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7 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Pastoral Ideologue

Every pastor has an ideology. We all have preconceived notions about how pastoral ministry is to be carried out in the day in and day out activities of our lives. In fact, it is probably safe to say that every pastor has an ideology about how the lives of their congregants are to function on a daily and weekly basis. To admit this is not quite the same as saying that we all have a worldview. It is more akin to admitting that we have expectations for ourselves and our congregants. It is more limited in scope than a worldview--even though ideologies are either informed or misinformed by our worldview. An ideology is a set of preconceived ideas about what shape something should take. In pastoral ministry today, there is a pressing need for ministers to develop a strongly informed Biblical ideology--both for themselves, their ministries and the lives of the congregants. Pastors must pour over the Scriptures to glean every clearly taught prescriptive and descriptive principle for their own lives and the life of the congregation. There are far too many ministers who compromise what they know to be clearly defined and Divinely mandated biblical expectations for the sake of acceptance or self-preservation in ministry. While a lack of strongly formed biblical convictions is the greatest deficiency in pastoral ministry today, there is the opposite danger of rigid idealism among men who have strongly formed and nuanced biblical convictions. This usually plays out in the way in which, in their ministries, it seems as if they believe that every issue should take specific form in the life of the congregation as it does in their own. Those who become rigid ideologues in pastoral ministry, in turn, become either potentially harmful to the flock or ultimately ineffectual in ministry. The way in which God dealt with the Old Testament saints with regard to the issue of polygamy is a good case study for how a pastor might learn to hold an ideal without becoming an ideologue. Polygamy was always a sinful practice--but one that God chose not to explicitly rebuke in the Old Testament. Many have asked the question why God was largely silent (with the exception of setting out the many adverse consequences) with regard to this evil practice among the patriarchs. Cornelius Van Til made the following helpful observation that is pertinent to the present discussion:

God frequently set the absoluteness of the ideal before men very vigorously. And that might lead us to ask why he did not do this consistently and at once set up the absolute ideal along the whole front of the ethical life. If God expects Abraham to be so absolutely submissive as to be willing to sacrifice his only son, why does he not also demand absolutely monogamous marriage on the part of Abraham? The answer to this, we believe, must be found in the analogy of the convalescent child. The convalescent child needs strong medicine in order to live. It may need many varieties of strong medicine. But if these were all administered at once the child would die. So too if God had maintained the absolute standard at once along the whole front of the ethical life, we can see that he would not have attained his purpose. It was the all-wise physician who was healing his patient slowly, and giving him just the medicine that he could bear, and no more.

In the same way, the people of God in our day need to be given medicine for the plethora of their maladies in doses that they will be able to survive. This is not always an easy area to navigate since the writers of the New Testament give us very specific imperatives for the Christian life and life within the church. In whatever cases we may face in a congregation, one thing is sure: we need wise physicians who will seek to heal the patients slowly and patiently. Here are seven things we need to keep in mind when seeking to avoid becoming a rigid pastoral ideologue in ministry:

1) We must remember that God calls us to be discriminately patient with all. One of the Lord's chief characteristics is that He is patient with His sinful people. He is longsuffering and we are called to be longsuffering. Additionally, the Lord gives each of His people a different measure of faith. We make a misstep of massive proportions if we expect every believer to be at the same spiritual place at the same time. While God's standard ever remain the same, the reality of sin and the weakness of the flesh remain as well. Paul charges the strong brother to bear with the fallings of the weak brother. While the Apostle was always zealous to bring believers to full maturity in Christ, he never attempted to do so  in a mechanistic and unrealistic manner. Not everyone is in the same place in a Christian fellowship, and not everyone will be brought along with the same measure and in the same way. As pastors, we have to learn how members tick. Some respond better to graciousness and some response better to severity. This requires a great deal of patience. Furthermore, God commands His people to deal with others in a discriminating way. In the epistle to Jude, the Lord says, "On some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh" (Jude 24).

2) We must remember that gentleness and graciousness motivate more than severity. The Apostle Paul told the Romans, "Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance" (Rom. 2:4)? The hard heart is often melted by undeserved kindness and further hardened by heavy handedness. This is not to say that there is never a time for severe rebuke. The rebuke must fit the offense. It may be that a more severe approach is needed after numerous gracious attempts to restore a backslidden congregant have been employed to seemingly no avail. Pastors with the strongest biblical convictions are often most in danger of trying to take the bull by the horn. When dealing with congregants, we should always adopt the mindset of Jesus, who described himself as "gentle and lowly in heart," and the Apostle Paul, who said, "Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness" (1 Cor 4:21)?

3) We must remember that love covers a multitude of sins. The Proverbs remind us that while there is a time for rebuking, there is also a time for overlooking transgressions (Prov. 10:12; 17:9; 19:11). Pastors with the strongest biblical convictions are in danger of thinking that they have to confront every issue all the time. The Scriptures tell us that "it is the glory of man to overlook a transgression" (Prov. 19:11). Often the best course of action for a pastor with a spiritually weak congregant is simply to pray for him and her.

4) We must always take into account the life situations of congregants. While the excuses of congregants are often a dime a dozen, circumstances place every congregant in a different place in life. We cannot expect congregants who serve in the military or who have children and grandchildren that they visit frequently to be as regular in attendance as you might expect of someone who is more stable in the town or city where they live. We don't want to place a heavier expectation on others than that which we would place on ourselves. To do so is the very heart of Pharisaism. As A.W. Tozer once helpfully noted, "A Pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself; but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself." This may also occur by forgetting the work circumstances of our congregants. While some ministers may have convinced themselves that God requires us to have family worship with our families at every meal (a conviction that I do not personally share), and while they may find themselves in a pastorate where they have the freedom to have devotions with their families at breakfast, lunch and dinner, most of the men in their congregation do not have that privilege. Many of the men in the church get up at 5:30 AM and don't get home until 7 PM. To bind them with your own specific application of a general principle that you could never possibly fulfill if you were in their shoes is to fall into the trap of an "ideological Pharisaism."

5) We must remember the abundance of our own sinful weaknesses and lead with compassion. This is the surest way to protect against heavy-handedness with others. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we told that ministers are to appear as if they "have it all together" and "never talk of weakness." The Apostle Paul referred to himself as "the chief of sinners," and told the members of the church in Rome, "what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Rom. 7:15). When speaking of the Old Covenant priests, the writer of Hebrews explained:

Every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins (Heb. 5:1-3).

Because, we, of all people, ought to know that "in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of...obedience" (HC 114) we ought to be most compassionate toward those who are going astray.

6) We must remember that God is the one who determines what chastisement to dispense to His people. Every minister and session should be committed to the grace of church discipline. However, one of the errors that those ministers who are most zealous to be faithful in the realm of church discipline can fall into is that of thinking that it is their responsibility to determine a specific chastening to which a fallen congregant should be subject. This is often born out of a misinformed ideology of pastoral ministry. Aside from being given the right to bar a congregant from the Lord's Supper to the ultimate censure of excommunication (Matt. 18:15-20), ministers and sessions must be very slow to try to impose other sanctions on fallen congregants. We may have to protect a congregation from a committed sex offender, but even then--if such a one is repentant--he or she should be considered a member of the fellowship. One part of our ideology is that God is competent to impose His own chastisement on saints who have fallen into some particular sin. If we believe that it is our duty to impose specific chastening in the life of a congregant, we may be trying to place ourself in the place of God and will inevitably become rigid ideologues.

7) We must remember that we don't know anything as we ought and that we have much to learn from others. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should never think that our specific ideology is fully informed or free of error. We must be ready to admit that we have held unrealistic standards for a ourselves or a congregation. There are many practices that, prior to ministry, I believed were  that I no longer believe are realistic expectations for every congregant at every point in their life. Seminarians and those who have the least experience in pastoral ministry are generally most in danger of falling into rigid ideological error. After 7 years in ministry, I am still reforming and reshaping my own ideology of pastoral ministry and congregational life. This is not to say that the Scriptures change or ethics are situational. What it is to say, however, is that the specific application of biblical principles are often situational and every congregation is different. This is one of the reasons why the Proverbs don't give us specific directives for every life situation. God gives us the general principles and then expects us to cry out to Him for wisdom with each challenge that we face (James 1:5). There is much reshaping that occurs as we search the Scriptures, pray, read broadly, ask questions of older and wiser ministers and allow ourselves and our idealologies to be challenged and reformed.

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