Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18


October 2015

Follow Your Pastors Into The Gray

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

That passage of Scripture is one that pastors do not like to preach, though they fantasize often about doing so. It is a passage that has been both abused by church leaders and ignored by church members. In a time when the church is plagued by individualism and rampant immaturity it is a passage that does not sit well with many. It is uncomfortable. But it is a passage that if looked at properly, can lead to increased joy and unity in the church.

Before I talk more about this passage, or at least one aspect of it, I want to start by saying what this passage is not. It is not a blanket statement that as a member of a church you must obey everything your pastors say and you must accept everything they speak as inspired truth. In fact, Paul writing to the Galatians had strong words for the teachers and leaders that were troubling the people there with false teaching. This is what he said there:

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 1:8-9 ESV)

The Scriptures are clear that false teaching, false Gospel, and ungodly living is reason to rebuke a leader with 2-3 witnesses and to flee from that church if need be (1 Tim. 5:19). If a pastor leads you into sin or into false teaching you do not obey him, you do not follow him! Period!

So what is that passage in Hebrews talking about?

It is that which I want to address. As a Christian you have the responsibility to stand up for the truth of the Gospel with the Scriptures as your ultimate authority. And it is obvious that as your leaders lead you in the foundational, clear-cut truths of Scripture you should obey them. But what about the areas of every day life in the church that are not as clearly lined out? What about those things over which there may be various opinions? What about the gray areas?

It is my aim to encourage you to stand firm in the Gospel, ground yourself on the word of God, and then follow your pastors into the gray areas.

What is the gray?

What I mean by the gray is this: The grey is those things in the life of the church that are applications of Gospel truth and implications of Scriptural mandates which may not be clearly spelled out in Scripture. It is those necessary things in the life of the church which are matters of wisdom, things which may not necessarily be proven or refuted in a black-and-white manner from Scripture but are deduced from Scripture or hinted at in Scripture. Matters of application.

Gray areas in the life of the church are those things which you may have an opinion about – an opinion which you may even feel strongly is correct. Maybe it has to do with music choice, service style, preaching, leadership style, church government, kids’ ministry, ministry initiatives, etc. None of these things are necessarily unimportant, but they may qualify as gray areas.

You have the responsibility as a congregation to maintain a faithful Gospel ministry, faithfulness to God’s word comes first of all, but then in the day-to-day you are called to follow your pastors into the gray – to trust them even when you don’t agree because you know that in the black-and-white of the Gospel they are faithful. A failure to “let them do this” makes leadership, which is already a burden, a grief instead of a joy.

As a pastor I know what it is like to keep watch over souls with groaning and a little bit of nausea. It is not fun. I want to be held accountable for preaching the Gospel faithfully and caring for people’s souls. And I also want to hear the insights and views of those in my care. But pastors have to make decisions. They have to take biblical truth and make specific applications that they are convinced will be for God’s glory and the eternal good of their people. Every pastor knows what it is like to make those decisions with groaning and not with joy, because we know how it will be received. It is a profound burden.

It is not your job to judge the motives of your pastors, but simply to obey them insofar as they are not leading you astray from the Gospel. Your pastors are sinners saved by the same Gospel as you. They make mistakes. They too are being sanctified. There are many gray areas that you will follow your pastors into that you won’t agree with and you may be right! But it is a gray area. So you follow. You follow and when you hear your brothers and sisters begin to complain, you stop them. And guess what? As time goes on you may find that what you thought was “the gray” was not so gray after all. As you mature you may come to see that want was once unclear or even faulty to you, was actually just what you needed.

Faithful pastors are jealous for the souls of the people in their care. Like an overtly cautious father who doesn’t let their child go into the deep end just yet, they may falter and disappoint, holding back a little too long. But know they love you.

For the faithful pastor the things in the gray are not unimportant – just like they are not unimportant for you – but the difference that you need to acknowledge is that your pastors will stand before God and give an account for your soul. They will be held responsible for how they led in the gray areas. If your pastors have any awareness of their calling, any idea of the God whom they serve, any knowledge of the Father over whose children they watch – then you need to know they carry a heavy, heavy burden.

In closing, notice that the writer of Hebrews does not call us to begrudging obedience toward our leaders. Where we have the attitude, “Of course I will submit, but I need you to know that I don’t like it!” That is the posture that makes leading a grief for your pastors. Rather, have the humility to recognize that it is God that has made them you leaders (Acts 20:28), therefore, pray that God will give them wisdom and then trust that He will (James 1:5). Be aware of your own sin and immaturity (1 Cor. 10:12) and trust in the Great Shepherd who never fails – though his under-shepherds often do. And finally, thank God that you have pastors who love you enough to preach the Gospel to you and to put up with the stress and pain and spiritual struggle of church leadership. Marvel that  by God’s grace you have men in your life who are willing to be held accountable for your soul! Pray for them. Stand firm on the Gospel. And then follow them into the gray.

Don’t Take It Personally

Whether you are a pastor or just a Christian seeking to be faithful to disciple others, I have an encouragement for you.

There are times when your faithfulness in ministry will lead to opposition of the worst kind – opposition from those that you are ministering to. Nothing is more disheartening and nothing offers more temptation to grow bitter or weary in doing good than this. There are days when you will be tempted to love yourself and compromise because the price of truly helping people is just too high. I can promise you that if you are faithful you will face this kind of opposition. Why? Because even the Christians that you are ministering to have indwelling sin, just like you do. Immature Christians especially are going to have strongholds where old Lord or Lady Autonomy are putting up a fight. And when this happens I have a few simple words of encouragement.

Don’t take it personal. 

In the moment the opposition you face may seem like a personal attack, but it may not be.

When we meet people with God’s word, we meet them with an authority that is higher than us or them, and if we are doing our job we will present God’s word to them as such. And when the word of God with its authority and insight meets our sin and remaining grasp on autonomy (self-rule) often a fight ensues. And if you are being a channel of truth, it will feel often like the fight is against you. But it’s not.

Let’s admit that we are weak, that we fail in our delivery of truth. But the reality is that even Jesus, who had perfect delivery, faced more opposition than we will ever know. The bottom line is that sinners, even the saved sinners in your church, don’t like being told they are wrong, they don’t like having their self-rule violated. And neither do you at times I am sure. This is in part what makes ministry such a sacrifice. This what makes Christian love in the local church so hard. But don’t bear more of the burden than you must. Recognize the problem. Don’t take it personal.

What is the problem?

We get a good picture of the problem and how to respond to it in 1 Samuel 8 when God’s people rebel and demand their leader – the prophet Samuel – to give them a king so they can be like all the other nations.

When Samuel approaches God with their request God responds to him:

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. (1 Samuel 8:7 ESV)

The people’s request may have seemed like an affront to Samuel’s faithful leadership. Perhaps he could have taken offense and lashed out at them. But God pointed out to him that the problem was bigger than a problem with Samuel, and yet this truth also lifted the burden of responsibility off Samuel. He did his job. He was faithful. He didn’t need to take their rebellious request personally.

As a pastor this is something I need to remind myself of often and as you disciple people or shepherd people, if you are faithful, you will need to hear these words as well. It is part of the messy business of helping people grow to look more like Jesus. And in the process, as you do not take offense but rather entrust yourself “to Him who judges justly” (1 Pt. 2:22) you also grow to become more like Christ.

This is also a reminder to us as we receive truth. We may not like the way it is spoken, we may not like the person speaking, but is our rejection of the messenger actually a rejection of the message?

Be faithful. Be humble. Don’t shy back from speaking the truth. People will get upset. They will say hurtful things. They will take their rebellion out on you. Chances are you have done the same thing at some point. This is a part of God’s authority colliding with sinful hearts. For the love of the church and for the love of God, keep speaking the truth in love, holding forth the Word of God for what it is – our final authority. And if they respond well, don’t boast. And if they respond poorly, don’t take it personal.

Appendix: Seeing Your Sanctification In The Ordinary

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4 ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)

In my sermon on Friday I addressed in one point the “kingdom-minded, calling focused prayer” of Paul. Speaking on this I exhorted us to see the need for a shift in the priorities of our prayers and I called us to see that very often our prayers reflect what we see as best.

I also qualified my statements by saying that Scripture is clear that we should cast our cares on the Lord and lay our needs and burdens before him, yet we should seek his kingdom and his righteousness first of all. (1 Pt. 5:7, Phil. 4:6, Matt. 6:33)

As I reflected on the sermon later in the day, I felt that I should have shown how these two kinds of prayer requests, the kingdom-minded, calling-focused prayer and prayer for our ordinary needs in this life, go hand-in-hand toward the greater goal. The last thing I want to do is create an unhealthy division in the way we view life which pits the spiritual over against the physical, rather I want to encourage us to bring our temporal needs to the Lord in a way that is kingdom-minded and calling-focused, in a way which is consistent with the “already and not yet” that we live in as Christians – keeping our highest end in sight (to glorify God and enjoy him forever).

Every need, every trial, every twist and turn in life is an opportunity to be sanctified, to grow in Christlikeness. When our job goes bad, this is not irrelevant to my walk with the Lord. When I get sick, this is not outside of God’s bigger picture.

Every temporary burden is an opportunity for growth and we should view it as such. If we pray then merely for our problems to be resolved, then perhaps we are not as kingdom-minded and calling-focused as we should be, not as aware of the reality of God’s absolute sovereignty and love towards us as his children.

We pray that God would help us find a better job, but in and with that request we pray that God would work through this situation to form Christ in us. We even thank God for bringing this into our lives for our good as an opportunity to grow and experience joy that is further untethered from the stuff of now. We pray that God would heal our cousin, but above all we pray that God would be glorified in their life – or in the taking of it!

We don’t divide our prayers into two categories, but rather we seek to have an outlook on every, ordinary aspect of our lives that is centered on God’s glory. We pray seeing the potential for sanctification in every ordinary struggle.

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