These days pastoral ministry has become more glamorous, fabulous, fashionable than ever. We hear nowadays of pastors driving expensive cars or being chauffeured, owning private jets, and living in opulent mansions. Once only the “prosperity preachers” and bona fide hucksters touted such lives; now your neighborhood “orthodox” super-pastor does the same. It’s all so pretty, perfumed with the world’s “best” of everything.
But, brothers, we are not professional models or entertainers hawking the world’s airbrushed version of “the good life” from the lofty heights and flashing lights of public adulation. Brothers, we are shepherds down in the fields of life — and we should stink.
Our model of ministry comes from the faithful shepherds and fellow elders of the holy Scriptures. Men like the apostle Paul who defended his ministry, in part, by appealing to his life with the sheep. He writes in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “You know how we lived among you for your sake.”
I’m challenged by the apostle’s confidence here. Here’s a man that could describe himself as formerly a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man (1 Timothy 1:15). He was no perfectionist. He felt himself to be trapped in a wretched body of sin that warred with the Spirit (Romans 7). Yet, I find it remarkable that without flinching, and without caveat, he can call upon the Thessalonians’ own memories of him to testify to the blamelessness of his life.
Many of us won’t hesitate to swear by our own lives but would tremble in fear if our people were asked, “How does he live among you?” We can talk of ourselves in ways that excuse our failings, justify our sins, and shift the blame we deserve. But some of us would panic if the reputation of the gospel came down to the testimony of our people about our lives.
We all know the message we preach is better than the messengers who preach it, but that doesn’t mean the messenger should settle beneath the message. There must be a striving to be what we are in Christ, so that the message is adorned and defended by the messenger’s life. If we find this is not the case, we should either repent or leave the ministry.
Notice carefully Paul’s words: “…how we lived among you….” It’s not just “how we lived,” which could be reported from afar, airbrushed and beautified for the pages of Jerusalem Home Journal. Paul says — with confidence — you know how we lived “among you.” He’s no absentee apostle or church planter. He doesn’t “phone it in.”
The apostle understands that shepherds should smell like sheep. The sheep’s wool should be lint on our clothes. Our boots should be caked with their mud and their mess. Our skin ought to bear teeth marks and the weather-beaten look of exposure to wind, sun, and rain in the fields. We belong among the people to such an extent that they can be called on to honestly testify that our lives as messengers commend the message. We should be so frequently among them that we smell like them, that we smell like their real lives, sometimes fragrant but more often sweaty, musty, offensive, begrimed from battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Our people should be able to testify that we “lived among them for their sake.” Our living with them is to benefit them. We should be welcomed among the people because our presence means spiritual gladness and profit (Hebrews 13:17). The goal of all our living is the blessing of all our people. That’s why we come and dwell among them.
The more gifted we think ourselves to be, the more closely we should live among them. There’s an insidious idea abroad that suggests that the more gifted the pastor, the less time he has to be with the sheep. It implies that being with the people is a hindrance better left to less gifted men.
The power of the gospel does not depend upon the giftedness of the messenger. Everyone God has saved in the cause of our preaching has been saved despite the messenger — not because of him. Even Paul — arguably the most gifted Christian ever — would rather boast in his weakness. Here you have a messenger keenly aware of his brokenness living out both his brokenness and his giftedness among the sheep for their benefit.
Let me admit that there are limitations we pastors face. Some of it may be due to the size of our churches. Some may be due to the vastness of the region over which our people are scattered. Most of us don’t live in Baxter’s Kidderminster. Some of our limitation may be based on good priorities — like spending more time training leaders than attending certain social functions. I want to allow every good caveat and qualification necessary. But if our hearts say either we’re too gifted or too big to be with our people, we should stop pretending we’re motivated by their benefit. We should stop pretending we’re not pimping them or feeding on them. If we honestly feel we’re too gifted to be with them, we’re not shepherds. We’re wolves.
Do you know how to tell the difference between sheep and wolves in sheep’s clothing? Sheep eat grass; wolves eat sheep — it doesn't matter how prettily they are dressed.
Paul was among the Thessalonians for their profit. It was so obvious that he could confidently call them to testify to it. That’s the kind of messenger in whose hands the message ought to be trusted. A powerful message in the hands of a humble messenger among the people is how God normally works. Brothers, we should smell like sheep. Do we have a plan for regularly getting smelly with the sheep?
"Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry" is the theme of the Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors (February 4–6 in Minneapolis).
The forthcoming revised and expanded edition of John Piper's book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is now available for pre-order.
Other posts in this series:
- Brothers, Praise Somebody Other Than God, Sam Crabtree
- Brothers, Live a Visible, Exemplary, Everyday Life, Jeff Vanderstelt
- Brothers, Supernatural Does Not Mean Stupid, John Piper
- Brothers, the Ministry Is Supernatural, John Piper
- Brothers, Build a Gospel Culture, Ray Ortlund
- Brothers, We Are Not Sisters, Doug Wilson
- Brothers, Train Up the Next Generation, by Mike Bullmore
- Brothers, We Are Not Superstars, by Daniel L. Akin
- Brothers, We Are Not Professors, by R. C. Sproul, Jr.