If you had to choose only one word to describe who Jesus of Nazareth was, what would it be?
The crowds of first-century Palestine actually enjoyed a measure of agreement in their answer:
Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”, they answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
On Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem, when his dramatic and subversive entrance aroused the city’s inhabitants to ask, “Who is this?”, we read that “the crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.'”
And even when religious authorities desperately desired to arrest Jesus, though easily having the power to do so, they refrained. Why? Matthew’s gospel explains that these authorities “were afraid of the crowds, since they held that Jesus was a prophet.”
Examples could be multiplied (see Luke 4.27; 7.16; 7.39; 9.8; 24.9; John 4.19; 6.14; 7.40, 52; 9.17; Acts 3.22-23; 7.37).
And so, while the Gospels of course claim that Jesus was (far) more than a prophet, he was certainly not less.
And here’s one common characteristic of prophets: their lifespans were uncommonly short (here, too, Jesus fit the mold). Luke’s gospel records Jesus’ terrifying critique of Jerusalem, the city that even in his day had been the center of Jewish cultural life for centuries: “surely no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem.” Wow.
Why did all the crowds hold that Jesus was a prophet? And why the short lifespan?
Listen to Jesus’ own contrast of faithful prophets and false prophets:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man…. For this is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”
“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
The reason the crowds identified Jesus as a prophet (and why faithful prophets had short lifespans) was that Jesus demanded repentance from the (self-professed) people of God.
It was precisely this uncompromising demand for repentance–for ongoing personal and corporate change among the people of God–that defined faithful prophetic ministry. Its absence defined the false prophet, of whom “all people speak well.”
The word for “false prophet” is used nine times in Old Testament book of Jeremiah (in the Greek version). Concerning these false prophets Israel’s God declares:
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
The medical metaphor that Jeremiah uses here is powerful. Imagine if your doctor discovered that you (or your child) had an aggressive form of cancer. But out of fear of your disapproval of him (or fear of simply disappointing you) he (mis)diagnosed it as a simple infection, even though the cancer, if treated immediately, could probably have been cured. The doctor would be killing you.
It is this very characteristic–a courageous love that diagnoses the people of God truthfully and humbly insists upon repentance–that not only distinguishes a faithful prophet from a false one but a faithful pastor from a fraud.
(Please note: a pastor is not a modern-day equivalent of a prophet. But the similarities are very real, and the New Testament itself makes the very same parallel we are making here—see 2 Peter 2.1; Matthew 7.15; 1 John 4.1.)
But does this mean that the faithful pastor is simply one who isn’t afraid to critique or criticize, even condemn? Isn’t this what many of the Torah-conscious Pharisees of Jesus’ day were already doing?
This is where the faithful prophet—or pastor—differs from both the false prophet and the Pharisee:
The faithful prophet, like the faithful pastor, has hope. Unshakeable hope.
It is unshakable, because it is rooted in irreversible divine action, whether past or future. This unshakable hope enables and emboldens him to speak truthfully of a devastating diagnosis (unlike the false prophet) without ever slipping into a cynical self-righteousness (like the Pharisee). Hope enables him to avoid both the condoning false prophet’s flattery and the condemning Pharisee’s frustration.
Without flattery or frustration, Jesus, after speaking hard yet hopeful words, said, “Follow me.”
This brings us to a vital characteristic of a faithful pastor—what is called…
If prayer—i.e., true communion with God—is the first characteristic of a faithful pastor (as we discussed in the previous post), discipleship is the second.
Jesus’ first followers were, of course, called “disciples.”
A disciple is, by definition, a person committed to learning, to growing, to becoming like his teacher; for the disciple the status quo (both within them and around them). Because of this, an essential feature of the disciple is the ability to hear:
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
“Consider carefully how you hear.”
Refusal to hear constitutes a refusal to change, which seriously calls into question the legitimacy of one’s place in Jesus’ community of disciples: by refusing to listen, a person votes themselves off the island called the people of God (Matthew 13.13; 18.15-18).
The faithful pastor, then, is absolutely and unequivocally committed to discipleship–to seeing the followers of Jesus entrusted to his care embrace their role, both personally and corporately, as disciples–as, if you will, ever-changing agents of change.
Crucially, what drives the faithful pastor’s commitment to discipleship is his unshakable hope, a hope firmly grounded in irreversible divine action—that is, in the unprecedented cataclysmic take-over called the kingdom of God: Israel’s God has acted decisively for His world through His change agent Jesus, and the faithful pastor is persuaded by the necessity, inevitability and beauty of this divine action.
The faithful pastor’s hope, then, stands in sharpest contrast to both the cynicism and triumphalism that are characteristic of fraudulent pastors. That is, this hope strongly critiques a cynicism that preaches a “broken” or “messy” grace that never really grieves sin or calls for repentance. But this hope also strongly critiques a triumphalism that claims to have arrived, that pretends like everything is okay, refusing to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
The Apostle Paul’s ministry was driven by hope.
No less than four times in Acts does Paul summarize (and defend) his ministry in terms of hope: when dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin he speaks of “the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (23.6); on trial before the Roman procurator Felix he tells of “a hope in God…that there will be a resurrection” (24.15); on trial before the tetrarch Herod Agrippa II, he professes his “hope in what God has promised our ancestors” (26.6-7); before Jewish leaders in Rome he speaks of “the hope of Israel” (28.20).
Blatantly obvious from these passages in Acts is that, if (like Paul) a faithful pastor commits himself to a discipleship rooted in unshakable hope, he will be the occasion for significant disruption.
Unavoidable redemptive disruption.
And here’s the thing that (at least for me) makes discipleship so exhilarating—if at times exhausting (!):
Through this unavoidable redemption disruption, God shows up in such incredibly awesome ways. That is, as a pastor, as I intentionally engage in discipleship–whether pro-active mentoring or re-active counseling and correction, I get to behold the miraculous: God actually changing people.
I behold God’s fingerprints, freshly made.
Just one small example: imagine witnessing the reconciliation and restoration of a marriage in which all involved–lawyers, therapists, friends, parents, siblings and, yes, police–had declared it to be beyond all hope. Imagine personally witnessing the conversion, confession, the forgiveness, the tears of contrition and joy, the renewed commitment to counterintuitive behaviors that come to be achievable, even desirable.
Okay, but what does a faithful pastor’s commitment to discipleship actually look like? As I see it, there are three dimensions: internal, proactive, and re-active.
Internally, the faithful pastor is committed to being a disciple. He willingly, eagerly places himself under Christ’s authority, manifested concretely by his submission to both formal and informal means of authentication and accountability: far from being a self-appointed doctor (i.e., quack) curing souls, he has been ordained by other ordained men; but no less importantly, he regularly makes his life–his personal life, marriage, family and ministry–fully known to other pastors (not merely other brothers). In short, he cannot expect of others what he does not expect of himself.
This internal discipleship, then, is not an isolated discipleship. Consider Paul’s exhortation to the leaders of the Ephesian church: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20.28). There is first a mutual protection and accountability among leaders and then a protection and accountability for the people of God.
Proactively, the faithful pastor is committed to growing disciples. Generally, this is expressed in Christ’s appointment of “evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service” (Ephesians 4.12); he proactively discovers the diverse gifts of God’s people and mobilizes them, setting out helpful expectations of what faithfulness as a member of Christ’s body looks like (often through implementing church membership). But more specifically and concretely, this looks like deliberately and prayerfully identifying and developing leaders by living life with them.
Both Jesus and Paul did this. In Mark we read that Jesus “appointed twelve [from among his disciples] that they might be with him” (3.14). Here the “with him” surely signifies their presence as witnesses of his ministry, but it surely also includes their presence as disciples: this is life-on-life ministry, for which there is no substitute.
Paul summarizes both of these first two aspects of ministry when he writes to Timothy:
“You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus [internal discipleship]. And the things which you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others [proactive discipleship].” (2 Timothy 2.1-2; it’s worth noting: the NIV and NRSV, unlike the NAS or ESV, are probably right to translate anthropois gender-inclusively as “people,” rather than as “men”; Paul, of course, affirmed a woman’s ability to teach–see Titus 2.3-4; Rom. 12.7. In other words, the faithful pastor develops both ordained and non-ordained leaders, both men and women.)
Proactive discipleship (very helpfully) prioritizes the busy pastor’s schedule: he must focus his efforts on raising up leaders who (often with different or even greater gifting) can in turn enable the entire body to grow.
Reactively, the faithful pastor, having proactively developed other leaders, is (in concert with these leaders) is committed to pastoring and protecting disciples—sometimes from themselves. He recognizes the opportunity, not the obstacle, presented not only by the sorrows and sufferings of the flock but by their besetting struggles and sins. But beyond pastoring the flock, he always in concert with other church leaders protects the flock through humbly, patiently, prayerfully, tearfully, faithfully pursuing church discipline (Matthew 18.15-20; 1 Corinthians 5.1-13; 2 Timothy 2.24-26; 4.2; Titus 2.15).
It grieves me to say that all three of these aspects of discipline are grossly lacking in the churches of our day:
- As for internal discipline, many pastors are self-appointed with no external affirmation of their calling or gifts; no less disconcerting is the sheer lack of true community and accountability of many pastors. As a result, elder boards, pastoral staffs, and sessions are too often places of superficiality, suspicion, and self-righteousness.
- As for proactive discipline, so many pastors pay little more than lip service to leadership development, dismissing Jesus’ example and Paul’s exhortation; intentional life-on-life discipleship is exceptional. Over-reliant on their own gifts of preaching and already alone and afraid (or angry), they do not invest in and mutually engage other church leaders. As a result, it is not uncommon for those serving on elder boards or sessions to have received little initial training and no ongoing training. This, in turn, deprives the laity of so much growth, as the pastor either avoids pastoral issues or burns out trying to handle them.
- As for reactive discipline–at least in its more formal, judicial capacity, few church leaders in America actually practice church discipline; they do not fence the Lord’s Table, much less censure or excommunicate. Few church leaders are skilled in the critical skills of conflict resolution, skills which make the gospel sing and the Spirit soar. As a result offending laypersons are left with a false assurance of salvation, while offended laypersons suffer for a while but eventually limp away in loneliness and doubt.
Within the ranks of American evangelical pastors there is both a deep-seated refusal either to disciple or to discipline. A frenetic fixation upon ‘relevance,’ a misplaced faith in one’s own gifts and a debilitating fear of man are our constant enemies.
It is little wonder, then, that so many churches are declining in joy, size, and influence. It is little wonder that Christians are, overwhelmingly, known as hypocrites. The absence of discipleship means the absence of change, the maintenance of the status quo that insures the church’s irrelevance to its own laity, not to mention its own context.
In stark contrast, like the athletic team whose collective skill has improved through rigorous training in the off-season, the jazz ensemble whose “chemistry” continues to deepen through practice, or the hospital whose patients continue to recover, the church with a pastor (or pastoral staff) committed to discipleship experiences a joy-filled vitality and intimate community—evidence of the Spirit, who presence brings even more faith, hope and love, inevitably raising the eyebrows of onlookers. Such a church is filled with laypersons–singles, spouses, parents, etc.–who know that their leaders love them enough both to proactively invest and reactively admonish them. Through the awkwardness and friction, even conflict, created by discipleship there has come a genuine intimacy and camaraderie.
So how can you, a layperson seeking to be faithful to Jesus, discern if a pastor is faithful with respect to discipleship? Ask yourself the following questions:
First, does hope characterize his life? (Not merely his preaching; it’s not hard to fake hope for 30 minutes once a week.) Does he possess a measure of joy-filled confidence that comes from having recently witnessed God at work in the hearts and lives of his people? Or is he marked by a jaded cynicism or a naïve or superficial triumphalism? Does he proactively pursue the community and accountability of other pastors? Is he approachable, not simply with your issues but with his own? Does he invite critique from other leaders regarding his preaching, leadership, parenting, etc.?
Both in his preaching and pastoral care, does he lovingly, boldly warn? After his sermons are you convicted of and alarmed by your sin, yet hopeful and wiser, seeing the finality of God’s actions in Christ and the shrewdness and beauty of obedience? Does his preaching gently but boldly address your church’s sacred cows? Have you ever left angry from his sermons, feeling as if the message had exposed you to the “unreasonable” demands of Jesus?! Is he willing to be unpopular? Does he humbly, hopefully, yet boldly name sin and describe it not only as wrong action and attitude but an ensnaring addiction and an accusation against God and an injustice toward others? Or is his preaching primarily theologically informational or insightfully therapeutic or emotionally inspiring? Is there a practical “helpfulness” to his preaching that betrays that he himself has been following Christ in all the numerous vicissitudes of life (e.g., money, parenting, work, health, recreation)? Can he flesh out what it actually “looks like” to follow the various commands of Scripture? Has he ever expressed concern for you or warned you personally? (If not, is that because you’ve never needed to be warned?)
Second, do he and the other leaders (whether pastors or layleaders) enjoy one other’s company? How often do they hang out? Has he cultivated among the leadership an environment of community and camaraderie, building mutual trust, so that they have taken the risk of being accountable and holding one another accountable? Or does he remain safely secluded in his office and behind the pulpit, so that he is more myth than man? Is there a longstanding, close-knit team at the top, or a revolving door of pastoral and program staff? Is he himself in a small group? Has he trained the leadership (indeed, the church) in peacemaking in order to redeem the conflicts that are surely to come, so that they can then be openly and honestly talked about?
How many lay leaders (e.g., elders, deacons, or small group leaders or ministry team leads) has he equipped? Is there a general strategy being executed for leadership development (identifying, training, re-training, etc.)? In larger churches is there a trained cadre of male and female ‘shepherds’ who can help carry the massive load of pastoral care that any large church will have? Or does the congregation quietly take their suffering and sin to “paid professionals”? Are elder boards or sessions populated with committed, caring, equipped layleaders, or do layleaders come on only to leave quickly and quietly out of frustration or sheer boredom? At leadership meetings, has the senior pastor fostered a leadership environment of open, lively discussion and debate of the truly weightiest matters of faithfulness by a majority of the leaders participating (with lesser matters entrusted to equipped and empowered program staff and laity), or is there a dry discussion of largely irrelevant items that are rubber-stamped? Does the governing body follow through on decisions they have made, measuring its own success or failure? Has he, on behalf of the leadership, ever confessed their personal or collective failures as a leadership to the congregation, whether on a Sunday morning or in a congregational meeting? Or is everything at the church (and church office) always “just fine”?
Third, has he worked with other leaders to create expectations of church membership to the laity and called people to commitment (apart from which there can be no community)? Has he taught on church membership and church discipline? Is he experienced in matters of discipline? If it is a large church, if there is a commitment to discipleship, given the power of indwelling sin, there will almost inevitably be ongoing disciplinary matters. Are there? When was the last time a member was brought under discipline? Can your pastor tell of beautiful stories of discipline and restoration, as well as tragic stories of discipline and loss? Can stories of protection from wolves in sheep’s clothing be recounted?
Faithful follower of Christ, understand this: your pastor may be a moving preacher who makes you feel welcome; he may be theologically insightful; he may make the Scriptures “relevant.” But if he does not articulate that Jesus’ call to discipleship is both deeply comforting and devastatingly costly, he is a fraud.
The fraudulent pastor offers life that isn’t life. The faithful pastor offers (and himself embraces) life that is always and ever death-unto-life. That is, true discipleship is always and ever counterintuitive, countercultural and yet fully creational: wooed and warned into surrendering to Jesus’ wondrously liberating authority, we discover who we never dreamed we were made to be–
beloved children of our Heavenly Father, empowered to lose everything in the name of love.
In the next post we’ll discuss a third essential aspect of what it means to be a faithful pastor (click here).