It happened again. Another pastor has fallen. From Mark Driscoll, to Darrin Patrick, Bob Coy, Tullian Tchividjian, and now Perry Noble; the past few years have witnessed more pastoral disqualifications than any of us would like to see.
As a young man with eight mere years of senior pastor experience, I have been attempting to learn and re-learn a few basic-but-essential lessons from these tragedies. A few thoughts for some of us young men in positions of church leadership:
- None of us are above a fall.
As young men, we ought not move past this too quickly. We may not be currently battling a sin from which another fell. However, external circumstances can change quickly, subjecting us to unprecedented weakness and temptation. If caught off guard, compromise becomes a short step away. We are no better than any of the fallen.
It’s good for me to a bit afraid of myself and my remaining sin. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
- We ought to be content being obscure, nobodies in pastoral ministry.
We have tumbled into dangerous territory when those secret motivations of, “I need to keep this popularity going” creeps in. We usually will disguise it as, “I need to be faithful to God by blessing all of these people,” and, “I just want to be impactful for Jesus in my ministry sphere.” If we’re not careful, our ministry sphere can become our own ego.
Obscurity is not a danger to faithfulness. On the contrary, obscurity may be essential to a faithful ministry. We ought to beware of wanting to matter.
- Before stepping into a pastoral position, we need to do everything possible to have currently-qualified and recognized elders affirm our qualifications.
We test people in things like practicing medicine, law, and dentistry. Where I live, backcountry ski guides have to prove themselves in a long, drawn-out, technical process before they are considered for the job. And rightfully so: lives are at stake.
So it must be and more in pastoral ministry. Do we understand what is at stake here? Passages like 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9, and James 3:1 are good reminders. Men are to be tested, taking more time than less (1 Tim. 3:10). “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (1 Tim. 5:22). This is why lengthy, drawn-out ordination processes are wise for testing men in the local church. Too often, we hear, “My church/Bible study grew from [small number] to [big number] in [short amount of time]. Therefore, God must be affirming me.” Nowhere does Scripture indicate such criteria for pastoral qualification.
- Much of our ministry focus should be on personal holiness and sound teaching.
True ministry impact is not a function of filled pews, but teaching and character (cf. 1 Tim. 4:16). As young men, we ensure the safety of God’s reputation and other’s souls as we give ourselves to sound character and teaching.
As young men, we need to be slow about assuming we can present a full, theological understanding of a doctrine. Sometimes, upon beginning to grasp a new doctrine, our untamed excitement gets ahead of us, and we present that doctrine in an unbalanced way. We jump the gun. We have not taken that doctrine and marinated our minds in an unrushed way in all of Scripture, so as to mature in understanding its connectedness to the whole counsel of God.
Further, we will stay the course with a sound, biblical understanding of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. It would be best for us young men to veer away from charismatic teaching. What does this have to do with faithfulness as pastors? This is not to say that the embracing of charismatic teaching inevitably leads to moral failure, nor that cessationists do not experience pastoral disqualification. However, erroneous pneumatology has consequences in things like the doctrine of sanctification and pastoral calling. It lends towards an individualism and subjectivism. Oftentimes, pastoral calling is more rooted in, “I heard a voice/Jesus spoke to me/had a dream that I was called to the ministry.” But Scripture presents no such thing as evidence of pastoral qualifications (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9). Similarly, experience tends to supersede special revelation in ascertaining one’s qualification. “If there are so many people experiencing some spirituality here, then this must be from God.”
- A robust, sound theology of sanctification is central to ministry longevity.
A study of Paul is telling when it comes to ministry endurance. If there’s one thing we can say about the Apostle of grace, he took a rigorous approach to sanctification. Though a fairly godly guy, his approach was to fight himself in order to prevent disqualification (cf. 1 Cor. 9:26-27). Even as an old, seasoned, and jailed man, he saw himself of needing to avoid spiritual cruise-control (cf. Phil. 3:12-14).
We err if we suppose that one’s anemic theology of sanctification is merely incidental to their moral failure. Sowing is not incidental to reaping. Recently, John MacArthur said, “The key to an enduring ministry is sanctification.”
- As younger men, we are safer erring on the side of more self-denial and more self-restraint than less.
The natural tendency of the fallen nature is to push its variegated lusts. Especially as young men, simply by virtue of not being old, our passions are stronger. They have not suffered as many moments of denial and starvation. Our unrestrained flesh will never ask for less gratification, but more. Similarly, our unrestrained flesh will never take less opportunities, but more. So, we do well to take a more restrained approach to our desires, including matters of conscience. As John Frame writes, “Godliness always involves some sacrifice of personal freedom.” Our generation calls it legalism. God calls it honorable (2 Tim. 2:21-22).
- Effort should be put towards inviting input from proven, seasoned men.
It’s scary how we young men often stiff-arm this means of grace. You would think after the trail of pastoral carnage we’ve witnessed that we would be clawing at the doors of older, proven pastors. But, like Rehoboam, too many of us forsake the aged and consult with the young men with whom we grew up (1 Kings 12:8). We are looking for affirmation rather than sanctification.
“Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days” (Prov. 19:20).
- Suffering is God’s loving safeguard for young men and pastors.
How greatly most of us need our loving God to drop us on the mat now and then. For young men, and especially young pastors, suffering is intended to be God’s guardrail of grace. God-sent affliction blesses us with by the purging and preventing of pride (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7). For the young pastor, suffering is safer.
Puritan George Swinnock wrote, “A sanctified person, like a silver bell, the harder he is smitten, the better he sounds.”
- Growing fearful of God lends to spiritual health.
My generation has been big on propagating the “Jesus loves me” mantra. And he does. And praise him that he does. Without God’s self-initiating love towards me, I would be lost in hell forever. The love of God is our sacred doctrine.
But it is possible to abuse it. There is more to God than “God loves me.” There is more to my relationship with God than “God loves me.” Not every sin in our lives is exclusively due to a failure to sufficiently ponder how much God loves us. Perhaps some of our sins are attributed to thinking “God loves me” too much.
I wonder if my generation sometimes cries “God loves me” to distract ourselves. Perhaps other attributes of God are not fashionable enough in our day. Like the embarrassing uncle at a family reunion for whom we have to apologize, perhaps we are embarrassed to give necessary attention to God’s other attributes. Perhaps we cloak a repulsion for giving biblical effort to sanctification with “God loves me.”
Young men need to be scared of God. God made a universe (which astronomers currently estimate to be 91-billion light years in diameter) by speaking a few words. God controls the what, where, when, and how of everything at all times, simultaneously. God knows every leaf in every tree in every forest. God has wiped out a full planet with a flood, during which time he was seated. God executed 185,000 stout Assyrian warriors for bragging. God’s just wrath will result, in part, in a 200-mile long, 4-foot deep river of blood (Rev. 14:20). God must punish one sin against him eternally. God became a man.
Young Christian men need to be scared of God. Not scared in an Arminian way, but Calvinistic. The God of the Bible is a God of unspeakable majesty; so much so, that he rerouted his righteous wrath from his elect Bride to his impeccable Son. By election, redemption, and regeneration, sinners are sealed. A previous people were broken off to give way for our election-inclusion. The ethical imperative of God’s love is man’s fear. “Do not become proud, but fear” (Rom. 11:20).
Young pastors need to be scared of God. We might ask Nadab and Abihu their thoughts on young men approaching the ministry with a cocksure, cavalier style (Lev. 10:1-3). The ministry is a place of sobriety, not silliness; of holiness, not hip-ness. The position and pressure are too great for anything less.
When we witness pride in the pastorate, we should shudder. Especially our own. Thoughts of sin and abuse of liberties should invoke our trembling. And, trembling before God is a safe, holy place to be (Isa. 66:2). Getting to know the God of the Bible, then, will be our best accountability. May God help us.
More could be said regarding us young men and the ministry. I want to persevere in ministry, but I know it’s not a guarantee. Though the world, the flesh, and the devil are unceasingly against us, God is for us. By his grace, we can persevere so that at the end of our lives, we may say with seasoned Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). I really hope that I can say that.