Suspicion, as you may know, is highly contagious.
Its prevalence in our times has been caught more than taught. Sinful humans don’t need textbooks and grad courses to undermine trust and spiral into suspicion. We know the corruption at work in our own hearts, however much we try to suppress it, and we’re easily won over to suspecting the worst in others.
With just a few comments here and there, we’re quick to absorb the mood of suspicion. A suggestive question is raised. We catch the suspicious drift. Imitation is easy. Suspicion spreads quickly, especially against those perceived to be in positions of authority and privilege. That is, especially against those perceived to be “leaders” of whatever sort.
Pastors today are not the first spiritual leaders to encounter moods of suspicion. This is an old, old tale, with roots in Eden and branches in the Old and New Testaments. For one, the apostle Paul encountered acute suspicion in the church in his storied relationship with Corinth.
At one juncture, he realized his planned visit at that moment would likely result in more pain, not healing. A kind of cooling-off period would be wise, he thought, so he chose to write first, and visit later. For some in Corinth, already suspicious of Paul, this became a fresh occasion to voice criticisms, perhaps with the characteristic suggestive questions. Is he shooting us straight, or hiding his real plans from us? Is he vacillating not only in his travel but in his heart? Or is he simply making plans in his own flesh, saying “Yes” and “No” to us at the same time?
Into this chorus of suspicions (2 Corinthians 1:17), Paul writes 2 Corinthians to defend his “abundant love” for them (2 Corinthians 2:4), however critical some have become of him.
Joy in Their Joy
In this letter in particular, Paul seeks to communicate his love for them through an emphasis on joy — both his joy and theirs — that is, his joy in their joy. The reason Paul delayed his visit to Corinth, and wrote instead, he says, was “to spare you” (2 Corinthians 1:23). Lest that be misunderstood, he explains in verse 24:
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
Here we find, in one brief but penetrating statement, an enduring vision for Christian pastors and leaders. We work (that is, expend effort, not enjoy ease) and do so together (as a team, not solo) aiming at the everlasting (not short-term) joy in Christ of those to whom we minister. But also — and this can be easy to overlook — we work with them. What, then, might be some of the implications today for pastors owning such a “with them” mentality in our calling? If we are coworkers not only with a team of pastors but also with the church for its joy, how will that shape the tenor, aims, and pressure points of our calling? Consider three effects, among others.
1. We remember our people want to be happy.
Spiritual leaders do well to regularly recall that our people want to be happy. They want to rejoice — first as humans (“All men seek happiness,” writes Blaise Pascal), and now in Christ in increasing holiness by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
The way Paul seeks to communicate his “abundant love” to a suspicious church in 2 Corinthians is striking. Some of us call this Christian Hedonistic. The pursuit of joy drives Paul in ministry. For one, he speaks explicitly of his own pursuit of joy. He himself wants to be glad (2 Corinthians 2:2) and to rejoice (verse 3) — explicitly, consciously, even shamelessly so. The reason this is abundant love, rather than selfishness, is because Paul pursues his joy in their joy. Here we find the assumption that the Corinthians, like him, want to be happy. They long to have real joy, deep and enduring — the real joy found only in God himself, through Christ.
So we pastors also find piercing clarity into the heart of Christian ministry in acknowledging that our people want to be happy — and that in God. Our people are seeking their joy. They want to be satisfied, and they know, at least in theory, that the only true and lasting source of soul satisfaction is Jesus Christ. Yet life in the present age is fraught. We pastors ourselves struggle to find and keep real joy in Christ. And we work to help our people in their struggle to find and keep real joy.
2. We dignify our people as partners, not just recipients.
Pastors are teachers (Hebrews 13:7; Ephesians 4:11), and so we do think of our churches as recipients of our efforts to faithfully teach God’s word. However, our teaching is not the real “work of ministry.” Instead, our teaching equips the saints for the work. “[Christ] gave . . . the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). A “with them” ministry acknowledges that our people have an essential part to play in their own joy. It’s good for them to have “skin in the game.” It’s fitting to have expectations of them, and require effort from them — that we not take up the mentality of “doing it all” for them.
“Good pastors are more like husbands than fathers.”
Good pastors don’t assume their people, professing Christians in good standing, are lazy or idiots or secretly unbelievers. We don’t assume the worst of our people. Nor do we “lord it over” them, as Jesus so clearly warned (Mark 10:42), and as both Paul and Peter (1 Peter 5:3) disavowed. In this way, good pastors are more like husbands than fathers. As Jonathan Leeman observes, parents have the rod (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13), the state has the sword (Romans 13:3–4), the church has the keys (for excommunication, Matthew 16:19; 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:4–5), but pastors, on their own, have no enforcement mechanism. What we do have is our words. So, we seek to persuade our people. We seek to win them to truth and biblical wisdom.
Added to this is the reality that Christians are “God-taught” by the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” It is vital that we remember that, in the church, the Holy Spirit has gone to work on and in our people. In fulfilling the new-covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31, he teaches them. And we, as teachers, are God’s gift, human instruments, of the Spirit for his teaching.
In our work, we are means of the Spirit doing his work. And his work is decisive. What a difference it makes when we recognize and rehearse that our work is God-appointed and yet it doesn’t all hinge on us.
3. We embrace labor that is harder, not easier.
Finally, convincing our people, rather than coercing them, takes more work and effort, not less. Forcing people is quick work. Winning them from the heart takes sweat, and patience. So we work with words. Acknowledging “their part” (as the church), we do “our part” (as pastors) to be understandable and accessible. We’re not afraid of abstract truths, and we work to make them concrete. A “with them” vision of pastoral ministry owns that we work indeed — that it is typically more work, more energy-intensive and patience-trying, to work with others, not just do it all for them.
“Christian leaders don’t want mere external conformity; they want glad consent.”
Other than Christ himself, if any human could just speak and require obedience in the church, it would be Paul as an apostle. Yet, what an appeal he makes for their joy. And he does the same in Philemon: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 8–9). Christian leaders don’t want mere external conformity; they want glad consent. “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (Philemon 14). We want our people to give from the heart, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). We aim at willingness, not compliance. We want eager hearts, not begrudging hands.
And so we work to win them — to secure willing spirits, not just actions. And so we teach, we reason, we seek to persuade. Domineering and dictating can be quick and easy. Working to win the heart is hard work. But this is our calling, however suspicious our times.
Glad Work of God
God means for his willing servants to labor for the willingness of our people. And all this flowing from the willing God himself. The foundational gladness, the deepest willingness, the bottom of our joy is God’s own willingness.
Our pursuit of joy in him, through finding joy in our people’s, rests on the bedrock of God’s own pursuit of joy. Our God is not reluctant. He does not act by compulsion, whether in creating the world or saving his people. Rather, he is the happy, glad, rejoicing, willing and eager God who makes much of himself by putting the joy of willingness in his leaders and, through them, his people.