The power to crush or inspire. When the precious believers of a local church place their trust in their elders, this is the responsibility the leadership possesses: the power to crush or inspire. A word of encouragement given by an elder can ring in the heart of a church member for years, and, in the same way, a careless moment of coldness can sting equally long. Clearly, compassion is the order of the day for an elder.
The main word translated “compassion” in the New Testament is splanchnon, which means to be moved with pity in your inner parts. It is a visceral reaction to the situation of another person. This implies a high level of empathy to understand what someone else may be experiencing.
Given the obvious fact that compassion is an absolute necessity to be a qualified elder, an interesting question arises: Why is compassion not listed in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 as an elder qualification? The answer is quite simple: Sparkplug Theology.
The sparkplugs in an automobile fire at a rapid rate, thus igniting the fuel and pumping the pistons. Without the sparkplugs the engine won’t run for a second. So imagine how silly it would be if every single day, you lifted the hood of your car and removed each of the plug covers just to make sure your spark plugs are still there. All you have to do is start the car; if the engine runs, the sparkplugs are there.
In the same way, compassion is the sparkplug of the elder’s qualifications. The qualifications are inoperable without compassion. Let’s just examine three sample qualifications and the underlying sparkplug of compassion that runs those engines.
- Above Reproach—The above-reproach elder is beyond blame and suspicion. One problem that gets men in trouble in ministry is lack of integrity. They begin to put their own interests ahead of their duty to shepherd God’s people. At some point, the agenda subtly changes from loving others to loving themselves or to protecting an imaginary personal legacy. But the compassionate leader will imagine the disappointment that it would mean to have a shepherd who lacks honor. The sparkplug that fires the piston of honor is compassion and empathy.
- Gentle—The gentle elder is gracious and forbearing. He is considerate and reasonable. It is impossible to be considerate without being able to consider with empathetic compassion the life and situation of a church member. Another problem which can trouble elders is a growing harshness with people. An elder can forget that a church member may have been fostering the courage to speak to him for a month, but in 15 seconds the elder shoots down the hopeful saint with an inconsiderate, impatient word. The sparkplug that fires the piston of gentleness is compassion and empathy.
- Not Quarrelsome—The deferential elder is not looking for a fight or an argument. He is courteous and peaceable. A third problem that gets elders in trouble is a hot-headed need to get their way. As I often tell our church, I’m the senior pastor and even I don’t get my way on everything. A leader who insists on fighting when something doesn’t go his way creates an atmosphere of negativity and fear. He insists that those around him see his point of view but lacks the compassion to stop long enough to see their point of view. This sort of man has no place in church leadership. The sparkplug that fires the piston of deference is compassion and empathy.
Why is compassion not listed as a qualification for an elder? Because compassion is the sparkplug that fires the engine of the qualifications. They won’t work without it.
On my desk is a sign that says “Lead with Love.” It is the first thing I want to see each day when I enter my office because a church leader without love and compassion is useless and his engine has quit running.