What responsibility does the church have in examining/testing men to be shepherds of the local flock?
First and foremost, the church must recognize that it must fulfill its duty - it must examine the scriptures and examine the men. Churches must do this thoroughly and fairly, and it must be done. To not examine is to not honor and obey God. We live in a society that is very uncomfortable with judging others. There may be many tasks we are called to do as Christians that make us uncomfortable, but if God has commanded we act, then we must act, or be found in violation of His law. Not working for Him, but against Him. A church must be “strong and courageous” in fulfilling its duty of examination, and it must fulfill that duty rightly.
Any time one person is examining/testing another there is a judgement that is taking place. The church is not just examining/testing, they are doing so unto an end. That is, they are testing so that they can make a judgement and determination. This must be done in fairness. It must be just judgement to be godly judgment. It must be righteous judgement to be godly judgement. “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement.” (John 7:24) This is a high calling. Not always an easy task. But if we entrust ourselves to follow God’s instruction, it makes it easier. It teaches us, and guides us, to be able to make a righteous determination.
That determination is not “Do I like this guy or not?”. It’s not a popularity contest. That determination is not, “He’s not fully qualified but he’s good enough.” There is no such thing. That determination is not, “We need elders and this is the best we’ve got”, as if the decision is made out of desperation. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be. The determination is “Are these men beyond reproach as being qualified to serve and do the work of a shepherd?” (I Timothy 3:10) That is it. We do not make up the qualifications. We study the qualifications provided by the Lord and then we work to make a righteous judgement.
We cannot add to or take away from the word of God. (Revelation 22:18-19) That includes the qualifications for a shepherd. God’s word has set the standard and so we must use God’s word, and God’s word alone, as the standard for our judgement. (II Timothy 3:16). In fact, the Holy Spirit reveals that this is the purpose of this standard being God-breathed for all generations, “...I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15) They would “know” because the Lord has revealed it to them in the word. But the word, as we are examining here, does not just tell the church what to judge, but how they are to judge.
The church is required to allow those into service who are found to be “beyond reproach”. Does that mean that is someone has an accusation against a potential shepherd, that he is automatically disqualified? Certainly not. That goes against the standards of judgement in the scriptures. Righteous judgement means allowing the accusations to be handled in a fair and godly manner. The accuser must provide sufficient evidence (I Timothy 5:19) A man would have the right to face his accuser (not just anonymous accusations). (Acts 25:16; Dt. 19:17) A man would have a right to give an explanation/defense. (Proverbs 18:17) The church would have the duty to dig deeper to understand and determine the validity of any accusations. These are all hallmarks of righteous judgment. Should those accusations be found true, the man would “fail the test”. If the accusations are not found to be true then the man would remain qualified.
The church-examination process is not an easy one, but if done in love by the guidance and standard of God’s instruction then the church can fulfill its duty in a way that honors and glorifies the Lord we serve. At the end of the process, it’s not just the men examined that should be above reproach, but the church itself should be above reproach in how it fulfilled it’s duty in testing these men fairly, rightly, and godly.