“…They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony… But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name.” – Luke 21:12-13, 16-17
What I am about to attempt to undertake may be, to many, a fool’s errand. I present myself as a defense attorney in defense of the perceived scum of the earth. In the court of popular opinion, hardly any crime brings such swift and sure judgment than the crime of offending a fellow human being by standing over them in moral judgment. Good people in our society do not offend or hurt other people. In fact, it may well be that the very definition of a “good person” is someone who gets along with everyone and has no enemies.
If that is the case, I rise in defense of a class of people who are, by nature of their calling and their position, to be the very exemplars of what is “good,” but who are accused of being “evil.” I rise in defense of pastors, but not the ones who are characterized by unanimous acceptance and adoration. I rise in defense of those ministers of the Gospel who, by all appearances, have the blood of the offended and hurt on their hands. The “victims” sit across the courtroom from us, alternately weeping for the pain and crying out in anger at those supposedly caring men who inflicted such carnage upon the fragile egos and self-esteem of the very ones who pay their salary.
Of course, I must admit to the liabilities that make this defense a difficult one. The first is that some of the greatest evils this world has known have been perpetuated by men that claim to shepherd the flock of God. In the broad strokes of public opinion, it is difficult for any pastor not to be associated by the corruption of the Roman Catholic Priesthood, and the centuries-long patterns of perverse behavior, most recently exposed in the widespread sex-abuse scandals of the past 20 years. According to www.americancatholic.org/news/clergysexabuse/johnjaycns.asp, (accessed May 10, 2014) “About 4 percent of U.S. priests ministering from 1950 to 2002 were accused of sex abuse with a minor, according to the first comprehensive national study of the issue. The study said that 4,392 clergymen—almost all priests—were accused of abusing 10,667 people.” And more recently, CBS news reported that “over the past decade, [the Vatican] has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 with lesser penalties…” (www.cbsnews.com/news/vatican-reveals-how-many-priests-defrocked-for-sex-abuse-since-2004/ accessed May 10, 2014)
Although I would not generally consider Roman Catholic priests to be fellow laborers for the gospel, the very fact that they would claim to be leads to a perception amongst many people that they are in fact a representative sample.
And let’s face it – it’s not as though the Protestant church is free from black marks. We have, after all, multiple cable networks that paraded around the proven and disgraced swindlers Swaggart and Baker, ultra-hypocrite Ted Haggard, and this sort of “preacher” still begs for money in Jesus’ on these same networks, and no matter how often Dateline exposes their corruption and deceit, they seem to carry on unmoved, and every minute they parade their ridiculous hairstyles and dress in front of the cameras they bring greater reproach to the office of the minister.
Then there are the tyrants who stand behind pulpits and claim their office or training or special gifts give them unchallenged authority. The old-school tyrant was the legalist who determined how long the ladies’ skirts needed to be and how short the men’s hair needed to be, and on the basis of such externals freely passed judgment upon the flock, including some in the upper echelons of “maturity,” and relegating others to the outer regions of “worldliness.” The new-school tyrant believes in the notion of pastor as “vision caster,” which translated means “God told me exactly how to run this church, so you’d better listen to me and obey me or you’re not obeying God.” This sad development has seen a rise in popularity in recent years. The result is a church built, not on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), but upon the purported and unchallengable “vision” of a man. Any pastor who purportedly takes his orders directly and privately from God has set himself in a place of unquestionable and absolute authority, which is a place the Scriptures never allow him to occupy. This too is a great abomination and black mark on the office of a pastor, as that kind of tyranny inevitably leads to abuse of power. The foundation is cracked, it is only a matter of time before the building collapses.
These pastors – abusers, swindlers, and tyrants, are real, and they are widespread. They are stains upon the name of the church of Jesus. They leave a trail of bleeding and bloodied sheep, starved for the gospel and starved for grace. And I mention these abominable characters to say I rise in condemnation of them.
The pastor I stand to defend is the man who loves Jesus supremely, and whose passion for the church of God is rooted in a passion for Christ. I am speaking of the one who fears God, not man. I am speaking of the pastor who is driven by the desire to please God, not men (Acts 5:29). I am speaking of the pastor who is committed to the authority of the Word of God, and who arranges his life, and to the best of his abilities, his church, under the directives of the Bible. I am speaking of a God-centered, gospel-preaching, Bible-saturated lover of righteousness and hater of evil. I am speaking of the pastor who is convinced the power for ministry rests, not in his ingenuity and talents, but in the ministry of the Spirit of God through the means of the Word and prayer. I am speaking of the men who, while imperfect, are men of unimpeachable character, integrity, and devotion to their heavenly Master. I am speaking of the men who serve the flock as pastors, not because they need a job to feed their family, but who serve because the Spirit has so called them that they can’t do anything but be a pastor. Like Paul, they make tents if necessary, but though it cost them their very life, they count it a small price to pay to fulfill their calling. It is these men I wish to defend.
But who would rise up against such God-centered, Spirit-called men of the Word and prayer? Who are those who would call for their removal from pulpits? Who are the plaintiffs? This is the dicey part, and the reason I believe so few have dared rise in defense of these men. The accusers are the “hurt,” the “offended,” the “wounded,” and the “unloved.” They are the “victims” of a pastor’s unceasing devotion to what is right, his unwavering exhortation to set aside the temporal and cling to the eternal, and his sometimes inflamed passion for maturity, commitment, and holiness in the people of God.
Our culture has made a fundamental error of logic, though perhaps it is not unique to our culture. But it is exacerbated by it. The logic states that bad people are bad because they hurt other people, and good people are good because they help other people. And on some levels this is true. Child abusers are bad people who hurt other people. Doctors are good people who help people. But where this simple logic has led is to a place where a person’s “goodness” or “badness” is determined by whether they “help” or “hurt” other people. And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because the best of pastors are supposedly the best of people. They are, by definition, godly, moral, and loving, to such an extent that they set an example to follow. Paul told the young pastor Timothy, “in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”( 1Tim 4:12) In the logic of the day, a pastor who exemplifies what a godly person should be ought to be the most loved and respected person on the block. He would be “helpful” to all, and “hurtful” to none.
But that is not the experience of most of the pastors I am speaking of. Many of them have a trail of offended, hurting Christian people behind them, crying out in their pain. The natural thing for most observers, who use the “good=helpful” and “bad=hurtful” paradigm is to conclude that the bruised and bleeding are victims of the shortcomings of the offending pastor. After all, the bruises and the blood and the pain and the shame are evidence enough.
But this assumption should not be made so hastily. John Piper perhaps says it better than anyone when he writes
We live in an emotionally fragile age. People are easily offended and describe their response to being criticized as being hurt. In fact, we live in a time when emotional offense, or woundedness, often becomes a criteria for deciding if love has been shown. If a person can claim to have been hurt by what you say, it is assumed by many that you did not act in love. In other words, love is not defined by the quality of the act and its motives, but by the subjective response of others. In this way of relating, the wounded one has absolute authority. If he says you hurt him, then you cannot have acted lovingly. You are guilty. Jesus will not allow this way of relating to go unchallenged.
Love is not defined by the response of the loved. A person can be genuinely loved and feel hurt or offended or angered or retaliatory or numb without in any way diminishing the beauty and value of the act of love that hurt him. We know this most clearly from the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love ever performed, because the responses to it covered the range from affection (John 19:27) to fury (Matt. 27:41-42). That people were broken, wounded, angered, enraged, and cynical in response to Jesus’ death did not alter the fact that what he did was a great act of love. (John Piper, What Jesus Demands From the World 217-218)
If Piper is right, it is entirely possible to be loving and be perceived as offensive or even dangerous. Certainly Jesus exemplified this. Jesus never sinned. Yet to say He was greatly loved by all would be a mistake. He didn’t die surrounded by thousands of teary-eyed supporters. Perhaps a handful of women dared show up for his execution and weep for him. Jesus, the single most loving person who ever lived, had angered, offended, demanded too much of so many people, that He was killed by popular demand. Jesus is the definition of “good” (Mark 10:18). But His “goodness” didn’t translate into his being loved by the masses.
I looked up Merriam Webster’s online definition of “offend,” and this is what I found:
: to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done
: to be unpleasant to (someone or something)
: to do wrong : to be against what people believe is acceptable or proper
Further down the page, I read this: “offend need not imply an intentional hurting but it may indicate merely a violation of the victim’s sense of what is proper or fitting.”
This is, I think helpful for us to recognize. In agreement with Piper’s assessment, the very definition of “offend” in our dictionary is first of all subjective. It means “to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done.” That hurt or anger may be entirely based upon the perception of the offended, shown by the statement “offend need not imply an intentional hurting but it may indicate merely a violation of the victim’s sense of what is proper or fitting.”
Because a pastor’s task is by definition a relational one, it is doubly tempting to judge his success or failure based upon his success or failure to create and maintain relationships. If the pastor is well liked, the people will stay in the church. If he is disliked or despised, they will leave. Couple that with the assumption that “doing things right” brings the blessing of God (ie. increased church attendance), and that “doing things wrong” brings the removal of God’s blessing (ie. decreased church attendance), and you have a recipe for disaster. The pastor’s success or failure has become contingent upon his success or failure, not in faithfulness to the word of God and Christlikeness, but in keeping and maintaining good relationships with the people, not ruining them by being offensive.
But really that’s a ridiculous presumption, unless we are willing to define Jesus by the same criteria. And if we did that, we’d be forced to conclude that Jesus was a failure as a spiritual leader. At one point He had thousands and thousands of followers. But they did not continue to be His followers (John 6:66). Is the departure of Jesus’ admirers and their subsequent hatred of Him evidence He was a destroyer of relationships? And how about Judas? If Jesus had just treated him with more compassion and not rebuked him so firmly when he made a fuss about Mary’s perfume offering, might that not have kept their relationship intact?
And what about the Triumphal entry? Let’s not forget that 5 days before Jesus was crucified He was hailed as king, and welcomed with songs, palm branches, and loud cries of “Hosanna!” What happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday? One significant event: Jesus strode into the temple, denounced the commerce in the strongest of terms and probably the loudest of voices, overturned tables and flogged anyone who dared stand in His way. Offensive to some? I would imagine so! Hurtful? To feelings, pride, backs, and business, yes! Did Jesus earn the money-changers undying loyalty and admiration? Hardly! Was that a failure on His part to be loving, kind, and patient? We dare not suppose so! Was the temple-cleansing the model of relationship-building and contextualized ministry? Certainly not by current standards!
Unfortunately, even in our Christian settings, in our haste to condemn offenders and come to the emotional rescue of the wounded victims, we have failed to ponder the question of objective guilt in light of Biblical truth. As Piper points out, “woundedness often becomes a criteria for deciding if love has been shown.” That is a fundamental error. It is admittedly an emotionally powerful argument. But it is in error.
“Love does not offend” is widely accepted as a truism, but is in fact entirely untrue. While love is not by nature offensive, it is not true to say that true love never offends. A child may have his feelings hurt by his mother screaming at him, but if he is in the middle of the street about to be hit by a truck, we do not fault the mother. In fact, we would despise a mother who, in the name of being unhurtful, refused to raise her voice in such a moment.
And herein lies the peril of being a pastor. Pastors are shepherds, leading Jesus’ sheep across a narrow bridge, through a small gate. And the consequences of falling off the bridge or going through the wide gate are eternally horrifying. The issues a pastor confronts in himself and in his people on a weekly, if not daily basis, are issues of sin. And sin kills. Sin entangles, it chokes, and it destroys. And when a good pastor sees the sheep in his care about to be lured down the broad road, or teetering on the narrow bridge, he may well react violently. He may frighten, even offend the sheep with the intensity of his voice and the firmness of his commands. But that is not to say he is to be blamed.
Like Jesus, a pastor may at times be required to made decisions and deal with issues that create offense. He may be forced to go to battle against wolves, but since the wolves are dressed as sheep, the sheep may think he’s fighting against other sheep. Certainly Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with the most religious.
Matthew 15:10-14 says this:
After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Follow the passage: Jesus speaks the difficult truth that defilement comes from inside a person, not imposed from the outside. The Pharisees were offended (and rather than talk to Jesus about it, they simply complained to the disciples. Much could be learned from this observation alone!). Jesus responded with two shocking statements: 1. They aren’t planted by My Father so they’ll be uprooted. 2. They are blind, and will fall into a pit.
What an indictment! Imagine the nerve it would take to talk like that in the next round of denominationally imposed “conflict resolution!” Imagine looking at someone who’s been “hurt” and “offended” and saying, “The reason you’re offended is because you’re an unbeliever.” Wow!
Contemporary Christianity would have a Jesus who ran after the Pharisees, begging forgiveness for “anything that I’ve said that offended you” (incidentally, the worst excuse for an apology as it isn’t rooted in objective sin against God but rather subjectively potentially perceived sin, but I digress…). Incredibly Jesus is content to leave them offended. He senses no guilt on His part; neither is He lacking in humility in any degree. The problem is not the offender, the problem is the “victims!” The Pharisees may cry “hurt!” and “I’m wounded!” all they wish, and they may well feel victimized, but the objective reality Jesus was firmly planted upon was not the Pharisee’s response, but rather the truth of what He spoke.
Piper also says, “If Jesus were to speak to us the way he typically spoke in his own day, we would be continually offended and hurt.” (Piper 218-219) I can only imagine the outcry following Jesus’ statement that the Pharisees were not “planted” by God. But isn’t it sad that instead of asking “is that statement true?” our initial reaction is “how does someone react to that statement?”
Pastors deal in truth. They ought to cry out, as Faithful and Christian walking through Vanity Fair, “We will buy truth!” Truth will offend. But it will also save. And if we cannot deal in truth, we have nothing with which to work. The moment a pastor succumbs to the temptation to sell the truth in order to gain the affections of the unplanted is the moment he loses one of the most Christlike attributes he possesses – that of being a dealer of truth.
Here’s another helpful observation Piper makes: “the spirit of relativism in our day has created an atmosphere in which speaking the truth with conviction and calling others to believe it is not considered humble” (Piper 134). Truth-telling is seen as arrogant. After all, claiming to know something for certain and speaking with authority and on top of it all saying eternal condemnation awaits those who ignore or reject the message comes across as a bit “I’m smarter than you.” And let’s face it, Christianity is often “advanced” under the guise of “a better way” or something more “fulfillling” instead of “this is true and anyone who says differently is wrong.” It seems arrogant to say “This is right and that is wrong.” Someone might disagree. Then what? Isn’t that opinion as valid? What kind of arrogant person values their own truth higher than someone else’s truth? As if there were such a thing as equally valid yet contradictory truths…
To be sure, truth can be a mighty heavy and jagged club in the hands of the wrong person. The gospel itself can be preached out of “envy,” (Phil 1) and if truth can be spoken “in love” (Eph. 4) it can be spoken in hatred. If truth is objectively measured by its truthfulness, and the act of speaking it judged by the motives to speak it, still that leaves the verdict upon something objective, and not the subjective feelings of the hearer.
But if Jesus, who always spoke the truth in love, and never out of envy or strife, still offended and hurt feelings and “drove people away,” it’s fair to say that no pastor with any resemblance to his Master will avoid doing the same at some point. In the space of three and a half years, without sinning a single time, Jesus managed to so enrage an entire religious system that that system talked the civil government into executing him, which they did with no audible public outcry at the injustice of it all.
So I rise in defense of the God-fearing pastor who dares to love truth enough to speak it well, and who loves his people enough to speak it plainly, knowing full well that in the process some will be offended, some will be hurt, and some will parade their pastor-inflicted (really truth-inflicted!) wounds unbandaged and constantly bleeding for all to see. Some pastors will thunder like John the Baptist and wind up with their head on some spiteful person’s platter. Some will plead and weep like Jeremiah and wind up in a pit of muck. It really doesn’t matter where one falls in the spectrum between hard and soft approaches, the result is the same – truth offends, and offended people often bite back – and hard! So to the pastors who are metaphorically bitten, beheaded, or cast into a slimy cistern, you are not the first, and you won’t be the last. You have good company – no, you have the best of company. So stand up, proclaim the truth, and brace yourself…