Last week, I wrote of several ways in which Paul evidenced his love for the very difficult congregation of Corinth. Now, I will add one more item to that list and suggest one very practical application of pastoral love.
In Paul’s great excursus on Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians 2-7, he employs several metaphors that point up the relative insignificance and interchangeability of ministers, while highlighting the matchless worth of the message that we bear. Chief among these is the image of the clay pots. A friend suggested that the proper contextualized update of this metaphor is a cardboard box: somewhat durable, ubiquitous, but ultimately disposable and valuable only for its utility. This is a proper understanding of the minister: no healthy ministry depends on any one person.
But Paul’s metaphors continue: he is like a tent that must eventually be folded up, and ultimately he is, as this life is concerned, already as good as dead. I would contend that, theologically, Paul is making the point that as far as life goes in this creation, he is already dead, having been crucified with Christ. His life properly belongs to the new creation, in which Christ is the second and last Adam. This being the case, his life now, already given up, is disposable for the sake of Christ and his church.
That is my understanding, given the context of 1 Corinthians 5:11-15. Machen’s dictum always informs my preaching: the difference between Christianity and liberalism is that, for the latter, Christ is the example of faith, while in the former, he is the object of faith. But while it is the case that Christ’s death is utterly unique, there are passages in which his death does serve as a model for our living. Jesus himself says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:24-26). In context, the first sentence clearly refers to Jesus’s own suffering to redeem our lives; the second sentence makes it clear that Jesus’s suffering ought to be a pattern for our own.
I believe that this is part of Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 5. While the passage climaxes in a proclamation of the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice (his becoming sin for us), the passage also seems to function as a transition statement in his argument. He begins the paragraph by talking about his own motivations for ministry: his fear of the Lord, his desire that the Corinthians would understand his motives, and Christ’s self-giving love. It seems to me, then, that when Paul says that Christ “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” he is making application from Christ’s death to our own selfless ministry.
If I am dead to this world, I am freed to love others in the kind of selfless way that Jesus does. This is yet another place where the indicative of our theology must undergird the imperative of our ministry conduct.
How is this selfless love demonstrated? The greatest obstacle to showing my church that I love them is that, broadly speaking, expectations for pastoral love have been shaped mostly by sources other than Scripture. The term love, in contemporary parlance, simply means unconditional affirmation. Such sentimentalism means that the pastor has failed whenever his words or actions damage feelings. Furthermore, a variety of factors (including theological liberalism, prosperity/soft-prosperity versions of the gospel, and expansions of the gospel to include curing all manner of social ills) have conspired to diminish appreciation for the tasks that are indisputably central to the pastoral office: prayer and the ministry of the Word.
At the other extreme, there is a tradition within fundamental circles of pastoral brutality, such that the pastor’s role is to heap a weekly load of guilt upon the sheep, compel them to the altar, and inspire such fear that their lives will never again be the same—until the following Sunday. In this model of ministry, the degree to which the congregation grovels under and heaps lavish praise upon the “man of God” is the measure of ministry health. Such “shepherds” would have found much in common with the huperapostoloi of Corinth.
Both of these impulses must be fought, for neither are healthy models of selfless pastoral love. So let me offer one additional admonition to pastoral love, one that Paul, simply by virtue of his apostolic office, could not exemplify.
In part due to the influence of the regular author of these essays, I have become convinced of the value of a full-orbed conservatism. Among the most significant conservative ideas, for me, is that a conservative is a person who has a people and place. That is to say, conservatism depends on loyalty not only to a certain set of ideals, but also to the people for whom and among whom we want to see these ideals conserved. We are not conservatives primarily because we oppose change. Rather, we are conservatives because we aim to conserve something. Conservative is more verb than noun. In our case, as conservative Christians, we believe that apostolic Christianity is a trust that has been placed in our care, to be handed down from generation to generation. So any conservatism worth anything must have both 1) a content which it aims to conserve and 2) a people for whom it aims to conserve that content.
Therefore, there are no genuinely conservative hermits. Further, there are no genuinely conservative guns-for-hire. The former conserves something for nobody. The latter attempts to conserve something for nobody in particular.
And therefore, I believe that the importance of having a people and having a place should incline us to long pastorates. And I believe that this is an important way of communicating pastoral love.
Our church was founded in the early 1950s, making it just over sixty years old. I am the thirteenth pastor of this assembly. The first pastor served for roughly fifteen years. One other pastor served for eight years. No one else has been at the church for more than five years consecutively. And I have been told that there are wagers in our town about how long I will last. My hope is to outlast the lifespan of most of the bettors.
Why? Because I believe that it is a loving thing to be absorbed into the life of a particular church at a particular time. And it communicates love for them in a way that few other things can. While the people of Calvary Baptist Church are not an end in themselves (else they would be a god), they are not, in the standard usage, a means to some other ministry end. They are not a tool in ambition’s box.
I do try to avoid grandiose presumption. I do not make promises that I will never leave. Such commitments are beyond what I can make in good conscience, for Providence sometimes directs us in obvious ways that we never expected. But I do honestly tell our folks, again and again, that I have no intentions of leaving Wakefield. I tell them that if in forty years I am buried in Wakefield, I will count that as a successful ministry.
To see apostolic Christianity embraced in this generation of our church, and then in the generations that arise at our church: this is both conservative and loving.
This essay is by Michael P. Riley, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Wakefield, Michigan. Since 2011, he has served Central Seminary as managing editor of In the Nick of Time. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Father of Mercies, Bow Thine Ear
Benjamin Beddome (1717–1795)
Father of mercies, bow Thine ear,
Attentive to our earnest prayer:
We plead for those who plead for Thee;
Successful pleaders may they be!
How great their work, how vast their charge!
Do Thou their anxious souls enlarge:
Their best acquirements are our gain;
We share the blessings they obtain.
Clothe, then with energy divine
Their words, and let their words be Thine;
To them Thy sacred truth reveal,
Suppress their fear, inflame their zeal.
Teach them to sow the precious seed;
Teach them Thy chosen flock to feed;
Teach them immortal souls to gain,
Souls that will well reward their pain.
Let thronging multitudes around
Hear from their lips the joyful sound;
In humble strains Thy grace implore,
And feel Thy new-creating power.
Let sinners break their massy chains,
Distressèd souls forget their pains;
Let light through distant realms be spread,
And Sion rear her drooping head.