Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, The Testing of Pastoral Ministry Students

For context, be sure and read the first six articles listed here.

After having given a list of qualifications for elders, Paul writes regarding deacons, “These men must also first be tested” (1Tim 3:10a; emphasis added).  Such word choice suggests that one way a church determines whether or not an elder meets the necessary qualifications to hold such an office in the church is by way of testing.[1] Yet, if this principle is merely suggested in the above passage, it is made abundantly clear in the next. When instructing the churches on how to discern false teachers, John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1John 4:1; emphasis added). This passage is specifically addressing the act of receiving a false prophet into the assembly from elsewhere. However, one can logically deduce from John’s line of reasoning that, by not accurately testing potential elders, churches likewise risk sending false prophets out into the world.

A solemn, corporate calling. The task of the local church of testing pastoral ministry students is not one that should be taken lightly. In fear and trembling, local assemblies must go about their task of confirming a man’s calling to the ministry, knowing that a flippant endorsement of a false teacher could lead to much hardship for souls under the care of the church universal. “For there is no shortage of those who base a defense of their own wicked lives on the behavior of those who are set over them and who are their teachers.”[2]

At minimum, the potential elder must pass three types of testing at the local church level: the creedal test, the character test, and the aptitude test. There are likewise two bodies responsible for conducting these tests: the congregation and the elder body. This section examines the aforementioned types of testing, while the next two focus more specifically on the responsibilities of the congregation and the elders in conducting such tests.

The creedal test. Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms have historically served to help “the church unitedly declare what it believes, what it is to be, and how it is to be an evangelical testimony to those outside of its fellowship.”[3] The Three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) have been accepted and affirmed as a test for orthodoxy throughout church history. Other such documents have since been adopted into the faith and practice of Christian congregations the world over, such as the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the First and Second London Baptist Confessions, and the Baptist Faith and Message. “The teaching of catechisms had been long a practice of the Catholic Church. All the Protestant bodies likewise resorted to this method of instruction.”[4]

No one arrives at the Bible with a neutral, objective standard. Everyone brings to the Bible their own preconceived theology. “The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians. A good theologian is one who is instructed by God.”[5] Many great truths have been discovered through the process of doing theology. These truths have been handed down in creeds and confessions. The creeds and confessions have thus served to guard the universal church from much error. Such truths include the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Christ, the epistemology of general and special revelation, etc.

Should a man begin formulating his own doctrinal creed from a mere read of the Bible without consulting the labor of forerunners throughout church history, he would not only be ignorant of all that came before him, but arrogant in his disregard of it. It is the role of the local assembly to ensure that this type of man is not admitted into any office of leadership within the church. “Without a confession of faith the church’s evaluation of its ministers is haphazard and shallow at best; and the church will be in great danger of laying hands on novices and heretics, all because it does not measure candidates for ministry by a broad and deep standard.” [6]  Many men, however, are too proud to prostrate themselves before the cumulative wisdom of generations past, and many naive churches are all too willing to give such stubborn men a platform.

Creeds, confessions, and catechisms have historically held a high position in the teaching and guarding of the church from error. More pertinently, they have historically been used as a means of guarding the church against errors of ignorant and arrogant potential pastors. As late as the 19th century, Baptist pastors like Charles H. Spurgeon would simply assume the presence of a catechism class in the upbringing of candidates for their higher-learning institutions:

“For a man to come shuffling into a College, pretending that he holds his mind open to any form of truth, and that he is eminently receptive, but has not settled in his mind such things as whether God has an election of grace, or whether he loves his people to the end, seems to me to be a perfect monstrosity. ‘Not a novice,’ says the apostle; yet a man who has not made up his mind on such points as these, is confessedly and egregiously ‘a novice,’ and ought to be relegated to the catechism-class until he has learned the first truths of the gospel.”[7]

The character test. Head knowledge is not all that is required of pastors, though. There are qualities of character that must be observed in the life of a potential pastor if he is to be granted the office of elder. When Paul instructs Timothy as to what he must seek in an overseer, he lists skill sets as well as character traits (1Tim. 3:1-7). “Because the office of overseer is such an important position, those who fulfill that role must be of certain character—above reproach.”[8] Such traits must not merely be assumed on the part of the pastoral candidate; they must be observed.

What character qualifications should a church seek in a prospective pastor, then? Mark Dever provides a helpful, though not exhaustive, summary:

“Furthermore, as representatives of Christ, ministers have a special obligation to reflect the character of Christ. Such character will include a care for the flock, a willingness to serve, a lack of greed for money, a refusal to lord it over the flock, an exemplary life, blamelessness, being the husband of only one wife, and the ability to manage a household well. A minister is not overbearing, quick tempered, or given to much wine. And a minister should not be violent or willing to pursue dishonest gain.”[9]

This principle presents a dilemma. How might a local church hope to observe such a life in the American culture? According to a government study done in 2010, the average American adult spends nearly 10 hours a day doing personal activities (the bulk of that in sleeping), nearly 1 ½ hours eating or drinking, nearly 2 hours working around the house, ¾ an hour making purchases, nearly ¾ an hour caring for or helping others, 3 ½ hours working, ½ an hour doing educational activities, just over a ½ hour participating in community, club, or religious activities, over 5 hours watching television, surfing the internet, or being otherwise distracted, and just over a ½ hour doing other things.[10] In short, Americans are busy. With all the distraction that comes from everyday life, and the menial things to which American evangelicals can commit themselves, how might a church hope to be able to involve themselves in the life of a pastoral candidate?

The answer may not be simple, but some ideas are worth considering. Church life must become central in western culture again. As was Luther’s custom, pastors should consider visiting the homes of their churchmen regularly, encouraging and teaching them to instruct their wives and children in the way they have been commanded in Scripture. Some will need more encouragement in this regard than others. When families take their spiritual duties more seriously in the home, they inevitably take their spiritual duties in the church more seriously. After having eliminated distractions in the home so as to have more time for their family, those distractions will also be less likely to encroach upon their duties in the church body.

Once churchmen reassume their rightful roles in the home and in the church, they will once again be able to assume their proper role in the life of the pastoral candidate. If a family is hospitable enough to have their pastor to the dinner table, why not invite a pastoral ministry student to the dinner table as well? After all, the command to be hospitable is to the whole church (Rom 12:13; 1Pet 4:9). Granted, the student will not be fulfilling the same ministerial role that the pastor is expected to fulfill in these visits, but the host family will nonetheless come to better understand the man they presume to be examining. How else, after all, should they hope to truly get to know the man and render a proper assessment of him?

This solution, it must be stated, is not a universal one. Obviously, not every member of the body has been granted the gift of hospitality, nor should the pastoral student expect that he should receive a hot meal and warm conversation without having to give something in return.  The Bible calls for the minister’s family to be hospitable as well (1Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8). “Overseers must be the type of people who will gladly welcome people into their homes.”[11] Thus, the pastoral ministry student will further prove his qualification by having members of lesser acquaintance into his home.

The congregation and the prospective elder must be led and encouraged in this process by the elders and deacons of the church. An intentional elder might encourage the people from the pulpit to apply these principles and to do their part in acquiring a more intimate knowledge of the man they are examining. A prime opportunity to do so might be found on the occasions when the elders have provided the ministry student with an opportunity to preach and/or teach. These opportunities to preach and teach will naturally arise as the church seeks to discern the next set of qualifications in the man: aptitude.

The aptitude test. As well as having knowledge and character, a third trait: that of aptitude, must be present in the prospective elder. Paul does not merely suggest that overseers be able to do the tasks they have been given to do, but demands it: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1Tim. 3:2; emphasis added). As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains, though a man may be qualified to do a great many things, if he is not apt to teach and preach, he is not qualified to be a preacher.[12]

The under-shepherd, though, must not merely have a superior skill for oratory, as important as it may be. Lloyd-Jones laments, “It seems to me to be one of the tragedies of the modern Church that we tend to put ability first.”[13] The overseer must also be equipped with wisdom and people skills:

“The preacher must be a godly man. But he must also have wisdom. And not only that, he must also have patience and forbearance. This is most important in a preacher. The Apostle puts it thus: ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle to all men, apt to teach, patient’ (2Tim 2:24).”[14]

This wisdom must be apparent in his life, particularly as it regards “outsiders” (1Tim. 3:7). “In order for the whole church to be oriented to its mission and purpose, its leaders’ interaction with the authorities, with neighbors, and with employers should commend the gospel to them.”[15] Thus, skillfulness with people and with the conduct of one’s own public life must be readily observable in the life of a pastoral candidate.

Finally, the elder must be skilled in the art of humility. The pastor will be expected to exemplify Christ in all that he does and to set the example for the congregation. Just as Christ forsook His glorious abode in heaven and subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross, so that sinners would be absolved of their sin-debt before God, so too a pastor must be willing to forsake himself for the sake of the elect.[16] Christ summarized this principle, which pastors are to model for their congregations, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first” (Mark 10:31).

The pastor’s life, contrary to much that is expected in American evangelicalism, is not meant to be a life of privilege and comfort. Rather, the biblical ministry will be marked with great toil and hardship. Subsequently, the pastoral candidate should be one who has proven to be able to endure through trial and hardship with humility and contentment. “The stairway to the ministry is not a grand staircase but a back stairwell that leads down to the servants’ quarters.”[17] It follows that aptitude is key to the life of the pastor, or as Lloyd-Jones puts it, “we have got to emphasise natural intelligence and ability. If a man is to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ he must have ability.”[18]

To summarize, the prospective elder must be tested in creed, character, and ability. Anything short of such testing of the church’s future stewards will inevitably result in a weak church at best, and a heretical, grossly immoral, or spiritually dead church, at worst. It is thus imperative that the church conduct this vital task of discerning the spirits through testing.

[1]William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, ed. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 132.

[2]Augustine, On Education, trans. George Howie (South Bend: Gateway Editions, LTD, 1969), 339.

[3]Joel R. Beeke et al., Living for God’s Glory (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 19.

[4] Frederick Eby, Early Protestant Educators (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc, 1931), 87.

[5]R.C Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 25.

[6]Robert Paul Martin, introduction to 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, A Modern Exposition, by Samuel E. Waldron (Faverdale North: Evangelical Press, 2005), 20.

[7]Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 39.

[8]William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 169.

[9]Mark Dever, A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 796-797.

[10] U.S. Department of Labor, American Time Use Survey—2010 Results (Washington: U.S.D.L. Press Office, 2011),, 9, Press Release, BLS, USDL-11-0919.

[11]Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 174.

[12]D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 111.

[13]Ibid., 110.


[15]Dever, A Theology, 797.

[16]Spurgeon, Lectures, 40.

[17] Edmund P. Clowney, Called to the Ministry (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1964), 43.

[18]Lloyd-Jones, Preaching, 111

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