The Temptation of Professorial Ministry

This past Sunday morning during Sunday School, we spent time talking about the sermon text Romans 8:31-39. In the sermon I had talked about God’s commitment to conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ and the security that commitment gives us to follow our Savior. It is a security grounded in a divine marriage that we have with a loving husband who has given himself for us – and therefore – will not let us go. This love grants us the courage and freedom to give ourselves away to him, or as Isaac Watts has said,

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The goal of ministry is for the pastor to believe this, and practice this, in order to help others embrace and practice it, as well. However, how do you embrace such an urgent message, let alone lead others to embrace it when things just don’t seem that urgent to us? We live in comfortable lives that are full of earthly blessings, distractions, and sin. This comfort leads us to live with what my former pastor called a peace time ethic instead of a war time ethic.

But Romans 8 wasn’t written for believers to live a peace time ethic, but a war time ethic. The way of Jesus was not peaceful, but filled with trials and suffering, tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Rom. 8:35). The way of Jesus led to the cross, and for pastors and congregants alike, for all Christians, the Jesus way is the cross. The Jesus way is a war time ethic – loving devotion and courageous witness in the midst of tribulation. What this means is that we need shepherds who can correctly communicate the doctrines of scripture, so that, the truth of scripture forms and shapes followers of the Jesus way. We must rediscover our faith as a way of life, not simply as a system of belief. We must recover the war time ethic of Romans 8; however, it is hard for this to happen in believers if the pastors don’t.

The way the peace time ethic tends to effect pastors is that we can spend more time pursuing education for ourselves and heaping up letters behind our names (all under the illusion that we are doing this to better shepherd our people) instead of leading the sheep to drink deeply from the flowing waters of grace in Christ Jesus (John 7.37) and to feed on him as the bread of heaven (John 6:51). This is not to say, by the way, that pastors should not have degrees or pursue higher education, for some have been gifted by God to be able to do those things while serving God’s church faithfully, however, a majority of the pastors trying pursue higher education are not. This is also not to say that every pastor is going to sound the same. Different pastors have different personalities and temperaments, which will be reflected in their ministries. Because of this, some pastors sound more like a grandfather, while others do sound more like a professor. I’m not trying assess ministry based on how one sounds – but on what appears to be his priorities, as illustrated by how he spends his time. Does he spend it ingesting God’s word, reflecting and chewing on it, praying, preparing sermons and lessons for the church and visiting – or does he spend time in personal study for the accumulation of more letter behind his name?

The result of this worldliness in pastors? R.C. Sproul, Jr., describes things well in his recent article, “Brothers, We Are Not Professors,”

Our pulpits, sadly, are filled with men who started as seminarians eager to shepherd a flock. There they were introduced to a dynamic, likely godly professor, and suddenly the student determines he will pursue still more degrees, that he might follow in the footsteps of his hero. As seminary comes to a close growing debts, a growing family, and a growing urge to go and teach derail the plan to become a professor. Instead the young pastor determines to take a church that his flock can become his student body, and His Body, a tiny little seminary. He will lecture then during Sunday School, and regale them through each sermon. The Shepherd, however, calls us to feed His Sheep. We are not to give our wisdom, our insights, the fruits of our scholarship. Rather, like Paul before us, we serve up our weakness, our frailty, our need. That’s how the Word breaks through, where the power comes from.

I pray that I am as sensitive to this potential sin in myself as I am to others out there. I, too, have played around with the idea of higher education because I really enjoy it – but I enjoy serving a local congregation so much more, even though I am not very good at it (but I’m trying!). Lord willing, my brothers and sisters will follow Christ as they see me striving to repent, wrestling with my sins, preaching the gospel to myself, hating sin, loving grace, rejoicing in the fullness of his promises that are fulfilled in Christ – and leading them to strive as well.

This takes courage and great risk for pastors to shepherd this way, and for congregants to follow according to war time ethic instead of a peace time ethic – but what is it that I, or you, can lose in following Christ in this way when nothing, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,  can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

Even if you are not a pastor – read Sproul’s article!  The counsel he provides to pastors following Christ with a peace time ethic apply to every Christian who is struggling with a peace time ethic. And if you are a member of my church and think that I have succumbed to this temptation in the way I shepherd you – lovingly let me know so I can repent of sin and better serve you.

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