The Congregation's Regard for Her Preacher
It is not out of place to remind our congregations of their responsibility toward their preachers. For not only does it follow from the importance of preaching that those who are engaged in the work must be honored, but it is also true that a sinful attitude toward the preacher can obstruct the benefits of the preaching for the believer and his family. Wrong behavior toward the preacher can even injure the glorious work of the ministry in a congregation.
The duty of the congregation is to honor the preacher. This honor is a very high esteem. For it is not merely regard for a man's personality and abilities, but it is respect for an appointed servant of Christ exercising the ministry of being a steward of the mysteries of God. This is the charge of Christ's apostle to the congregation in 1 Corinthians 4:1:
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
The same command is given in 1 Timothy 5:17:
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.
Whenever a preacher is installed in a church, the Reformed “Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God's Word” is not content to give a mandate only to the preacher. It gives a mandate also to the congregation:
Receive this your minister in the Lord with all gladness, “and hold such in reputation.” Remember that God Himself through him speaketh unto and beseecheth you. Receive the Word which he, according to the Scripture, shall preach unto you … Let the feet of those that preach the gospel of peace … be beautiful and pleasant unto you…
The “Form” concludes with the prayer that the congregation may have grace “that they may becomingly deport themselves towards this their minister…”
This high regard for the preacher is the simple, solemn calling of every congregation and of every member of every congregation. It is unspiritual to suppose that every member has the right to make up his own mind what he will think of the preacher. The minds of all of us are made up for us by the Lord of the church: “esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). When we are asked by curious souls, “How do you like your preacher?” we should answer, “We receive our minister in the Lord with all gladness.”
It is downright carnal for church members to play one preacher off against another, preferring the one and rejecting the other. This was one of the sorest evils in the divided Corinthian church, and a cause of the division: “every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12). The only time that the apostle called Christians “carnal” was when he was rebuking the congregation's sin of forming parties around their favorite preacher (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4). I dare say that it is not unknown to at least some of our pastors that certain of the congregation virtually refused their ministry because of the members “puffing up” as the apostle puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:6, for other of our ministers against them. The worst is not that such members deprive themselves of the mysteries of God administered by the rejected pastor. But they threaten division in the congregation and in the denomination. To such an extreme will these “carnal Christians” press their preferences.
Like Paul who suffered this treatment at the hands of the Corinthians (they preferred the eloquent Apollos), the pastor who is handled in this disgraceful manner by some in the church must endure in the strength of the conviction that it is a very small thing to him, how members judge his ministry. What matters to him is that his ministry is judged by the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:3, 4). But the congregation errs in this presumptuous, preferential judgment.
The church must esteem her pastor highly because of his office and because of the great things that are done through his office. By means of the office of preaching, the risen Christ speaks the words of eternal life to believers and their children. As the ground for his own exhortation to the people of Geneva, that they honor their preachers, John Calvin wrote, “the pulpit is God's seat, from which He will govern our souls” (Sermons on Timothy & Titus, Banner of Truth, p. 522).
This man – our preacher – has been called of Christ to this office. Christ the King has sent him here to bless us by his ministry. In himself he is nothing. Neither is any of his co-workers anything in himself. To worship the man for his charisma is as great an evil as rejecting him because he is not somebody else. But he is a laborer from God in God's vineyard. He has his own gifts for the work he must do. He comes to us in Christ's Name. In Christ's Name we receive him.
So must the congregation think about her preacher.
Esteem for the preacher is conditioned by the preacher's being faithful in his ministry: “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). The saints are not required to honor the preacher regardless of his teaching and regardless of his behavior. In this case the office would be divorced from the labor and service that belong to the office. This is the error of the Roman Catholic Church to this day: “Honor the pope as the minister of Christ even though he does not proclaim and defend the gospel of Christ, but rather opposes and persecutes it.” Protestants make the same mistake when they submit themselves to (and support) the ministries of the television preachers who live scandalous lives, or when they unprotestingly maintain their membership in churches that give them stones for bread.
The preacher must be faithful. He must be faithful in teaching the pure Word of God. He must be faithful in exerting himself strenuously on behalf of this teaching especially as regards the public preaching on the Lord's Day. He must be faithful in his own personal behavior, living godly and giving offense to none. Then he must be honored. Otherwise not.
But the withdrawing and withholding of honor must be orderly. It must take place in the prescribed way. And it must be the decision of the church officially, not that of the individual member on his own.
The Word of God safeguards the preacher and his reputation in the congregation. It does this by the rule of 1 Timothy 5:19:
Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.
This protects the ruling elder as well as the elder who labors in the word and doctrine, but my concern here is the protection of the preacher. No one, not even a consistory, may so much as entertain, much less act on, an accusation against a preacher that does not have the support of two or three witnesses. (This must not be supposed to rule out the permissibility of a member's reporting to the consistory some public sin of the pastor in accordance with Article 74 of the Church Order, e.g., public heresy.)
The right way to deal with an unfaithful minister is the way of personal admonition, admonition with witnesses, and lodging the accusation with the consistory before the witnesses. Only when the preacher's unfaithfulness is established by the church officially may the member refuse him the honor due him for his office.
Of course, a consistory may itself make a pastor's unfaithfulness an issue with him. The body of elders have the primary responsibility to see to it that the congregation is well served by a faithful preacher.
The reason for this protection of the minister's reputation in the church is not favoritism, or partiality, for the person of preachers. It is not what an old elder once suggested to me when he said with his tongue only partly in his cheek, “We oppose unions, but you ministers have the tightest union going.” Calvin indicated the reason in his sermon on 1 Timothy 5:19:
And as for the privilege He (the Holy Ghost – DJE) gives, it is not without cause: for we see the ministers are more subject to slanders and false reports than others are. And who brings this but Satan only, who forgeth all this in his shop? For it is indeed the best means he has to bring us out of taste with God's Word, when any fault can be found with the ministers: “Ho, they are such men and such men.” When such bruits (rumors) are sown and are received, then are we turned straightway from the Word of God, and we honor it and reverence it no more as we ought … He meant not to favor their persons, but respected God and His truth, to the end there might arise no contempt, for men to withdraw themselves from the Gospel, under a color and cloak, that the men are evil spoken of, and noted and found fault withal. Sermons on Timothy & Titus, pp. 516, 517
The glorious work of preaching the gospel may not be imperilled among us, as it would be if every member on his own could call into question the preacher's orthodoxy or godliness, and probably also turn others in the congregation against him.
For the churches, this safeguarding of the preacher implies that the denomination be rigorous in demanding spiritual and natural gifts of those who present themselves for the ministry. Once a man is ordained, it is not easy to remove him.
We preachers may not abuse this protection. It will go hard with us in the judgment that awaits all stewards of the mysteries of God if we do take advantage of this protection. We are to use it. We use it by working to the point of exhaustion, and then beyond the point of exhaustion, in preaching the gospel, for the sake of the church.