Dear Pastor . . . Let’s Cultivate Honesty in Our Churches—Starting with Us

Dear Pastor . . . Let’s Cultivate Honesty in Our Churches—Starting with Us

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Dear Pastor,

It happened again, but this time it was someone I knew. He’d been spiritually, physically, and it seems even sexually abusing church members for years. Much of it involved manipulation and humiliation. He enjoyed controlling people. He’d been an elder statesman in our circles for decades. He was a brilliant preacher, a strong leader, and utterly charming.

So to say the revelations were shocking was an understatement. Our whole ministry ecosystem as a network of churches was upended—and still is, in many ways. A few years on and we’re still reeling. At the very heart of our church movement was some deeply wicked behavior. We had to wrestle with what that meant. Were there signs we’d missed? How much of his toxicity might have rubbed off on the rest of us without us even knowing? What traits in him had we mistaken for virtues of leadership?

I suspect it will be more years before we all arrive at a reliable consensus on these questions. But one observation stands out to me: he was never wrong. His arguments always won the day, his theological conclusions were often received as unquestionable, his authority unassailable. No one wanted to go up against him. More worryingly, no one seemed to feel much need to. He was always right, after all.

Which should have been the giveaway. For so many of us, being a leader is equated with being the person who’s correct, who’s figured it all out, who knows what to do. Even leaders themselves can believe that.

But we don’t have to go far in Scripture to see that can’t be right. The Pastoral Epistles—Paul’s letters to junior church leaders Timothy and Titus—paint a very different picture of leadership, one that challenges us pastors to drop the pretense and to stop posing.

Because your life isn’t all together.

One of the first New Testament texts I learned was 1 Timothy 1:15—”The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” It is one of those verses that manages to compress the whole gospel into one pithy sentence. In the earlier days of my Christian life, I’d mutter it to myself throughout the day. In my later days I’d preach it (it works great for Christmas). But I didn’t pay as much attention to the last bit of the verse: “of whom I am the foremost” (or, in the NIV in which I learned it all those years ago, “of whom I am the worst”).

Perhaps more significant than the reality we see here about sin being an ongoing presence in the life of a believer is who it is that is saying it. No less than an apostle. He could not talk about his sinfulness in the past tense only. It was part of his present-day Christian life. Moreover, he seems to suggest his sin might be a bigger deal than other people’s (hence the “foremost” and “worst” language).

So as pastors, we must reckon with this. I doubt many (any?) of us are tempted to believe we’re not still sinners. But I wonder if it’s nevertheless something we try to avoid mentioning to our congregations. While we know that the pulpit is not a confessional and that airing all our sins is not going to be appropriate or of spiritual help to our churches, it still needs to be acknowledged that we are people who sin. Paul was open about it. It didn’t undermine his spiritual authority. It actually gave it some credibility. He himself could express his own need for the saving work of Jesus in his life. He wasn’t embarrassed to admit to that. He hadn’t graduated out of needing forgiveness for sin. Nor have we.

We don’t have our Christian lives fully together. We might not be able to help our people much if we did. In Christian ministry, we necessarily stretch the pastoral metaphor because we shepherds are, inevitably and undeniably, still sheep. We’re part of the flock, leading it from within as fellow members, looking to the Chief Shepherd ourselves, and straining to follow his voice. Let’s never give the impression otherwise.

Sin has tainted each part of life, and Christ has come to redeem and mend each part of life.

Because you still need to make progress.

There will be no area of life where this doesn’t need to be so. Sin has tainted each part of life, and Christ has come to redeem and mend each part of life. And in none of them have we yet arrived. We are still very much works in progress.

As we’ve seen, we’re still sinners. We need ongoing help from above to turn from our sins and to live in obedience to Jesus. But our progress involves more than our growth in godliness (vital though that is). It involves our growth in understanding. We’re still learning. A disciple is a pupil. We have been set on a life-long process of understanding more and more about Jesus. However much we have been blessed with theological insight, we’ve always got so much further to go.

So let’s deeply reflect on Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). What might be surprising about this is what Paul has said just a couple of verses earlier: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Timothy is to set an example in all the dimensions Paul mentions. But this is not a static example. It is not the example of someone who’s fully figured all these things out. It is, we see from 1 Timothy 4:12, the example of someone who is continuing to progress. We are to be exemplary and yet still growing; an example, but not a finished example.

Holding these together—setting an example, visibly progressing—is going to be vital. Think of the second without the first and we run the risk of lowering the standard of what is required for those in pastoral ministry. There is a standard of godliness we need to exemplify (see 1 Tim. 3:1–7). But if we hold to the first and forget the second, we run the risk of giving people the impression we’ve done the better part of all the growing we need to do. People need to see that we’re continuing to learn, to make new discoveries, to experience new breakthroughs with the Lord, to seek and need new seasons of renewal in our hearts. So let’s not be afraid to show how the Lord is continuing to graciously help us take forward steps in the Christian life, with many more needed.

Because you are not strong.

Second Corinthians is can seem brilliantly perplexing. At the very point Paul’s authority is being most contested, and most needing to be re-established, we find him at his most vulnerable about his weaknesses. There are all the circumstantial ones: the floggings, the shipwrecks, the imprisonments, and all manner of dangers (2 Cor. 11:22–27). He didn’t want anyone to think his ministry was a story of never-ending success. This was not impressive stuff. But more than these external trials was what Paul was also dealing with in himself: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor. 11:28–29).

This would have been incredibly disarming to his original readers, hyped up as they were by worldly prowess. Paul speaks of his own deeply-felt anxiety, and his own deeply-apparent weakness. He is not projecting strength, but dependence. He continues for several more verses and then reaches the eventual punchline: “But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul is not content with hiding his weaknesses, nor even of merely acknowledging them. He boasts in them. Not because in and of themselves they are necessarily good things, but because they have occasioned the best thing of all, greater dependence on God and proving his all-sufficiency. Paul wants everyone to know just how much he needs Jesus so that everyone can see just how much Jesus can meet our every need.

So let’s not hide our need for Jesus. Let’s be unembarrassed for the world to know that our whole life is marked by this reality. As a friend often puts it, our choice in all things is “God or total collapse.”

Your brother,

Sam Allberry

Sam Allberry is a coauthor together with Ray Ortlund of You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches.

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