Respectability and Hospitality (and Friendship and Fidelity)

Hospitality is especially important for elders because their teaching and ruling responsibilities do not necessarily require them, unlike deacons, to be mixing regularly with strangers, the lonely, widows, and the poor. And yet in too many churches pastors and other elders are not expected to exercise hospitality. Now this may be because churches are sensitive to the fact that pastors and their wives have a lot going on. But churches should at least ask about this gift, and seek to pray for and help pastors who are not exercising hospitality or, if necessary, have other elders pick up the slack if the pastoral household is unable to do this work. 

The qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 mention that for a man to be a minister he must be a one-woman man, be sober-minded, and be self-controlled. In my experience, these and other qualifications are commonly noted in letters of reference for potential pastors. And this makes sense: after all, the Apostle Paul’s inspired letters to pastors put far more emphasis on character and godliness than they do on a candidate’s aptitude to teach.

Nonetheless, there are two packages of pastoral attributes that are not often emphasized by presbyteries or congregations when a man is being examined or called. I am not saying that most ministers do not meet these qualifications, or pastoral attributes. I believe that the vast majority of orthodox ministers do. But I am not sure that churches consistently ask about these qualifications, and I am concerned that presbyteries’ examination of men regarding these qualifications is often insufficient. Perhaps it is time to address both of these when search committees are considering candidates, or when presbyteries are conducting examinations.

First, there is the matter of reputation. Paul twice tells Titus that potential elders must be “above reproach.” This point is repeated in his first epistle to Timothy, to which the Apostle also adds that an elder candidate must be “respectable,” to which he further adds that an elder “must be well thought of by outsiders.” The last requirement is arresting, thought-provoking, and should perhaps be action-provoking. Actually, it seems to me that we need to take these qualifications more seriously than we have in the past and, in order to do so, Presbyterian churches should probably do two things.

On the one hand, we should require all incoming elders to have a letter of reference from an “outsider” – someone who is not a member of a church, and yet who knows the candidate well enough to vouch for his orderly conduct – perhaps a former employer (for a newly minted minister), or a neighbour (for an existing minister moving to a new church). We should ask the man or woman writing the letter of reference to address any concerns that he or she might have; character flaws that could inhibit good leadership; patterns of speech that fall short of the highest moral standards – or positive traits that they think would be an asset. This is not a high bar for a pastor, but if he could not produce such a letter, or it proved to be a hardship for him to do so, it would surely be telling to those seeking to call him.

On the other hand, we should require legal background checks, ensuring that a candidate’s disclosures of any past sins and lapses of judgement are honest and complete, so that any heart-work and repentance that needs to be done is addressed prior to the commencement of a ministry – if, after a careful review, we determine that there can be any ministry at all. Such accountability is no cure-all. But it seems like a must-do.

Second, there is the matter of hospitality. The Bible contains three infallible pastoral epistles and two of them stress that elders be hospitable. In his letter to Titus, Paul places “hospitality” in direct opposition to egotistical sins such as arrogance, quick temper, and greed. There we also see hospitality presented as a leading virtue, listed at the head of a brief catalogue of character strengths, such as the love of the good, self-control and discipline. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul closes his opening list of personal pastoral characteristics with an insistance that the elder be “hospitable.”

It may help to remind ourselves that hospitality is not “entertainment.” Hospitality is done for the good of the guest, not for the fun of the host. Hospitality can involve serving hotdogs; with us it often does. And we are not alone: when we were moving to a new town and didn’t know anyone, a pastor of a large church invited us to his home – for hotdogs.

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