By Michael Lawrence
Some pastors start off liberal. I had a friend at Duke who was really into religion. In fact, he was so into religion that, unlike the rest of the guys in our freshmen dorm who came to Duke to become doctors or lawyers or engineers, he came in order to become a liberal minister. I don’t remember which denomination he was headed into. I just remember being confused as to why anyone would go to an expensive school in order to pursue a low-paying career, the social standing of which was plummeting, just to talk about a book you thought wasn’t true and a God you didn’t think was there.
These comments are not for those pastors.
Other pastors, having started as evangelicals, become liberal. It’s not that they begin to deny the Formula of Chalcedon or the Nicene Creed. It’s not that they reject the bodily resurrection of Christ or the virgin birth. It’s simply that, over the course of their ministry, sound doctrine increasingly takes a back seat to effective practice and the demands of a growing budget. Hard truths are replaced by happy thoughts, tips for a successful life, and programs designed to attract crowds whose content is devoted to making those crowds feel loved and accepted.
A lot of these pastors are evangelists at heart. They want to reach people with the good news of the gospel. Yet in their relentless search for a better method of communication, they don’t always notice that they’ve trimmed the message in order to better communicate to the people.
Some of these comments apply to those pastors, but they’re not really who I have in mind either.
The pastors I want to talk to are pastors like me. I don’t mean to be a liberal like my undergraduate friend. And I’m not a rock star evangelist who’s built a mega-church by walking the fine edge between relevance and faithfulness, always in danger of falling off that edge into a soft liberalism that loves Jesus, but mainly for what he can do for me, rather than for who he is.
No, I’m a pastor who loves Jesus because he’s God Incarnate and who loves the gospel because it’s true, regardless of how my life turns out. But I’m also a pastor at risk of becoming a liberal, because I don’t just love God. I also love the sheep. And I love myself. And it’s those two loves, wrongly focused, that tempt me down a gospel-denying path.
LOVING THE SHEEP MORE THAN THE GOOD SHEPHERD
A good and faithful pastor must love the sheep. That’s the model Jesus set for us (John 10). But in fact, the New Testament never tells us as pastors to “love the sheep.” Instead we’re told to feed the sheep (John 21:15-17), to guard the sheep (Acts 20:28), and to set an example for the sheep (1 Pet 5:3).
But let’s face it: the sheep don’t always like the meals we’ve prepared for them; they sometimes chafe under the safeguards we put in place for them; they’re not always impressed with the example we set for them. And it’s at this point that our own wrongly ordered love for the sheep can lead us astray.
On the one hand, we can be so afraid of losing the love and affection of our sheep that we hold back from saying hard but true things that need to be said. This isn’t typically the young pastor’s failing, I think, so much as the well-established pastor’s temptation. After years of ministry, a crisis occurs which requires you to rebuke good friends, or remove long-serving co-laborers from office, if you want to remain faithful to the gospel. Or a passage comes up that, if preached faithfully, might painfully offend a beloved family in the congregation. Or a long-time personal supporter is nominated to a church office, though, unbeknownst to all in the congregation but you, he’s biblically disqualified. If the pastor’s mindset has confused friendship with faithfulness, if he’s come to value the love of the sheep more than the approval of the Good Shepherd, then he will have rationalized and accommodated and explained his way into compromise with sin and worldliness before he knows it. He will have taken the first step down the path to a liberalism that trims God’s Word in favor of the love and esteem of others.
Recently I sat around a table with a group of leaders from another local church. We were talking about their slide not into liberalism but into ineffectiveness. As we talked about the Bible’s critique of their situation, I asked how they got to this point. One wise elder spoke up and said, “Too often in the past, in the conflict between relationships and faithfulness to God’s Word, relationships have won out.” If we pastors are going to resist the pull to trim God’s message for the sake of our congregation’s approval, then we must have a mindset that values God’s approval above all others.
On the other hand, we can be so impressed with our sheep that we change our message to fit their lives, rather than trusting our message to change their lives. This, I think, is more typical of some younger pastors. We haven’t lived long enough to really know that the world always promises more than it delivers. So we’re taken in by the glitter and the glam, and think that this time, in this particular case, the world won’t disappoint. Older pastors know better. They’ve not only read 1 Corinthians 7:31, they’ve lived it.
For most of my adult life, I have been a pastor among the highly educated, the materially successful, and the politically powerful. It’s not that I sought these people out as more strategic than others. It’s simply where God’s providence placed me. In these contexts, it is easy to be star-struck, dazzled by the success of my sheep, impressed by their careers and attainments, and not a little envious. And when big, successful, impressive sheep come to your office and share their thoughts on what Christianity is all about, how it relates to their own career path, and the priority of their work in the kingdom of God, it’s easy to believe them.
But what happens when the impressive sheep tell you that their work is more important than evangelism, or faithful church membership? What happens when they tell you that working hard at their career is their witness? What happens when they tell you that their equally impressive non-Christian friends need a less embarrassing formulation of the gospel? If we’re more impressed by the sheep than we are by the Good Shepherd, the answer is simple: we will accommodate these sheep to the point that being a Christian never, ever, ever interferes with their impressive lives. The world and its demands for an impressive life will determine the shape of the sheep’s discipleship, and our teaching will simply come along to accessorize their worldliness with a few Christian add-ons. If we would call people to follow Christ, and not this world, then above all else we must be impressed by the way of the cross, and by the Good Shepherd who laid down his life there.
LOVING MYSELF MORE THAN MY LORD
It’s not just, or even mainly, my wrongly ordered love of the sheep that pulls me toward liberalism. Even more powerful is my love of self. More than once in the New Testament, our powerful self-love is used as a measure for how we should love others. So we’re to love our neighbor as our self (Mat. 19:19) and we’re to love our wives as our own bodies (Eph 5:28). But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a pride that not only is fully committed to my own glory but that’s devoted to getting you to recognize my superior glory as well. Self-love is never content with its own love. It wants everyone else’s adoration as well.
How does prideful self-love pull me toward liberalism? I’m pulled toward liberalism when I become more concerned that you think my sermons are brilliant than that they are faithful or useful. It does it when I use my gifts of creativity, or rhetoric, or administration, or analysis to build my own reputation as a super-pastor, rather than put them to the service of the kingdom of God. It does it when I’m content to build a ministry based on my personality, rather than on the power of the gospel. It does it when I become selfish with my pulpit, or when I refuse to hire staff or recognize lay leaders whose strengths might highlight my weaknesses.
But my prideful self-love isn’t just about me and how I appear to others. It shows itself in how I respond to challenges as well. It’s pride that tempts me to think that the answer to any ministry problem is a better methodology, a clearer communication strategy, a more effective program. It’s pride that causes me to shortchange prayer for planning. It’s pride that causes me to lose patience with subordinates and to be offended at the mistakes of others. At the root of my pride is the conviction that the power to solve every challenge lies within me, if I can just bring enough creativity and intelligence and preparation to bear.
But of course, what this means is that I will never attempt anything in ministry that I can’t figure out in advance. It’s not that I won’t be a risk taker. It’s that none of my risks will be steps of faith. Rather, every risk I take will be calculated and leveraged based on my personality, my skill set, my experience. And what that means is that the ministry I build, be it small or great, will be a monument to no one’s glory but my own. If we as pastors want to resist the temptation to build a ministry to our own glory, then we must be captivated by the glory of the Lord.
A LIBERAL BY ANY OTHER NAME…SMELLS THE SAME
If you want to be a true theological liberal, then you really should go to Harvard Divinity School, or at least read the books they recommend. But the fact is, there’s more than one way to become a liberal. The liberal theology of Harvard Divinity traded the knowledge of God for the knowledge of man. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ ceased to be the measure of truth, and in its place was substituted a lesser measure, one of our own devising. Yet the kind of liberal pastors that I’m talking to here, the kind that I’m in constant danger of becoming, are no different. We may not have read Bultmann; we may be offended at JEPD. But to the extent that we have made the estimation of man the measure of our ministry, to the extent that we have allowed the sheep to determine the shape of our preaching or our own pride to set the boundaries of our labor, we have become liberals.
May God protect us from such a mindset, and instead give us the mind of Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep, but not to their judgment. Instead, like the Good Shepherd, let us entrust ourselves “to Him who judges justly,” and from him “receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 2:23, 5:4).