Pastor, You are Dispensable

Non disposableThe confluence of social media, celebrity pastor culture, hugely successful churches and the millennial assumption that everyone is exceptional has lead many pastors to a dangerously over-exaggerated view of themselves. I realise that on the other hand these forces can cause discouragement, as we measure ourselves against John Piper or Matt Chandler. But that is not what I want to address in this short post. My aim here is to challenge the notion that any specific pastor is indispensable. When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves. A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable. But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The apostle Paul understood this well, especially when we consider his significance in the early church. Writing to the Philippians he said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul was not issuing platitudes. He was writing from prison. Incapacitated, Paul needed a confidence that exceeded his leadership, influence and abilities and he enjoyed that in God alone. The great apostle is in chains yet he wants his readers to know that the gospel is not bound (1:12-18a). The survival of God’s church is not dependant on men and women, not even on great ones like Paul. Yet how quickly we deceive ourselves, and often others, into believing that this church or that ministry would collapse without us. In his superb book The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos reminds those in ministry that they are nothing more than ordinary men and women with extraordinary callings. He goes on to say that pastors must give their accountability partners the right to challenge them regarding any growing “superhero complex”. Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not? If your instinct to those questions is not genuinely affirmative then you need to repent.

In a section of his Institutes, titled “Why does God need men’s services?”, John Calvin makes a few more important points on the dispensability of pastors, or any Christian for that matter. Though God uses the ministry of men and women “to declare openly his will to us by his mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1; also see 4.1.5). Those who teach, preach and lead in the local church are nothing more than tools in the hands of our omnipotent God. He may pick up one of these tools and wield it mightily. But we must never forget what we are, lest at the same time we forget who God is. Calvin goes on, “He could indeed do it either by himself without any sort of aid or instrument, or even by his angels.” If we understand what Calvin is saying, we would wash our mouths of phrases such as, ‘He grew that church.’ God grew that church. Furthermore, he did not need that specific pastor or ministry team he used to do so. The succinct answer to Calvin’s question is that God does not need men’s services. Pastor, God does not need you. You are dispensable.

While Calvin does insist that honour is due to those serving as pastors in local churches (4.3.3), echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5, this still does not mean any of them are indispensable. Let me conclude by encouraging pastors with something D. A. Carson said at the TGCA launch last year. When was asked which theologians and leaders he foresees stepping into the vast gap his death will create he essentially dismissed the question as irrelevant. But he went on to give an answer that was truly astonishing, for two reasons. Firstly, he told us that it is very likely we do not yet know the names of the men and women who will lead Christ’s church in the future. Secondly, he does not even consider himself to be of any major significance in Christ’s church. How could he give such an answer, when he is undoubtedly aware of the most likely unrepeatable impact he has made for Christ and God’s people people? He believes God can raise up whoever he needs and will continue to use weak tools by his unfailing strength. Carson understands Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on Rekindle because I am planning to write a few more in this ‘Pastor…’ series. In the mean time you can read the previous post: Pastor, You do not release potential.

Doodle: Driscoll, Perilous Negativism, and the Apostle Paul

Mark DriscollReading through 1 and 2 Timothy recently, it interested me that Paul does not instruct his deputy to adopt a purely combative approach to the false teachers who had crept into the church. Timothy is undoubtedly charged to refute and rebuke those opposed to the truth of Christ. But along with this negative treatment of heresy, he is called to the more positive avenue of modelling Christian life and doctrine; and it seems that there is also prudence in passivity. Notwithstanding the need for correction and a defence of the apostolic gospel, at points in the letter, Paul encourages Timothy to simply get on with his task of teaching true doctrine and modelling godliness.

Timothy is warned about becoming enwrapped with the myths, genealogies and speculative theology that was bandied by the local heretics (1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:16). Challenging the false teachers was a necessary role Timothy would have to undertake yet it would not excuse him becoming quarrelsome and drawn to controversy (1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:23-24). The aim of his charge was rather this: “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). It has never been easier than it is in the digital age to voice disapproval and vitriolic disagreement. So we must genuinely consider these warnings from Paul: becoming drawn to quarrels; and issuing correction from presumptuous certainty rather than loving sincerity.

It is with the above in mind that I want to address the current maelstrom that has engulfed Mark Driscoll. Countless posts have been thrown together and dispatched to the four corners of the Internet; the smug glee of many is ostentatiously worn all over their digital profiles; and every other Christian blogger feels the need to remind us that they saw the signs, of the end of the age. But why are we so captivated by his tragic fall? Why do we feel the need to retweet every scrap of evidence and interview decrying Driscoll? What might excuse our fascination with this bright career that seems to be speedily approaching a catastrophic crash? As Paul told Timothy, we need to be aware of an unhealthy fixation on controversy; the need to highlight Driscoll’s numerous (and now well catalogued) shortcomings; and the uncontained pleasure that has some dancing on the ashes.

D. A. CarsonListen to the unsettling words of D. A. Carson, in Exegetical Fallacies: “Persistent negativism is spiritually perilous. The person who makes it his life’s ambition to discover all the things that are wrong…is exposing himself to spiritual destruction.” He goes on to say that persistent negativism will first uproot gratitude towards God, as well as trust in his sovereign protection and purpose for the bad things that happen, and then it will supplant humility with conceit, “As the critic, deeply knowledgeable about faults and fallacies (especially those of others!), comes to feel superior to those whom he criticises. Spiritual one-upmanship is not a Christian virtue.”

The Law, Galatians, And ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Commandments on tablets and MosesTowards the end of last year I preached on Galatians 3:15-29. We had been working through the book in the evening service at Tokai Community Church and in our midweek bible study (ahem, my apologies, in our “community group”). Making our way through Paul’s letter I discovered that despite having a lot to say about the law; if we assume the traditional view of the law, Paul doesn’t expound the third use of the law, also known as the normative. John Webster gives a really helpful and concise definition of this aspect of the law in Holiness (p95): The law is God’s given order for life within the drama of God’s saving work. Therefore, the Christian, much like the Hebrew in the Old Testament, should see the law as teacher (usus didacticus), for it is no longer magistrate.

With that helpful qualification it isn’t entirely fair to say Paul ignores Christians’ relationship to the law. He spends most of the epistle challenging the wrong approach to the law that was prevalent in Galatia. Paul stresses throughout the letter that Christians are free from the law; or rather, that Gentile Christians are as much a part of God’s new people without strict obedience to the law, specifically around the issue of circumcision. The passage I was given to preach is emphatic that Christians are children of the promise, and not the law (3:15-29). And immediately after, we are heirs not slaves (4:1f). Faith has set us free and Paul wants Christians to enjoy their new freedom in Christ, not to fall back into fearful obedience to every aspect of God’s law.

In applying this passage I had to ask myself how this is tangible to our experience today, beyond the obvious. And the point I reached was the tendency of Christians to be duty bound, burdened by what James Dunn calls the world’s ‘grim captor,’ the law. Whether we love it or loathe it, most evangelical Christians struggle to move away from feeling some sense of obligation. This means that a lot of what we do is driven by guilt or fear. And that is to miss not only Paul’s point in Galatians but the essential truth of the gospel: we are no longer enslaved but free, justified by grace. Our service ought to be borne from the desire to become like Christ and the empowerment coming from the Holy Spirit to honour our loving Father. It is not anxious service to avoid punishment. Yet we often retreat back to the law, for assurance and accomplishment, allowing duty to accompany our faith.

The Shawshank Redemption: BrooksThe illustration that I used to drive this home was taken from the classic film, The Shawshank Redemption. Set in a maximum security prison, the film follows the life of a young man who is sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife along with her lover. One of the fascinating characters he meets is a much older inmate called Brooks Hatlen. After nearly 60 years of incarceration he is granted parole. When he first learns of his parole, Brook is excited to leave and enjoy freedom for the last few years of his life. But prison was all he ever knew and he found security in the order and control of imprisonment.

Red, a fellow inmate, explains Brooks’ anxiety and our nature, with tragic clarity: “There’s a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside. All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back. Terrible thing, to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.” It is a terrible thing to live in fear, hankering after the control we find in obedience and duty. Only that isn’t control but submitting ourselves again to a yoke of slavery. Christ has set us free.