The intersection where pastors, elders, deacons, theologians, publishers and church leaders meet has always been a contentious bog, a subculture whose centuries-old practices and commission to evangelize the world make for an amazing mix of undaunted self-sacrifice and epic power struggles. Many refer to it as a family – where the lines between right and wrong are, by unarticulated consensus, kept deliberately permeable. Some think of it like the fabled hillbilly clan where the uncle is perpetually drunk out behind the barn – everybody in the family is aware of it – but we delicately avoid the subject.
Christian publishers struggle mightily to remain above the quagmire of pride, vanity, greed, influence, nepotism and other sinful behaviors around it – traditionally by avoiding criticism of any kind or keeping the critics as anonymous as possible. It doesn’t always work of course. Any pastor who has a platform of over 2,000 congregants and serious aspirations can prove to be a grave temptation for publishers who possess the wherewithall to grant deferential treatment – regardless of writing ability. I mean some of the banal atrocities Christian publishing houses have midwifed on behalf of celebrity-seeking pastors are really an outrage – not necessarily as a result of the bland prose but because these plump shepherds continue to feed off of their lean sheep.
The question I have is, how would Jesus feel about these contemporary money changers in the courtyard of our New Testament temple? Seriously, the marketing never ends – it’s a primordial soup of 30 second commercial spots from the stage, free samples with every registration, and celebrity endorsements of churches and ministries. It is a risky proposition, however, all of the extra attention may not necessarily be rewarding.
I have been swimming in these waters for years. When it comes to yours truly, I confess to being hopelessly plagued by egocentric desires. I am friends with a lot of pastors. Others, whom I’m not acquainted with, I often identify with or respect to a degree that would prevent me from being transparent with the reader – or anyone outside our unique world. I’m very sympathetic to a pastor who has a family member who fails publicly or for a widely known Christian leader who encounters a fall from grace.
But in spite of all the awful things I’ve seen and done in my long career, I still have a God-given duty to speak out about the truth. Duty sometimes coincides with desire, a happy but unusual conjunction. More often, duty marches in a direction independent of desire, a reality which I have encountered at various times in my life.
God intended the Church of Jesus Christ to be a winner. And I agree that we in the Restoration Movement are a family. But when everyone in the family operates according to their own agenda, you may have a building, but you don’t have a home. Sometimes in a family, the loving thing, the caring thing to do is to tell the truth.
There is a great example of this in Galatians chapter 2. It is probably the most intense demonstration of interpersonal relationships in the New Testament.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he [i]stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from [j]James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing [k]the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not [l]straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
There are some observations about this passage that I would like to make.
- While we have freedom in preferences, we do not have freedom related to God’s Word.
- Though Peter and Paul were both apostles, Paul criticized Peter based on the Word of God.
- Paul did not go to Peter in private as is required in Matthew 18, because it was a public situation. You see, these church leaders were supposed to be the standard before the people about what God is expecting. This situation was not about a private, interpersonal relationship, it was about a public standard. The above reference says, “I said to Cephas, in the presence of all.”
- Unaddressed or privately addressed issues in God’s family causes others to stray, notice, “even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” If Paul had not spoken in public, how would others have benefited from the lesson?
So, don’t get me wrong. I love ministry. I am still serving in ministry today by the grace of God – a lifetime, master-degreed, fully-ordained pastor who, hours from now will be doing sound checks, reviewing last minute details with the worship leader, and going over my sermon notes one last time just moments before the service starts in a rented auditorium on the Westside of Los Angeles.
I do not write because I am angry at the state of the church or because I want to alarm the public. I write because I care. It’s not Super pastor talking to you here. Sure, I have ministered on both coasts, served in urban and rural congregations, done missionary work in some of the worst living conditions known to man. I’m not some embittered washout jealous of my more successful peers. I am simply a slave fettered by the work given to me in my little corner of God’s glorious kingdom.
Church work is sometimes glorious, and other times messy. It is a career that has had an unimaginable impact on the events of my life. I am comfortable with church work. I speak the language. In the small, enmeshed community of Restoration Movement ministers and church workers, I know the people. We have a peculiar way of life that only other fellow pastors and church staffers can recognize. You may not agree with things I write but it comes from a place of deep affection.
What motivates me is the challenge of ministry. Creating an environment where one can grow in relationship to God. I do not wish to push the envelope, I don’t feel the need to change the theological landscape, or to reinterpret the church in an ever-more-relevant way. I just want my church to grow and it is. I want your church to grow. And I simply want to preach and teach in a way that speaks to a person’s soul. I have never regretted my decision to go into ministry. And I have long believed that God blesses ministries that take leaps of faith while maintaining sound doctrine. Whether we are talking about serving a community where the fabric of the culture has been torn by violence, or starting a church with no salary, no outside support, and no building; ministry, for me, has always been a rewarding adventure.