Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Gospel Builds the Church AND Her Pastors

What are the riskiest jobs in America? Firefighter? High-rise construction worker? Street cop in Compton? Believe it or not, being a pastor can be a job fraught with perils, if only spiritual. Mark Galli writes about the dangers of pastoral ministry, namely, that due to the way American churches often function pastors lose sight of their calling as shepherds and personal caretakers as their congregation swells--a sure sign of ministerial "success." Concomitantly, they also succumb to pride in a number of ways.

When a church is edified (numerically, if not also spiritually) by her pastor, it's easy for her members to associate themselves with pastor So-and-So, that it's his church to which they belong. "The inadvertent effect of all this is that pastors have become the heads of personality cults," notes Galli. "Churches become more identified with the pastor . . . than with anything larger. When a pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it's devastating. It feels like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today's relationship between pastor and people."

I know a thing or two of this. From 2004-05 I was a member of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, when Kevin DeYoung first arrived from Iowa as our new senior pastor. Back then he was a lanky, somewhat nerdy, and unknown guy--but one who could preach the Word with clarity and conviction, and who had a deep love for the church and for right doctrine. DeYoung is now known among evangelical circles nationwide, he has published several excellent books, and URC is growing. I recall with fondness my time at URC, mostly for different reasons (the loving people there and the way they taught me godly living), but it's easy for me to think I'm somehow cooler because I belonged to the church over which he was (is) pastor.

In light of this, I think there are a few important truths both pastors and the church need to keep in mind.

1. Christ Jesus alone is the Head of the church, and all good and growth belongs to him. "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5-7). The church's Chief Pastor is none other than Jesus (1 Pet. 5:4), who bought the church for himself at the price of his blood (Acts 20:28). Consequently pastors are only undershepherds participating in the work God is doing among his people. All credit, all thanks, always goes to God alone through Jesus Christ.

2. It's the Word that is preached, not the preacher, that builds the church. Scripture tells us that we were called to God and are built up not by a sermon per se, but through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace of God proclaimed in that sermon. It is through this message the Spirit kindles faith and nurtures growth (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2, 5; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7). In times of change, when leaders come and go, the thing to trust in isn't that leader himself, but to have hope that the very word of God they taught is still present and available. Success in life and as a church therefore comes not from having a particular pastor, but from living out the same faith that they had--faith in Christ, who never leaves or changes. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (v. 8). In part this is why I favor churches in which multiple elders take turns preaching, so the church knows it owes thanks to the gospel and not to one particular leader.

3. The church is more than a pastor. "From him [Christ] the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16 NIV). When you join a local church, you're joining a group of people, a spiritual family. You're not just a spiritual lone ranger, or a solitary knight pledged to his lord and no other. And it's through the loving service, care, and concern of the church family that each individual Christian and the congregation as a whole is strengthened and edified.

4. Pastors are temporal, but the church is eternal. God keeps raising up new men and women to lead his flock in each generation. They don't last forever. But what they're working toward does endure, which is the same as Paul's goal: "I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2). One day our faith will give way to sight (1 Cor. 13:8-13), and the great Wedding will come. The church will no longer need pastors. But the church herself will live on into blissful eternity.

5. We should thank our pastors and pray for them, but not exalt them yet. Paul warned the Corinthian church to regard him and his fellow workers merely "as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). The Corinthians lauded Paul and Apollos, but Paul knew that any human judgment is irrelevant; it is God's evaluation that matters (1 Cor. 4:1-7). We should be serious about praying for our pastors, and they need our verbal encouragement. They're human, just like us. They need to be thanked and picked up. Pointing out the good in someone isn't sinful; just read Paul's letters. But in doing so, we need to be careful to prevent any boasting in human achievement. Everything good any person has done is simply an undeserved gift received from God (v. 7).

6. Even when pastors sin in pride, lovelessness, or impurity, the gospel is every bit as much for them as for their congregations. In writing a letter to the elders and shepherds of churches in modern-day Turkey, Peter reminded these leaders that God gives grace and bears their burdens, and he encouraged them to stand firm in the grace of God (1 Pet. 5:5-7, 12). This grace isn't just for rank-and-file Christians, after all; it's for pastors too. Jesus' blood and righteousness covers even their sins. His open arms and nail-pierced hands welcome with joyful tears every pastor whose pride has led them to stumble and stray from their Savior. So when we hear of a pastor or priest succumbing to sin, don't wag your finger at them. You're a sinner too. Just as one of the greatest displays of gratitude and love a child can have is to care for his parents when they are old and weak, it's wholly appropriate that we also pray for our spiritual fathers, that they would know the love and forgiveness of God for them, even taking our turn to speak the Word of life to them in their need.

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