Temptations of a virtuous pastor

We know that pastors can be tempted by power, lust, and the love of money. But can our desire to be gracious, caring, positive, and loving also bring temptations?

Michael Ladra is the senior pastor of the Corona Presbyterian church, Denver, Colorado.

Paul says his ambition was to please God (2 Cor. 5:9, N. A. S. B.). That's a noble ambition for a pastor today, but not easy. The strongest and subtlest temptations confront him. In fact, I believe that a pastor's virtues may be his worst temptations!

Karl Barth, the theologian and pastor, was one of the principal leaders in the church's resistance to the Nazi government. He once said that he knew a man who was a vegetarian, who did not smoke or drink alcohol, who lived very sparingly, and who loved children. The man was Adolf Hitler. Virtues tempt us to overlook things.

And pastors? We are helpers, and lovers, and comforters. We are administrators, enablers, and counselors. Don't forget moral, truthful, and dependable. And our members are pleased, and impressed, and complimentary.

But is God? Virtues are no substitute for faithfulness in serving God. Obvious, I know; still, our virtues tempt us to overlook it. Paul reminds every pastor that he is called first to please God: "Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? ... If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10, R.S.V.). "It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Cor. 4:4, R.S.V.), he says, and so he makes it his aim to please Him (2 Cor. 5:9, R.S.V.). He labels the opportunists who rendered "eyeservice" and did not do "the will of God" from the heart menpleasers (Eph. 6:6). His ministry was controlled by the conviction that he had "been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts" (1 Thess. 2:4, R.S.V.).

A pastor, then, is more than an enabler of the people's vision and ministry--especially if enabling means discovering the congregation's desires and then helping people reach them. The Scriptures portray leadership as being out in front of the people, lifting vision, and not in the middle, accommodating it. Thus our Lord's ordination sermon to Joshua stressed strong and courageous leadership: " 'Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them' " (Joshua 1:6, R.S.V.).

Winston Churchill was one of the great leaders of this century. Almost everyone recognizes that his leadership, both in policy and "preaching," was decisive in Britain's recovery from Dunkirk and eventual victory. Churchill said leadership means not to be completely in harmony with everyone else. Actually that is a Christian insight into leadership. After all, Jesus says He wants a people who are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. People who walk to the beat of a different drummer. That means a pastor, if he is going to lead, must be a bit out of step.

Of course, there are risks associated with this. That's the rub. Churchill also said, "Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics many times." He might well have said that about the pastorate. I know pastors who are the walking dead. They have been riddled with bullets. And from their own people, not the world.

I have a friend who is the pastor of one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in Denver. Everyone sees him as on top of the world. Except his friends. They know different. He has been leading his church into evangelism lately, and there are some who don't like it. Never mind God's Word. Never mind His absolutes. Never mind His agendas. Witnessing is just too uncomfortable! Oh, no one criticized witnessing; they found other "flaws" to complain about. It hurt. Over breakfast he painfully poured out his sense of failure. I know he shouldn't feel that way, but he's a lover. And lovers are sensitive. And it's hard to turn sensitivity on and off like a light.

As pastors we have the most exciting job in the world. Every day we have the privilege of ministering God's grace to the brokenhearted. We offer God's forgiveness to those tormented by guilt. We minister God's power and hope in the hospital room and at the graveside. We are associated with dedicated, devoted, determined people. And we are paid to study God's Word in order to feed the congregation. It is a marvelous privilege!

But there is another side. When we read God's Word we find imperatives. Well, that is an open question today. Grace is taken to mean imperatives can be ignored. Forgiveness means it does not matter what we do. A lot of Christians, pastors included, have lost the grammar of the imperative. It is a strange dialect today. The imperative mood is said to be the mood of the legalistic, task-oriented, judgmental, nonrelational fanatic.

But are there imperatives? Are there "musts" for the lover of Christ? Jesus gave a very direct answer. He said, " 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' " (John 14:15, R.S.V.). He repeated Himself in verse 21: " 'He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.' " And then a third time, just to be sure no one missed it, He said: " 'He who does not love me does not keep my words' " (verse 24). Fanaticism? Legalistic, nonrelational, task-oriented fanaticism?

To love God is to obey Him! That is an underreported fact. We hear a great deal about how God loves us and that we are saved by grace and not the law. And that is very true. But it is also true that Jesus said that to love Him is to obey His commandments.

A young woman married in college and immediately had several affairs so that she did not know for sure who the father of her first child was. Her husband graduated and took a job out of State, and within months she was having another affair. She did not know who the father of her second child was either. She and her husband were divorced. She remarried and joined a church. She told the pastor she wished her husband was more spiritual because she wanted a Christian family. Not long after that the husband made an appointment with the pastor. He had caught her in bed with another man. He was broken. When confronted, she said she wanted the younger man and not her husband. When asked about her Christianity, she replied that God loved her and under stood her needs.

Is that what grace means? God loves her, but did she love God? Are imperatives imperative to loving God? Must a lover of Jesus be faithful to one husband? Must we forgive each other, love and serve each other? Didn't Jesus say that He must heal, must die on the cross, must please the Father? Must we witness (Matt. 28:9, 20)? Must we do mission (chap. 25:31-46), work for justice (Amos 5:21-24), use our gifts and talents to build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12)? Commandments and loving God. Musts and pleasing God. Imperatives and following God.

But isn't the gospel good news? Yes, but it includes imperatives. Ask the rich young ruler. Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had and give to the poor. Ask Peter. The Lord told him to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven.

It takes courage to be a leader and especially a preacher. If we are not prepared to do and say unpopular things, we will be servants of the people, but not servants of God. Lovers of the people, but not lovers of God. This does not demand that we omit the subjunctive mood of hope or the indicative mood of forgiveness and mercy or the future mood of promises. But to omit the imperative mood from our grammar of leadership and preaching is to fail to love and please God!

Faithfulness often means loneliness. Ask Moses or Elijah. Our only consolation is that loneliness is mistaken arithmetic. Elijah thought he was the only one left, but God said there were seven thousand just like him. It can be costly. Ask the prophets or the disciples. Ask Jesus, who, though immensely popular at first, lost His popularity because of His preaching. The apostle John records: "Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?'. . . After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:60-66, R.S.V.). Gracious, loving, merciful Jesus lost numbers.

And the pattern continues in church history. Martin Luther sacrificed his security when he nailed ninety-five imperatives to a church door in Wittenberg. It was not the world that threatened him most, but the church. More recently, Karl Barth, Swiss theologian who was a pastor in Germany before World War II, faced a similar experience. One Sunday in the mid-1930s he was preaching on the text assigned by the lectionary, John 3:16. At that time many Christians were among those Germans persecuting Jews. Barth made the point in his sermon that Jesus was a Jew, that He had died for all the world, and that Jews were of the world. He said that anyone who loves Christ would not participate in the contemptuous yet widespread ill-treatment of the Jews. Many in the congregation walked out in disgust before he finished his sermon. One wrote a scathing letter denouncing his sermon. Earth's reply was a single sentence: "It was in the text."

God's Word is more than what we claim. It makes its claim upon us. God's grace is ruling grace. The question is not simply Do we take the Bible literally? It is Have we allowed the Bible literally to take ho Id of us?

Barth's congregation made him choose between pleasing them or God. It was a terrible choice. But it is the crisis many of us face again and again. And our virtues are our worst temptations in that crisis. Our love for the people tempts us, as does our compassion, our desire to please, our ambitions especially our ambitions. These tempt us to muffle or omit imperatives from our preaching and leadership.

Albert Speer was a Christian and a professor at the Berlin Institute of Architecture. But more than that, he was ambitious to build great monuments. He wrote that he was wild to accomplish things. He said that for the commission to do a great building, he would have sold his soul. He did, to Hitler.

It is easy to sell your soul when you are ambitious. And every pastor who is any good is ambitious. Paul said he was ambitious to please God (2 Cor. 5:9, N.A.S.B.). Noble ambition, but how hard sometimes. Our ambitions tempt us to do so many things, or just as harmfully, to omit them. Especially imperatives. They can make people unhappy and even drive them away.

Worse yet, we can conspire to disguise our disregard of God's commands with our virtues. That was Milton's insight in Paradise Lost as he described Eve's decision to share the forbidden fruit with Adam. Milton was not really retelling the Biblical story; he was telling us something about human nature. His point was that because we cannot live with guilt, we tend to justify our evil by calling it good. In his story Eve remembers that God said that those who eat of the fruit will die. She projects that Adam will surely wed another Eve and enjoy life when she is gone. Therefore she decides to share the fruit with him, "so dear I love him." Milton's message: that was not the sharing of love but of murderous jealousy and envy!

Ironically, then, often the place to look for guilt is in our virtues. They are the perfect hiding place for disobedience. So pastors who never breathe an imperative are called gracious and positive. And preachers who rarely if ever call people to the tougher agendas of God--like witnessing and working for justice--are said to be loving and relational. And the pulpit that is quiet about racism and materialism and narcissism is said to be encouraging, and caring, and helpful. Our worst temptations may be our virtues.

If we will be pastors whose major ambition is to love and please God, then we must have imperatives. Let there be courageous preaching in pulpits all over the world. Let us be a breed that resists those who "accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings" (2 Tim. 4:3, R.S.V.). We have no liberty to pander to their preferences of topics or texts. Bold leadership and courageous preaching is what will turn our world upside down, just as it did in the days of the apostles.

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Michael Ladra is the senior pastor of the Corona Presbyterian church, Denver, Colorado.

July 1985

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