I have been thinking a lot, in recent days, about the Christian ministry. I wrote an earlier Update (Vol. 5, No. 3, 1996) on the subject of divine call to the ministry. I can’t seem to get a growing concern for pastoral integrity out of my mind. My exposure to the church across North America has underscored this concern. Furthermore, my relationship with truly God-called men strengthens the impression that holy servants of God are an awesome weapon in God’s hands.
The failure of the church in regard to the life and doctrine of her ministers is perhaps her greatest failure in the twentieth century. We have built better schools but trained less qualified men. We have granted more degrees but produced fewer and fewer genuinely holy ministers. Men have studied books and taken courses but have not been given the Spirit to comprehend the most basic truths of the Gospel. We must have holy, God-taught ministers or reformation and revival are unlikely.
Generally, sheep will only be effectively led by God-called and God-equipped men. True reformation can be seriously undertaken only by such men.
Contemporary revival praying is meaningless, in most instances, precisely because church leadership is not in line with the revealed Word of God on the important matters of life and doctrine.
Further, my own private counsel with several brethren who have been severely misled by their ministers, has convinced me all the more that there are far more false teachers in the church than any of us imagines. I hope I am wrong in this but I fear otherwise.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The apostle Paul writes to a young minister of the gospel, “Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, NIV). A pastor who would stand in evil times must give careful attention to two principle things—his life and his doctrine. This he must devote himself to night and day, without letting up for a millisecond. Only in this earnest endeavor will he save his own soul. Only in this will he be useful to the saving of those he serves.
The Christian ministry was never intended to be a safe place. The images of Scripture, especially regarding the work of the ministry, are images of battle, struggle, sacrifice, discipline, endurance, faithfulness and tears. The call to pastor the church of God is a call to give up one’s life in the service of others. Listen to Paul’s counsel to a young servant: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
This charge is one which commissions a man to labor, never tinker! Souls are at stake, that of the minister and those of his hearers. Let those faint of heart do something else. Indeed, if you can do anything else do it but don’t, for God’s sake, enter, or remain in, the Gospel ministry. If God has not sent you, resign your post!
And if this were not daunting enough to dissuade even the stout-hearted, James, himself a pastor, writes, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).1
This business of shepherding the flock is eternally serious. Giftedness in public speech is not the sine qua non of pastoral ministry. Charisma and charm are not prerequisites. Polish and studied success will not suffice. You must, above all else, be a man who is supremely exercised over your own soul and every aspect of your doctrine. How will you live? What will you teach? These are the first things. In a very real sense, these two are everything!
THE MEASURE OF MINISTRY
Paul exhorts Timothy to “watch,” to “pay close attention,” and to “take heed” to his own life. Literally, he says, “keep a very strict eye on yourself.” You will watch many things that happen in your comings and goings. You will attend many meetings and observe many different people facing many different problems and needs, but above all else, you must attend to yourself.
Weymouth’s New Testament translation captures the sense of this warning by saying: “Take pains with yourself and your teaching.”
Holy living and sound doctrine are inextricably bound together. As one commentary sums up: “Moral and doctrinal rectitude are inseparable twins of the Christian life.”2 Indeed, unholy living and unsound doctrine are also frequently found together. It is an observable fact that sensuality and doctrinal error often go hand in hand. In this vein Peter writes, regarding false teachers:
For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who lie in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. (2 Pet. 2:18–20)
It must be understood, in this relativistic age where we work so hard at damage control when a minister falls, that the pastor is especially prone to self-deception. Jeremiah 17:9 says “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The pastor is one who must speak out against sin, but as revealed in recent public scandals, the very men who fell were often the same men who spoke out forthrightly against the sins they now confess. Richard Baxter, in the classic The Reformed Pastor, warned ministers regarding this when he said, “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.” Self-deception has destroyed I many leaders in the church. Unless you understand it and daily face up to its dangers, it will destroy you, too.
“WATCH YOUR LIFE”
Quinton Hogg, who founded the London Polytechnic Institute, devoted a great fortune to the enterprise. He was once asked how much it cost him to build up such a great institution, to which he replied, “Not very much, simply one man’s life blood.” That is exactly what the ministry will cost any man who takes it seriously. This is the only way we can understand the kind of life that was behind the expression, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12).
We who affirm the authority of the Scripture must take seriously the warnings of the Word of God. The focus of the minister’s most earnest efforts must be upon his own life. What am I when no one else is watching? How am I attending to the duties laid upon me by my ministry? How am I using my gift? Am I profiting, in my own soul, from my own ministry?
This kind of thinking is frequently expressed in the New Testament. Paul exhorted the elders of the church in Ephesus by saying much the same: Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which, the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Acts 20:28).
Right conduct is not optional. It runs like a thread throughout the pastoral letters. This fourth chapter of 1 Timothy is, in fact, filled with this idea. Paul counsels, “Disclpline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (v. 7). He adds, “In speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of (to) those who believe” (v. 12).
Your life is one continual conditioning program. You must work out your salvation every day.
My friend, Dr. David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written regarding the ministry in these times:
… the intrusion of the market ethos into the life of the church is having a profound effect on the way that the ministry is understood and practiced. During the last fifty years the ministry has become increasingly professionalized. Indeed, it is not coincidental that during this time, when the social status of ministers has declined, the need for them to see themselves as professionals has increased. By professionalization, I simply mean that ministers are being driven to understand themselves as specialists, those who have a special kind of knowledge, the same way lawyers and physicians and chemists do. In these other professions, specialized knowledge is used in pursuit of acquisition and aspiration. That is to say, professionals typically have careers, projectories of accomplishment for which planning and maneuvering are indispensable. Where this enters the Church…an ethos results which I believe is extremely harmful to the real interests of the Church…ministers begin to nourish and pursue private careers…older virtues that were once thought to be essential are replaced by some new virtues. The importance of theology is eclipsed by the clamor for management skills, biblical preaching by entertaining story-telling, godly character by engaging personality, and the work of the ministry by the art of sustaining a career.3
If the minister would fulfill his charge, he must watch against professionalism. It is proper that his work be viewed as a profession, if by this it is understood in terms of becoming properly qualified for the position. If the minister ever begins to conceive of himself as a professional in the way that our culture thinks of professionals then he is already in serious trouble. The office does not sanctify the person simply because the church has called the man. The man sanctifies the office by his holy life, or he discredits it and brings disgrace upon himself and i the church. The minister needs to ask himself: Did I enter the ministry because I could do nothing else? Do I remain in it because God put me here, or has it become “the only thing I can do” now that I’ve done it for so long?
If the minister would avoid the pitfalls of moral failure he must watch his life: with regard to sloth. The Word of God is complete with warnings that the minister should brace himself, girding up the loins of his own mind, and run the race of faith with patience. It is interesting that the Greek lexicon says the adjective for “easy” originally meant to “take things easy” and then later “to do wrong things or to play the rogue.” The transition from ease to evil is always possible, if not very likely. The ministry offers a man many opportunities to recline, to take it easy. If the minister does this, it will not be long until he is finished in private. Moral or other failure will often expose private careless ways.
Another major area to watch in ministry is pride. Professor James Denny wrote years ago, “No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.
In the present age the minister has often fallen into the trap of telling himself, and everyone else, that his greatest need is to love himself more faithfully. This elusive self-esteem is said to be what we all lack in sufficient quantity. Yet the only mention in the New Testament of “self-love” is in instruction given to a pastor regarding what to be aware of as an evil characteristic of the present age (2 Tim. 3:2). Alexander Whyte understood this danger and warned fellow ministers regarding it when he wrote:
Self-love is that master-passion in every human heart. Let us give self-love the first place in the inventory and catalogue of our passions, because it has the largest place in all our hearts and lives…It is out of self-love that all our other evil passions spring. The whole fall and ruin and misery of our present human nature lies in this, that in every human being self-love has taken, in addition to its own place, the place of the love of God and the love of man also. We naturally now love nothing and no one but ourselves. And as long as self-love is in the ascendant in our hearts, all the passions that are awakened in us by our self-love will be selfish with its selfishness, inhuman with its inhumanity, and ungodly with its ungodliness. And it is to kill and extirpate our so passionate self-love that is the end and aim of all God’s dealings with us in this world…4
Self-examination is a solemn task that every believer must engage in. The minister must make this a very high priority if he would root out the rising pride that meets him at every turn in the day. Augustine said this is the deadliest sin of all. To be close to the eternal things of God is dangerous. Lucifer was close to the throne and the plans of God. He knew the Master’s will. He was called into service with all of its privileges. And one king in Israel after another fell through pride of place and accomplishment. Pastors often fall when they have seemed to accomplish so very much.
It is important to see the link once again between defective life and defective doctrine. Paul attacked the Judaizers in his Galatian epistle as “those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh” (6:12). Apparently this was a group that desired to put on an outward show of piety and spirituality so that they would be ad-mired and appreciated. John MacArthur has expressed the dangers inherent in this for leaders. He writes: “When a spiritual leader begins to view himself as invincible, when he is not accountable to anyone, and when his personality is so intimidating that no one dares to rebuke him, he is a candidate for a fall (d. Provo 16:18). Although all Christians struggle with pride, leaders face far stronger temptation in this area.”5
There is the added danger of the snare of substitutes that must be watched in the life of a pastor. Our time is one of “instant this” and “instant that.” There are, simply put, no instant ministries and no instant men of God. Ralph Turnbull suggested that we may “preach and teach so as to give the impression that we are more concerned, with a humanism in religion instead of, a divine revelation.” He quotes from the, Institutes of the Christian Religion where Calvin says, “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” Turnbull concludes that “the humanism of the sixteenth century was a wise corrective in that age, but much of the humanism of today is simply the deification and worship of man instead of God.”6
Our generation makes heroes of pastors because their churches are large, or their reputation for success widely known. Our seminaries increasingly train men to be mighty in church growth techniques, entrepreneurial skills, and marketing strategies. Yet we have become virtual midgets in the realm of godly character as one leader after another falls into moral compromise. Surely something is wrong in this approach.
John Bunyan was said to have had more divinity and grace in his life than any preacher of his time. He felt himself a fool at times. (So much for self-esteem!) He labored to preach, thinking that he was an unworthy wretch. Of him John Burton wrote:
To the end they never made Bunyan a Doctor of Divinity nor anything else of that honorable sort. But three degrees had already been granted to him that neither Cambridge nor Oxford could either give or withhold. “To wit, union with Christ; the anointing of the Spirit; and much experience of temptation.” All of which go to fit a man for that mighty work of preaching the Gospel of Christ, much more than all the University learning that can ever be had.7
James Fraser of Brea in Scotland wrote: “The preacher must have a sense of his charge; the danger of immortal souls deeply imprinted on his heart. He that hath but slight impressions of his charge will never faithfully perform it.”8
What is needed, especially today, is what the older divines called “penitential preaching.” We must learn to search the hearts of our hearers properly. This is demanding work, often abused by legalists and ignored by antinomians. Puritan Thomas Boston writes that ministers need “to terrify the godly in their too easy and too presuming way with God and themselves…preaching (that is) life-searching, conscience-searching, heart-searching.”
If you are a minister, is the danger of :immortal souls stamped profoundly upon your heart? Are you really laboring to “workout your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)? In this path of careful watchfulness the true minister will be enabled to guard his own life as he should.
ENCOURAGE TRUE MINISTERS
If you are not a pastor, would you pray that God would give to your elder(s) this kind of careful attention to their own lives? Realize that walking with God is more important than anything else a shepherd does. Humbly intercede for pastors that they will watch their lives closely.
Recognize that no one is under pressure to conform to the spirit of this present age quite like a minister of the gospel. Those men who will live godly lives in the ministry are under severest attack. Your prayers for them mean more than you know. They don’t need blind allegiance or false support but they do need real, genuine encouragement in these difficult days. May God use you in this work of reformation.
1. Leaving Soldier Field from a recent Promise Keepers event that I attended I was struck by many impressions of what I had seen and heard. Perhaps the most profound feeling of all was the impression upon my own mind made by this text. I could find no excuse for the way speakers had mishandled serious and essential doctrinal matters in Scripture. All the charity in the world could not excuse the serious distortion of the Gospel of Christ I had seen and heard, yet inwardly I realized afresh how few seemed to care.
2. Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Timothy and Titus (Nashville, Tennessee, 1992), 141.
3. David F. Wells, The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1995), 5–6.
4. Ralph G. Turnbull, A Minister’s Obstacles (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Baker Book House, 1972 reprint), 41.
5. John MacArthur, “Why Is There So Much Sin Among Leaders in the Church?” In Grace to You publication, n.d., 10.
6. Ralph G. Turnbull, 63.
7. Ibid., 68
8. Ibid., 68.
Next Issue (Vol. 5, No.6): “Watch Your Doctrine.”