Is Your Ministry Driven By Fear?

dangerousI pastor out of fear way too much. Odds are, if you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, you do too. I didn’t really grasp how much this affects my heart and ministry until a few days ago when I was listening through Paul David Tripp’s Dangerous Calling again. I’d realized in the past that, sure, I’ve got anxieties, and occasionally I’ll have a day when the weight of tasks left undone or forgotten starts to mount, but I never understood just how much fear has been in the driver’s seat. Though I’d heard about fears in ministry, in passing before, I don’t think anybody’d named it quite as clearly since I’d found myself plunged hip-deep in it over the past couple of years:

Perhaps this is a not-too-often-shared secret of pastoral ministry; that is, how much of it is driven not by faith in the truths of the gospel and in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ but by fear. It is very tempting for the pastor to load the welfare of the church on his shoulders, and when he does, he ends up being burdened and motivated by an endless and ever-changing catalog of “what ifs.” This never leads to a restful and joyful life of ministry but rather to a ministry debilitated by unrealistic and unmet goals, a personal sense of failure, and the dread that results.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (pp. 125-126). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

This is dangerous on many levels, not only for the spiritual health of the pastor, but for the Gospel and the congregation in his hands.

Tripp points out an angle on a story I’d heard over and over again, but never really thought of as a piece of pastoral theology. Looking at Galatians 2, with Paul’s confrontation of Peter over ceasing to eat with the Gentiles because of the circumcision party that had arrived, Tripp points out that Peter’s failure is due to fear motivating his ministry, not faith. Peter’s theology wasn’t jacked. Paul knew that he knew that justification is by faith alone, not by Judaizing works. Still, out of fear of approval, or power, he was practically selling out the Gospel in his ministry.

Pastors, we can’t, absolutely can’t let this happen to us, or allow it to go on any longer than it already has. It’s absolutely normal to have some fear. Fear can actually be healthy at times in tipping us off to dangers we need to engage. That said, fear of anything but God should never control us.  In what follows, I want to briefly list and summarize the four main fears that can cripple your ministry according to Tripp, and then list his four tips for overcoming, or not letting them topple your ministry.

4 Derailing Ministry Fears – Every pastor has or will face one or all of these fears at some point in their ministry. They’re all pretty obvious, but it still helps to name them and know they’re coming.

  1. Fear of Me – Ministry exposes your junk pretty quickly. In the midst of finding out the wretchedness of pride, anger, inadequacy, weakness, and surprising wickedness of your own heart, it’s very easy to get discouraged. Looking at yourself long and hard in ministry can lead to a crippling fear of self that will side-track your ministry through discouragement. Of course, this makes the mistake that Gideon made in thinking the battle depended on the strength of his own arm, instead of that of his mighty God.
  2. Fear of Others -This classic fear is the “fear of man.” The problem with pastoring people is that it involves people; all sorts of people. Fans. Critics. Lovers. Haters. Quiet supporters. Vocal opponents. Barnabas. Demas. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself pastoring defensively, out of a desire to silence or win over your critics, instead of a desire to please and praise God. Check your heart to see whether your closed door policy or the argument of that particular sermon was shaped by God’s wisdom or a very human fear of others.
  3. Fear of Circumstances – We are not the authors of our stories in the ultimate senses. God decrees the times and places we’re born–and a whole of difficulty afterwards. It’s very easy for the circumstances of life to unsettles us and destroy our confidence in God’s promises. Yes, God’s church won’t fail, but when the budget’s a little tight and that denominational fight’s coming up, it’s easy to let fear of present reality control our thoughts. Tripp reminds us that “Faith doesn’t deny reality. No, it is a God-focused way of considering reality.”
  4. Fear of the Future -We live in the reality of not knowing what the future holds. We are not God, we have not authored history and so what is to comes is still a vast, dark abyss to many of us and it haunts us. We live in fear of the future, struggling to believe God’s promises to be good despite the uncertainty. This can lead to sinful attempts to control, manage, and damage-control styles of ministry that do not result in fruitful congregational care. Instead, we are to entrust ourselves to the God whose will for the ages is Christ crucified and resurrected, a sure hope for the future.

4 Ways to Get Back On Track So how do we get back on track? Well, Tripp has four key steps, not silver-bullet, quick-fixes, but regular disciplines that will cut to the heart of your ministry fears, drawing you back to a ministry rooted in faith in Christ.

  1. Own Your Fears – Lying to yourself doesn’t help. Fears have greater power when they go unnamed. Instead, be honest, humbly take your fear to the One who is bigger than your fears. Let grace into the equation.
  2. Confess them and Repent – Doubling down on your sin doesn’t help, but only blinds you to the places it has its grip on your life. Confess the ways that fear has dominated your ministry, apologize those whom it has harmed and ask God to reveal the places where idolatry has led you to fear and sin.
  3. Watch your Meditation – You’re constantly preaching to yourself.  Only God knows your thoughts better than you, keep a watchful eye on the words your heart is uttering to yourself. Watch to see where fear is creeping in, where the weight of human opinion and circumstance is crowding out the weight of God’s glory.
  4. Preach the Gospel to Yourself – This is the only way to stay rooted and firm. We need to tirelessly remind ourselves the truth of the Gospel of our salvation. This Gospel is about a big God who saves us from problems beyond our reckoning–demon and death-sized problems. He can surely overwhelm what overwhelms us. This Gospel is about an acceptance that was purchased in the face of powers of hell and the weight of infinite guilt. What could ever separate us from our Lord?

It is as we remember these truths and are filled with awe of the God that we serve, that our human fears will take on their proper proportion, and we can begin to serve in faith, not fear.

Soli Deo Gloria

Beliefs Are Not Set In Stone, Except When They’re On Tablets (Mere-O Piece)

Baptism_of_corneliusRachel Held Evans believes we shouldn’t be too scared about changing our minds on religious questions, as these things aren’t always “set in stone.” Addressing religious believers in light of the SCOTUS decisions on gay marriage, she encourages us to realize it’s possible to shift your beliefs without being a culturally-accommodating, flip-flopper. Her biblical paradigm for this? Peter and Cornelius.

Breaking through years of religious training regarding Gentiles, the Apostle Peter included the Roman centurion Cornelius when he encountered his sincere faith, learning to not call impure what God names as clean. Just as the theological conversions of Paul, Augustine, and Luther have been a blessing to church history, Evans encourages us to model Peter’s example of open-mindedness and inclusion–especially as we think about same-sex attraction.  “A person of conviction is not one who is unyielding to change, but one whose beliefs evolve based on new information, new movements of the Spirit, new biblical insights and, yes, new friends.”

You can read my reasons for thinking Peter’s situation is not a good model for our thinking about same-sex attraction HERE over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Jesus Hates Heresy (And So Should You)

I’d like to take a moment to point something out that may have escaped your attention last time you went to church or watched  a Nooma: Jesus and the rest of the New Testament authors don’t like false teaching, or heresy. I mean, they really hate it. It doesn’t take long reading through the thing to see the forceful way they spoke of “false teachers/prophets” and “false teaching” about God and the Gospel.  Don’t believe me? Here are just a few quotes. See for yourself.

Gentle Jesus

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Not so Gentle Paul

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

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. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

Old-Man John

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter “the Rock” Bar-Jonah

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

This is Weird to Us

These quotes can seem disturbing to people of our age.

Our culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heretic’ used on your average blog, news article, etc. it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It’s thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m somewhat puzzled. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians?)

It’s sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that us entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness. (Which, incidentally were the result of false teaching about the nature of the church.)

So, why do they think different?

So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

So again, “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Resources for avoiding Heresy:

1. Any good systematic theology. (Classic Christianity by Thomas Oden, The Christian Faith by Michael Horton)
2. Heresies and How to Avoid Them by Ben Quash and Michael Ward
3. Heresy: A History of Defending Truth by Alister McGrath
4. Free article by Craig Blomberg “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?)