A few mornings ago I sat down for a few minutes before breakfast to read Scripture and pray. The bookmark for my little ESV personal Bible was in First Thessalonians. I had recently read chapter one. Today, I was in chapter two. It was just the text that I needed this morning. It’s a text I need every morning. Why?
Because I’m a pastor.
I’ve been in full-time vocational ministry for a total of thirteen years, with the last eight years spent at my current church. My venture into pastoral ministry began soon after I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies in 2002. About two months after I completed my degree, I took a job as a director of middle school ministries at a church in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was during this time that the Lord, through his church, confirmed my desire and gifting for pastoral work. After four-and-a-half years in this role, my wife and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky where I completed my M.Div. and Ph.D at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2014, after seven (wonderful) years in Louisville, we moved back to the Bay Area so that I could take a full-time pastoral role at another nearby church.
For the last twenty-three years, my mind has been fixed, in one setting or another, on pastoral ministry. Shepherding God’s people through the careful preaching, teaching, and counseling of his Word has been the labor and joy of my life. Over these same two decades, however, I’ve also watched story after story of pastoral malfeasance, impropriety, and sin scroll through my newsfeed. Sexual infidelity, pride, a bent for self-promotion, love for money, and abusive leadership are the sins usually revealed in the post-exposé aftermath.
These stories grieve me. They anger me. They frighten me.
These stories grieve me because Christian defection is often the fruit of pastoral failure. Professing Christian men and women can become disillusioned when a Christian leader is exposed for grievous, disqualifying sin. They ask, “Can Christianity be true if its leaders are frauds?” Some find it nearly impossible to view any Christian leader without suspicion after a pastor close to them has fallen into disqualifying sin. These misgivings toward church leaders in general work to keep such folks out of church, away from the body of Christ, and distanced from vital fellowship and worship. As a result, their faith weakens until they cast off the name of Christ altogether or embrace a brand of Christianity that barely resembles the historic faith.
These stories anger me because it is through such incidents that Christ’s name is freshly exposed to ridicule and scorn by the unbelieving world. Similar to the professing Christian whose faith has been destabilized by pastoral misconduct, unbelievers take the moral failures of Christian leaders as evidence for Christianity’s mythological status. They ask, “How can this Christ have any power if he can’t uphold his own servants?” Jesus’ reputation is thus maligned, and the gospel viewed with contempt.
These stories also frighten me because I am a sinner who needs God’s sustaining grace every moment. When these kinds of stories appear on the latest Christian or mainstream news outlet, I try not to remain angry for too long. Anger is certainly a right response in the face of such news for the reasons I just gave, and my anger might be periodically provoked over the next few weeks as the story is dragged through popular news sites.
But perpetual anger over the sins of Christian leaders may be an indication that I don’t view myself as vulnerable to the same kinds of sins these men have committed. Such a conclusion, however, is self-destructive, as Paul indicates when he warns, “Take heed lest you fall” (1 Cor 10:12). While it is true that godly pastors are not “on the brink” of disqualifying sin at every moment (this kind of spiritual instability would itself be disqualifying, in my judgment), it is equally true that pastors are always susceptible to disqualifying sin due to their own indwelling corruption and Satan’s unabated strategy to pick off as many Christian leaders as he can. “Lead us not into temptation” is a prayer for every Christian, not just the non-vocational type.
On this side of eternity, therefore, we need a steady stream of biblical reminders of the kind of character pastors should be diligently cultivating in their own lives and ministries. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians gives us several essential truths to help us nurture a ministry that will stand the test of time, bring glory to God, and bless our people. Over the next several weeks, we will examine Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians in order to glean and apply these vital truths to our lives and ministries. Each article will contain one principle drawn from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and links to previous articles in the series. Our prayer is that these articles serve to protect us from disqualifying sin and enable us to persevere in Christ-honoring ministry.