How Ministerial Worldliness Damages the Flock of God
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.Acts 20:28
All of the titles given in Scripture to ministers are within the parameters of Paul’s exhortation to take heed to all the flock. But our clearest, broadest title is that of shepherd or pastor (Eph. 4:11). Paul mentions that specifically in Acts 20:28, “Feed (literally, ‘be a shepherd to’) the church of God.”
Sheep are unique creatures. They are among the most dependent, most foolish creatures on earth. They are prone to wander. They will leave rich pastures for barren ones, then not be able to find their way back. And they have stubborn wills, even to the point of battling those persons and those measures that would serve their best interests.
Without a shepherd’s guidance, sheep will destroy themselves in one way or another. Without a shepherd, sheep cannot feed themselves, defend themselves against attack, or treat themselves when injured. Without their shepherd, sheep can do nothing.
Shepherding the church of God is an awesome task. Based on Psalm 23, here is what we must cultivate as shepherds:
- We need a shepherd’s heart that beats with unconditional love toward the flock of God.
- We need a shepherd’s hand to guide God’s sheep in paths of righteousness and to steer them away from sin.
- We need a shepherd’s eye to keep our sheep from predators and to detect their backslidings.
- We need a shepherd’s ear to hear their cries of distress.
- We need a shepherd’s knowledge to know their diseases, joys, sorrows, strengths, and weaknesses.
- We need a shepherd’s skill to lead them to pastures that meet their needs and to give them the right medicine for their ailments.
- We need a shepherd’s faithfulness to stay with them in time of need.
- We need a shepherd’s strength to use the rod of God’s Word to beat them back to the right paths, and to use the staff to lift them up in difficulty, ever pointing them to the Good and Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Each of these shepherding qualities can be destroyed by a worldly spirit. How can you bind up the poor, wounded, and broken-hearted if your heart clings to worldly riches? How can you recover straying sheep if you’re straying into the world yourself? How can you know the weaknesses, temptations, strengths, and gifts of the flock if you love the things of this world more than the people of God?
Worldly ministers starve the sheep rather than feed them. Here’s how:
Worldliness promotes professionalism. Worldliness turns the ministry into a career or mere job. Preaching, outreach, counseling, and visiting are no longer done under constraint of the divine call. Tasks are still done, but in a routine, dutiful way, void of a sense of the Spirit’s call.
Professional clerics too often feed on their professionalism. They love what Spurgeon called “ministerialism” more than ministry. They are pulpiteers rather than preachers, actors rather than appliers, self-centered rather than God-centered. They trust their own abilities rather than looking to Christ and His Spirit. In the end, their professionalism will destroy the sheep, for sheep need a personal, caring shepherd.
We must not think of our churches as work stations and our parishioners as cases; rather, we should think of our churches as hospitals where wounded people find loving, tender care. Like Jesus, we must suffer with our sheep. We can avoid the pitfall of professionalism only by loving the Lord of the church, His people, and the work He has called us to do. As Spurgeon said, “We shall never save more till we love more.”
Listen to what Horatius Bonar said about professionalism: “Love is wanting, deep love, love strong as death, love such as made Jeremiah weep in secret places for the pride of Israel. In preaching and visiting, in counseling and reproving, what formality, what coldness, how little tenderness and affection!”
Worldliness promotes petrification. In the ministry, one either lives and grows or decays and petrifies. No matter how seasoned and experienced a pastor is, he must keep growing spiritually and intellectually. Worldliness stunts such growth. It keeps ministers from living on the growing edge.
The apostle Paul aimed to never stop growing. While he was in prison, waiting for the executioner’s axe, Paul asked Timothy to bring his “books and parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13) so he could continue his studies.
One way to avoid petrification is to work at various levels. For example, teach and write below your level in some ministry to children. At the same time, preach, teach, and write at your present level. Then, too, stretch and grow by studying material above your level.
We cannot afford to waste our time or give way to laziness. We should pray much, meditate often, and study hard. We should read the best books and learn how to use them profitably. We should organize every hour of our time, yet remain flexible to respond to the needs of our people. We should remember three D’s: dump the unnecessary paperwork, delegate whatever we can, and deal with every item only one time.
George Whitefield’s diary says he was on his knees weeping over having wasted thirty minutes in a day, although we note in passing that it is not wasting time to refresh our minds and bodies with seasonable rest and wholesome recreation. In the view of the Westminster Divines, the Sixth Commandment requires us to make moderate and “sober use of meat, drink, physick, sleep, labour, and recreations” (Larger Catechism, Questions 135-136).
Worldliness promotes a pleasure-focused ministry. When a minister speaks more about sports than about Christ, spends more time with a newspaper than with the Bible, more time cruising the Internet than in prayer, more time accumulating material possessions than promoting the welfare of the souls of his flock, his pleasure-seeking will undercut his ministry. At the end of the day, the man who focuses more on temporary pleasures than on godly disciplines may well succumb to alcoholism or adultery or some other sin of the flesh. In every case, the sheep are the losers. Can we expect the flock’s level of holiness to rise above that of its earthly shepherd?
We need to shun every form of materialism. Our homes, cars, furniture, possessions, and clothing should not become ends in themselves. It is not right for a minister to “walk in a vain show” (cf. Ps. 39:6). If we preach to our people that they may not set their hearts on earthly things while our lifestyle shows that we ourselves do, our ministry loses credibility.
Our daily conversation should not focus too much on earthly things, either. If we tell people that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh,” and our conversation centers more on earthly possessions and pursuits than on our heavenly inheritance, our ministry loses credibility. Anything we do or say that puts earthly pleasure first and divine service last destroys the effectiveness of our ministry.
Materialism is dangerous because it is the practice of covetousness. Covetousness rules us from within. It is like a flood that bursts the banks of our hearts and spills over into our lives, wreaking destruction. Covetousness forgets that happiness does not consist in things but in thoughts. Don’t let money, possessions, and fleshly desires become more important to you than usefulness to God and His people. Such covetousness will empty and diminish you. It will sour your taste for ministry.
God hates covetousness because it excludes and insults Him and callouses us. Brothers in the ministry, let us crucify covetousness and walk worthy of our calling. Don’t think of ministry in terms of a salary but as a spiritual investment that offers eternal dividends. Like Paul, let us learn to be abased and to abound with contentment.
Covet no man’s gifts. Use the talents God has given you. When Robert Murray M’Cheyne visited Israel, God used William Burns to usher in revival at M’Cheyne’s church. M’Cheyne was as happy with the revival as if he had led the revival himself. He rejoiced in Burns’s gifts. He followed God’s more excellent way rather than the coveting ways of this world. “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Finally, don’t covet women, and especially other men’s wives. Walk circumspectly. Pray daily to be kept from temptation. Lean on the Spirit’s strength. Thank Him for preserving you by removing desire when temptation was present and by removing temptation when desire was present.
Refuse to engage in any form of flirtation. The best way to avoid coveting is to cultivate an excellent marriage with your wife and show your single-hearted devotion to her. Few women will attempt to flirt with you when they see how dedicated you are to your wife.
Think of these words of Isaiah: “Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD” (52:11). And remember this prayer of a pastor:
I would be true, for there are those who trust me; I would be pure, for there are those who care; I would be strong, for there is much to suffer; I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
Remember, too, what Jesus said to His disciples, “Watch and pray, that ye fall not into temptation.” It’s as if Jesus said, “I have trained you. You have witnessed My example. But don’t think that because you have been enrolled in the best seminary on earth that you are beyond temptation. Watch and pray.”
Watchfulness, prayer, and daily Bible-reading are the best antidotes for temptation. Few ministers have fallen who have maintained these spiritual disciplines. Take Abraham Booth’s warning to heart: “Though I have had a greater share of esteem among religious people than I had any reason to expect; yet, after all, it is possible for me, in one single hour of temptation, to blast my character, to ruin my public usefulness, and to render my warmest Christian friends ashamed of owning me. Hold thou me up, O Lord, and I shall be safe!”
Worldliness promotes frivolity. Ministers who lack sober-mindedness and convey no attitude of seriousness about life, the judgment to come, and eternity, create around themselves an atmosphere which quenches the fear of God. They instill in their people an attitude of complacency and indifference, leaving them asleep and unaware of the approach of danger.
There is a place for humor in the ministry, especially in private conversation. A minister is not supposed to be joyless, stuffy, and antisocial. But humor must be kept within bounds, and must never degrade into something suggestive or indecent (Eph. 4:29; cf. Eph. 5:12). Serious, godly conversation must be the heart of every visit we make. And every visit must be salted with prayer. Be like James Hervey who resolved “never to go into any company, where he could not obtain access for his Master.”
Consider what Thomas Boston said: “When you are at any time in company, let something that smells of heaven drop from your lips. Learn that heavenly chemistry of extracting some spiritual thing out of earthly things. O what a shame it is for you to sit down in company, and rise again, and part with them, and never a word of Christ to be heard.”
If our conversation is not ruled by warm, caring sobriety, the spirit of worldly conversation will inevitably prevail. And worldly conversation is dominated, as Charles Bridge says, “by the fear of man, fleshly indulgence, and practical unbelief.” There is no profit in multiplying words without knowledge (Job 35:16). We cannot edify those entrusted to our care if we merely engage them in worldly conversation. We will dishonor the Spirit by failing to speak of His work in the soul, and ought not be surprised when, in due course, any demand for godly conversation and godly living will be derided as legalism.
Worldliness promotes indifference. Like some doctors who see patients as numbers, some ministers treat people as objects to be manipulated rather than souls to be saved. Such ministers are wanting in prayer, lazy in sermon preparation, ineffective in preaching, and negligent in pastoral visitation.
Recently, a pastor called on a person in the hospital in response to the request of a relative. After visiting with her, he read Scripture with her, commented briefly on it, and closed with prayer. When he said goodbye, the woman wept and said, “My pastor came, too, but he talked more about himself and the weather than about my condition. He didn’t read Scripture, didn’t talk about the Lord, and his prayer was short and shallow. Do you think he cares about my soul?”
Brothers, if we’re not going to pastor our people with both our minds and hearts, we should leave the ministry. An indifferent pastor is a hireling, not a shepherd. Horatius Bonar well described such men: “Associating too much and too intimately with the world, we have in a great measure become accustomed to its ways. Hence our tastes have been vitiated, our consciences blunted, and that sensitive tenderness of feeling which, while it turns not back from suffering yet shrinks from the remotest contact with sin, has worn off and given place to an amount of callousness of which we once, in fresher days, believed ourselves incapable.”
“God saves all kinds of people, even ministers,” wrote John Kershaw, a 19th-century Baptist pastor. Though the ministry tends to isolate a pastor from the attractions of the world, one of the greatest dangers of ministry is that it allows a pastor to handle the sacred so frequently that it becomes banal to him. It is true that we can handle the Word of God as if it were no more than the words of men. We can take what is holy for granted as we live unholy lives. We can urge others to holiness, but, like the Pharisees, not move an inch in that direction ourselves. Eventually, we operate our ministries more out of indifference and unbelief than faith.
Take heed, brothers, for indifference is the fruit of worldliness. It makes us cold in our preaching, slothful in our visiting, irreverent in handling eternal realities, and remiss in all our sacred duties.
Don’t be overcome by a worldly, unbelieving spirit. Remember that everything that you say gets filtered through the grid of our people’s minds. If the cumulative record of everything they know about you indicates more worldliness than godliness, our sheep will feel starved even while they feed on all our messages.
We cannot love both God and the world. We cannot serve two masters. How can we as ministers maintain our spiritual integrity, our love for God, our pastoral hearts, and our godly walk if we secretly flirt with the world? How can we live like a pilgrim and a sojourner when we long more for earth than heaven?
Take heed to the flock. Feed the church with the Word; do not starve them with worldliness. Heed the warning of Thomas Scott, “The minister who would not have his people give in to worldly conformity such as he disapproves, must keep at a considerable distance himself. If he walks near the brink, others will fall down the precipice.”