The Danger of Defining Yourself by What You Are Against
I spent a brief portion of my pastoral ministry under an “angry prophet.” You know… “that guy.” He’s the preacher-pastor who somehow finds his way to the kindling and accelerant in every sermon, or writing project. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is on a loop in the background of his life. I loved the gentlemen and still do. He loved Jesus Christ and still does. He was well intended. I learned an awful lot from his ministry and am grateful for almost all of it. But, some things I have had to unlearn. One such lesson was the danger of incessantly defining your ministry by what you are against. My fundamentalist background made the warning emphasis of his ministry especially appealing. I watched this man unnecessarily alienate himself from everyone around him and eventually implode. I took copious notes. I looked inward.
Hear me. There is a need for warning and discernment. There are things we need to argue about. There are people we need to confront. There are unbiblical and dangerous positions that need to be obliterated with sound biblical argumentation. There is room to disagree. Bleeding heart idealists who suppose there’s a plane where this never happens need to get a grip. Unity does not equal unanimity, and it certainly does not come at the expense of truth. We should not hesitate to take the responsibility of defending and contending for the truth upon us. If we resist then we should step out of ministry.
Confession. I don’t like controversy. I understand that at times it’s necessary and unavoidable. But, the majority of times we find ourselves in the middle of a controversy it actually was unnecessary and avoidable. No true shepherd cares for it or will seek it out. They consider being the source of it – even when it is necessary – distasteful. Those who love to be in controversy usually can afford to be.
There was a time when I considered the label of “angry prophet” a virtue. “Harsh” is a spiritual gift in certain circles. I could “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” with the best of them. That is until God broke my arrogant heart (as he continues to do every day) against the Cross of Jesus Christ with its obvious connection to my sin. Ironically, God used the above season of ministry to hold a mirror up to my own pride. I did not like what I saw. I continue to battle against many of these same tendencies even today. (I praise God for his mercy towards me and for the Righteousness of Christ that covers me even as I self-righteously censure those covered by the same alien righteousness!)
Of the many things I’ve learned about pastoral ministry over these years one stands out among the most helpful: There is a real danger in consistently defining yourself and your ministry by what you are against. Take it from a recovering “fundie.” Here are some “warnings.” Pun intended.
- You’ll forget to talk about what’s good… especially about Jesus. The majority of Jesus’ discourses did not include “woes.” Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians 1:3-13 from the same prison cell. Pointing out error is only part of the job of disclosing truth. At some point, after we wrestle the opponents to the ground, we must get around to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ and his person. It’s okay to come off positive about Jesus. It’s acceptable – from time to time – to have no agenda other than loving Jesus and drawing attention to him. We are stewards of a mystery just as much as we are defenders of it.
- You’ll begin to take yourself too seriously. You can easily lose sight of the necessary difference between your opinions about the truth and the truth. The truth stands outside of us and will survive without us and our laser beam defenses. The primary unintended consequence of taking yourself too seriously is a noble sounding arrogance. “Hey man I was only speaking the truth.” The truth should foster humility not swagger. What do we have that was not given to us? Besides, as far as messengers go, we are completely dispensable and easily replaceable. Lighten up. You’ll live longer.
- You’ll begin to preach the same sermon from every passage. You will become the angry prophet. The cadence of all your sermons will march out to set fire to the straw man of the week. We so often seem to end up preaching about preaching rather than actually preaching. This is my favorite manifestation of this attitude. We rail against the absence of expository preaching while butchering passages that have nothing to do with the need for expository preaching.
- You’ll foster mean people. You will attract people with gnarled and rancorous dispositions. Brawlers. Sword drawn zealots ready to throw themselves on an edge over the smallest disagreement. Often, it’s not us but those who come behind us and take our opinions to the next level who do the most damage. Note: they will one day come calling for you. You will be the last victim of your own edge.
- You’ll eventually assemble an audience of self-congratulatory clones. Ironically, despite the emphasis on discernment in your ministry, the people under your ministry will become undiscerning as they depend on your pontifications rather than thinking for themselves. Everything you say and write will be hailed as brave and brilliant. “Great point Byron. Let em have it!” Each of your sermons will be delivered directly to the choir. Their main (and your most preferred) compliment will be your capacity for “telling it like it is.” There will be no constructive conversation. Only monologue. Your theological entourage will be rubber stamps. Don’t be encouraged when you gather a following. There’s no shortage of the angry fringe element looking to get a sip of your Kool-Aid.
- You’ll take all correction personally and as an unpardonable offense against “God’s man.” Any disagreement with your position will be received as an offense. Any critic will be labeled as unfaithful. Any critique of your view will only go to verify the obstinate blindness of your opponent. All your defenses will come down to a small-minded ad hominem. People will eventually stop trying to talk with you. You will consider this a victory. You will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of a self-inflicted martyrdom.
- You’ll make a terrible shepherd. “Angry prophets” never make good pastors. They’re snipers not shepherds. Your impatience for inconsistency will eventually come out in those given to your care. It’s ministry according to Darth Vader. The distance between a confrontation of a brother’s sin and room for change will become increasingly short. You’ll lose all sense of grace. You’ll forget your own sin. You’ll lose sight of how much patience Christ has with your misrepresentation of his character. You’ll eventually begin to think love is weakness if it means walking beside people who struggle to change.
- You’ll become the type of person you warn others about. You’ll eventually become the type of person you could easily preach against. A small-minded, self-taught, belligerent purveyor of doom trying to make a name for himself.
- You’ll thrive on controversy. If it isn’t negative, you won’t have much to say. You will end up having to out do yourself in the “shock value” department every week. You will be able to make a sermon on “God is love” sound like a funeral dirge. It will get old. You will get old. You’ll become petty lacking substance in your observations as you spend your intellectual rounds time picking off easy targets. You’ll become a master of the obvious.
- People will stop listening. The “flavor of the week” will begin to apply. They have heard it all before so why listen at all. It’s all the same message, “Pull Pin. Throw Grenade. Wait for Shrapnel.”