Sometimes one of my messages prompts a response, usually in the form of a query and usually made in private. It has been my experience that people prefer to stay out of the line of fire and therefore avoid making their quest for knowledge public for fear of drawing a rebuke from some unknown outlier. And the internet has proven to be excellent camouflage for multiple outliers, helping them to maintain their physical as well as their emotional distance when taking aim at the unsuspecting.
The solution to placing one’s self in such a vulnerable position is to seek a private audience, just as Nicodemus did when he confronted Jesus with his deep felt need to resolve some troubling issues. Their encounter took place at night in an isolated garden, where this representative of Israel’s ruling elite received an answer from an itinerant rabbi that has subsequently ignited the passions of Christians in every century since. Central to our faith is the declaration Jesus made that night that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. This quote is from the Apostle John’s good news book, catalogued as Chapter 3, verse 16 as stated in the New International Version of the Bible (NIV).
I have no such seminal statement to make. But my own Nicodemus sat across from me at lunch, troubled by my comment that we should appraise each candidate on their individual merits and not because of their party affiliation. On the surface this sounds like a lot of work and frankly it can be, especially in light of how many office seekers there are across the political spectrum. But when you consider that we typically vote for only three federal offices (president, senator, and house member) in any one election, plus a variable number of state offices (governor, state senator, state rep and in some cases judges) the number of candidates to consider in any one election is manageable. Of course I have discounting local offices, whose candidates often run unopposed.
Here is an immediate plug to pull. Anyone who uses fear tactics in their speeches or who relies on the shaming and bullying techniques of campaign advertising does not merit your support and should not get your vote. A simple survey of the campaigns being waged across party lines makes it seem impossible to vote for anyone, then, as such tactics are fairly common these days. Not everyone, however, stoops to this level of making their opponent look like so much trash in order to make their own selves appear to smell better. The folks who campaign solely on policy and perspective are few and thereby easy to identify. We must, however, go deeper in our assessment process if we are to seek and find the best among us to serve in these various governance positions.
For the Christian faithful the criteria for leadership has been clearly delineated, rooted in Hebrew Scriptures and amplified by the ethos of the new covenant born of the life-giving essentials of love and sacrifice that Jesus shared with Nicodemus. The most explicit statement about these qualities was penned by the Apostle Paul in a letter to his young disciple, Timothy. His purpose was to help the younger man know what qualities to look for in choosing good leaders for the newly forming communities committed to the principles espoused by Jesus in those open-air seminars held by the lake shore and on the hillsides of Galilee.
Here is a trustworthy saying, Paul wrote in his first known letter to Timothy. If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. This quote can be found in Chapter 3, verse 1 of that letter. And again I am using the NIV.
The Greek word for overseer is episkopos, meaning a guardian. It was a concept popularly used by Plato in describing the need for reputable men to serve as guardians of the Republic. It was a concept easily adaptable to the development of those mini-republics we call churches, which were in need of finding leaders who could foster the growth and security of these newly forming communities, which lacked a natural elder-based form of selection. They also co-opted the Greek term ekklesia, when referring to these local congregations. This was the Greek word for the free citizens of any community, who were literally “called out” to a democratic assembly, to discuss and vote on issues concerning their community. This was not an accidental or serendipitous choice of terms but a deliberate attempt at capturing another aspect of the Spirit filled life and that is freedom. Ekklesia came closest to representing the inherent nature of the Christian community as Jesus promised each individual that you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. This promise can be found in John’s book, Chapter 8, verse 32 in the NIV.
Paul’s hint at the character of any individual qualified to be an overseer can be found in his modifier about the task being morally noble in itself. An overseer or guardian, therefore, must be equally noble in character in order to fulfill the role. Then, when we add the external factors of living in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural dynamics of the Roman Empire, we get a better appreciation for the nature of the extensive list of qualities he looked for in the guardians of these Christian assemblies, where the members were free and equal in spirit if not in the class structure of their day.
To be an overseer or guardian, Paul’s first and perhaps foremost qualification was that a person must be above reproach. This really is a summation of a person’s reputation based on the consistent manifestation of all the other facets of character, which comprise the balance of his list. And it should be regarded as an assessment by one’s peers, those who know us best, for Paul added an item at the last that an overseer must also have a good reputation with outsiders. This second scenario applies to people who lack an awareness of us based on intimacy yet still retain a favorable opinion of us as servant leaders based on what they do see and hear in the more open settings of our work, our neighborhoods or even in those pesky campaign ads that become overly ubiquitous in the months preceding each election.
Paul’s second item on his list is significant for two reasons. He said of an overseer that he must be the husband of but one wife. To appreciate the concern expressed here is to understand that in the culture of his day a woman’s safety and security was totally dependent upon a man and that preferably being her husband. It was an ancient custom, especially among the Hebrew people, that a man could simply write out a certificate of divorce to rid himself of a less desirable wife. There was no property dispute or custody battle as the woman had no legal rights with which to sue for an equitable share of family and home. Jesus had shocked his own closest followers by teaching that for them divorce was not an option. A wife’s vulnerability was to be given the highest priority in their ministry, subsequently serving as an example of the care and concern they had for others. A husband of but one wife was giving visible evidence of his willingness to put another’s needs first, when providing the protective care required for survival in that culture.
The second point is easily discerned in the fact that we all make pledges when we marry. Wedding vows are common place and in Paul’s day the type of vow a man made to a woman can be seen in the words Jesus recited to his disciples the night before he was arrested, tried an executed. In a private room, where he celebrated the Passover Feast with these men, he used the words of a groom’s vow to his prospective bride to prepare them for the consequences that were about to befall them all. He said Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. This scene, portrayed in John’s account as Chapter 14, verses 1-3 in the NIV, helps us understand that the integrity, honor and trustworthiness of a husband of but one wife is clearly on display by his faithfulness in keeping, for a lifetime, the vow he made to the young and dependent girl betrothed to him in marriage.
The balance of Paul’s list, found in his letter to Timothy, is comprised of internal character traits and external acts revealing a person’s commitment to those traits. An overseer must be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. (I Timothy, Chapter 3, verses 2-7 NIV)
When Paul described the attributes of an overseer, he was building on a foundation of Christian symbolism fostered by the Apostle Peter, who regarded Jesus as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. This was a very personal representation for Peter to make as he was the one given the direct command by the Good Shepherd to feed and care for “my sheep” and “my lambs”. Peter personified the twin roles of shepherd and overseer, while Paul gave them a more uniform, institutional clout with his focus on the role of the overseer as a governor with a heart. And like the guardians of Plato’s Republic, those who ascended to this position were to be the type of people who best exhibited the character traits codified by Paul; people who did not shun their responsibility to seek the greatest good for the entire community as opposed to those who pander to a much smaller segment we now refer to as “the base.”
We say a lot about ourselves in the way in which we cast our votes. But in the privacy of the voting booth that message can remain merely internal, a conversation with our own conscience about the quality of leadership we desire for our nation. And while we cannot control the caliber of those who seek an elected office, we can control the quality of our own selection process, even if that sometimes means refraining from voting for an office due to the confining presence of candidates who fall well short of the candidate checklist supplied for us in Scripture.
Are we limited, then, to voting for only Christian candidates? No; people, whose source of convictions coincides with our own, are worthy of our support as guardians of a republic as rich in its diversity as is the current version of the American republic. This alleviates us from the burden of voting for those who lay claim to the evangelical mantel but live in opposition to its principles. Hypocrisy is not to be rewarded. We can also dismiss the idea that we are limited to voting for men only. We are free in this day and in our culture to vote for the person of either gender we deem to be the most qualified for the role of overseer. So enjoy your freedom and give voice to your conscience. Vote!