sound/healthy doctrine is vital (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13) and so are good works (1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:17; Titus 1:8; 2:3, 14; 3:1). “Mere orthodoxy is not enough; Christians must live out their creed. The gospel of the crucified Messiah must transform not only beliefs but our behavior.”[3]

Christians, especially Christian leaders, should demonstrate love, joy, kindness, impartiality, mercy, faithfulness, reasonableness, gentleness, goodness, grace, patience, purity, peace, sincerity, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23; James 3:17). Christians should never be characterized by quarreling, conceit, hostility, gossip, jealousy, rivalry, anger, envy, enmity, slander, strife, dissensions, divisions, or disorder (2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:19-21).

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Does this brother or sister demonstrate strong Christian character?”

Don’t ask:

  • “Do I agree with this Christian leader in every minute detail?”

See also: Jer. 14:13-14; 23:14, 17, 22, 28-29; Ezra 7:10; Matt. 7:22-23; Phil. 2:3-5; James 3:13-18.

3. Community

Leaders should be accountable. No leader should be a rogue leader. That’s partly why I believe a plurality of leadership is the New Testament model. 

Letters of recommendation seemed to have been common in the early church (see 2 Cor. 3:1). That’s because a leader is accountable. Not just anyone should be given authority but must prove themselves (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:10) to the Christian community.

That is one reason ministerial education, though not necessary, can be helpful. It’s helpful because an institution or a community confers a degree upon an individual. Of course, a degree is far from an endorsement of character but it may nevertheless be helpful.

We also see here, the importance of pastoral ordination. When an individual is ordained it says that a body of believers and qualified leaders see the ordained individual as meeting the requirements for Christian leadership. The ordained individual has been formally recognized by a community of believers. That is important.

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Is this brother or sister recognized by the Church at large and my own local church as faithfully holding firm to the trustworthy word and able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9)?”

Don’t ask:

  • “Is this person in my same denomination or do they agree with me on every jot and tittle politically?”

See also: Deut. 13:3-5; 18:20; Acts 17:11; 1 Cor. 14:29; Eph. 5:10; 1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1, 6.

4. Challenge (as opposed to compromise)

The message and mission of the leader should be challenging, not coddling, and calls for holy living. This is vital because “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3).

“In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

If a leader will not challenge people but will only suit people’s passions then they will be of no help. They will only be saying, “’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). And that dishonors God and does no good.

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Does this person challenge me to follow hard after Jesus and live a holy life in light of the good news of Jesus?”

Don’t ask:

  • “Does this person always leave me feeling good and happy about myself?”

See also: Jer. 6:13; 23:9-15; 1 Thess. 2:4-6; Rev. 2:20-23.

5. Clarity & Content

The message and mission of the Christian leader should be clear and clearly biblical. This is important because God is not a God of confusion but of order (1 Cor. 14:33). That is why “everything must be done in a proper and orderly manner” (v. 4). The content of the Christian leader must also be for “strengthening, encouraging, and comfort” (v. 3). The content must “edify the church” (v. 4). So, what the Christian leader must work at excelling at is not being popular but building up the church (v. 12). The point of their ministry is not popularity but “so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (v. 31).

So, what is said and taught by the Christian leader must be intelligible, edifying, and have solid beneficial content in order to build up. Thinking is vital for Christians and doctrine is vital for Christians too. Sometimes Christians are known for being empty-headed but historically that has not been the case. And should not be the case.[4]

The life of the mind in the Bible is a life-supporting organ. Apart from it, the Christian would have no life; or, if they did, it would be small, sad, and stunted (1 Cor. 14:20; Heb. 5:11-6:3). Therefore, we must pursue knowledge.[5] And Christian leaders must lead people to the truth that transforms.

Christian thinking is not to be cold. It is not to stay in the ivory tower. It is to come down with hands of love. Christian thinking must be the furnace driving the engine of love. Thinking is very practical for the Christian, it is integrated into all of life. It is important at the inception and through to the conclusion. Christian thinking is vital because thinking is inevitable.

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Does this person clearly teach the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) in a way that builds up?”

Don’t ask:

See also: 1 Cor. 14:3-26, 29-33, 37-40.

6. Compassion

Lastly, Christian leaders should be motivated to serve out of love of God and love of people. Not money, not fame, not power. The Apostle Paul said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Christian leaders have a weighty calling. They are to care for the precious people that Messiah Jesus purchased with His very own sacrificial death. That is not something to take lightly.

It is vital that Christian leaders be motivated rightly. Christian leaders “will have to give an account” of their leadership (Heb. 13:17). It is completely unacceptable for Christian leaders to teach “for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). Christian leaders must not be “greedy for gain” (v. 8). Christian leaders must remember, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10; cf. Prov. 28:20).

In Exodus, we are told that those who were to be placed in leadership were those that feared God, were trustworthy, and hate bribes (Ex. 18:21). Christian leaders who are fit to lead are those who care for the flock and not just for themselves; who feed the flock and not just themselves (Ezek. 34:1-10).

Christian leaders are to “shepherd the flock of God that is among [them], exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have [them]; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Pet. 5:2).

So, in evaluating a Christian leader, ask yourself:

  • “Does this person show compassion and concern? Does this person seem to be motivated by love of God and neighbor?”

Don’t ask:

  • “Does this person have money and influence?”

See also: Jer. 13:17; 1 Cor. 13:2,8; Lk. 19:41-44; Acts 20:28.

These six criteria are only tools and of course, are not the only ways to evaluate Christian leaders. In a future post, we will consider “Confronting False Teaching/Teachers” and “Considerations when Confronting.”

[1] In a letter Dionysius of Alexandria wrote to Stephen, the bishop of Rome, he said: “On points… of prime importance and great weight we must insist. For if anyone utters any impiety about God… or if anyone introduces the worship of strange gods.” Or if anyone says that Christ “was either not God or not man, or that He did not die or rise again, or that He is not coming again to judge the quick and the dead; or if he preach any other gospel than we have preached, let him be accursed, says Paul” (See the letter here.)

[2] Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On, 94. This is a great book and I highly suggest you read it.

[3] D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 109.

[4] There are a bunch of Scriptures that show us the important place of the mind and thinking within Christianity (Ps. 9:10; 32:8-9; 73:22; 119:34; Prov. 2:1-6; Is. 1:18; Matt. 13:19; 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27; Jn. 8:32; 13:17; Acts 17:2-4; 20:28; Rom. 6:17; 8:5-6; 10:13-14, 17; 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:6, 14-16; 3:1-2; 14:13-15, 20; 2 Cor. 4:3-6; 5:11; Eph. 1:17-19; 3:14-19; 4:23; Phil. 1:9-11; 4:8-9; Col. 1:9-10, 28; 3:1-2, 10; Heb. 5:11-6:3; 2 Pet. 1:5).

[5] Jonathan Edwards said, “Such is the nature of man, that nothing can come at the heart but through the door of the understanding: and there can be no spiritual knowledge of that of which there is not first a rational knowledge.” It is important also to remember that doctrine is never taught in the Bible just to be known with our heads but rather to be lived with our hearts and hands: John 13:17 says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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