This post was first published in January, 2015. —ed.
New believers, and especially young men, are often very passionate for the truth. The joy of new life in Christ goes hand in hand with the desire to proclaim God’s truth to others and see them come to repentance and faith in Him.
But that passion usually exceeds the new believer’s preparedness to preach. Without a tested and proven faith, and without a strong understanding of Scripture—or any training in how to study and understand it—new believers should not assume leadership positions in the church.
Nor should they launch into ministry simply because “God told me to.” To the undiscerning, that might be a persuasive argument. But God’s people have a responsibility not to blithely believe everyone who claims to speak for Him. Moreover, they need to hold the leaders they follow to biblical standards (which gets back to the original reason for this series).
Godly leadership is always the fruit of spiritual maturity. It takes more than just a pulpit, a microphone, and an audience to make a faithful shepherd. In fact, rushing unprepared and immature believers into church leadership—or letting them grasp it too early—presents significant spiritual danger to the Body of Christ.
It’s also dangerous for the immature believer who desires such leadership. The apostle Paul understood those dangers, and included them in his list of qualifications for church leaders. Highlighting the need for spiritual maturity, he wrote: “And not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).
In his commentary on 1 Timothy, John MacArthur explains the dangers Paul describes.
Since one of the great dangers facing the overseer is pride, humility is an essential qualification. The Greek word neophutos (“new convert”) appears only here in the New Testament. It is used in extrabiblical Greek to refer to a newly planted tree, hence its metaphorical use here.
An elder must not be newly baptized as a Christian, “lest he become conceited.” Placing him in a leadership role would expose him to the temptation of pride. That would be especially true if he were elevated in a respected, established church like Ephesus. That this qualification is absent from the list in Titus 1 may reflect the fact that the churches on Crete were relatively new, made up of new believers. In that case, placing younger converts in leadership would not so readily lead to pride, since their fellow elders would be relatively new.
An elder, then, is to be drawn from the most spiritually mature in the congregation, but that maturity must be viewed in relationship to each individual congregation. The relative measure of spiritual maturity in an established church in the United States varies from that in a first-generation church in a third-world nation.
“Conceited” is from tuphoō, which derives from a root word meaning “smoke.” The verb means “to puff up like a cloud of smoke.” Putting a new convert into a position of spiritual leadership is apt to puff him up, to put his head in the clouds. That would place him in grave danger of falling “into the condemnation incurred by the devil.” That does not mean an individual is condemned by Satan, since the Bible never portrays him as a judge. Instead, it means the prideful man falls into the same kind of judgment pronounced by God on Satan. The context, which deals with the danger of pride, also lends support to that interpretation. The judgment or condemnation of the devil was a demotion from a high position due to his sinful pride. That is the danger awaiting the man placed in a position of spiritual leadership before he is ready. As Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.”
It was pride that brought Satan down. Not content with being the highest ranking angel, he sought to exalt himself above God. The five “I wills” of Isaiah 14:12–14 clearly show his pride. As a result, Satan, who had “the seal of perfection” and was “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12), who had been on the “holy mountain of God” and served as “the anointed cherub who covers” (v. 14), was “cast . . . as profane from the mountain” (v. 16; cf. Revelation 12:9).
What happened to Satan could easily happen to an immature Christian elevated to eldership. It is that danger which Paul warns Timothy against. The antidote to pride is humility, which is the mark of a spiritually mature leader (Matthew 23:11–12).
Too often churches put undue emphasis on the skills, giftedness, charisma, and likability of potential leaders. Those enticing attributes can supposedly cover or negate a lack of spiritual maturity—or at the very least excuse it, buying him time to grow in maturity. But that’s the inverse of the biblical model. Without proven spiritual maturity, what real leadership does a man have to offer the church?
In his commentary, John MacArthur reminds us of the dire consequences of elevating an unqualified shepherd: “The church must heed Paul’s warning and not lift up those whom the Lord will later have to cut down.”
(All quotes from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy.)