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Ministers Who Preach Not Themselves, But Christ

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God has sent his ministers on his mission. They are not free to spout their wit and wisdom, but are under orders to deliver as ambassadors a particular message from their Sovereign.

Over the years, I have noticed that "want ads" for pastors have changed quite remarkably. For most Reformed and Presbyterian bodies, as, I would imagine, most Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches, vacancies are advertised in denominational periodicals. Even there, the calls are advertised differently than in the past. Hoping to have my general impression tempered by the actual evidence of mainstream evangelical ads along these lines, I turned to a leading evangelical magazine's classified section. I took a sampling of the last six issues. Some of the "employment opportunities" for pastors included not only senior pastor positions but also openings for that ever-expanding "leadership team" of pastoral ministry.

One church seeks "a dynamic leader with a passion to facilitate growth." Hence, this person will be given to "relevant, thematic preaching incorporating creative use of drama and contemporary worship." Nothing is mentioned about a commitment to Scripture, proclamation of God's saving grace in Jesus Christ, or any specific doctrinal convictions. Perhaps that is assumed, but it shouldn't be these days.

According to another ad, a member of the pastoral staff should possess "gifting in leadership, shepherding, administration, recruiting, team-building, problem solver [sic], large church experience (1,000+)." In many of the ads, it was expected that the applicant will be a deeply spiritual person: "must have a heart for God," "a contagious faith," "a servant leader" who "loves God and truly worships Him" through "choirs, orchestra, drama, handbells, banners, etc." But most of the qualifications had to do with personal abilities that might be sought in any business looking for a combination CEO, coach, and entertainer. From my random sampling of this publication's past several issues, here are the most representative criteria for ministry staff (each word taken directly from the ads). (1)

  • Innovative, progressive, change initiating
  • Team leader/builder
  • Pastor-coach
  • People-developer with strong organizational skills
  • Someone who "can relate well to 'fast-track' commuters" and "design and build infrastructure, envision and create ministry delivery teams"
  • Approachable, dynamic, catalytic
  • Relevant
  • A close walk with the Lord
  • Able to lead worship through drama, audio-visual technology, banners and dance
  • Degrees in music or business required, a degree in theology preferred
Nearly all of these ads came from churches that would describe themselves as "conservative evangelical." A mainline church, however, insisted that its associate pastor must not only have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but must be one "whose theology is Reformed, biblically based, and rooted in the creeds of the Church." Another church in this mainline denomination was looking for someone with "a strong commitment to the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone, and to the Reformed tradition, [who] leads us to unite faith and action in mission and outreach." But not a single ad, by my count, included anything about subscription to a particular confession of faith. And in virtually none of them was there so much as a mention of doctrinal criteria or ecclesiastical affiliation.

The Apostle Paul's Qualifications

As I read these qualifications, I cannot help but think of how the apostle Paul might have fared. On the "innovative, progressive, change-initiator" scale, he would have scored poorly. First, there is a sense in which he was innovative and progressive-not in his person but in his office. The apostolic ministry was, unlike the ordinary ministry that followed, the foundation-laying epoch of the New Testament people of God. "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.... According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone else lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:5-11). Paul here is indicating not merely that we should all imitate the faithfulness of his foundation-laying, but that no other foundation can in fact be laid for the Christian Church than that foundation laid by the apostles, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone.

The apostolic era was innovative in that Jesus' ministry, shed abroad through the work of the Holy Spirit according to the Father's plan, inaugurated the kingdom of God. It was a "new creation" because the Second Adam had fulfilled all righteousness and had ascended to the Father's right hand awaiting the final judgment and salvation of the world. The ministry of Moses had faded, to be overwhelmed now by the ministry of Christ. Accompanied by signs and wonders, this apostolic ministry was replaced by the ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament entrusted to faithful ministers. Timothy was among those first "ordinary" ministers and to him Paul charges, "O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge-by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith" (1 Tim. 6:20).

Having learned the faith from his grandmother, Timothy "confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (v. 12). All of Paul's advice to Timothy and future ministers is to keep that which was entrusted to them, while Paul himself was among those apostles who actually received new revelations that would make public the mystery progressively revealed until finally Jesus has come in the fullness of time. And even Paul's "innovation" was in no way a personal skill, as these ads would imply. It was God's innovation; even though he is an apostle, Paul only speaks where God has clearly spoken. He calls Timothy, as he calls us, not to imitate his apostolic foundation laying, but to "guard the deposit" that has now been entrusted to the post-apostolic ministry.

How about "relevance"? As for his own ministry, despite the fact that this message was viewed not only as irrelevant but as "to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23), he insists on limiting himself to that message. In fact, he adds, "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1, 2). As for his "relational skills" as an "approachable, dynamic, catalytic, relevant, pastor-coach," Paul could only declare in the very next verse, "I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (vv. 3-5). That Spirit-driven power was nothing more or less than "the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). Note that Paul specifically cites his weakness in the area of relational and communicative skills as a means of directing faith not to his personality but to the Gospel. So much for being "dynamic."

Could the apostle have ranked better as a "team leader" and "team builder"? He certainly did have some support from God's people in various places. However, after charging Timothy to preach the Word without compromise in these self-centered last days, Paul, nevertheless, complains that his life is being poured out as a sacrifice, and Demas, a close coworker who shared Paul's imprisonment in Rome "has forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:9). Like the Lord whom he served, Paul's ministry was under the shadow of the cross. And, like his Lord, many of his disciples refused to follow him if it meant the way of the cross instead of the way of glory (see John 6).

Furthermore, Paul was not exactly lavished with organizational skills, as one can infer from his frequent appeals at the end of his epistles. Like Peter, who instituted the office of deacons in order to take care of the administration of the Church and its charity so that the apostles could be devoted to the Word and to prayer, Paul asked local pastors to baptize adult converts after extended catechesis, so that their efficacy would be directed to the Word and Spirit rather than to his own apostolic persona (1 Cor. 1:14). Paul, who knew well the story of Aaron's "passion for leading God's people into His presence in innovative and authentic ways" (one of the ads) and stuck instead to God's own revelation of how we are to enter God's presence safely, would not have scored very high on that one either.

Even though Paul was steeped in theological training and-after his conversion-received the personal instruction of Jesus Christ himself by revelation, his qualifications might not satisfy everyone. Only after three years of instruction did Paul present himself to Peter who, after more than two weeks with the former persecutor of the Church, received Paul as an apostle (Gal. 1:15-20). But Paul was not skilled in drama, technology, or business-or whatever first-century equivalents might have been. He probably was not prepared to "relate well to 'fast-track' commuters," since he wrote, "But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence" (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

One even wonders if Paul could have secured a call today on the basis of his "walk with the Lord." At the very least, Romans 7 would be an autobiographical piece that should not make it into his "personal testimony" section of the application, much less the claim that he was "chief of sinners." Paul was sort of a "downer" by contemporary standards, "used up"-always getting himself thrown into jail for preaching the Gospel.

So why is the apostle Paul so exemplary? There is one simple answer to that: Paul was dedicated to "preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23). "For if I preach the Gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!... What is my reward then? That when I preach the Gospel, I may present the Gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16-18). That's a far cry from one of the ads, which called for "a full-time Associate Pastor (ordained or not) for Music and Worship" who will be "the right person regardless of denomination ... with generous compensation." (Generous compensation for leading God's people in worship, with no particular belief system as his basis, is the antithesis of Paul's ministry.)

Ministry Not Minister

The basic difference between Paul's outlook and the dominant perspective reflected in these ads is quite simple: for Paul, the authority and power rests in the ministry, not the minister. It is the proclamation of Christ, not the skills, personality, charisma, or even personal godliness, that builds Christ's Church. We hear the reverse all the time: "Sure, he could stick closer to the text when he preaches, but he has a real heart for the Lord and wants to reach out to those who are hurting." But Paul turns this around: "Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the Gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice" (Phil. 1:15-18).

For many today, the marks of the Church are relevance, success, and the pastor's personal gifts, but for the apostles the marks were the Word rightly preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and discipline exercised so that the first two marks would not be compromised. While personal godliness is essential for the minister, it is not essential for the ministry. The Gospel-preaching ministry even of someone who is unregenerate or living in serious sin can be more effective than the ministry of a pious person who does not preach Christ. "Therefore, since we have this ministry," Paul says of himself and his fellow apostles, "as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart.... But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (2 Cor. 4:1, 7). If we took this line of thought seriously, we would expect more of Christ and less of the minister in the actual experience of Church life. If a minister falls into grave sin or error, he would (hopefully) be reproved or removed, but this would not affect the faith of believers in the least. Furthermore, ministers would feel far less liberty to share their own views on life, child-rearing, business investments, culture wars, politics, and a host of other topics that seem to dominate preaching on the left and the right these days. There would be a greater sensitivity to the weakness and inadequacy of the minister in his person, but a greater respect shown to the minister in his office.

The Minister's Two Duties

I realize that this claim is controversial in our present day and that it may be misinterpreted, so let me explain what I think Paul is emphasizing here. It is the interpretation that we find in the Church fathers in their rejection of Donatism, a heresy that made the existence of a true church dependent upon the minister's morality. Donatism expressed itself throughout the Middle Ages in various sects and cults, and the Protestant reformers confronted it in the Anabaptist movement. Ministers are not the community's all-purpose advisors. Nor are they experts on everything. Contrary to the ads that expect ministers to oversee battalions of "ministries," the Second Helvetic Confession (Reformed) declares, "The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the Sacraments.... When those things are done, the faithful esteem them as done by the Lord himself."

But what of those whom we do not regard as sufficiently vibrant in their own personal piety-much less those who turn out to be unbelievers or immoral persons? "Even evil ministers are to be heard. Moreover, we strongly detest the error of the Donatists who esteem the doctrine and administration of the Sacraments to be either effectual or not effectual, according to the good or evil life of the ministers. For we know that the voice of Christ is to be heard, though it be out of the mouths of evil ministers." The Confession further insists on the proper ecclesiastical organization for removing such ministers but follows Paul in locating the ministry's efficacy in Christ himself and his Gospel rather than in the ministers and their persons. In short, their personal gifts are not means of grace and their personal insincerity or unworthiness does not invalidate their ministry. "Whether from pure motives or false, Christ is being preached." All of the sincerity, purity of motive, passion for God and the lost, organizational and relational skills, "transparency," relevance, and enthusiasm in the world cannot create and strengthen faith; only the ministry of reconciliation can accomplish this.

This should not lead us to be slack in church discipline but to change our view of preaching and the preacher in two ways. Instead of placing our confidence in the minister and his abilities (natural skills and moral example), we need to place our confidence in the ministry and the Gospel's power-even when it is dispensed through weak ministers, like Paul. Too frequently, our respect for the minister is weighed in terms of his personality. If we like our minister, we will tend to treat him as our spiritual handyman, someone who can give us answers to every question. And too often, ministers may succumb to this erroneous expectation and make "applications" in their sermons that are beyond either their expertise or their divine commission. Eventually, and perhaps subtly, we begin to accept whatever the minister says as divine mandate even if it does not arise from Scripture itself. The problem with this is that God has sent his ministers on his mission. Ministers are not free to display their wit and wisdom, but are under orders to deliver as ambassadors a particular message from their Sovereign. It is not their time in the pulpit but God's time-and every instance in which a minister leaves the proclamation of the Word for "authentic," "relevant," "transparent" conversation with the congregation, the authority of Scripture slips another step in the life of that church and its members. The only thing that should be transparent is God's Word in command and promise: "For we preach not ourselves, but Christ."

The second way in which this leads us is toward a higher respect for the authority of the ministry and its office. Many of us recall the cynicism in the wake of Watergate and the precipitous decline in respect for the office of the president. Much the same has been repeated in recent events surrounding our current president. In both cases, however-usually among the older folks-there has been a defense for "the office" that younger people ever since the sixties have found antiquated. This same diffidence toward "office" has been carried over into the Church. As with our presidents, so with our pastors, there is a respect or disrespect for the person depending on his performance, without much place given to the office itself. But if the presidency of the United States transcends the person holding that office at any given time, so much more the office of minister of Word and Sacrament. When our ministers hold themselves accountable-and are by the elders held accountable-to the authority of Scripture and take their office seriously, they must be heard as if God himself were addressing the people. In fact, when ministers act in their office-accurately proclaiming the Scriptures and not their own opinions, their preaching is to be regarded by the faithful as the very word of God. "Truly, truly, I say to you," Jesus says, "he who received any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (John 13:20).

A High View of Preaching

Recovering this view of preaching would have wide-ranging practical effects in our churches, as ministers are once again filled with both a sense of their own personal unworthiness and a confident freedom in the Spirit to announce that which God has done in Christ. Imagine how liberating it would be for pastors to be able to continually sharpen their expertise in Scripture rather than being distracted by false expectations. Furthermore, as those under their care, we too would be liberated to become hearers of the Word. For so long, we have either put our ministers on pedestals or lost our interest in hearing sermons because we have heard more about what the preacher has to say than about what God has to say. And, let's be frank, a lot of the time we pastors think that we have more to say than we actually do. Often, it is not that God is boring, but that we are. As parishioners we are free now to listen to God's own voice through his servant, without fearing that we will be saddled again this week with the idiosyncrasies, hobbyhorses, and familiar autobiographical scenes from the pastor's own experience. We would be free again to hear God even through servants who lack many of the gifts that the advertisements list as essential even above biblical qualifications.

In 2 Corinthians, where Paul particularly defends his ministry, he contrasts the ministry of Moses with his own. You will recall that Moses was reluctant to take up the position of divine spokesman, despite God's promise to uphold him. With his visage glowing with the reflection of the glory of God that had accompanied the delivery of the Law on Mount Sinai, Moses descended from the Mount to the astonishment of the people below.

But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.... For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech-unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Cor. 3:7-16).

And what a glorious ministry this is! Like Jesus Christ himself, it is hidden under the cross, carried around in "jars of clay," but also like Jesus Christ, it possesses the power of resurrection life. It will fail all of the worldly tests of success, effectiveness, relevance, and efficiency, but it will continue, as it always has, to breathe everlasting life into a valley of dry bones until God has a living people standing before him in praise and thanksgiving.

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (2 Cor. 4:1, 5-7).



1 [ Back ] All of the following qualifications for a minister appeared in Christianity Today magazine: A compassionate and innovative team member ... dynamic and vigorous individual who relates to kids on their level ... skills in leadership, program, and people development; and team building. Must have strong organizational skills with a progressive mentality toward education. Large church involvement will be an advantage. Personal characteristics should include the ability to adjust to and initiate change.... Team building; leading change; excellent relationship skills ... Gen-X Director/Pastor.... He/she shall design and implement a music program that is broad, exciting, challenging, and diverse ... an approachable team leader who is committed to "gift-based" ministry where the laity are unleashed.... Music degree required and theological degree preferred ... dynamic and catalytic leader.... This servant leader will possess a demonstrated record of relevant, transformational preaching, a team orientation in a complex environment of diverse backgrounds, interest, and affiliations.... We are looking for an innovative leader who has both enthusiasm and energy ... [someone] who has a heart for God, a passion for leading God's people into His presence in innovative and authentic ways.... Candidate must be a team player and a team builder with a proven track record ... [able to lead] congregational worship, worship teams, drama, choirs, instrumentalists, audio-visual, and dance ... an Executive Pastor who can relate well to affluent, "fast-track" commuters and their families ... highly relational, self-motivated individual who can develop and motivate leaders, design and build infrastructure, envision and create ministry delivery teams, oversee staff, and direct operations. Seminary degree unnecessary and a business background preferred ... [someone who will create] a care infrastructure within the church body ... a pastor/coach to join its leadership team.

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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "That Word Above All Earthly Powers: PREACHING" Nov./Dec. 2000 Vol. 9 No. 6 Page number(s): 13-19

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