Joel Rainey leads the Engagement Team for Evangelism and Missions at the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network. He is on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries, and the author of three books. He blogs at Themelios, where this was originally posted.
The role of pastors is clear in Scripture: “Equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) But unfortunately, some pastors confuse equipping for enablement.
Primarily, this is caused by fear on the part of the pastor. Proverbs 29:25 warns us that “the fear of man is a snare.” But often, that fear doesn’t look like fear. Sometimes it looks quite courageous. Sometimes it appears as though the pastor is working himself to death in service to the church, when in reality he is doing all the work because he fears a lack of control. Sometimes it appears the Word is proclaimed in an uncompromising way, when in reality the pastor is just trashing people not in the room to make those who are in the room feel as though they have no sin from which to repent. What follows are some ways I’ve seen pastors enable dysfunction in their churches.
- Throwing Red Meat to a Crowd Rather than Feeding God’s Word to the Flock. Let’s face it. Most of us who preach know where our “Amen corners are, and we know what to say to make them noisy.
Homeschool enthusiasts love it when you attack the public school system. Prophecy addicts long for you to spend every Sunday expounding on some cryptic passage from Revelation. Hyper-Calvinists can’t get enough discussion about “historic Baptist thought.” Conversely, those who think Calvinism is the doctrine of antichrist shout loudly in response to a pastor who dismisses the whole discussion with a single, broad-brushed reference to John 3:16.
The issue here is that our people all have their pet subjects, and if we want to stay on their “good side,” all we really need to do is discover what those passions are and focus on them when we are in the pulpit. Problem is, this approach never produces genuine disciples, because when you give inordinate focus to a few subjects, you fail in your duty to teach “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)
Another issue that arises from using the pulpit to simply throw out “red meat” for the crowd is that, strangely enough, you never seem to get around to actually preaching to the people who are in the room. It’s always what’s going on “out there,” or “those people” who are the cause of the problem. In the process, our people are reinforced in their own pride and never move significantly forward in the process of becoming more like Jesus.
To be sure, I’m not suggesting that you should never speak of how your people should educate their children, or how Biblical prophecy should affect our Christian walk. I’m simply suggesting that it takes absolutely no courage to stand in a room full of conservative, heterosexual, “red state” attendees and blame the homosexual community for all that is wrong with our culture. It takes very little temerity to appeal to surface-level exegesis in the attempt to get your people all bent out of shape over those evil Calvinists.
And to stand in the pulpit, week after week, and do nothing but condemn the people “out there” is more like the practice of a Pharisee, and less like a New Testament pastor who follows Jesus by getting to the heart of the real issues. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). If you genuinely preach the whole counsel of God, what you feed your people won’t always taste good to them.
- Hiding from Hard Subjects. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 100 times from a pastor. “We don’t address THAT, because THAT would get us off mission.”
On the surface, I understand the sentiment. Our preaching and teaching can easily become unbalanced if we focus too much on what we might think are “secondary issues.” Still, too many pastors simply avoid hard subjects altogether. What this teaches our people is that when the pressure is on, its OK to take the easy way out.
But struggle is part of the Christian experience. When a baby dies, when a spouse is diagnosed with a terminal disease, or when some other unspeakable tragedy occurs, people need to be already armed with a solid understanding of providence and sovereignty. They need to have already wrestled with the tension between divine providence and human freedom in a way that brings them toward greater intimacy with God BEFORE these things happen in their lives. If that means the pastor has to occasionally “go deep” on a subject like providence, so be it!
Likewise, when a child struggling with homosexuality “comes out” or a businessman is faced with the choice between keeping his integrity or keeping his job, the truth of God’s Word from the pulpit should be in the minds of all who are involved so that hard issues can be faced in a way that honors Jesus.
Too often, pastors avoid these subjects, or worse, they oversimplify them in a way that ignores the difficulties of applying one’s faith during hard times. Enabling your people in this way is a treasonous act of denying them the tools necessary to think and act for themselves in a way that brings glory to God. Sure, there are more “practical matters” to attend to, and those should be addressed as well.
Additionally, every subject that is dealt with by a pastor should be connected to the larger purpose of lifting up Jesus as the center and circumference of Scripture and our faith. But if God’s Word addresses it, then we are bound by our calling to address it as well.
- Doing the work rather than sharing the work. Maybe its motivated by guilt. Or maybe its motivated by a desire to control every ministry. Whatever the motivation, workaholism on the part of the pastor steals time from his family, and steals opportunities for service from his people. Doing anything (or worse, having your wife do anything) simply because ‘no one else will do it’ enables the church in its current state of laziness and consumer-driven sin.
Furthermore, answering every phone call, making every visit and personally responding to every need means you never equip the church to do these things and are personally worn to the point where you eventually do nothing well. The late Adrian Rodgers said it best: “The pastor who is always available is rarely worth anything when he is available.”
- Making the church about you. This is, by far, the hardest statement in this post, but its true. Pastor, the church is not about you! Its about the body of Christ, and your validity in holding the pastoral office is tied inextricably to how well you serve the people God has put under your charge.
When you act, you should do so with their best interests in mind.
In too many evangelical traditions including my own, the “celebrity culture” has produced many men who believe the church is there so that they can advance themselves. Regrettably, I’ve encountered a few pastors who make decisions that affect the entire church based solely on how they will personally be affected. In the worst cases, this behavior manifests itself in a pastor who uses the pulpit to get out all of his pent-up frustrations, which is the pastor-congregation equivalent of spousal abuse. Pastor, you serve the bride of Christ, and one day, you and I will stand in front of Him and answer for how we have treated His wife while she was in our care!
I’m convinced that codependency is a real issue with many pastors and churches. Rather than empower and bless each other, they use each other in a way that spreads dysfunction throughout the body, and destroys any hope of that local church being faithful to her call. When a pastor simply gives the people whatever they want whenever they want in an attempt to keep his job, or be complimented, or to advance himself, such behavior is not service. It is enablement. To be sure, pastors by themselves cannot change this scenario. But men, we can, and we must, resist the temptation to confuse equipping with enablement.
The fear of man is a snare. (Proverbs 29:25) Resist it, and serve your people well as a result.