Few things in life frustrate me more than the “check engine” light in my car. Within a month of buying a car, it appears. The orange light taunts me because I know I will have to spend money to get the light to go away. Thankfully, I have a great auto shop in town. They treat me well, charge a fair amount, and fix whatever is broken. Most importantly, they get the light to turn off, allowing me a period of peace before it returns to torment me.
The reason I trust the mechanics at the shop is because they have consistently taken care of my auto problems for more than a decade. Trust equals consistency over time. I trust them now more than I did the first time I went into the shop because I’ve seen their consistent skill and fairness over a lengthy period of time. Each successive trip to the shop increases my trust in them.
Consistency in the Life of the Preacher
What is true for mechanics is also true for preachers. For people to trust the message, they need to see consistency in the life of the preacher. If a preacher encourages generosity while living a life of luxury, the credibility of his message is lost. If a preacher relays God’s instructions on holiness while committing adultery, the preacher not only loses authority but so does the message he shares. Many Christians suffer a severe crisis of faith when the hypocrisy of their pastor is exposed.
The apostle Paul knew the acceptance of the message is tied to the consistency of the preacher’s life, and it influenced his instructions on preaching. In his first letter to Timothy, he encouraged Timothy to be an example to other Christians in his speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (1 Tim. 4:12). This encouragement comes immediately after instruction on teaching and is followed by more instructions on public worship, teaching, and preaching. Paul connects a preacher’s character to his pulpit ministry. Just a few verses later, he tells Timothy to keep a close watch on himself and his teaching (4:16). The public man cannot be separated from the private one. A preacher must first take care of his own soul before trying to minister to the souls of others.
A couple of centuries before Paul wrote his instructions to Timothy, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, identified three means a speaker uses to persuade a listener: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is the content of the message. It’s an appeal to the intellect, using logic to bolster an argument. Pathos is the passion and emotion of the speaker. It’s when a speaker makes the listener feel the power of the argument. Ethos is the credibility of the speaker himself. This is demonstrated both by his understanding of the issue (logos) and his emotional connection to the issue (pathos). The listener wants to know if the speaker understands what he’s talking about and if it matters to him. While logos and pathos are necessary, ethos is what brings the listener back week after week, year after year. People listen to a person they trust, and trust takes time – consistency over time.
Consistency Gives Credibility
When the apostle Paul was saying goodbye to the leaders in the church in Ephesus, he reminds them of the time he spent ministering to them (Acts 20:18–20). They heard his clear, rational presentations of the gospel (logos) in public and private settings. They witnessed his tears (pathos) as he suffered at the hands of the Jews. But more than that, they knew how he lived among them the whole time (ethos). His goodbye doesn’t begin with a reminder of his message or his passion, but of his consistent lifestyle. It was his consistent living over time that gave credibility to his message.
In our age of podcasts and conferences, we applaud preachers for their logos and pathos, while ignoring the importance of their ethos. We’re impressed by how they think and how they communicate, but we are ignorant about how they live. While content and passion are important, they are insufficient. Robert Murray McCheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” The reason a preacher’s holiness is important is because it supports the message of the gospel. A consistent life of holiness demonstrated over time helps listeners trust the message. Just as a pastor’s hypocrisy can undermine the gospel, his holiness can undergird it.
After instructing Timothy to keep a close watch on himself and his teaching, Paul wrote: “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Paul connects the consistency of a preacher’s personal life with the eternal destiny of those who listen to his message. A preacher’s lifestyle either provides a reason for them to trust the message or an excuse to ignore it. The preacher’s logos cannot be separated from his ethos. His walk impacts his talk. The veracity of the message is tied to the consistency of the messenger.
What’s at Stake?
We need preachers committed to consistent holy living. Trust doesn’t come from perfection, but consistency. If I need a consistent mechanic, then my people certainly need a consistent pastor. What is at stake is more than repeat customers, new business, or brand recognition. What is at stake is the very souls of those who hear the message.