Man praying in pew

The Preacher’s Character

The issue of the life of the preacher and his or her character is long-debated and ever-emerging. From the seamy pages of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Elmer Gantry, to the revealing headlines in newspapers and news feeds, preachers who live lives that do not match what they preach are regularly exposed and scandalize the gospel.

You have seen them, have you not? The questionable character of preachers is commonly featured in the news sources. Tony Alamo, a street preacher who oversaw a multi-million-dollar ministry was convicted of having sex with girls as young as nine years old, taking them across state lines.1 Then there is the case of Rev. Keith LeBlanc who was charged with stealing $83,147.00 from a Haverhill, Massachusetts parish while he served as pastor there. LeBlanc used the money for online pornography.2

Next is the incredible story of a sex sting operation in New Jersey, consisting of a high school teacher, a police officer and a minister who arranged an online ring that enabled underage teenage boys and girls to meet up with people seeking sexual encounters. The preacher, Roger Arroyo, is a traveling minister from Philadelphia.3

There is more. Vaughn Reeves, a former pastor from southern Indiana, was sentenced to fifty-four years in prison for bilking people and churches out of millions of dollars that were supposed to be used to construct church buildings.4 Another example of the dissonance between what a preacher says and how a preacher lives is seen in the case of Ted Haggard, who, in 2006 was accused of having sex with a male prostitute.5 Or the instance of Oscar Turrion, the head of the Catholic seminary of the Legion of Christ religious order in Rome, who left the priesthood after it was discovered that he had fathered two children—a son and a daughter.6

This inconsistency between preaching and person is lampooned in films, television shows and novels. Sinclair Lewis’ award-winning 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, mentioned above, is a classic — yet realistic — exposé of a scruple-less preacher and his hypocritical evangelist love interest, Sister Sharon Falconer. Lewis picks up on some of the attitudes of the 1920s toward preachers with character deficiencies as he writes about a whiskey-drinking, womanizing and wealth-seeking evangelist and his female evangelist counterpart. Lewis introduces the novel with the lines, “Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”7

At the eightieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis’ noted novel, National Public Radio host Noah Adams remarked, “It was this hypocrisy that drove Lewis in his writing career. Speaking at the author’s funeral in 1951, the young writer Frederick Manfred delivered a eulogy that captured Lewis’ vision of how life should be, and helped to explain his motives for creating a thoroughly flawed character like Elmer Gantry.” Quoting Manfred:

“Red Lewis was an honest man. And a man who loved justice. Thus, when he saw the vast, the awful gulf that lay between the two knowledges, he was outraged, and a fire started in him that never went out, that harried him until he gave in to it and he had to take up paper and pen.”8

Manfred speaks of the “two knowledges,” the “two knowledges” is the tension that every preacher—and every Christian face: the knowledge of who we are and who God wants us to be.

A few years ago, I taught a course titled, “The Preacher in Modern Literature and Film.” Rarely have I come across a novel, story, film or television show where a minister is portrayed in a positive light. Typically, ministers are shown as weak, out of touch, or morally de-based people. They are tricksters or money hungry, or even sexually deviant. Take for example the movie, “Buck and the Preacher,” a 1972 film about a con-man preacher. Or, the film, “Footloose,” where the preacher is portrayed as someone who is not up to the times, weak, and a social anomaly. The 1992 film, “Leap of Faith,” features a fake faith healer who is exposed.

Television shows pick up the same themes; among these is the character the Rev. Timothy Lovejoy, in the animated show, “The Simpsons.” Rev. Lovejoy is a comedic foil. The series, “Impastor” is about gambler Buddy Dobbs who impersonates a preacher — all the while having an affair with the church treasurer and stealing marijuana from kids in the youth group.

Examples of female preachers are harder to find, but there is Geraldine Granger, known as “The Vicar of Dibley,” a British comedy featuring a foul-mouthed, outrageous and immoral preacher in a small countryside town. Another example is the HBO satirical comedy, “The Righteous Gemstones.” The show depicts crooked televangelists as they navigate their way through scandal, cocaine addiction, blackmail, and even the satanic underground.9

Let me be quick to add that there are positive examples of preachers in novels, films and television shows. Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken and Todd Wilson, edited a book titled, Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature, which details some affirming samples of preachers.10 A positive portrayal of a preacher is found in the fourteen books of the Mitford series by Jan Karon. These novels introduce the reader to Father Tim Kavanaugh, pastor of the Episcopal church in the fictional North Carolina mountain community of Mitford. From the beginning, readers are drawn to this God-honoring and congregation-loving preacher. The books are a refreshing relief from the novels and stories of fallen ministers.

What we discover is there is sometimes tension between the “two knowledges,” what a preacher believes and how the preacher lives. For some, there is, sometimes, using scriptural language, “a great gulf fixed” between the two. That is, there is an inconsistency of what one says and how one lives. The Apostle Paul put the “two knowledges” struggle this way in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

What we are talking about is character, the foundation of a preacher’s — and person’s life.

Character Defined

What, then, is character? When we hear the word, “character,” we may have a definition in our mind that may be helpful or not. If one says, “He’s a real character,” what is probably not meant is one’s moral or ethical foundation. Instead, in the broad sense, the person is being referred to as being different, unique, which could be understood positively or negatively, depending on the context. He or she might possess a compelling sense of humor, or might be a difficult person with whom to relate. Being a character, in this sense, is not the focus of this discussion. What do we mean by character?

The ancient Greeks considered character as “the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is — whether a person, a wine, or a historical period.”11 Andre Resner observes, “A key concept in both ethics and rhetoric, character refers etymologically to an indelible mark,

engraving, or imprint from external pressure or force that changes the shape, orientation, and manifestation of one’s self, soul, identity.”12

The Hebrews saw the shaping of character as a process, moving toward the goal of wisdom.13 Again, Resner notes, “character has to do with the true nature of a person beneath all the masks that are projected from that person or are veneered onto a person by observers.” He continues, “A person’s character becomes known through the actions and words that make up that person’s life (i.e., in the habitual ways that person leaves his or her mark on events and people.)”14

Os Guinness observes, “The Hebrews, in contrast [to the Greeks], saw character as essentially moral.” He explains, “For example, ‘righteousness’ in the Bible is not just a matter of what we do and is certainly not just what we say. Righteousness is a matter of the heart. It is about who we are at the core of our being — before God. Character, then, is what we are when no one sees but God.”15

Put it more simply for the purposes of our discussion, a preacher is concerned about the mark that he or she makes on the lives of others—and, of course, marks have been made on him or her. The preacher cares about who he or she is and who he or she is becoming.

Think of character in this way—think phonetically, the way the word character sounds:

CARE — a God-shaped self-discipline

This speaks to who one is, who takes care of who you really are—a follower of God, a redeemed person in Jesus Christ, no matter what it takes.

act-er — that acts with consistency.

This addresses the matter of uniformity of action. There is not a deviation from the “two knowledges,” but, instead a consistent way of thinking and acting that is godly.

Put together—CARE-act-er.

Character is a God-shaped self-discipline that acts with consistency. This does not mean that living a life of character is an act, a ruse. Instead, the man or woman who practices godly self-diligence lives a consistent life. Inside and outside the pulpit the preacher is the same. Os Guinness states, “character is a variation of three recurring motifs—core, consistency, and cost.”16

Cornelius Plantinga agrees, “She is a person of character consistency, a person who rings true wherever you tap her.” He continues, “She keeps promises. She weeps with those who weep and, perhaps more impressively, rejoices with those who rejoice. She does all these things in ways that express her own personality and culture but also a general ‘mind of Christ’ that is cross-culturally unmistakable.”17

As Bryan Chapell notes, in preaching, “No truth more loudly calls for pastoral holiness than the linkage of a preacher’s character and the sermon reception.”18 Charles Haddon Spurgeon put it more bluntly, “It is a horrible thing to be an inconsistent minister.”19 The “two knowledges” are to be in harmony with each other — no contradiction.

Building Character

There are four factors in building character for the preacher, for the believer. These four factors in building character are: God-implanted, community-cultivated, personally-attending, and time-invested. We will now explore each factor in building character.

God-implanted. The work of God in a preacher’s, in a person’s life, is just that, the work of God. From conversion to sanctification, God is at work by his grace in a person’s life. God is the one who calls forth life from our deadness and makes us alive in Christ. Once made alive, he calls us to become Christ-like. Bryan Chapell urges, “Emphasis upon the character of the preacher is futile and errant without underscoring the grace that conforms one’s character and message to God’s will. Human effort does not produce holiness. Selfless righteousness and sacrificial love are never self-induced. Attempts to conform our character to God’s requirements by our actions are as arrogant as efforts to save souls by our talents. Powerful preachers must become well-acquainted with the grace their character requires.”20 Character is God-implanted.

Community-cultivated. The Christian family is often where faith begins and is nurtured. Even the Proverbs underscores the place of godly parental instruction. Dave Bland emphasizes, “Responsibility for instruction is placed on the shoulders of both father and mother.” He continues, “The fact that both parents are frequently referred to as fulfilling this teaching role strongly points to the recognition that it was the pupil’s natural parents who were involved. The father’s reminiscence of his father’s teachings in [Proverbs] 4:3 further depicts parental, not school, education.”21

The Christian family, however, is part of a wider family, the church—the community of faith in Christ engaged in discipleship. This community plays a pivotal role in the shaping of a person’s, and for our purposes, the preacher’s character. Long before he or she was called to ministry, the crucible of one’s local church plays a crucial role in character building. While one local church may be weak in nurturing converts to and disciples in the faith, other local churches have grappled with what it means to care for believers toward maturity in Christ.

William Brown acknowledges the role of the community in shaping character. He notes that in ancient Israel, “More than pedagogical, the community is to provide the arena of social interaction and praxis by which the contours of individual character are continually shaped and reshaped.”22 This was no less the case for the early church nor for the church today.

We see this in the New Testament where Paul instructs the Philippian believers on Christian character qualities. Philippians 4:8-9 suggest “that Paul seeks to educate the Philippian Christian community, with which he had a very close relationship, to form their Christian character.”23

Jonathan R. Wilson keys in on the importance of discipleship and shaping the character of the preacher and others as well, “Discipleship is about learning how to live; it is about disciplined life; it is about living in a community that sustains a way of life.”24 Warren Wiersbe and David Wiersbe agree, “But character is rarely built in solitude; we need the responsibility and accountability that others bring to our lives if character is to be healthy and balanced.”25

Even as the young minister enters into formal study for the ministry, one cannot be too careful to think that one is isolated from character-shaping Christian community. Franklin M. Segler reminds us, “The things men learn in school are vital, but they can never take the place of the one thing essential to every minister—character.”26 Character is community-cultivated.

Personally-attended. Klaus Issler reminds us, “Deep character formation requires that we attend to the core of our self — the heart — and cooperate with God’s good work within.”27 The church is invested in the life of the burgeoning believer, and the believer is invested, too. Being a person of “care-act-er” demonstrates one’s buy-in to the life of faith. He or she takes personal responsibility to obedience and action, in spite of facing challenges. William Brown warns, “The road to maturity is marked by trials and testing. As implicit in the book of Job, James hesitates to cast God in the role of tester: It is not God who tests and tempts (2:13). God cannot be blamed for one’s own moral failure.”28

The disciple learns from the Bible — all of it. From the moral instruction of Proverbs to the words of Paul to the Philippians, the Bible is the textbook for character building. Warren and David Wiersbe remind us, “For the Christian, a healthy and holy character is formed by making Scripture a part of our inner being and obeying what it says.”

They continue:

It comes from spending time faithfully in worship and prayer, gladly making sacrifices and willingly serving others. Character is strengthened when we suffer and depend on the grace of God to bring us through and glorify his name. … Character comes from discipline and devotion, from courage and commitment, from the myriad of things that Paul experienced and wrote about in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 and 11:23-12:10.29

N.T. Wright explains, “After you believe, you need to develop Christian character by practicing the specifically Christian ‘virtues.’ To make wise moral decisions, you need not just to ‘know the rules’ or ‘discover who you really are,’ but to develop Christian virtue.”30 Character is personally-attended.

Time-invested. The development of character in a preacher, or any other believer in Christ does not happen instantly, but takes place over time. For some, the lessons are hard-learned and growth in character is even more protracted. Francis Greenwood Peabody wrote in the early twentieth-century:

The Christian character is not a fragmentary collection of detached virtues, or an occasional spasm of excellence, or a passing vision of perfection. It is a normal, healthy, gradual growth, like that growth of nature on which the eye of Jesus was wont to dwell with peculiar joy; a growth not beyond the power of a plain, imperfect, hesitating life, if only it will be firmly rooted in the great decision, which first seeks righteousness and then devotes that righteousness to love. “First the blade,” teaches Jesus, “then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear”; and the Apostle Paul, though he turns not to nature but to human life for his figures of speech, describes the Christian character in the same terms of growth. The “perfecting of the saints” is like the development of the body. We are “henceforth no more children,” but come unto a “perfect man,” unto “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” and “grow up into him in all things, which is the head.”31

N.T. Wright emphasizes, “the qualities of character which Jesus and his first followers insist on as the vital signs of healthy Christian life don’t come about automatically.” He continues:

You have to develop them. You have to work at them. You have to think about it, to make conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to form your character in ways that, to begin with, seem awkward and “unnatural.” Only in that way can you become the sort of “character” who will react instantly to sudden challenges with wisdom and good judgment.32

Klause Issler states clearly, “There is no ‘silver bullet’ or ‘quick pill’ available for us to become instantly mature, living like Jesus. Putting Jesus’ words into practice is a process that God enables and in which we have a significant role.”33 Character is time-invested.

All of these character-building categories add up to this: Character is a God-shaped self-discipline that acts with consistency.

My father was an alcoholic. I became a Christian as a young fourteen-year-old kid during the Jesus Movement, a revival among young people that swept across the nation in the early 1970s. One day during my later teens when my father was especially drunk, he told me, “Scott, you know that there are two leeches on society — teachers and preachers.” My father did not have a favorable view of teachers nor preachers, nor was he a prophet. I went to college to become a teacher and then sensed the call to become a preacher. I guess I am a leech squared.

In general, culture does not seem to have a positive opinion of preachers. What is worse, ministers whose character is compromised contribute to this condemning indictment. We are called to be men and women of character, a character that is God-implanted, community cultivated, and personally attended, all the while taking time to grow. When this happens, the “two knowledges” of our person will be as one.

As Stuart Briscoe provides this reminder, “Preachers need to be careful about their preaching and even more about their living.”34 In his day, Puritan preacher Richard Baxter gave preachers a similar warning, “Take heed to yourselves, lest you live in those sins which you preach against in others, and lest you be guilty of that which daily you condemn.”35

The tension between the “two knowledges” is palpable. Franklin M. Segler encourages, “The pastor is first of all a finite human being; involved in the sin problem, yet redeemed by the gift of God’s grace; immature, but growing in likeness to God and in love for his fellow man.” He continues:

Next, he is a minister of the gospel, gifted and called of God to serve his people, a representative of God and of the church, a servant dedicated to helping others in their life struggle, trained in mind and in spirit and possessing skills for shepherding and sharing with his fellow Christians.36

Preachers would be helped to remember: Character is a God-shaped self-discipline that acts with consistency.

Scott Gibson is the David Garland Professor of Preaching and Director of the PhD in Preaching at Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

1. Jon Gambrell, “Evangelist convicted on 10 sex-abuse counts,” Boston Globe 25 July 2009 A-7.

2. Emma Stickgold, “Priest is charged with stealing from Haverhill church,” Boston Globe 8 November 2010 B-12.

3. Ali Winston, “16 Men Snared in New Jersey Underage Sex Sting,” New York Times 25 April 2019 A-21.

4. “Ex-pastor gets 54 years for bilking investors,” Boston Globe 8 December 2010 A-2.

5. “Disgraced pastor to launch new church,” Boston Globe 3 June 2010 A-2.

6. Nicole Winfield, “Seminary rector is leaving priesthood after fathering two,” Boston Sunday Globe 8 October 2017 A-7.

7. Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (New York: Harcourt, Bruce and Company, Inc., 1927), 1.

8. Noah Adams, “Elmer Gantry, a Flawed Preacher for the Ages,” All Things Considered 22 February 2008 accessed 21 September 2019.

9. Kevin McDonough, “Televangelists as gangsters on HBO,” Waco Tribune-Herald 18 August 2019 5B.

10. Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken & Todd Wilson, Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).

11. Os Guinness, When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 15.

12. Andre Resner, “Character,” in The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching, eds., Paul Scott Wilson, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008): 225.

13. Dave Bland, “The Character Wisdom Shapes,” in Preaching Character: Reclaiming Wisdom’s Paradigmatic Imagination for Transformation, Dave Bland and David Fleer, eds. (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010), 174.

14. Resner, “Character,” 225.

15. Guinness, When No One Sees, 16.

16. Guinness, When No One Sees, 16.

17. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 34-35.

18. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 29.

19. C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1960), 17.

20. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 30.

21. Dave Bland, “The Formation of Character in the Book of Proverbs,” Restoration Quarterly 40:4 (1998): 225.

22. William P. Brown, Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 159.

23. Wendell Willis, “The Shaping of Character: Virtue in Philippians 4:8-9,” Restoration Quarterly 54:2 (2012): 65.

24. Jonathan R. Wilson, Why Church Matters: Worship, Ministry, and Mission in Practice (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 96.

25. Warren W. & David W. Wiersbe, 10 Power Principles for Christian Service (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 2010), 24.

26. Franklin M. Segler, A Theology of Church and Ministry (Nashville: Broadman, 1960), 92.

27. Klaus Issler, Living into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 33.

28. Brown, Character in Crisis, 162.

29. Warren W. and David W. Wiersbe, 10 Power Principles for Christian Service, 23.

30. N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (HarperCollins: New York, 2010), 25.

31. Francis Greenwood Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Christian Character (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 126-127.

32. Wright, After You Believe, 28.

33. Issler, Living into the Life of Jesus, 71.

34. Stuart Briscoe, Preach It! (Colorado Springs: Group Publishing, 2004), 31.

35. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979 reprint), 67.

36. Segler, A Theology of Church and Ministry, 91.