Speaking the truth in love: the key to pastoral ministry
By Thomas R. Schreiner, preaching pastor of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and associate dean of Scripture and interpretation and James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.
A loving pastor should not want to blow up his church, but, for even the most faithful minister, there are no guarantees. Sometimes churches blow up and you didn't see it coming, and the devastation was inevitable. Sometimes churches ignite because the congregation, or some influential leaders in the congregation, are deeply unspiritual. Pastors should not draw the conclusion that they are always at fault when a congregation implodes. Jeremiah should not be blamed for Judah going into exile. Judah would have been spared from exile if the people had listened to Jeremiah. Sometimes that's true of churches too. They suffer devastation because they do not listen to the pastor.
But that's the exception. Too often pastors, particularly young pastors, contribute to -- or even play the primary role -- in a church blow up. What can be done to avoid such a scenario? The key is found in Ephesians 4:15: "speaking the truth in love."
Let's think about love. Faith without love is worthless, and Paul teaches us that the goal of all our teaching is love (1 Tim 1:5). Pastors are clearly called upon to teach the truth to their congregation, but our world is filled with people who want to tell us what they think. We have all had professors who were brilliant and delighted to teach us what they believed, but who were arrogant and loveless. As pastors we are called upon to love our flock and understand them.
Love recognizes that people are not changed in a day. Love takes people where they are and moves them slowly toward a deeper appreciation of truth. Love does not relish controversy, but longs to shepherd the flock so that it becomes more like Christ. Love never compromises the truth, but it does not burst onto the scene by teaching controversial doctrines. Love communicates that you want to be a pastor and a shepherd and healer and not just a teacher. Love never compels or constrains others to share your beliefs; it patiently teaches, remembering that truth dawned upon our hearts slowly and that our knowledge is still imperfect. Love does not tolerate error, but it stoops low to understand the person who is mistaken, for the one who understands why one believes a falsehood will be able to explain more deeply and sympathetically why such a view is wrong.
I heard a story recently about Adolf Schlatter and Friedrich Nietzsche that illustrates this truth. Schlatter heard the famous atheistic philosopher, Nietzsche, lecture. What struck Schlatter was Nietzsche's lack of love for his students. Schlatter rightly observed that no one truly teaches others if he does not love them. May God grant those of us as pastors to love our flocks!
Love, of course, always proclaims the truth; it speaks the truth in love. The Gospel should be at the heart of any pastoral ministry. Pastors who love to see unbelievers saved and to see their congregation become more like Christ are what our churches need. The congregation should be instructed in God's ways and God's will. Here is one of the great advantages of expositional preaching. If the pastor faithfully and clearly teaches through books of the Bible, he communicates to the church that he has no special agenda. His goal is not to shape the congregation in his image or to propound his own ideas. He shows week after week that his aim is to teach and obey what God's Word says.
Don't emphasize "ism's" (particular theological distinctives) in your ministry. Teach the church that you want the church to be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered and biblically-based. If people ask, "What do you want the church to be?," you should say, "I want it to be a biblical church where the Gospel is taught and Christ is central."
It is wise, then, when you start your ministry to preach on the Gospel of Mark to underscore that Jesus Christ will be the heart and soul of your ministry. Colossians is another good book with which to begin, for it teaches so clearly that Christ is sufficient to meet our every need.
I am not advising pastors to avoid controversial issues, but build a foundation first. Often this takes years. I know a pastor who preached a sermon on a controversial topic six months after he became the pastor. He thought he had waited a long time! He did not realize that some people in the congregation probably still did not know his name.
Time should be measured in years not months. No formula can be written on how to pastor a church. Each situation is unique, but as pastors we are always called upon to speak the truth in love. May God grant us the wisdom to do so.