Simply awesome explanation of how to minister the gospel to the most hardened criminals possible.
During the 1980s I was greatly blessed by the monthly circular Herald of His Coming and the many articles from classic authors on prayer, revival and sanctification which it contained. I recently checked, and they are now online! The URL is Herald of His Coming.
Another circular which blessed me during those years was Pulpit Helps. The past issues up to December 2009 are now online: Pulpit Helps, but the circular itself has been superseded by Disciple magazine.
Booker T. Washington was a shining example of integrity and humility throughout his career as an educator and his presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Shortly after his taking up the presidency, he was walking in an exclusive section of town, and was asked to chop some wood at one of the houses. After he had finished, the lady of the house recognized him and apologized profusely. His reply was, “It’s all right, Madam. Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.”
The wealthy woman was deeply impressed with his humble and gracious attitude, and she was instrumental in persuading some other wealthy acquaintances to provide the Institute with some sizable contributions. So, the path of gracious humility by a leader who could have asserted his identity and his rights led to the enrichment of the institution which he served and to the elevation of other who had been born into slavery and who had recently been freed.
There is often a tension in many modern churches between who are the leaders and who are the followers, and how the leaders should lead and how the followers should follow. Jesus addressed this directly in his own teaching, and his words formed the basis of New Testament teaching on leadership as a whole. He directed the desire for leadership away from the pursuit of personal and social ambition and control, and established the model of servanthood leadership after his own example. Even more, though, he set the model for sound respect for the scriptural guidance of the leader as the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
These two aspects of the New Testament teaching on leadership, based in the words of Jesus Christ himself, are in an incident found in the gospel of Mark. This incident shows the two different sides of leading and following in the body of Christ, in accord with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. In this incident, Jesus rebuked the way that the twelve disciples tried to sound out the pecking order among themselves. At this time he gave them clear directions on the style of leadership that made their entire approach to and understanding of leadership mistaken and wrong. And this is often, as it turns out, to be a key factor in the blessing and growth of a church or its stagnation and decline.
“And they came to Capernaum. And when they had entered the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater. And he said down and said to the twelve, ‘If any one of you wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.’ And he took aside a child and had him stand in the middle of them, and as he took him in his arms he told them, ‘Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37).
Jesus Christ calls the leaders of his church to be servants. That is the expression of leadership: servanthood. It is not to be for their own advantage, but for the building up of others. This is to be their attitude toward their positions of leadership: they are not there to be somebody, to be a big shot, but to serve others out of love for Jesus Christ and after the example of Jesus Christ.
The disciples’ argument about who was greater among them was the cause of this. Jesus asked them that question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” He knew the answer, but he wanted to get them to own up to it. But they remained silent, as so many are when Jesus asks us these kinds of questions, though he knows the answer and we know the answer. “And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater.” This may have been a jockeying for position and prestige by the three – Peter, James and John – who had witnessed the transfiguration over those who had not been there. It may have been that the experience had started to build up some pride in their hearts, that they had had that special experience, and that made them special, over the other disciples, who had not had that same special experience. This kind of discussion was also like the discussions that rabbis often had among themselves, as to who would get the greater positions of rank and privilege in the synagogues. So it was normal to have this kind of jockeying for position, since they had seen it among the religious leaders in their own experience.
Jesus may not be walking physically with us now, but we cannot live as if he were not aware of our hidden desires, drives and agendas. We cannot expect that we can have ulterior motives and be pursuing personal aggrandizement in some way and not find him putting the question to us about it. Even more, we cannot expect that if we have come to saving faith in Christ and have been born again of his Spirit, that we not find his Spirit convicting us if we try to use a position of leadership as a place to stand in superiority to other believers. It should be one of the most terrifying prospects to a leader in the church of Jesus Christ to harden his or her heart against the strivings of the Spirit of God if he is convicting any one of us of abusing our position to make ourselves appear and feel superior to any other believer in Christ. But even more, it should be a real deterrent to us to realize that at the very least, we will face his questions about the conducts of our leadership face to face, and every excuse that we give ourselves for our motives and our behavior will melt away into silence.
The tendency in this vain quest of leadership sought from pride, rivalry and ambition is toward leadership by intimidation, deceit and exploitation. And the consequences in the church becomes dissension, departures and personality cults. This is what happens when a person such as Diotrephes (III John 9), who “. . . loves to be first . . .” comes into leadership. And then we see this in our churches with the personal shipwreck of leaders who began to think that their office and attainments meant a special exemption for them from following the clear directions of scripture. I have known some people who in fact idolized such leaders, and their faith was led near to, and in some cases, into actual shipwreck. But sometimes the consequences are less spectacular – there is just simply a steady decline, since the leader who starts to live with the idea that he or she is greater than anyone else is going directly contrary to the will of the Lord of the church. Indeed, he or she is walking directly in a path where he or she can expect to find God directly in opposition to their goals, plans and undertakings, since “ . . . God resists the proud . . .” (Proverbs 3:34, I Peter 5:5).
Somehow it needs to be seared into the hearts of leaders in the church, if our churches are truly to prosper spiritually, that every step I may take toward self aggrandizement or with the underlying motive or agenda that I am special, that I deserve special privileges or that I am greater in myself or because of anything that I have done than the least of all saints in the church, that I am taking a step away from God and starting down a path away from his will, his fellowship and his blessing. And there needs to be this continued realization also within our churches that when we attempt to emphasize or glorify the position, office, virtues or talents of anyone, that we are in fact introducing an enticing but slowly acting toxin into our community that may end up in the shipwreck of the faith of many and the demise of previously living and growing churches.
There’s a story about two elderly sisters who were having an argument. It amounted to them saying back and forth to each other, “I’m closer to the Lord than you are.” Their brother finally stopped it by saying, “Ain’t neither of you pushing him any.” In our hearts, therefore, let there be this realization that when when we take that attitude of sibling rivalry within our churches, that we are in fact demonstrating how far from the Lord we really are and how much closer to him we really need to become. We need continually to be reminded that in the body of Jesus Christ the pursuit of leadership out of personal and social ambition is a vain quest. Rather, leadership in the Kingdom of God does not make anyone any greater than he or she was before. Anyone who has already entered the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ being born again of his Spirit has already finally and once and for all received the greatest gift and highest status possible, that of having received salvation from sin and acceptance with God for all eternity through Jesus Christ, of “ . . . every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ . . .” (Ephesians 1:3). And much more could be said on that, but let us continue on in this same passage.
The opposite picture of leadership, that of being a servant, is the command of Jesus Christ. His own example entirely backs up that command; it was one that he fulfilled far beyond what any one of us could hope to approach. In this picture, he gives us the pattern of genuine leadership which he has truly called, commissioned and empowered to be the leaders of his church.
In verse 35 Jesus called together the twelve and delivers what seems to have been the first of his calls to them. He would have to repeat it again, in the gospel of Mark, in 10:35-44: “Whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all – for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in the Upper Room, on the night of his betrayal, he acted it out before them, in a kind of spiritual performance art, when he took the place of the lowliest slave and washed the feet of each one of them (John 13:1-20). But before the meal was even over, the old argument about who was greatest burst out again, and Jesus had to bring back the same lesson to them again (Luke 22:24-30). So it looks like Jesus had to bring this lesson before the disciples at least four times. He was going against the way of the pride of human nature and of the way that they had seen leadership modeled during their lifetimes – and, perhaps, the way that some people have, of not letting go of an argument until they think that they have won and gotten their way, which may well have been characteristic of several of the disciples.
Note that Jesus didn’t give the leader of his church a set of instructions nor a curriculum for leadership as much as he gave them a totally unexpected image: that of the servant. It is as if he took a piece of paper, drew a sketch, and said, “This is the kind of person you are to be.” So many times when people in our world and in the church come into positions of leadership, the pattern of leadership they follow is that which they have already seen, and the image that they follow is the one that they have seen. And they, like the disciples, may be extremely stubborn and reluctant to let go of that path of pursuing leadership. And doubtless that is the reason that may people seek positions of leadership in the world and in the church is because they have seen others exploit their offices for personal satisfaction, power, recognition and affluence, and they want some of that for themselves. But Jesus didn’t give anyone as the picture of his leader the image of a lord in his castle, nor a CEO in his office, nor someone who had all the answers and was always telling others what to do nor someone who was living on the perks and privileges of his or her office. He gave them the picture of a servant – someone who had no expectation of receiving any gain from passing on a message for his master nor of receiving anything more from his master than his food, clothing and shelter, and someone who could expect hard work and hardship throughout his or her life of service. His direction was to aim at servanthood and humility, and not at the other trappings that people may see associated with leadership and position in our world.
Even more, we must consider the picture Jesus drew of the type of leader that he called for like the rendering of a police sketch artist. It is as if he drew the picture, presented it to his church and said, “This is the kind of person that you are to be looking for.” And this is the kind of people that we are to be looking for for leaders – not those who boast about being leaders, nor those who try to act out their own sense of personal greatness, but those who seek and live out servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ himself. Those who start on the path of leadership with a lot of boasts about what they can do and accomplish should be viewed with suspicion of their motives at the very outset – but too often they are simply plugged into whatever offices are available. This striving for leadership for reasons other than Christlike servanthood definitely lies at the root of much of what may be termed inter-church and intra-church politics – but these really come down to euphemisms for bad behavior such as exploitation and abuse of position, corruption of office, nepotism and cronyism. What does a striving for my glory and the trappings of my office, an attitude of ‘Rules are for others’ and using a position to pass on favors to my family and friends and to punish the people I don’t like – what does that have to do with being a servant after the example of Jesus Christ?
Even more, this attitude of servanthood must more generally be recognized as a mark of a secure and humble walk with Jesus and the mark of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This Christlike humility is, then, the foundation of an example that will back up preaching and teaching with moral consistency with what has been preached and taught. Even more, it provides and example that others can follow without fear, because it is the example of the Master who sacrificed his all for his followers. Seen in the light of the example of Jesus, servanthood leadership turns out to be simply a different way of following the will of God, and of loving God and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. And therefore it to be received as a responsibility and pursued out of the conviction of God’s will with all the love and humility of Christ.
So then, the entrance into leadership in the body of Christ comes through serving God, and the church should look for those who are servants for leaders. They will be found not boasting of their qualifications but serving their brothers and sisters in Christ with pure motives and pure intentions through the path of humility in the Holy Spirit. They will be seen through a willingness to do small things and unnoticed things conscientiously out of faithfulness and out of love for God. This path then leads easily to the development of scriptural qualifications for eldership (I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9), and to the scriptural place of leadership, to equip the body of Christ for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16).
There’s a story of a young ensign in the United States Coast Guard who was giving a 4th grade class the tour of his station. One of his friends slapped him on the back and said, “I see they finally gave you your own command.” But that’s the way that leadership in the body of Christ starts – with taking on the lesser tasks that may not bring much recognition with humility, enthusiasm and care to follow Christ.
The attitude of servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ, though, is not optional for believers in general. It is commanded especially for the leaders, but there is no place where other believers who are not leaders can live in their pride and ambition as well, and pretend to be doing well spiritually. Rather, this is what scripture commands generally: “If there any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if there is any compassion and mercy, then fulfill my joy that you think on the same thing, as you have the same kind of love and share one soul, that you think on nothing from selfish ambition and conceit, but in humility you consider each other more than yourselves, as you look not to you own concerns but also to those of others. Think on the same think which is in Christ Jesus, who, though the was in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God as something to use for his own advantage, but who emptied himself as he took the form of a slave, having taken the form of mankind; and having been found in the form of a man he humbled himself as he became obedient to death, even the death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11).
More and more I’m hearing about what I can only call a rising tide of spiritual tyranny in our churches and among believers in Christ, and servanthood leadership and serving each other after the example of Jesus Christ is part of what is necessary to combat this ugly poison. This may in fact clinically be called and have its roots in either narcissism or codependency but I think that there are many times that the roots come from what people in our churches see and hear from some leaders in our churches. Sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, though, becomes sibling tyranny where any of us thinks that we have the right and responsibility to try to rule and control any other believer in the body of Christ. It is the way of the ostensibly Christian control freak, and this behavior in fact poisons and defiles the loving fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ. It happens when we stand by while extraordinarily selfish, deceitful and ruthless behavior aimed to get another believer to knuckle under to the selfish and conceited demands of someone else and impose their personal preferences upon others takes place. This is the exact opposite of scriptural servanthood.
So therefore there needs to be a real caution and firm refusal to take or to cooperate with any leader or fellow believer who takes the attitude of spiritual tyranny toward anyone else in the body of Christ, and refuse to take it up ourselves. We must refuse to take up the attitude toward any other believer in Christ which amounts to “I am your Lord and Master” or “I own you” and “You report to me, you are responsible to me, and you serve me.” Rather, we could expect that Jesus Christ will say back about that person, “I am the Lord and Master of that person – not you. I own him or her – not you. And that person reports to me, is responsible to me, and serves me – not you.” And we could expect that Jesus will assert back to the person that attempts to take that attitude, “I am to be YOUR Lord and Master, I own you, and you are to follow me. You are to report to me, you are responsible to me, and you are to serve me.”
So then, Jesus set forth the example of servanthood leadership as his direction as to how leadership is to conduct itself in his church. And our churches are to follow the direction of the Lord Jesus if they are to be his church. The direction of the church is not necessarily to follow the will of the leader nor of the congregation but the Lord Jesus himself. And he himself, as he draws the picture of servant leadership, provides as well the security for his leaders to live and act as servant leaders.
Jesus Christ stands by his leaders as his representatives. The security for leaders to be servant leaders is that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Defender. And this forms the basis for how the church is to treat the leaders that he has called, sent and equipped. The church of Jesus Christ is to accept and follow his servant leaders as his representatives. They are his most visible spokesmen and messengers, and they deliver God’s Word and watch that God’s will is performed in his church.
When Jesus took the child and put him in their midst, and embraced the child, that was what we could call an enacted parable, a kind of performance art by the Son of God. He was playing on a double meaning, where servant and child are the same word, which would have been evident in the original Aramaic of the original conversation, and which carries through as well in the original Greek in which the gospel of Mark was written. And just as the disciples more than once had that discussion about who was the greatest, Jesus more than once made that assertion that he stands by his leaders as his representatives (Luke 10:16, John 13:20). This would mean his call for his church to receive his leaders as his messengers, and this would mean following the words of the Lord with love and respect for the message and the messenger, because the servant leader is, like Jesus showed them bringing in the child before them and putting his arms around him, bringing in the servant leader and covering him with his authority, power, love and care.
This, then, is the security for a leader to be a servant: the realization that as he is brought in by Jesus in the place of humility, as a child and as a servant, and placed in the midst of the disciples of Jesus, that he is surrounded by the loving arms of Jesus. This is what should deter anyone ever in our churches from ever seeing or treating a leader in the place of servanthood and humility as a target for unending exploitation. Rather, the arms of Jesus around his servant leaders means that they need to see his leaders as being under the call, leading and protection of the Lord Jesus himself, and that they are to follow that leader respectfully. And this will then furnish the security for servant leaders to stick their necks out and pour themselves out for those whom they are responsible to lead by the Word of God. And this also contradicts a common platitude that a test of our servanthood leadership comes when others begin to treat us as their servants; it’s nowhere justified in the Word of God for anyone in the body of Christ to treat a leader in the path of servanthood with disdain, contempt or exploitation. Rather, the call of the Word of God is for respect and submission as far as they are leading according to the plain guidance of the Word of God.
But Jesus, when he gave this wonderful picture with his arms around the child, showing his guidance, leading, protection, love and care for his servant leaders, also concluded with a solemn declaration. The acceptance or rejection of a leader called, sent and protected by Jesus Christ amounts to the acceptance or rejection of the authority of Jesus Christ, and of God the Father himself. In other words, he takes personally how his servants are treated: “Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me.”
It should be unquestioned that the place of the blessing of the believer and of the church of a whole is with the acceptance of the authority of Jesus Christ and the following of his will. This statement of Jesus, then, about his taking personally how his leaders are treated, is a way to understand the way to personal blessing , through treating his leaders with proper respect as submission as messengers of God. Certainly this assumes that the leader is acting in submission to Christ and living out his leadership as a servant with the humility of a young child. But this means a right attitude of respect toward leaders, toward following leaders out of love to God and showing a proper attitude of respect to the Lord whose messenger he is. This means that the respect carries through to the leader who is acting as a servant under the leadership of Jesus with the humility of a young child.
It’s been noted that disrespect for the servant leader, and sabotage and resistance of his guidance for the church, is a strong factor in church decline and stagnation. It’s noteworthy how many times a church without a pastor will pray fervently for a pastor, but then treat the pastor that then comes with complaints, dissension, disdain and disrespect. Did they think that God had not answered their prayer in sending them a pastor? Did they think that they knew better than God what kind of pastor they needed? This is one strong factor in church blessing or decline, as David Mains, pastor of the radio show Chapel of the Air once noted: “My observance of thriving congregations is that a common factor in congregations where the Spirit is alive is the willingness of the people to follow godly leaders. Conversely, one key factor in withering local bodies, far more often than not, is the refusal of the people to be truly supportive of godly leaders.”
So then, Jesus Christ stands behind his servant leaders. He calls them and gives them his Word and his power, and therefore the church needs to treat them with respect and love because of his close identification with the servant leader, and his appointment of them as his representatives and his spokesmen. Love and respect for his leaders on behalf of Christ means that the people of the church, the others in position of leadership, must renounce any attempts at subversion of his direction as backed up by the Word, and of any manipulation to try to fit him into your personal specifications, of trying to become an ‘amateur Providence’ in the life of a leader whom God has called. While there is nothing in what Jesus said to give the impression that the servant leader has any justification to act as if he had in himself any personal authority independent of God, to play God in the lives of others, there is also nothing in what Jesus said to give any justification to anyone else within the church to act as if he or she had any justification to try to play God in the life of the servant leader. Servant leaders themselves are not to be the targets for spiritual tyranny by anyone else either! Rather, realize that the servant leader has been called, prepared, and empowered by God, and if he humbly continues in the Word, continues under the protection and guidance of God as well. Realize that that is something that you have no justification before God or man to try to control or interfere with.
Even more, love and respect for the servant leader means listening to what they say as the message of God, as far as it is in accord with what the Bible says and as it is in accord with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Consider and follow it as far as it is in accord with the Bible, and follow his godly example as far as possible. And when a leader needs correction, let it be not be with anger, but with love, gentleness and respect, and let it be based on the Word of God. Moreover, pray for the leader, and give conscientious feedback as far as possible.
The Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, has given instructions in his Word for the style and expression of leadership in his church. He has also given instructions for the proper treatment of leaders in his church. The manner of leadership and the proper treatment of leaders are marks of the submission to Christ and the proper following of the Word of God in the fellowship of the church. This will not show itself in personal charisma, talents or gifts but rather in being like Christ.
The great need of the church today and in all ages is servant leaders who follow the servanthood example of the Lord Jesus. Pray for such leaders to be called and prepared, and for those who are in leadership responsibilities to take up their responsibilities as servant leaders. And pray for a resurgence of servanthood leadership in the body of Christ, by the call and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And if you are a leader, or you are seeking leadership out of a sense of God’s call, serve faithfully and conscientiously. Live the life of servanthood that God vindicates by giving a place of leadership, blessing and vindication while in leadership.
And if you have indulged in spiritual rivalry and tyranny, and have thus walked out of close fellowship with God, even, perhaps, while telling yourself all the time that you were following what you thought God wanted, walk away from that path with all your might. And take the way back to walking closely with Jesus out of these sins of rivalry and tyranny into humility and servanthood. Take the path back to closeness through confession to God and to man of the sins you have committed in your pride, arrogance and rivalry, and attempts to control, manipulate another person in tyranny and not in servanthood love after the example of Jesus Christ. Make that confession in private and in person if possible, or on the phone or in letter,with no excuses, no claims of having good intentions all the time you were attempting to dominate and tyrannize another person into your will – your hot pursuit of what was not the will of God in the life of another person. There is no quick and easy path back to close fellowship with Christ out of what may be years and, for some people, decades of spiritual rivalry and tyranny. Don’t expect instant and complete restoration of the relationships that have been abused and broken on that path but rather live out that attitude of repentance in humility of Christ, and let him provide the healing and reconciliation as you demonstrate deeds that demonstrate true repentance and truly trustworthy character.
For there to be servant leaders, then, the church must also recognize the call, guidance, protection and loving care of God behind his leaders. This calls for doing them no harm in the path of leadership, and even more giving them proper respect as the messengers of God called by God. Avoid the malicious gossip and unloving criticism and undue complaining when they don’t do what you think that they should have done or what you would have done in their situation; that’s wrong toward any brother or sister in Christ as well. But rather forgive, forbear, accept and love them anyway, and receive blessing from their strengths and the blessings they have received from God, and be as merciful toward their shortcomings as you would expect to receive as if you were in the same situation. And pay special attention to make sure that they receive proper financial support for themselves and their families, as servant leaders, since God honors those who follow his Word and who honor his messengers.
During the times of my preparation for ministry during my seminary years and my preaching and teaching ministry over the years, there have been several, but mercifully few, times that I’ve had fellow pastors, church leaders and other believers take issue with my interpretation of a particular verse or passage of scripture. There has never been the least insinuation to my face of my ever having departed from orthodox evangelical teachings such as the Trinity, the full deity and human of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, bodily resurrection and ascension, the personality and ministry of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and so on, as stated in the Statement of Faith of my own denomination or the National Association of Evangelicals. Rather, it’s been more like taking issue with a view on a verse which I expressed which clashed with an interpretation which they had either heard all their lives or heard about from some other pastor, teacher, professor or author, and thus they classified that view as the ‘traditional’ view, and they were aghast that someone would have a view any different than what they thought was the ‘traditional view.’ Or it may be taking issue with my stating a different take than a particular interpretation of a verse, passage or book which they had publicly stated in their preaching or teaching.
Here I’m talking about such things as:
- Having a different view than someone else on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was
- Taking a different view than someone else of a passage or book which had been viewed ‘traditionally’ as allegorical, such as the Song of Solomon
- Taking a different view than someone else on what the ‘old Man’ and ‘body of flesh’ meant in Romans 6
- Taking a pre, mid or post tribulational view of when the rapture is to take place
- What it means for a man to ‘touch’ a woman as in I Corinthians 7
- Taking a different view than someone else on who is the man ‘sold under sin’ in Romans 7:14-25.
In some of these matters of minor disagreement, they happened a number of years ago – for some of them, decades ago – and in some of them these disagreements were with believers and leaders who were chronologically older than I was then. The reaction – or rather, over-reaction –seemed from several to be that I was being rebellious and anti-authoritarian and casting off all the hard won and precious traditions of the church, and who was I to mention even the slightest disagreement with all that. Yet the truth is that I came to my own conclusions as the result of personal study of the scriptures, often in the original languages, and with due consideration of generally agreed upon guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and I could usually cite at least one, and many times more, prominent evangelical Biblical scholars and interpreters who held pretty much the same interpretation. I personally don’t remember ever having any idea as to the meaning of any particular passage of scripture where I didn’t find some other sound evangelical scholar who held the same view once I consulted the commentaries.
At some point, it seemed that for some I was violating another one of the unspoken rules that some in our evangelical churches seem to live by: “Thou shalt never disagree with a pastor,” or, “Thou shalt never disagree with this or that favorite teacher of mine,” or some other variations on that. Or it may be an unspoken expectation that a professor, pastor or teacher has, that his or her position as pastor, teacher, professor or leader insulates them from even minor questioning and disagreement after a respectful exchange of views. And questioning and disagreement may often be ascribed to ignorance or rebelliousness rather than a serious consideration of the scriptures, and even the slightest expression of disagreement, such as an offhand remark in a conversation or a discussion in a Bible study or Sunday School class may be blown all out of proportion into someone trying to undermine the preaching and teaching ministry of a pastor, leader, or teacher. But the truth is, in the matters which I just mentioned, they are all things on which sincere believers may disagree and still have a genuine saving relationship with Christ and be walking in fellowship with Christ with a full commitment to the Scriptures and not even the slightest hint of trying to discredit any pastor, teacher or leader.
But even more, here’s the problem with those unspoken rules and expectations: they are very close to the cultish view of authority and scriptural interpretation. The leaders and their views and interpretations are beyond disagreement and serious examination, and they exude a highly aggressive hypersensitivity to even the mildest question or disagreement. And the churches and leaders who take these kinds of views tend to take on very cultish characteristics in terms of dealing with their membership such as:
- The leaders are right about everything because they are the leaders with authority from God.
- The leaders have such absolute authority from God that they can micro manage and control the lives of any members as they please, and direct and guide in areas where they have no expertise or experience.
- It is a sin to question and disagree and even more to leave if you disagree.
But I don’t see in scripture where God has given this kind of absolute authority, often verging on infallibility, to the particular views or interpretations of any professor, pastor, teacher or leader, so that they are to be accepted without question or that there cannot be disagreement where major doctrines of scripture such as the Deity of Christ are not at stake. That’s equating scripture with a very fallible human being’s particular views and interpretations of scripture. And it’s actually been said that what this amounts to is that a pastor or leader is treated pretty much as a Protestant Pope in the area of infallibility when making a statement or pronouncement on the basis of his office, and not on the Word of God reasonably interpreted according to generally agreed principles of scriptural interpretation. And even on the matters of major doctrines, the believer needs to have his or her views based on the authority of the Bible, as intelligently read, studied and understood to the best of his or her ability, and not on the authority of any particular professor, pastor, teacher or leader.
I would say, in the meantime, to anyone finds himself or herself in a church or ministry situation where leaders take consistently these kinds of positions or pick out particular people to ‘lord it over their faith’, please take a look at David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, The: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church and the website on Recovery From Spiritual Abuse. The kinds of problems that come under spiritual abuse seem to come from leaders who grew up in an addictive and/or legalistic home or who fit the clinical descriptions of pathological narcissism.
Let’s remember that scripture itself commends someone taking the time to examine carefully any leader’s preaching and teaching by Scripture. For instance, Jesus himself challenged the Jewish religious leaders, “You keep on searching the scriptures, because you think that in them is eternal life, and they witness about me” (John 65:39). And even after his resurrection, he took pains to demonstrate and explain that all that had happened to him was in accord with the Old Testament revelation of the Messiah (Luke 24:24, 47). And, moreover, scripture compliments the Beroean believers that they examined all that Paul had been teaching them according to scripture (Acts 17:11).
So let’s take another look at what the epistle to the Hebrews had to say about regarding and following human leaders within the church:
“Remember those who are leading you, who spoke to you the Word of God, and as you observe the outcome of their conduct imitate their faith . . . obey those who are in leadership over you and be in submission, because they watch over your souls as those who have to give account, so that they can do this with joy and not laboriously, because this would be a bad situation for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
So the manner of genuine leadership in the church is to be that of humility and responsibility to God as someone who stands under judgment of God, and as a servant of the Word, and of Jesus Christ and his church (Luke 22:24-27, John specially II Corinthians 4:5, “But we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus” ). God does command his people to follow the Word of God and example of faith of the leaders, and to act in submission and obedience to leaders – but here they are described as responsible messengers of the Word who are looking out for the good of the people in their charges, and not for themselves nor acting in a despotic manner over anyone else. This means, then, that the pride of position which seeks to crush and quash even minor disagreement with the aggressive assertion of personal pastoral authority is fully out of line with scripture and with all that Jesus Christ commanded regarding servant leadership within his church, and is therefore an abuse of position and of people.
Let’s then address these kinds of minor disagreement according to what scripture says:
1. Let us accept one another as believers in Christ when we demonstrate full assent to the primary teachings of scripture regarding the major matters of scripture, such as the creation and providence of God, the Trinitarian nature of God, the deity and real humanity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, etc. Our acceptance of other believers as believers and into fellowship is not supposed to be an enticement into a situation where we try to give them a complete personal and doctrinal makeover.
“Therefore receive each other, just Christ has already received you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7; see also Romans 14:1).
2. Let us not try to strong arm another believer into believing, thinking or doing the same kinds of things that we believe, think or do by the mere assertion of personal or pastoral authority, especially in matters where that person has already formed a conviction and is being guided by his or her conscience. The import of the following passage about dealing charitably with differences in personal convictions applies to leaders as well; there is no special rider attached that gives anyone who asserts church authority to try to override the sincerely held personal convictions and responsibility of someone else who has a minor difference in opinion or practice.
“Not one of us lives for himself, and not one of us died for himself; because if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So if we live or if we die, we are the Lord’s. It was for this purpose, that Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead. You – why are you are judging your brother? Or why are you holding your brother in contempt? For we must all stand before the judgment seat of God, because it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will confess to God.’ Therefore each one of us will give account to God” (Romans 14:7-12).
3. Let us avoid getting all worked up about minor matters and matters on which we are to show charity, acceptance and forbearance to each other, and never insinuate or exaggerate any minor disagreement to the level of a major doctrinal error or opposition. Even more, let’s seek to put to rest any attempts to blow minor issues so far out of proportion that they become prolonged conflicts which poison the loving unity of the body of Christ:
“I, the prisoner for the Lord, encourage you therefore to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, as you bear with one another in love, as you make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
4. Let’s deal with genuinely serious disagreements according to the guidance of scripture. I have never heard the following passage either taught in a seminary or explained in Biblical preaching and teaching as the scriptural guidance to dealing with serious disagreements and opposition. I think that the translation suffers from an unnecessarily added third personal pronoun, and I think that this distorts the application of the passage. The passage should not be twisted into dealing with personal disagreement as personal opposition to the pastor, but rather with those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), such as Hymenaeus and Philetos (II Timothy 2:17-18), who were teaching such egregious error and disrupting the faith of others in such a way as to be legitimately described as being, “under the wiles of the devil.” Such people may not begin with personal opposition to the pastor but rather attempt to seduce him into their false ideas first, and then go into open opposition if the pastor refuses their influence. But in any case, the primary application of the following passage definitely does not need to be those who believe in and love Christ with all their hearts, who have full assent to all the major doctrines of the faith and to the Bible as the Word of God, and may yet have minor disagreements with a pastor or who respectfully demur where a pastor attempts to rule outside the sphere of his wisdom, expertise or authority, but rather those who are in really serious doctrinal disagreements and who are instigating serious schisms in the body of Christ. (And at the least it also is a command for the leader in the church to avoid being drawn into other people’s disagreements, controversies and battles. I’ve used it as the scriptural authority for me to avoid being drawn into other people’s battles in the past.)
“But swear off foolish and uneducated controversies, since you know that these breed battles. And the servant of the Lord must not fight, but must be gentle to all, ready to instruct and patient. He must instruct those who are in opposition, so that somehow God might grant them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth, and that they might regain their senses from the trap of the devil, since they have been taken captive to do the will of that one”(II Timothy 2:23-26)
Back in my second year preaching class, I can remember Ravi Zacharias telling us how our sermons need to be ‘bathed in prayer’ – which he said with a dramatic gesture. Throughout the time of seminary preparation, there were also a number of dramatic and forceful calls to personal prayer as part of the pastoral ministry. I don’t recall much, though, practical instruction as to how, when, where and why prayer was to be a part of the pastoral ministry. I wasn’t personally at a loss, though, since I had long since developed the habit of tying my personal Bible reading and study and prayer life together and seeking the guidance of Christian authors for such matters.
Here are some books which deal with the personal prayer life that I would recommend:
- E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer.
- Wesley Duewel, Ablaze for God.
- Dick Eastman, The Hour That Changes the World, The: A Practical Plan for Personal Prayer.
- Elmer Towns, Praying the New Testament.
- Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer.
- Andrew Murray, The Ministry of Intercessory Prayer.
Certainly no pastor has such a straightjacket on either finances or schedule that time and money cannot be found to go through one of these books during a year or two, particularly in the early years of ministry. The formation of a personal prayer life in accord with the scriptures will be something that can carry through for a lifetime of ministry. It’s noteworthy that the great pastors in earlier generations, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon, were known much more for being men of prayer than for being great organizers, motivators, speakers, life coaches or fundraisers. And it’s also hard to doubt that that’s why their ministries were also known as ministries of spiritual power, and not human organization, ability and persuasiveness.
That phrase – the personal prayer life in accord with the scriptures – was a great focus of my own life during my time in seminary and ministry, and continues to be a great part of my life today. It isn’t something that I’ve ever shared much with anyone, except to guard quite jealously my time alone in prayer and prayerful study of the scriptures prior to the ministry of the Word. Over the years, though, I developed and refined lists of promises and guidelines from the scriptures which I’ve followed in prayer for myself and my ministry, for the church I’ve been serving with, and for the world as a whole. Below is one of these lists, with the scripture references. (My current list is about 1/3 longer.)You’ll have to look up and reflect on the scripture itself to see how it relates to how I am praying. Sometimes I pray according to scriptural patterns and promises, such as praying for deliverance like Daniel in the lions’ den while claiming the promises of Psalm 91. I just have references below, since these lists were developed during the last years of the typewriter, before copy and paste was available in word processing software. Some of the promises I had already memorized, but I personally was familiar with what the verses I gave references for were talking about.
Prayer for the ministry of the Word of God in preaching and teaching, and in personal evangelism and edification:
Purity of own life and heart (Psalm 19:14, 139:23-24), to be a fit vessel to receive the Word into my own heart (James 1:19-25, I Peter 2:1-3), for the Word to come forth in the right occasion (Isaiah 50:4), to be filled with the wisdom of God to understand spiritual realities and life consistently (Ephesians 1:15-20, I Kings 3:9, Psalm 86:22).
In preparation for the illumination of the scriptures in study and application (Psalm 119:27, 33-34, 125, Ezra 7:10), for words to be prepared and taught by the Spirit of God to express spiritual realities (I Corinthians 2:13), to be spiritual weapons against the sinful thought patterns of this world (II Corinthians 10:3-6), and to be words of comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-5, Psalm 119:50, 71).
In actual delivery for the power of the word to be demonstrated through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 4:12, Ephesians 6:17, I Corinthians 2:1-4, Jeremiah 23:29).
For prepared hearts among those who hear the Word of God and their edification to maturity and stability in Christ and to be equipped to ministry for him (I Corinthians 4:2, II Corinthians 13:8, Ephesians 4:11-12, II Timothy 3:16-17, Romans 15:4).
For the Word of God to be delivered in the love of Christ (Ephesians 4:15, James 3:17-18, II Timothy 1:7).
For the gospel of Christ to be shares with the witness and conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11, 15:26-27, Acts 1:8, I Thessalonians 1:5, Acts 4:29, 5:32).
For there to be eternal results from the preaching and teaching of the Word, and personal evangelism and edification (Isaiah 55:11, Colossians 1:28, I Peter 1:23, I Thessalonians 2:13).
For the removal of the hindrances and obstacles of the enemy (Luke 8:12, 10:19, II Corinthians 4:4).
For all this to be to the glory of God through Jesus Christ (John 16:14, 14:13).
Prayer for personal needs in life and ministry:
Personal stand of entire consecration of my life to God through Jesus Christ, as someone who is alive from the dead in Christ, dedicated to do everything for the glory of God (Jeremiah 29:13, John 14:21, 23, Romans 6:11-13, 14, 12:1-2, Colossians 3:17) and for the constant awareness of his companionship and blessings of his presence; forgiveness for all known offenses against God (I John 1:9, Proverbs 29:13).
Fruitful life and ministry to glorify God (John 15:8, Matthew 5:13-18).
Wisdom and guidance in ministry and in personal life (James 1:5, John 16:12-15, Joshua 1:8-9, Psalm 1:1-3, 25:8-10, 119:8-10).
Provision for personal financial needs (Matthew 6:11, 33, Proverbs 30:7-9, Philippians 4:13).
Forgiveness for all hurts and offenses, love to cover all offenses, and blessings upon any and all detractors and adversaries (Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Luke 6:27-28, Ephesians 4:32-5:2, I Corinthians 13:5-6, I Peter 4: 8.
Protection from the enemy, anointing of favor before men (Matthew 6:13, Psalm 5:12, Proverbs 16:7, Psalm 9:9-10) with discernment between the truth and the lies of the enemy (Ephesians 5:11-14, II Corinthians 10:3-6) with wise use of the authority of Christ (Luke 10:19).
Health for continued endurance in ministry, for healing and physical strength through the death and resurrection life of Jesus (Matthew 8:17, I Peter 2:24, Romans 8:11)
Prayer for the entire worldwide church, the church in North America, my own denomination: Edification of the church of Jesus Christ, to be glorifying to God, unified in the love of Jesus, full of the power of the Holy Spirit (follow with specific requests for specific parts of the world from a source such as Operation World or other sources of prayer requests worldwide)
Spiritual leadership: for pastors, teachers and leaders to receive fresh, renewed vision, purifying and power in ministry (Proverbs 29:18), to be grounded in the Word of God (II Timothy 4:2), to be full of the Spirit and of power and of wisdom and of prayer (Acts 6:30); to be prepared, tested, able to lead and guide in righteousness by word and example
Purifying and empowering revival among the people of God, to be cleansed by the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26-27, John 17:17-18), purified through the Spirit of God (Isaiah 4:4), unity of love among the people of God (John 13:34-35, 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:15), revived in heartfelt worship and joy (Psalm 85:6); burden for the lost and empowering for witness among the church (Psalm 67:1-2, Acts 2:27, 4:39-30, Matthew 9:37, John 15:26-27, Acts 1:8, John 16:8-11); protection from spiritual deceit, distraction, strife and worldliness (Matthew 6:13, John 17:18)
Spread of the gospel worldwide (Matthew 9:38, 24:14, 28:18-20); spiritual awakening and hunger among the unconverted (Isaiah 9:2, Luke 1:78-79, II Corinthians 4:6), the light of the gospel to destroy spiritual darkness (II Corinthians 4:4, Luke 8:12, Colossians 3:15, Ephesians 6:12, II Corinthians 1o:3-6)
National governments: for an atmosphere of freedom for the gospel (I Timothy 2:2-3), favor for believers (Psalm 5:12), wisdom for government officials, justice, peace and restraint of evil in the world
Prayer for the local church: for the glory of God through the salvation and edification of men and women in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit; for a local outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church, for a spiritual awakening among the unconverted in the surrounding communities
Leadership of the church: for the calling and edification of Spirit filled leaders, with wisdom and insight, to be Christlike servants and responsible heads of stable families
Congregation: for the edification and establishment in the Word, in faith, in love and in witness and worship (II Thessalonians 1:11-12, Colossians 2:6-7); for their growth to maturity in Christ, in life, service and fruitfulness (Ephesians 4:11-16, John 15:8 ), to be receptive to the Word, filled with spiritual insight and knowledge and to be growing in the knowledge of God (Ephesians 1:15-23, Philippians 1:9, Colossians 3:15-17), Spirit empowered and guided love and encouragement (Ephesians 3:16-21, Philippians 1:9, I Thessalonians 3:12, Hebrews 10:24-25), fullness of prayer through the Spirit in the name of Christ (Ephesians 2:18, 3:12, 6:18)
Fully open door for the gospel (Acts 2:47); leading to open hungry hearts, for the glory of God (John 14:13), salvation of many through the gracious desire of God himself (Ezekiel 18:23, John 3:17, I Timothy 2:4, II Peter 3:9), the bearing fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus (John 12:23-24, I Timothy 2:6, I John 2:2, II Corinthians 5:14-15, Romans 14:9); manifestation of Christ in the gospel through the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 4:6, Isaiah 9:2, John 6:44, 15:26-27, 16:8-11, I Thessalonians 1:5, Psalm 83:16) for witnesses to be sent and met ready and prepared hearts at the right time (Romans 10:14-15, Isaiah 50:4)
Corrie ten Boom once told a story about an elderly couple who attended her meetings in post World War II Germany. They were from an isolated rural area of Germany, and their unkempt appearance and lack of physical hygiene put off some of the people at the meetings. The more spiritually mature Christians who attended the meetings encouraged the group to accept them and demonstrate the love of Christ to them. Before long, they both made professions of faith in Christ, and without anyone saying anything to them, they began to make use of the washing facilities, laundered their clothes and combed their hair.
The more spiritually mature Christians at those meetings got it exactly right. One of the most difficult human tendencies to deal with is the tendency to label people as ‘weird’ because of the ways that they may differ from others. And most certainly it can be extremely difficult for a person to deal with the dehumanization that may take place once others have given that person the ‘weird’ label. But the question then comes for the fellowship of believers: what are you doing to demonstrate the love of Christ to that person? And the question comes to those in leadership, as pastors and elders: what are you doing to lead the others in the fellowship of believers to show the love of Christ to that person?
The label of ‘weird’ can arise in several different ways. Sometimes it can come from the false expectations, stereotypes, prejudices, and preconceptions of others. For instance, one of my favorite coworkers told me that one of her friends called her, ‘weird,’ because she had minored in art history in college. I advised her that I found that to be quite the opposite of weird. This may well be from mere minor differences in upbringing, educational background, or region of origin. In addition, many times there can be highly exaggerated understandings of what ‘normal’ is, based on looks, popularity or athleticism. A person is not ‘weird’ if he or she is not the best looking person, most accomplished athlete, etc. Just as much, this can even come from highly exaggerated and misunderstood observations on one time incidents and off hand remarks. For instance, if one encounters someone who has been up all night or who has just experienced the loss of a family member, it should go almost without saying not to make any snap judgments about that person, since one is not encountering that person in normal circumstances. And in all these situations the question remains: what are you doing to demonstrate the love of Christ in that situation?
I venture that the applicable passage of scripture in those more minor situations is Ephesians 4:1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Even more, if there is an inclination to label a person as ‘weird’ because of these minor personal differences, preconceptions and expectations, there are two further questions to consider: what did you expect from that person? And what right do you have to put those expectations upon that person? So in this case, James 4:11-12 applies: “Speak not evil of one another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?”
Another way that someone may receive that label is because of social backwardness due to personal immaturity or having come from an addictive, neglectful or abusive family, or even a family with one or more members suffering from a mental illness such as depression. The truth is that neither of these situations is either permanent or spiritually crippling in themselves, and people who are in this situation may have received little more than avoidance, ridicule scorn or angry demands for change from others, and very little of the love of Christ. For instance, there was an episode of the TV series Wonder Years where there was a classmate who was trying desperately to be the friend of Kevin Arnold, the main character. She was socially inept, had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and had a quirky hairdo, to say the least. The narrator said that his reaction was, “Why did she have to be so weird?” And at the end of the episode, he learned that she was part of a military family which had moved around the country several times a year, so that she never really had much of a chance to develop strong, lasting friendships.
The immature or socially backward person may actually find huge benefit in the stable environment of loving patience in Christ –a church which is living in Ephesians 4:11-16 rather than in I Corinthians 3:3. And for someone who is in the place of immaturity, the need is for growing in knowledge of, faith in and obedience to the Word of God, which “ . . . is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). So the questions then become, “What right do you have to treat that person with contempt or disdain for whom Christ has died due to an unloving, malicious, childish, prejudicial or pejorative label or stereotype? And if you have spread ridicule and tried to involved others in contempt for that person, shouldn’t you rather repent and seek to correct the false and disdainful impressions of another person you’re encouraging? Are you rather willing to sit back, pray, love and let that person grow in Christ?” In these cases the applicable scripture is I Thessalonians 5:14: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.”
Finally, someone may receive this label due to demonstrations of irrational and immoral thinking patterns, words and behavior. Here I’m referring to persistent patterns which are markedly deceptive, malicious or even unimaginable for a person in touch with reality, and which cannot be charitably attributed to any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. These may in fact be signs of an accelerating degenerative addiction or abusive lifestyle, mental illness or even demonic influence. I would counsel against any kind of snap judgment or superficial diagnosis by anyone in these areas, and attribution of any kind of addiction, abuse, mental illness or demonic without due consideration for the alternatives. This is one area where spiritual leaders need to stand strong in firmly rebuking what may turn out to be hateful and slanderous attributions by others and making extremely serious scriptural and sensible assessments if these kinds of patterns are evident. While I don’t have a great deal of experience in making these assessments, here are some things which I’ve learned from others and some situations.
First, do not be determined to find something wrong with someone, to find a label or diagnosis for a person, and, even more, be extremely diligent and cautious to protect each and every confidentiality in these cases. There can be strong legal sanctions in these cases where confidences are breached, particularly if there are violations of HIPPAA regulations in the United States. A spouse, an elder or a fellow pastor is not qualified to be a confidant in such a case, even if someone tries to justify breaking the confidence to request prayer. In addition, no referrals should ever be made without the explicit knowledge and probably written permission of the person being referred, and that person should always be aware of anyone attempting to refer him or her to any professional for anything.
Second, be ready and willing to consider that there may be physical problems which are contributing to the person’s behavior. D. Martyn LLoyd-Jones, whose background as a physician included assisting the leading diagnostician of his day (the Dr. Gregory House of Great Britain), counseled this in his book on healing, and he named some of the problems which could contribute to irrational and eccentric behaviors which might otherwise be labeled as mental illness. With this he agreed with Jay Adams, the originator of the nouthetic branch of pastoral counseling. It may take a thorough physical exam to find a physical cause, but it would certainly be in the path of Christian love and pastoral care to advise a physical exam. A pastor and a church could easily join together to pay doctor’s bills or to refer to a Christian doctor who might perform an exam pro bono for someone who might be in need of such an exam. For more on how physical ailments can be confused with ailments labeled as mental illness, see the Wall Street Journal blog entry on Confusing Medical Ailments With Mental Illness. In addition, an examination specifically for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may be in order for people who have come through moderate to severe and protracted physical abuse, particularly if they show signs of heightened vigilance—a kind of unusual caution and jumpiness.
Third, where physical or organic causes, syndromes or illnesses are known, prayer for physical healing is easily an act of Christian compassion and love. Jesus healed those who were, as the King James Version put it, ‘lunatick’, or, in a more contemporary sense, suffering from physical afflictions that caused seizures and other abnormal behaviors. Compassion and faith in Christ to heal out of his own compassion for the physically afflicted are in order here, not fear, mere pity and avoidance.
Fourth, while the pastor, elders and other spiritual leaders need to avoid trying to play the part of amateur psychiatrists, the insights of psychiatrists can be quite helpful, especially when dealing with illnesses that carry perceptual and cognitive distortions such as schizophrenia. While I myself would prefer to offer prayer for healing as well as medication for people who have these kinds of afflictions, in these cases medication may in fact be the plan of God.
Finally, there may be demonic influence in some lives, and in some cases there may be an intertwining of the demonic, the psychological and the physical problems. These kind of problems are pretty rare, although Jesus dealt with cases, such as in Matthew 17:18, where he both took authority over the demonic and healed the person at the same time. Certainly none of those problems are necessarily mutually exclusive. But in the diagnosis of these kinds of problems, both Drs. Kurt Koch and Martyn Lloyd-Jones agree that someone who is truly under demonic influence will have a sense of spiritual darkness and show rejection and avoidance of the Word of God and the name of Jesus and resist prayer in the name of Jesus, sometimes with awful blasphemies and maybe even physical violence. It’s true that a rare few will believe that they are inhabited by demons and perhaps identify real physical symptoms that they are experiencing as demonic, yet remain calm while people are praying for them and honor the name of Jesus and his sovereignty and Lordship. This is most likely confused thinking that comes from an organic cause, and the only people that I’ve encountered like this had been institutionalized. In these cases the pastor may need to team with elders, medical doctors and mental health personnel to deliver wise, scriptural and compassionate treatment.
Some years ago, at a church which had grown for a number of years previously, one of my friends from seminary corroborated my observation that it seemed now like the same people were being asked to take up all the new ministry responsibilities. For example, if they were looking for people to read scriptures during a service, it was from the same group of people they would find the ones to do it. And it seemed that the others who were in attendance and who would have been willing to take up new responsibilities were never even given a chance to know about them. All of a sudden, there would be an announcement that something new had started, and good ol’ Joe, who may have been teaching Sunday School, serving as an elder, singing in the choir or leading an outreach Bible study, had been the one tapped to lead or participate in that something new. So one person is probably being asked to do more than is either wise or within God’s will when others are willing and able to help with the load of ministry.
That church had plateaued at that point. And the same kind of pattern is often found in small churches. The same core of the same people do the same things for years. They decide to try something new, and it’s mainly those from the same core who are tapped to lead and support the new activity, program or outreach. And the new activity, program or outreach dies, and the same people from the same core group of people keep on going with the same kinds of church activities and ministries that they have been doing for years. And there may be people who are in attendance who could but do not participate, support or lead the new activity, program or outreach because they are not given the opportunity, and they may eventually end up leaving the church because they get tired of being treated like spectators, or they feel like people trapped on the outside looking in.
Here’s what I’ve seen happen: when people think of some new kind of activity, ministry or outreach, they may immediately think of someone to fit into the slot. And that person may simply be good ol’ Joe, whom they have known for years. It’s someone they know, may be comfortable with, and may think be capable of the job. But the problem is that they don’t stop, pray and ask God for the right people to fill the position. And then they don’t make the need known beyond the same core group. And if they do, the person is not given a chance to pray and think about it; it’s more like they are being forced into a slot or trapped into something.
So, be careful to pray and be open to the leading of God first. Maybe there’s someone besides Good Ol’ Joe to take that ministry.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s many churches had explicit evangelism training programs – many of which were Evangelism Explosion training – but it’s not too much to say that many of them have since been discontinued. I’ve heard that most professedly evangelical churches in the United States do not teach people how to witness for Christ much any more. Here are some ideas to get back some of the evangelistic spark:
Regularly present in the gospel in the preaching ministry of the church. Do this even in sermons that deal with issue that would primarily concern those who have already received Christ. This does not have to be an explicit altar call but rather regularly pray for and seek a fresh way to share the gospel in the course of the sermon. Include also answers to common objections to the gospel in the sermon, such as, “What about someone who has never heard of Christ?” Most pastors would be surprised how much what they say which can be used in an evangelistic conversation might find its way into the hearts and later the conversations of their congregations.
Note how Jesus and the apostles engaged in presenting the gospel during the course of preaching and teaching. During this process it will become clear that they used a variety of openings to deal with people about their most pressing spiritual need, had memorized scriptures and knew the gospel thoroughly, depended on the power of the Holy Spirit and sought and prayed for his working (Acts 4:29-30), would move from human needs and gospel promises to tell people about their most pressing spiritual needs of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and would concentrate on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-11).
Encourage anyone in the congregation over the age of six to memorize John 3:16. This one verse summarizes the gospel, and can be used as the start to many, many witnessing conversations. Many who may have a church background may know the verse, and treasure it for its emotional association with a family and church attendance, but never have understood its real message. Then move to have them include other verses such as Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 6:23.
Regularly include a witnessing testimony in the church services. Have someone share his or her testimony in the church services once a month or so. Start with the currently serving board of elders and other church leaders. Encourage testimonies from a variety of backgrounds.
Encourage the people of your congregation to write down their own witnessing testimony for their own personal use. Even if they do not share it in a church service, they could share it with friends, children, or their grandchildren.
Occasionally include a dramatization of an evangelistic conversation in a church service. Once I participated in a demonstration in a Sunday evening service of an Evangelism Explosion home visit with the pastor and a couple from the church. Avoid making this too humorous. Again, include some variety and some answers to common objections and evasions that people may bring up during an evangelistic conversation.
Regularly pray for the salvation of anyone in attendance at church services and the family members, friends and neighbors who do not know Christ as Savior. The more that the people in the congregation hear this prayer request from the pulpit, the more that they will understand how much they need to be consistently, faithfully and passionately need to be praying for the salvation of those that they know.
Encourage people regularly to pray for the salvation of their family members, friends and neighbors who do not have an explicit Christian testimony. Show them how, and then continue to tell them how. Encourage each prayer meeting, church choir and musical group practice and Bible study to make this a regular part of their praying, much more than any physical needs and ailments (the ‘organ recital’ that has often been a regular part of traditional midweek prayer meetings).
Encourage all ministries of a church to have an evangelistic component, and everyone in public ministry and in the Sunday School to know how to share the gospel. Could the worship leader in your church share the gospel with someone else? Or the piano player? Or one of the ushers? If someone had a spiritual need, would they need to hunt down a pastor to turn over that person to the pastor to handle?
Guide adults – parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers and neighbors – on how to share the gospel with children. Children can come to know Christ at an early age, but too many just take them to church but never discuss the gospel with them. Tragically, it seems also that many who attend churches succumb to the idea in some parts of the culture that they’ll wait until their children grow up and let them choose for themselves. This would be a good example of an evangelistic conversation to model before a congregation yearly, and you could even have an adult stand in for a child for this example. These kinds of evangelistic conversations require the adult to be extremely gentle and loving and to explain everything simply and thoroughly without the use of Christianese. Moreover, experience with these kinds of evangelistic conversations can help believers to be extremely loving and gentle and explain everything simply and thoroughly without the use of Christianese when they are sharing the gospel with adults.
Aim to reach adults with the gospel as well as children. Don’t fall for the statistic that a person is not going to come to Christ if he or she hasn’t come to Christ by a certain age. Who did Jesus reach primarily? Adults. Who did the apostles reach primarily? Adults. The statistic is misleading; it is not scripture. Rather, it may indicate that the adults in our churches generally do not know how to share the gospel with another adult, rarely do so or do not pray for others that they know to come to faith in Christ as a regular part of their prayer time.
Make sure that everyone in every paid ministry and staff position is a believer, adheres to the scriptural teaching that those who do not trust in Christ are lost eternally, and knows how to share the gospel – even support people. I think that churches and denominations lose their evangelistic spark and missionary drive when people come to positions of leadership who do not hold to scriptural convictions about the lostness of mankind and the need of everyone for the salvation in Christ. I don’t think that churches and denominations ask enough about a person’s convictions in these areas during interviews – such common sense questions as, “How would you share the gospel with me if I indicated to you that I was not born again?” or “Have you ever led someone to Christ?” or “How would you lead this congregation to be a witnessing church?” or simply, “Do you believe that someone who has not come to faith in Christ is lost?”
Over the past twenty or so years, first starting with the growth of the Promise Keepers movement, and then continuing onward, there has been renewed interest in men’s ministries in many evangelical churches. There has been some well intentioned recognition that the Bible does call for, at some level, some of the traditionally ‘masculine’ virtues such as courage and perseverance. There has coincided with a recognition that the Biblical pattern of following Jesus does not include the immaturity, irresponsibility and hidden abuse that characterize the lives of many men. Nevertheless, I think that there are three dangers in the way the approach that some take.
The first danger is that some may take some male-dominated activities and cultural stereotypes hold them up as part of what make someone a REAL MAN. These unBiblical intrusions do not provide a Biblical solution. For instance, in some parts of the United States, especially more rural areas, hunting and fishing is a more male dominated activity, and some may disdain a person who does not hunt and fish as someone who isn’t a REAL MAN. Or, in other parts of the United States, participation in high school football programs, or other sports, may be esteemed as part of the coming of age process for a male, and thus anyone who didn’t participate in that program for whatever reason may be disdained as not being a REAL MAN. Or, someone from a military background or family, where ownership of guns and marksmanship and physical endurance and physical combat skills are esteemed, may disdain someone else who does not display interest or participate in those activities as not being a REAL MAN. In other words, characteristics which go along with a person’s background or regional culture are added onto the Biblical portrayal of manhood.
After all these years of reading the Bible, I think that the Biblical portrayal of manhood is this: a male is created male (Genesis 1:27), and nothing any human being can say can contradict that. Certainly being male can mean that either godliness or ungodliness can make a man mature, compassionate and responsible or immature, irresponsible and cruel, but that the Bible does not put those characteristics in terms of being a REAL MAN or not being a REAL MAN. Pastors and leaders go into unBiblical territory when they address manhood in that way, and they may unwittingly reinforce a man who excuses his cruelty as toughness or his workaholism or sports idolatry as fulfilling his manly responsibilities.
The second problem then arises from this. Nowhere does the Bible use being a REAL MAN as being a major motivation for faith in the promises of scripture or following the commands of scripture, or give any justification to disdaining anyone for any kind of immaturity or irresponsibility as not being a REAL MAN. Rather, Biblical motivation is based in being a new creation in Christ and having been freed from the bondage of sin (John 8:31,34,36, Romans 6:1-23, 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:17-24, among others), love to Christ (John 14:21-14), and responsibility to Christ as Lord, Savior and Judge (II Corinthians 5:17). I think that this simply becomes another form of guilt or shame manipulation, and it ultimately doesn’t differ much from a statement like, “You’re a REAL CHRISTIAN if you do << some unBiblical standard>>” or “You’re not a REAL CHRISTIAN if you do not do << some unBiblical standard>>.” This type of guilt and shame manipulation may achieve a temporary change of behavior, but it loses its effect over time because it is ultimately using carnal means to try to restrain the sinful tendencies of human nature.
The third problem with this is that it feeds the backstabbing tendency among many men to try to make themselves look good by parading the faults of others around behind that person’s back – man gossip and man slander. Sometimes this does take the form of “He’s not much of a REAL MAN because he <<falls short of some unBiblical standard which I’ve set up, which I may conveniently happen to fulfill, or perhaps, not, in which case this slander is also hypocrisy>> ” They may try to justify this by claiming good intentions afterwards, but ultimately according to the Bible it’s still slander (James 4:11-12).
There was once a time when, in a conversation with a couple who were close friends, I mentioned someone who spread a rumor about me in rivalry for the affections of a girl, and the wife immediately responded with the statement, “Coward.” I think that we need to recognize that this kind of man-gossip and slander is compounded by an unBiblical cowardice as well, and that Christlike moral courage and Biblical obedience, for a man or a woman, is found in being willing to take responsibility for one’s own actions (part of self control, which is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit – Ephesians 5:22-23), to provide a gentle, private correction to our brothers and sisters based upon scripture (II Timothy 3:16-17, Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-17), and to be willing to be found wrong if someone has misunderstood or misjudged the conduct or behavior of another believer (James 3:1-2).
In Jeremiah 23:30, God spoke to Jeremiah strikingly about the false prophets who “ . . . steal from one another words supposedly from me . . .” Not only were the words that they were speaking delusions that claimed to be from God, they were copying each other’s words. With a closer look at the whole passage and chapter where Jeremiah prophesies about the false prophets, it is evident that God considered his Word not only to be his own possession, but to some extent the possession of the prophet to whom he had given his Word, and therefore, he termed taking the words of another man of God and presenting them as one’s own as an act of theft.
One of the biggest temptations to a pastor is that he may become a spiritual copycat and take what was presented in the preaching and teaching of other pastors and teachers of the Word as his own. There will always be an influence on the spiritual life and therefore the preaching and teaching of a pastor from the preaching and teaching of those he has heard and read. No pastor is a spiritual island, or the first one to whom the Word of God has come. Yet plagiarism is considered a form of academic dishonesty and theft, and throughout church history there have been those who have spoken out against it. It’s ironic that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most plagiarized preachers over the past century and a half, was one of the most outspoken critics of plagiarism in the pulpit himself.
The first guideline to avoid being a plagiarizing pastor is simply: acknowledge when you are citing the words of someone else as a corroborating, more experienced or more eloquent witness or authority with specialized knowledge in your preaching and teaching. If possible and appropriate, give the name of the source of a citation, either as as direct quote or paraphrase, and something about who that person is and why what that person said or wrote is relevant.
Even if it somehow does not seem to be appropriate to name a source directly, don’t try to give the impression that you are the real source if you are in fact echoing the words of someone else. For instance, in my first church, one of the women recognized one of the stories which I used as an illustration was from a devotional booklet she had read. When she asked me, I acknowledged to her that it was the source, and that I took my sermon illustrations from many other sources as well, such as my personal experience and my personal reading of Christian and historical literature.
Of course, it’s hard to give footnotes when a person is preaching and teaching. It is a good idea, though, to indicate that the insight you may be sharing is not specific to you, that it may reflect universal Christian experience, that it may come from others with specialized knowledge in the Biblical languages, history or archaeology, or that it may simply be stated in words more eloquent than you can formulate. No one expects a pastor to have all possible or available knowledge of the Biblical languages, history, background or theology, or to be the only one who can express something succinctly or aptly. Congregations do expect a pastor to do his preparation for preaching, and for it not to be merely a statement of a pastor’s personal opinions, notions and preferences, but to be based upon the scriptures, to be a reasonable explanation of what the scriptures mean, to reflect universal, realistic and attainable Christian belief and practice, and to be stated in an understandable and attractive way. Being able to point to these kinds of influences can be a tremendous bolster to the credibility of a pastor.
There are also times when a pastor can credibly preach the sermons of others, and if a pastor does this, he should acknowledge that he is using or adapting the sermons of someone else. For instance, Billy Graham preached the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” during the Los Angeles crusades, when he himself was running out of prepared sermons due to the crusade meetings being extended. A seminary professor of mine once memorized and preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. Moreover, V. Raymond Edman preached some of the sermons of Charles Finney during the Wheaton Revival. They all acknowledged this publicly, though, and there is no indication that their ministries were ever strongly dependent on preaching what others had previously preached or written.
Certainly, then, pastors need to make sure that the majority of their preaching and teaching comes from personal study of the Word of God and preparation time. While others in the body of Christ, and others who have preached and taught the Word of God through the ages may have had a great influence on a pastor, seek to formulate your own sermons and lessons as much as you can from your own study of the Word, prayer and pastoral ministry. In the age of Google there is more material available than ever before. In the past sermon-stealers relied on collections of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons a lot, and I’ve seen some pastors who were sons of pastors preach their father’s sermons without any acknowledgment. But God definitely holds the pastor responsible to receive the Word of God personally (James 1:22-25) and handle the Word of God accurately (II Timothy 2:15), and most congregations expect that as well.
Finally, don’t bad mouth someone personally, living or dead, in the pulpit, or through any kind of insinuations, to whom you are indebted for any part of your preaching and teaching. I frankly don’t know how anyone could ever expect God to bless his ministry with conviction and power who does this, but I’ve seen it happen. No one expects a pastor to agree with everything that someone else said and wrote who has been an influence on his preaching and teaching, but it seems that there is something dishonest, hypocritical and even malicious if a pastor takes insights and material from someone else and then disparages, demeans or disdains that person in any way. Scripture says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6) and “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold hem in the highest regard in love because of their work” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). This would definitely apply to giving due respect to those whose preaching and teaching has been a positive influence on one’s own preaching and teaching.
So, if you are a pastor now, if you were to be in a secular job, would you present a report which someone else had written or to which someone else had contributed as your work alone? If you were to reply no, that that would be dishonest, it’s the same kind of matter with a sermon. To present something that another person has written or spoken, when that person has put in the time and effort to go into the Word and formulate its truth and has communicated it to others, as if it were your work alone is just as dishonest.