Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pastorate, Politics, and Pragmatism

We live in a highly political and pragmatic culture. The heightened awareness that exists around image, self, success, and the political sophistication necessary for self-preservation is painfully obvious even to the obtuse spectator. I have been in the Christian community for 32 years now. I was converted to Christianity, having been regenerated by God’s work, in 1979 at the Crawley Creek Church of God in the coalfields of southwestern WV. Well, that is at least where conversion became visible. I have a little experience under my belt in the Christian community now. I spent some time in the Church of God, an independent Baptist, and more recently, the PCA. The one constant that I have to say exists in every church I have ever been in is the political atmosphere. I do not blame certain failures in the Christian community on politics or pragmatism. Rather, I see these elements as symptoms of far greater problems in the community of faith.


Politics comes from the Greek word politikoV. It means “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” The word politics has come to be used as mostly a pejorative term as of late. It has evolved in use and is now employed to describe situations in which favoritism rather than objective reason justly applied appears as the controlling factor in decisions and policies. Understanding the meaning of the term politics immediately causes one to wonder how we could ever avoid it. There is an old saying that perception is reality. The perception by most people in western culture is that politics is ruining our society. The truth is that the founding fathers unavoidably did politics to found our nation, and it will be what guides it into the future, good or bad. The issue we have with politics is not de facto politics. As is true with every other human practice, ethical neutrality does not exist in politics. If political actions are necessary, then the Christian must search for, discover, and employ Christian ethics in their practice of politics. Again, politics is the art of managing the collective concerns of a society in general. There is an ethical manner in which to carry out that management, and of course, there are numerous unethical ways to carry it out. When people in positions of power do politics for the sole purpose of remaining in power or for direct or indirect personal benefit, we classify such politics as unethical. From a secular standpoint, politics is managing the affairs of social concern for the greater good of the society in question. That which benefits society as a whole may in fact be detrimental to certain people already holding power. At a minimum, societal benefit may be derived from policies that actually limit the power-holder’s own endeavors. In essence, the one thing that stands to get in the way of politics more than any other single factor is “self.” We do not have a problem with politics. We don’t even have a problem with politicians per se. We have a problem with unethical men in positions of considerable political influence. Because ethics controls how one does politics, it is critical that we have ethical people doing politics. Because politics seeks to good of the overall society and because western society is highly individualistic, the challenge to engage in ethical politics is great. Ethical politics requires self-sacrificing service. The more individualistic our society becomes the more challenging ethical politics will be. This cultural phenomenon has the tendency to leak through the very porous walls of the Christian community.

What is true in secular society is ever more so in the Christian community. We do politics in the church. By definition of what the church is, of the role of Scripture, and the general meaning of the term, politics is unavoidable. The ethical standards for politics in the church is far greater than what we could ever expect to experience in secular society. While the primary concern of secular politics is the collection of society as a whole that is not the case in the church. Secular politics may require a decision that benefits 80%, 90%, or even 95% of society as a whole while having a negative impact on a small minority. Not so in the Christian community. The church is not left to draft policy and decide what will benefit the community as a whole. Pastors, elders, and deacons do not share the same kind of power or influence that secular leaders do. The policies and direction of the church have already been decided. God has made the call. What He says will benefit the body of Christ benefits the entire body. Yet, we see unethical politics in the church, don’t we. We see high contributors getting the ear of the pastor and the elders more than the small contributors. We see pastors deciding not to discipline people for egregious sin because of their connections with key contributors and influencers in the church. We see elder boards engineered in a way that favors the current administration and makes sure that the key initiates of the pastor are protected and preserved because he has men in his pocket. We see pastors make false accusations against those who represent a threat, destroying their credibility so that his power is preserved. We see high contributors get the color of carpet they prefer. We see Sunday school curriculum used because the author or source is a favorite of a particular contributor. We see denominations make decisions based on the popularity of a particular pastor because he is a highly published author or a highly visible personality. There are cases where homosexual members are allowed because they are the son or daughter of prominent members of key contributors. We see all these behaviors because, first of all, we are sinners. But this is no excuse to ignore the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is not our church.

The church does not belong to us. It does not belong to you. It does not belong to the highest contributor. It does not belong to the pastor. It does not belong to the elders. It belongs to Jesus Christ who purchased it with His own blood.

The Jerusalem conference is a perfect example of NT politics in the Christian community. Read Acts 15 to understand what Christian politics in the church should look like. Now read Acts 20:17-38 to see what Paul thought the basic job of elders/pastors is. This is doing politics. This is managing the Christian community over which God has placed these men in charge. Pastors and elders have way too much power today over things they should not. They can decide, in and of themselves, who to discipline and who not. They can refuse to correct those who need it because of their connections and actually defame others who are less connected and there is no one to stop them. Worse, if the person attempts to defend themselves, they look all the more guilty. If you ever find yourself in such a position, leave it to God. Speak your peace according to Scripture in love with conviction and leave it to prayer. Love those who don’t love you back. Whatever you do, avoid retribution, and avoid unethical politics. You only hurt yourself when you do that. The church is the last place that unethical politics should exist. Nevertheless, it exists in the church as well. Christ will purge it where we cannot. Evil men who look after themselves will be revealed in the last day. God will show the rest of us who they are. Their shame will be deeper than anything they could ever have imagined. God will bring to light the deeds of evil men committed in darkness.


We have seen lot of this philosophy in the church, especially since the Rick Warren craze began. I saw a pastor slowly begin to move his church toward a seeker-sensitive model under the guise that if we can just get them in the door, we can help them with the gospel. Of course this never happens. What happens it just the opposite! The message is transformed to further support the overarching pragmatic goal of numeric growth. Therefore, whatever threatens the numbers is itself a threat. Initially, this strategy is usually very subtle. Over the course of months and years, it becomes less so. Pastors and elders end up teaching and preaching differently. Subjects are avoided or modified so as not to threaten the overall goal of numeric growth or of retaining key contributors. This pragmatism is also seen in scholarship. Scholars adopt, as their goal, academic respectability, forgetting that the foundation of the very reason for their existence is the approval of a holy God. Many, if not most in academia are despisers of God. Therefore, these despisers of God view as unfavorable, strong arguments for God and His revelation and treat any threat to intellectual autonomy with utter contempt. This places the scholar in the very precarious position of choosing “either” God’s favor “or” academic respectability in most cases. For those scholars who are hostile to the faith, the self-attesting authority of Scripture and its acceptance at face value is a position they find exceptionally offensive and label as extremely naïve and uncritical. In the name of pragmatism, many conservative scholars seek a mediating position. We see these efforts even in the PCA where the young earth creationists are losing ground year over year in their efforts to preserve and protect a straightforward exegesis of Gen. 1-3. The inerrancy of Scripture is at stake even though many compromisers do not see how. Unregenerate thought in politics and pragmatism within the Christian community will eventually flush out biblically reformed thinking and seek to extinguish it because it is by nature a very real and present threat to its desire for autonomy. Unregenerate thinking is not content to get along with its counterpart. Unregenerate thought realizes that regenerate thinking represents a threat to its very existence. In order to eliminate that threat, it convinces the regenerate mind to compromise in the name of pragmatism until it can establish a stronghold large enough to eliminate the threat.


For the Christian pastor living in western culture, few temptations are more challenging than the temptation to unethical politics and pragmatism. Pastors have temptations to sin like any other human being. They are no different in their material make-up. Ontologically speaking, these men are sinners like the rest of the church. In fact, the temptations and pressures of the pastorate introduce an entire array of temptations that most of the rest of us are not likely to be as familiar with as the typical pastor. The pressure to maintain the numbers in many cases is not about raw pride, although, in many, many cases, it is. It can be about budgets and poor money management or bad financial decisions. Churches are so enamored with their pastors that they give them carte blanche on anything they wish to do. Personality worship is alive and well in western culture. A pastor may fear budget shortfalls, and therefore, take a very pragmatic or politic approach to sermon topics and even content. I watched a building campaign begin once by using the manipulative tool of painting anyone who disagreed with the initiative as grumbling or complaining Israelites. The entire Sunday school department began a series geared toward silencing all dissenters by placing them in this category. At the end of the day, when you boil it down to the fundamental job of the pastor, I think the modern, western Christian community is radically wide of the mark concerning the role and function of the pastor.

John MacArthur
Godly pastors deserve our honor and respect. I admire those men who make the sacrifice of ministry service to people who, in great measure, are mostly ungrateful. In our culture, the things that matter most are the things that receive the least amount of attention and appreciation. Conversely, the things the matter the least receive the greatest amount of attention and appreciation. The man who stands in the pulpit with flair, looks, and charm is lauded and adored. It matters very little if the content of his message is biblical or not. All that matters is that his “style” floats your boat. This is not surprising, given the individualistic orientation and narcissism of our culture. This is just as true for the country church as it is for the suburban mega-church. Let a trained orator who is used to lecturing seminary students enter a country church and preach a sermon on salvation using his typical style and see what happens. He could preach accurately and faithfully exactly what God says on the matter, but that will not matter. His style is not a fit. I do not see this as a cultural issue. It is an issue of ungodliness in the hearts and minds of people, many of whom are unregenerate. The problem for pastors in an individualistic culture such as ours is their own proclivities for individualism and autonomy. Far too often, the pastor sees himself as CEO, executive, or managing director of Jesus, Inc. It is his job to make things happen and get things done. His individualistic bent sees disagreements or challenges as obstacles to be overcome. If someone gets in the way of his goal, whatever that goal might be, he may try to “sell them” on his objectives at first. If that strategy fails, oftentimes the modern pastor will resort to ungodly manipulative tactics to get his way. These are the hirelings! They stack the deacon board or the session with men they know they can easily influence to move in their direction. In effect, this destroys the plurality of leadership that is designed to protect against the sinful proclivities of dominant personality types. It looks good on paper, but in reality, it is all too easy to circumvent. I listen to sermons from a certain pastor once in a while that I know does not practice what he preaches from the pulpit. He is not the only one. I am in utter amazement how you can stand up and talk about things week after week and not actually believe them yourself. You only believe them if you practice them!

We need men in the church who are going to respect the office of elder/pastor more than ever. The social pressures to compromise are greater than ever. The pastor’s job is really quite simple to describe at least - declare to your people the whole purpose of God while guarding yourself from vain and worldly aspirations. Paul gave the Ephesian elders the formula for successful pastoring in Acts 20:17-38. Pastor, toward all men you are to be: above reproach, no womanizer, temperate, wise, high social standing, hospitable, a skilled teacher, not addicted to alcohol, not eager or quick to argue, gentle, peaceable, unconcerned with material possessions. The pastor sees himself as a servant-leader, not the man in charge of everything. You know you have the wrong man when he has a sign in his office that says, “The buck stops here.” The hardest job for the pastor is loving the saints. This does not mean it is difficult to love the difficult to love. Rather, it is draining for the pastor to care so much about people. People make a mess of their lives because they are sinners. Loving pastors are relentless in their pursuit of these types. They are us! For pastors who are more concerned with their numbers, status, prestige, there are more challenging occupations. However, for pastors who are passionately in love with God, truth, and his people: a more difficult job is not.

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