Character, Leadership, and the Gospel

Character Matters

Why do we feel uncomfortable trusting a politician who has been unfaithful to his wife? or disappointed when a high-profile athlete–known and respected for “family values”– has been hiding an affair? Perhaps we feel this discomfort because we make an intuitive connection between a man’s character and our confidence in him as a leader.

The Link between Character and Leadership

But is this intuition fair? Does it really matter, for example, that a state leader is having an extra-marital affair, as long as he is able to make wise decisions for the state? Here is one reason we connect character and leadership: we realize that a person’s life cannot be divided into personal and public compartments. When a man cannot keep his word in private, he is unlikely to keep it in public. When a man is undisciplined in the way he spends his personal money, he is unlikely to be scrupulous in how he spends public money. Our intuition about character and leadership is well-grounded, for it is a person’s character that unites the public and private domains of life.

Church Leadership Must Be Gospel-Shaped Leadership.

It is no wonder, then, that the Apostle Paul writes much about character when giving the qualifications for leadership in the church (1 Timothy and Titus). The importance of a leader’s character fits with the whole theme of these epistles: when we grasp the gospel, we will live the gospel. In other words, a person’s character shows whether and to what degree that he or she has embraced the gospel. The person who can honestly affirm with Paul the gospel truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15) will be humble, joyful, and godly. In contrast, a person who is proud, self-righteous, or defiant betrays that he or she is failing to appropriate the gospel, or perhaps has never even believed the gospel at all.

The church is a group of people who have believed and are being shaped by the gospel, so we should expect that the gospel will be central to the lives of the church’s leaders—not only in what they believe but also in how they live and lead. Indeed, Paul’s qualifications for pastors/overseers and deacons indicate that this is exactly the case: the leaders of the church must live and lead in a way that is shaped by the gospel.

What I’m Reading: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

This is one of the most interesting, stirring, and helpful books I’ve ever read. It’s easy to see why Peterson has been called “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”—he demonstrates a grasp of philosophy, psychology, religion, and speaks to people with clarity, directness, and passion. (I’ve been listening to this as an audio book with Peterson narrating, and there were at least three times I could hear tears in Peterson’s voice).

Although many of Peterson’s ideas resonate with Christian thinking and living, his outlook is decidedly not Christian. True, he quotes and highly respects the Bible and Christian books (the Sermon on the Mount, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Milton’s Paradise Lost to name a few). But Peterson’s conception of “God” is anything but the personal, triune God of the Bible. For Peterson, ultimate reality is “Being” (perhaps, more precisely, Being and Becoming?), and ideal action is when individuals strive to achieve the delicate balance between Order and Chaos.

Twelve Rules for Life, I think, should be read carefully, critically, and humbly. Carefully, because Peterson’s theological framework is fundamentally flawed. Critically, because many of his ideas are weighty and powerful, and deserve to be thoughtfully considered. Humbly, because we Christians can learn much from him. (Peterson speaks with far more respect for his vague, impersonal Being, than many Christians speak about their God).

Wyatt Graham has posted a couple helpful reviews here and here.

And the Best Background Music for Writing Is . . .

Which kind of music helps you do your best thinking, writing, or creating?

I took several stabs at that question as I wrote my dissertation. I tried Rachmaninoff but found my heart too carried away with the emotion of the music. Sometimes I brought in Mozart’s chamber music. But most often, I enlisted Bach, supplemented with a dull “brown noise” to block incidental sounds.

But I found that the best background music—at least for the work I was doing—is the music of silence.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. I had noticed, among writers of Ph.D. dissertations, a trend to name their writing playlists in the preface. Some prefaces featured songs and groups that I found to be highly distracting. I myself nearly caved into peer pressure by naming Johann, Ludwig, and Sergei as my writing buddies.

At last, I decided that—as much as I loved these composers—my favorite had been silence, sweet silence. And I found some people to back me up on this. Consider these quotations, culled from James Sire’s Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling.

It is only in silence that the mind can function without being carried along, albeit subconsciously, by the often profoundly moving sub-theme of whatever music is playing.
-James Sire


Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
-Wendell Berry

Of course, silence means more than the absence of noise. There is profound quietness of soul that is necessary for sustained, creative concentration. I think this is what the following two writers are getting at.

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work.
-A. G. Sertillanges


To perceive means to listen in silence. Only in silence is hearing possible.
-Josef Pieper

Finally, here’s some advice from Sire:

Solitude means silence. Of course you may wish to play music, but resist the urge. Play it only when you are off-line intellectually. Any noise, any music—Bach, rock or Bacharach—grabs your mind or your subconscious and trails it along after it.

David’s Sins in David’s Sons

Is it hard to lead others when we lack integrity ourselves? You bet it is. We see this in the life of King David.

In 2 Samuel 14, we start to see David’s kingdom unraveling—and it all started with the loose thread of his sexual lust. His unbridled passions are copied by his son Amnon, who rapes his step-sister Tamar. In revenge, Tamar’s full brother Absalom murders Amnon. Now two of David’s sins—adultery and murder—get replicated in two of his sons.

So what does David do?

Here is where David fails yet again: he does nothing. He leaves his smooth but murderous son in self-imposed exile, refusing to either properly punish or fully forgive. And when David finally brings him back, it is only at the connivance of his general Joab.

Absalom must have known that others in the kingdom were also aggravated by David’s moral indecision. When he surreptitiously campaigned for kingship, he enflamed this aggravation with a treacherous sigh. “Oh, that I were judge in the land!” Absalom would exclaim, “Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” Absalom felt—more deeply than anyone else, perhaps—the frustration of having a father and king whose moral failures made him morally indecisive.

Unfortunately, we also can succumb to this kind of moral ambiguity. When we lack integrity, or when we let past failures define us, we fail to make decisions with integrity. What a contrast to the righteous decisiveness of Christ, of whom it is said, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Hebrews 1:8-9)!

Here are two takeaways:

1) This makes me want to avoid sin, if only for the reason that sin disrupts my ability to make right decisions.

2) This makes me love Christ more, as the new and better David—I want his perfect kingdom to take over every part of my heart, as well as every corner of the globe.

We Judge Others Strictly. Ourselves? Not So Much.

We are usually better judges of others than of ourselves. In fact, it is probably impossible to have an unbiased evaluation of the person whose teeth you brush, whose bills you pay, whose car you drive, whose body you inhabit—your own self.

We are simply too heavily vested in ourselves to be impartial judges of our motives, actions, and attitudes.

But what if I’m wrong about myself and need to know the truth? Maybe a close friend could tell me. But suppose everyone around me is afraid to tell me the truth. Or suppose I am so entrenched in self-deceit that others have given up on trying to convince me that I’m wrong. What then?

A glimmer of hope remains. For even when we fail to judge ourselves properly, our ability to judge others usually remains strong. Presumably, this is what Nathan the prophet knew when he told King David a story in which the villain was David himself. This detail, however, Nathan left hidden until David had pronounced judgment on his own character. David had not lost his ability to be enraged by theft, murder, and cruelty–he perfectly perceived it in other men.

To get David to see the truth about himself, it took Nathan’s holding a “portrait” up to David’s face, allowing David to condemn it, then telling him this “portrait” was actually a mirror. Here’s Nathan’s story:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” . . .

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Of course, this account of David’s failure and repentance points to our need for a perfect King—a need which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But it also highlights the universal human tendency for self-deception and need for an outside source of truth. In light of this tendency, here are four truths I must keep in mind:

  1. I have a tendency to deceive myself (Jeremiah 17:9).
  2. Therefore, I need people who are loving and honest enough to tell me when I am wrong (Hebrews 3:13).
  3. If I want these people to tell me when I am wrong, I must prove to them that I am teachable and will not retaliate (James 1:19)
  4. I must filter my thinking and the feedback of friends through the only source of infallible truth—the Word of God (Psalm 19:11-12).

Sick of My Dissertation Topic?

People have asked me whether I ever got sick of my dissertation topic, as someone might ask a person who had vowed to eat only lasagna for breakfast for several months.

Actually, the opposite happened. As I neared the end of my dissertation, I became increasingly fascinated with the topic, especially as it intersected with the topic of personal sanctification—how believers become more and more like Jesus.

Far from being a dull diet of breakfast lasagna (don’t get me wrong: I love lasagna), it was like a multi-course banquet with a finger-licking dessert.

For those who are curious, my dissertation operates at the intersection of two huge areas:

  • the doctrine of the image of God (the fact that we humans were created in God’s image), and
  • the apologetic approach of Blaise Pascal (a make-you-feel-stupid brilliant mathematician and inventor who lived from 1623-1662)

Pascal’s big idea is that human beings are a convoluted mixture of greatness and wretchedness, and that nearly everything that we do shows how deeply unhappy we are. From this observation, he argues that only the Bible can explain why we think, act, and feel in such bizarre ways, and that only the person and work of Jesus Christ can solve this problem. Since Pascal’s method of arguing follows a pattern of reasoning called “abduction,” it’s been called an “abductive argument.” And since it deals with humans, it’s been called an “anthropological argument.”

Pascal never explicitly refers to the fact that we were created in the image of God. So I got curious. Does the Bible’s teaching that we are created in the image of God support what Pascal is saying?

After a lot of reading and thinking and writing, I decided to make this my main idea: the doctrine of the image of God does give more detail and support to Pascal’s way of convincing people to believe the Christian faith. Not a very earth-shattering idea itself, but it opened the doors to some pretty mind-blowing ideas.

Of course, not everyone will find my topic interesting. But perhaps these words from my preface will help explain why I enjoyed it so much:

As I approached the time to decide on my dissertation topic, I began to pray that it would tie together several themes that had sparked my interest throughout my coursework. I had been intrigued and captivated by Blaise Pascal’s apologetic approach. But the doctrine of the imago Dei had also beckoned me, not only because few seem to understand what it means, but also because it forms an important thread in the majestic tapestry of biblical theology. Further, I had become increasingly aware—in reading Augustine, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards and other Puritan authors—how every sphere of life finds its raison d’etre in Christ, “through” whom and “for” whom “all things were created,” who is “before all things,” and by whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). I was delighted, therefore, when the SBTS faculty approved my prospectus for a dissertation that endeavors to deal with the intersection of Pascal’s apologetic and the doctrine of the imago Dei. I have been even more thrilled to discover that both these subjects center on Jesus Christ. Those who follow the star of the imago Dei from Genesis 1, will find themselves gazing into “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). And students of the Pensées encounter an apologist who insisted that knowing God can come only through Christ: “Apart from Jesus Christ,” Pascal declares, “we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves.”

I give thanks to the Lord for leading me to a topic that captured my interest, and to friends who counseled me to find a topic that would be an intellectual and emotional on-ramp instead of a cul-de-sac.

How Important Is a Theological Belief?

Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Every believer is assigned at least one guardian angel.

Both statements above express a theological belief. But clearly, they are different in importance. The first statement I would stake my soul on. The second I wouldn’t stake a sandwich on (of course, I believe angels exist, but I can’t find anything in the Bible that says that each believer is assigned at least one guardian angel).

Here’s the question: how do I know to stake my soul on the first statement, but not on the second? In other words, if not all theological statements are equally important, how do I determine which ones are more important than others?

This excerpt from the ESV Study Bible provides a concise and helpful way to answer this question:

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church; (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and (4) questions are currently unsettled issues. These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye.”

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations: (1) biblical clarity; (2) relevance to the character of God; (3) relevance to the essence of the gospel; (4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it); (5) effect on other doctrines; (6) consensus among Christians (past and present); and (7) effect on personal and church life. These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.