On the one hand, the basic tasks and issues are the same ones faced as an assistant or a lay elder. There’s preaching, teaching, counseling, prayer, hospitality, modeling, rebuking, etc. All of that is essentially the same… just more of it. But on the other hand, the leadership demands are slightly different. A significantly greater number of issues stop at my desk for decision, input, direction, etc. Whether they should or not, quite a few more people regard me as the “last say so.” In the midst of this, I’m reminded constantly that I’m not the Savior and that I need to both lead but also be aware of my limitations… limitations that are now more visible and that leave a deeper impress on the congregation than before.
All that to say I’ve been thinking a bit about what a “good pastor” is to do. I’m thinking not so much about the qualifications of a pastor, but the activity and habits of the shepherd. So, I’m spending the next few posts “thinking out loud” about this and would welcome any and all input. Primarily I’m thinking through 1 Timothy 4. I know there are other relevant passages, but two of the sermons the Lord has used most profoundly in my life over the last year have come from 1 Timothy 4. It’s probably good that I spend more time listening to the Father there. So, here goes….
Paul opens the chapter with these words:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. (1 Tim. 4:1-3, 6).
After giving the list of qualifications for church officers in chapter 3, and indicating that these things were written so that Timothy would “know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth,” Paul first addresses the matter of false teachers.
Timothy, and all pastors, if they are to be good ministers, must instruct or put before the brothers these matters: deceitful spirits, teaching of demons, and the insincerity of liars. The seriousness of these matters is seen in the effect: “some will depart from the faith” and devote themselves to evil spirits and their deceptions. The lies they believe will ravage their souls. The enemy will invade the camp and lure defectors to certain torture and death.
Concern regarding false teaching is primarily pastoral not academic. We’re not engaged merely in a debate about suppositions, propositions, and relatively equal positions. Ideas have consequences. And this passage tells us that it’s our people – those who have for some period of time lived among us as professors of faith – who pay these consequences when they devote themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons. This is terrifying. Some we love and have assumed to be sisters and brothers in the faith will fall prey to spiritual forces of darkness in these later times. We're not to be surprised by this sad turn of events, but we are to mourn deeply when it happens. Nothing could be more pastoral than that we should protect our people from such life and soul-threatening deception and error.
What is a good pastor to do? He is to instruct the people about falsehood. I take this to mean several things regarding my role as a pastor and the people in my charge:
1. I must know who and what my people are listening to and the extent to which they are devoted to it.
Deceiving spirits operate through human means, who very often masquerade as ministers of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15). So questions of authenticity and soundness are paramount. Which authors are most read by the congregation and what are their theological commitments? What radio and television ministries command their attention and why? Do these teachers give evidence of genuine godliness and gospel priorities in their preaching and in their lifestyles? Are we able to discern the answer to such questions because these teachers are not only public but transparent and accountable? Regarding our people’s devotedness to particular teaching… how much time do they spend consuming the ideas? What life decisions are they making based upon them? Does the teaching of these potentially false teachers rival that of the local congregation’s elders and the authority entrusted to them by God through the congregation? Are any of our people showing evidence of rejecting the faith because of the influence of such teachers? Have I lovingly and solemnly made them aware of the error and the consequences that follow from false and unsound belief?
2. I must not shy away from identifying falsehood and calling my people to avoid it.
Christians are sometimes too polite. And generally, we’re polite about the wrong things. We tend to think that great charity and liberty are important in doctrinal matters, but narrowness and resoluteness are demanded in debatable social and public policy issues. We’re pleased to “call names” when it comes to politicians, but generally very shy about doing so when it comes to a minister or preacher publicly teaching error. Deny the Trinity and it’s a matter of academic liberty or personal interpretation. Cross the picket line on taxes and prepare to be tarred and feathered. But how else can we “note” and “avoid” those who cause divisions with damnable heresies (Rom. 16:17-18; Gal. 1:6-8; Eph. 4:14; Titus 3:10-11) if we don’t identify the falsehoods and those spreading them?
3. I must not weaken the seriousness of the apostle’s teaching by “muting” the plainly identified demonic source of false teachers and teaching.
We do this by opting for “polite” language or squirming in the face of the so-called “pre-scientific” nature of this teaching. Too often we’re embarrassed to speak of the devil and evil spirits. We hear the devotees of scientism telling us that we’re backwards and not enlightened. But the light of God’s Word shines squarely on the accuser of the brethren, satan, as the source of this evil. And we would serve no one by pretending that he does not exist. He does. And he wreaks havoc on those blinded to his devices, which includes convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.
4. I must help my people train their consciences by the Word of God.
The characteristic of false teachers identified here is a seared conscience… a conscience cut off from godliness and goodness. Our people must not only avoid a seared conscience in themselves but also be able to discern and recognize one in the teachers to whom they listen. The book of Jude offers a pretty good expose of such teachers, calling them: lewd, rejecters of authority, sexually immoral, carnally minded, self-corrupting, money-hungry, lustful, flatterers, mockers, divisive, and ungodly. Our people must understand and recognize these attributes if they are to be safe from grievous wolves (Acts 20:27-28). And the fact that so many can not or will not acknowledge many of these characteristics as plainly evident in the teachings of your average TBN guest is beyond sad… it’s horrifying. But this is precisely why the Lord gives gifted men to the church to teach, correct, train, etc. As sheep, we constantly need to be fed and steered into green pastures and away from rocky cliffs.
Now, there is the danger of being so concerned with error that you fail to preach the truth. Our sermons are not to become rants against the latest or our favorite theological hobby horses. But neither are we to preach as if the Gospel is the only alternative in the theological market place. We must draw careful distinctions, keeping in mind both gross and subtle error. We must set the Gospel of Christ over and against non-Christian ideas, on the one hand, and raise nuances that clarify the Gospel against imitations of the good news on the other. Nearly every book of the New Testament contains some warning against falsehood and false teachers, making it plain that such teachers and teaching are a part of the ongoing warfare between God’s people and the enemy of God. We would be good pastors if we set these things before our people and fought for their devotion to Christ instead of deceiving spirits and teachings of demons.