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6. The Competence of a Willie Sutton, the Character of a Saint

You don’t have to have character to be competent.

Take Willie Sutton for instance.

At one point Willie Sutton was one of America’s most wanted criminals, an original on the FBI’s first edition of its top ten list of most wanted in March, 1950.

Willie Sutton was competent. No one could rob banks with the cool dispatch of a Willie Sutton. And no one could escape the clutches of the FBI as well as Willie Sutton. He was singularly competent as a bank robber. He used careful planning and multiple disguises to pull off his heists, earning him the nicknames of Willie and Actor and Slick Willie. Sutton loved nice clothes and was known as an immaculate dresser.

And when the FBI finally caught him there were times when they could not keep him. Not only was he America’s premier bank robber; he was also one of the greatest escape artists the nation has ever seen. Sing Sing could not hold him, nor could some other prisons. He tried to escape from prison five times and succeeded from three. He always figured a way to get out, rob a bank, and end up back on the inside. After his release from prison in 1960, New Britain Bank and Trust Co. in Connecticut had him make a commercial for their credit card with picture ID.

Legend has it that when a reporter asked him why he robbed so many banks he replied, “That’s where the money is.” He did say, "You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can get with just a kind word." However, he never used a loaded gun because he didn’t want to hurt anyone.

Willie Sutton truly was competent. But he had no character.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be competent to have character.

All of us know someone we would trust with our most precious possessions, someone of great integrity and love who keeps his word and does his best, but who lacks the capacity needed to be placed in a highly responsible leadership position. He lacks the abilities he needs to direct others and move them forward toward a vision and a better tomorrow. He has character and he is faithful, but he just isn’t competent enough to lead.

What we need is leaders with both character and competence.

Kouzes and Posner in their work The Leadership Challenge have shown that followers all over the world long for such leaders. In the past twenty years Kouzes and Posner have taken surveys of 75,000 business leaders all over the world, asking them the top traits they desire to have in their leaders. Across that twenty-year span responses from all around the globe have been universally consistent: leader/followers of every age in every culture long to have competent leaders of character, leaders marked by integrity who can be counted on to be consistently honest in every situation.1 When followers were asked what they “’most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow,” their number one response was that the leader be honest.

Followers long for leaders with the competence of a Willie Sutton and the character of a saint.

Enter the elder as a leader, the biblical model of a man who is both competent and has character. The concept of elder was born in the secular world and brought into the church from the general society through the synagogue. Every ancient culture had elders, not just the biblical culture. Elders led Greek cities and institutions from the very beginning of time and history. Elders are present in Israel from the time the nation was founded, long before it gained its homeland and was established as a nation among the nations. Throughout Israel’s history elders played a critical political and community role, making decisions in the gates as well as confirming kings and rulers.

In our world today the word elder means church, but not in the ancient world from which it springs. In the ancient world elder meant the city, the university, and the philosophical society long before it meant the synagogue or the church. In light of this, it is time for us to move the idea of elder out of the walls of the church and back into its natural habitat, the halls of the world. The concept of elder contains a total philosophy of leadership that marries character and competence in an indissoluble union that all followers long to have. The idea of elder shows us that a leader must have the wisdom to do orderly things through an exemplary life, to bring people together across the gender and generation gaps by means of truth and integrity through proven character and competence. And the elder must demonstrate this character and competence both inside and outside of the church first before he can step into the ultimate leadership position. 

What do you mean by order?

Elders and Order: Personal and Public

Elders (business leaders) are marked by order in their private lives and produce order in their public settings. In view of this, we must define order in both private and public terms.

The primary reality that lies behind Paul’s qualifications for elders is that they are qualified to bring order out of disorder in the church as tested and proven in their family and business lives because they have brought order out of disorder in their private lives.

I have known elders who have sinned in serious ways both before and after coming to Christ. Yet they became outstanding elders, men worthy of great respect and recognition, because they faced and found freedom from their sin. Christ’s forgiveness in their lives gave them a compassion and a commitment to confront sin and hold others accountable even as they had been.

Every Sunday when people come to church—or every day when people come to work—they bring the chaos of their lives into the congregation. By nature a congregation consists of people whose lives are in various levels and stages of chaos who are in desperate need of a helping and healing community that can transform and mature them into orderly men and women. That’s the task of elders (and business leaders to the degree they can). Business leaders may object that they don’t run a church or a counseling clinic, and they are right. But if they’re going to do business well, they must deal in some measure with the chaos in their employees’ lives or their businesses will fall apart. And they can’t deal with chaos in their employees’ lives unless they’ve confronted chaos in their own lives. That explains a lot of things in both the church and business.

Here is the biblical principle:

Personal order qualifies for public leadership.

In view of this, here is a definition of private and public order.

Private order: the discipline, sacrifice, and growth arising out of a commitment to a cause that focuses all of life’s energies on living the way that cause demands.

The person who has private order will be a living example of what his cause demands of him and will be showing all his fellow believers what commitment to his cause looks like. If Christ is the cause, the person with private order will model for others what a focused follower of Christ looks like.

Public order is the result of what a group of leaders with private order in their lives do together to bring about freedom from disorder to order. Public order: turning chaos into community; transforming selfishness into sacrifice out of commitment to the group’s cause that results in unity of belief and behavior; providing an environment of structure, direction, organization, discipline, and purpose that results in security and safety so participants can be guided from self-destructive disorder to the freedom of accountability and maturity; the creation a culture of commitment, dedication, and discipline resulting in a focused way of life.

Elders in a church do this through their model, their message, their actions, and the structure they bring into being out of obedience to Christ. Fathers do it exactly the same way in their homes, and business leaders do it exactly the same way in their businesses. To the degree that father and business leaders pursue private order and produce public order in their lives, they are qualified to be elders in the church. The difference among elders, fathers, and business leaders lies in which parts of the Bible they bring to bear in their leadership efforts, whether it be the parts of the Bible that relate to the church, the home, or the business.

The bottom line of it all is this: leaders bring order out of disorder. And the only leaders who can bring order out of disorder in their public lives are those who have done it first in their private lives.

When Paul sent Titus to Crete to bring order out of disorder he also said, “. . . and appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5).” That’s the highest priority Paul gives to Titus because he knew you can’t transform disorder into order without leaders who have already transformed the disorder of their lives into the order God wants—that’s what qualifies them to be models and leaders in the church. For this reason Paul gives a list of qualifications for elders that all men must seek to meet in and through Christ. You may not aspire to be an elder in the church, but you must aspire to be a man in life, and these qualifications define what a man is.

Every qualification on the list is overwhelming, not the least the first one: above reproach. This is an over-arching trait, the one from which all the others arise. The rest of the list defines what Paul means by above reproach. It is significant that the place where being above reproach is most clearly tested and is in a man’s marriage and family life. Let’s see what it means to be above reproach.

Above reproach

Time out: Before you read the next section define what you think being above reproach means. Then measure yourself against your definition. Are you above reproach? If you are not, where do you fall short and how can Christ enable you to be above reproach?

Time out question: What does above reproach mean to you?

Some responses:

  • Blameless
  • Trustful
  • Stable
  • Committed to living truth
  • Not vulnerable to accusations from others
  • No skeletons
  • Impossible!
  • No, not impossible. Supernatural!!
  • Transparent
  • Authentic
  • Constant/consistent

Reproach: to act in such a way as to bring deserved blame, reproof, and discredit on yourself.

Anything can be said about anyone; the key is that we don’t deserve the blame, reproof, and discredit, and this is clear to all around us even if investigation is needed to show that.

We are above reproach when our lives are of such a quality that no charge can be brought against us that will stick so we can never be legitimately rebuked about a consistent pattern of behavior in our lives because there is no consistent practice of sin in us.

Time out question:

Now that you have seen this definition think through your personal life.

Write down any consistent patterns of sin in your life that you are aware of.

Take into account such things asyour relationships

  • your speech
  • your thoughts
  • your attitudes
  • your longings (covetousness)
  • your reactions (jealousy, envy, anger, defensiveness)
  • your emotions (fear, bitterness, ambition, improper competitiveness)

Where do you fall on the above reproach standard on a scale of 1-10 (one low, 10 high)?

Now think through your professional life.

Write down any consistent patterns of sin in your professional life.

Take into account such things as

  • your relationships
  • your speech
  • your thoughts
  • your attitudes
  • your longings (covetousness)
  • your reactions (jealousy, envy, anger, defensiveness)
  • your emotions (fear, bitterness, ambition, improper competitiveness)

Add to this business factors such as

  • the way you sell products
  • the way you keep your promises
  • the way you respond to clients/customers/investors/stock holders/stake holders
  • the kinds of contracts you draw up and sign
  • the sort of attorneys you use (closer to the shoulder of the law or closer to the center line of the law)
  • the way you treat employees
  • what you will or will not sell your integrity for (especially when your business is at stake)
  • add other factors as appropriate
  • Where do you fall on the above reproach standard on a scale of 1 to 10?

How to be above reproach in your personal life

While there are no easy answers or guaranteed steps to get us above reproach, there are responses we can make that put us in touch with the Spirit so He can lift us up to His standard and enable us to be above reproach as a pattern in our lives. No one makes it there permanently. That’s why humility is so critical for all of us; we must be humble and prepared to be rebuked when we deserve it so we can move back to a place of being above reproach as quickly as possible.

1. Establish a cluster of biblical priorities and live according to these realities.

I don’t believe we can rank biblical priorities because all of them are equally important.

I don’t believe life can be organized according to the numbers.

Life is dynamic and can only be lived according to the realities we face.

So we are constantly and permanently juggling our priorities while working not to drop anything that matters.

And we won’t always be successful.

All we can do is strive to give each of them the kind of attention they need on a daily basis.

Some days we will give one more than another; the point is that we are giving all of them adequate attention in the daily demands of life.

The one thing we can say is that we must build our lives around God and our relationship with Him so that we virtually never lack some focused time with Him.

There are times when we can’t be with our wives or focus on all of our children or even give our business the due it needs, but we must have consistent focus on God if we are going to move toward being above reproach.

2. Note the areas of your life right now where you are not above reproach as we have stated already.

  • Forgive those you must forgive.
  • Seek forgiveness from those you have offended.
  • Fill your mind with God’s word and begin to think His way.
  • Pray, Pray, Pray!!!

Build times of solitude and silence into your schedule during which you learn to focus on God, to read His word, to listen for His direction, and to hear His correction.

Write the key letter of your life: Today’s date

Dear God,

I resign being You.


Confess and turn from sin quickly by the Spirit’s power

3. Seek to walk by the Spirit to gain freedom from the flesh

Pay attention to how others respond/react to you—there may be some masked rebukes in their comments you need to hear and respond to.

How to be above reproach in your professional life

1. Establish a cluster of biblical priorities for your professional life—the same cluster as for your personal life

Time out question:

What would it look like for you to establish a cluster of “above reproach priorities” for your business life?

2. Write another letter to God as a deed of trust that goes like this:

Today’s date

Dear God,

All I am, all that I have, all that I think I own including my career, my business, my financial well-being, as well as all that owns me, I release to you. This letteris a deed of trust giving to you the power of attorney in my life. It’s all yours. You can do whatever You want with it.


3. Do your job description well for the glory of God in accordance with all of His standards for integrity.

4. Make all decisions carefully, wisely, and biblically.

5. Make sure everything you sign will allow you to maintain your integrity even if it costs you money or image or anything else you’re inclined to value more than God.

6. Communicate clearly so you can be accountable to all who do business with you; tell them more than they need to know without frightening them.

Answer their questions before they raise them and when they raise them as possible.

Come back with an answer as soon as you can.

7. Listen intently so you hear ideas, suggestions, implications, questions, concerns, all the things that will earn you reproach if you don’t listen.

8. Act lovingly so you always seek to do what is in the best interests of all involved—employees, clients, customers, stake holders, and yourself; don’t fail to look out for your own interests, just not at the expense of others.

9. Anticipate the needs of those around you—employees, clients, customers, stake holders, and yourself—and seek to meet them before others are even aware of them so you become known as a man who takes care of those who count on him.

10. Expect criticism, learn from it, correct it with grace, live with it when you must.

Wanted: Fathers (Elders)

The generation coming behind us is very different from us. They are all thumbs and twittering, consumed with instant messaging and social networks. The age of thinking and reading appears to be over. Yet, when they see someone who is real they respond with great interest and openness.

The most endangered species on earth is men, men who can lead through both their model and their message. Without such men we will have a generation that is lost in itself and its cell phones, wasting their lives on shallow futility and trapped in a living death while longing for the Real Thing.

What can we do about it?

Become the Real Thing through the True Vine. Show His life to the next generation by becoming fathers—elders—in their lives. Become a model for them to follow.

Remember—the greatest thing you can do with your life is change the lives of others.

So whose life are you changing?

1 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, fourth edition, 2007), pp. 28-29.

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