Monday, April 20, 2015

Paul’s Catalyst For Pastoral Consistency

And when they had come to him, he said to them, ‘You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews;’” (Acts 20:18–19)

One of the many facets of Paul’s ministry which has often challenged me in my own ministry is that of his ministerial consistency. He didn’t blow hot and cold, neither was he erratically up and down, nor off and then on again. Instead, Paul was the model of consistency regardless of where he was or who he was with at the time. His message always remained the same. In one of my favorite pastoral passages in the New Testament, Acts 20:17-38, we get a glimpse of Paul’s pastoral consistency. 

There are many reasons for Paul’s even-keel approach to ministry, but in verse 19, in the first clause, we learn one of the primary reasons Paul was the model of such consistency. For Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that while he was with them for those 3 years of ministry, he was actively and consistently “serving the Lord”. There is much to chew on in just that one sententious statement.

The motivation for Paul’s consistent ministry, in large measure, stems from the fact that he was consigned to serve. Paul wasn’t just a servant, but rather he was a servant of God! His consistency is a direct result of the object of his service — in this case, notably God. It highlights a very important, but not often thought about truth: True service for God is first vertical before it is ever horizontal. It follows the same pattern and sequence that we find in the two greatest commandments as articulated by the Lord Himself (Matthew 22: 36-40): Firstly, we are to demonstrate a comprehensive love for the Lord, which is most certainly of a vertical nature; and then, secondly, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Even in this, the horizontal aspect of loving our neighbor as ourselves, takes its direct cue and direction from the vertical aspects of having a circumscribing love for God. Remove the vertical prerequisite here and the horizontal is secularized, leading to a love that it is at best elliptical, serving as a very poor facsimile of the love intended in the verse. 

Where Christian service is concerned, the same basic thought applies — our horizontal service for the Lord is in direct proportion to our vertical mandate of “serving the Lord in all humility”. If the shepherd’s motivation to serve is mired in horizontal concerns, then his ministerial consistency will take a knock, because the object of such service is mere humanity, which is capricious. 

So what is the big deal anyway? Why make so much of the issue here? What does it matter in the long run? The answer is given most pointedly by Paul to the Galatians, when he exhorted them in Galatians 1: 10: For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” The issue is all important for it determines whether or not I am going to please God, or man. If the priority of one’s service is reduced to the human realm, then they should know that fallen humanity is fickle and feckless, and, that out of necessity, one’s man-centered service will at best reflect the human object served. The servant will have to constantly change gears, shift focus, adopt new perspectives, and trim the message in order to satisfy the ever-changing cravings of human whimsy. After all, the customer is always right — right? It results in looking more like a politician trying to please his constituency than a minister serving the Most High God. 

On the other hand, if God is the object of my service, I know that He is ever faithful, perfectly and absolutely reliable within Himself. A God-centered, God-pleasing ministry will of divine necessity reflect the nature of the High and Holy One being served. A God-centered service is non-negotiable and an indispensable precursor to a biblically consistent ministry, like that of the Apostle Paul’s. 

Does this then mean I don’t serve man? On the contrary, the point here is one of priority, motivation and sequence. It boils down to the catalyst for serving those in the flock God gives. So I have to ask the question “Is my service to the flock motivated by God, or man?” “Is it a service that flows from heaven, or is it one driven solely by earthly concerns?” All this is the difference between serving those whom I shepherd with delight, or drudgery. Motivation is everything where my ministerial service concerned. 

A few years ago a young man excitedly told me he wished to pursue the ministry. I asked him why he wanted to pursue vocational ministry. To this, he enthusiastically replied, “Because I want help people.” I kindly looked at him and suggested, “If you want to help people then join an aid agency, or become social worker. But, if you want to serve God, and can do no other, then pursue the ministry.” While my reply surprised him, it was not meant to discourage him so much as to make him think about the real motivation for shepherding the flock of God. While a love for humanity is commendable, a love for God is essential, and will necessarily lead to the former. 

In the end, every Christian needs to ask the penetrating question “Is my service for God heaven driven, or earth bound?” The answer to this will directly determine whether, like Paul, we are consistent or not.

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