As we wind down the twentieth century [Editor's note: this article was written in the summer of 1999], having a history of over 1900 years of Christianity, I think it prudent to consider the significance for pastoral ministry of both Dispensationalism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Inherent within the system of theology called Dispensationalism is the reality that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not only alive and well within the physical universe, it is also being illustrated in the realm of things spiritual and Christian. What I mean is this: every dispensation attested to by Holy Writ has ended because of a vast departure from the principles with which it was begun.
Elliott Johnson, in his lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary on the discipline of hermeneutics, has succinctly summarized Dispensationalism as a theology that recognizes the spiral nature of the forward progress of human history in which there is a consistent pattern of a new beginning with new principles of operation, followed by human failure with respect to those principles, followed by divine judgment because of that failure, followed by a new promise with redemptive impact which, in turn, begins a new cycle.
Students of the second law of thermodynamics also recognize that the physical universe actively tends to chaos and disorder. Thus, Dispensationalism posits the same truth in the realm of things spiritual as the Second Law posits in the realm of things physical, i.e. the longer a process is allowed to progress, the further from the original state of things it will become. Just as the wear and tear of ill-kept roads cause the parts of an automobile to gradually disintegrate, so also the pressures of the mystery of iniquity have eroded the pure principles of pastoral ministry over the centuries.
I have titled this article "Abusing Jesus in the Name of Jesus" because of beliefs and practices of pastoral ministry that have gained credibility over the progress of time that have no place in the thinking of a biblical pastor. There is a myriad of them; there are far more particulars than this article can address; and there is a priority system established in the Scriptures that make some of them more significant than others. Therefore, I am deliberately limiting myself to the core problems in pastoral ministry as they exist in the latter days of the second millennium of historical "Christianity".
The New Testament's record of the beginning of the dispensation of the Church sets forth a summary of the problems with which pastors will have to contend in these categories: the lust of the flesh; the lust of the eyes; and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). It also specifically committed several particularly pertinent blocks of material to instruction on "how a pastor ought to conduct himself in the church of God" (1 Timothy 3:15) and we call those blocks of instruction "the pastoral epistles". Nevertheless, sometimes as we look over the practices of pastoral ministry in these days, it almost seems like the pastoral epistles were never written and the motives of pastors were never addressed.
But they were. And God has not forgotten what He inspired.
The core problems are always at the level of motives. It is true that there must always be instruction beyond the level of motives (thus the pastoral epistles), but it is also true that the problem of motives is more critical than the problems of practice. Practice always follows intent. Motives are always underlying what is done, though, admittedly, they are often difficult to detect from what is done.
Let me become a bit more specific. In these days highly visible "Christian" ministries have become tools with which the adversaries have undercut the truth of God's Word simply because of the sensual misconduct of the leaders of those ministries. This is the triumph of the lust of the flesh in these last days. In the name of the Jesus Who denied the appetites of His own flesh even to the point of crucifixion, not to mention the exhaustion of long days of ministry followed by extremely early times of prayer before the next day's ministry began, we have "pastors" who do not refrain themselves from adultery, gluttony, and other behaviors designed to pamper the flesh. They are abusing Jesus in the name of Jesus.
It is also becoming more and more mainstream for the lust of the eyes to dominate Christian ministries especially in the wealthier economies of our world. We have denominations which think nothing of granting a compensation package to its hierarchical staff in excess of $75,000 per annum as though rank within the church somehow defines need. We have organizations outside of the churches that have spent years collecting freely given donations to foster evangelistic ministry on a worldwide basis that, suddenly at this time of ministry, build monuments to the ministry that cost in excess of 40 millions of dollars. Somehow they were able to do the work of building the ministry to the point that it covers the globe without such a massive outlay for a building, but now it is somehow "needed", as are the continuing letters of appeal for more donations. This is not a church that might, somehow, defend its need for a costly central meeting place for its ministry of instructing the saints, nor is it a theological school that genuinely needs a rather large physical plant in order to carry on its instruction of students committed to the progress of the Gospel. It is simply an expression of the lust of the eyes. And many pastors routinely accept far more compensation for their labors than they need all in the name of Jesus and "success".
I am not talking here about "worth". Pastors are "worth" more than their churches can ever pay if they are being faithful to the pastoral calling. But part of that calling is the setting of an example of the absence of the lust of the eyes. And it cannot be done with the mind set that pervades the thinking of many pastors in these days. This is the abuse, in the name of Jesus, of the Jesus Who had not a place of His own to lay His head. Even the birds had more, yet Jesus was "worth" more than all of His pastors combined.
And then there is the use of the pastoral position as a means of self-aggrandizement. Numerous are the men who are doing the work of the ministry because of the status and privilege that is granted to them by the work. The proof of this is in the reality that if the status was replaced by active reviling and persecution, many not only would, but do, forsake the work. Other proofs exist in that the parts of the Holy Scripture that confront the paganism of the culture are strangely muted in the pulpits of many "pastors". By way of example, the latter day push by women (and some male supporters) for the positions of pastors in local churches is another signal of the rampant pursuit of "ministry" because of the pride of life. What woman is there who would run roughshod over Paul's clearly stated principles of male leadership at the head of the local churches without being driven by status-lust? And what man would support that without being driven by the desire to be seen as a champion of female equality? Being seen as a champion...status lust...the arrogance of thinking that if men or women think highly of us, God must also!
Surely if we are truly in the pastoral ministry "in the name of Jesus" we would want to align ourselves with the words of Jesus through His chosen apostles! Abusing Jesus in the name of Jesus are those who claim to be propounding the words of the Jesus who made Himself of no reputation in order to make for themselves a grand reputation! Thus, the problems stemming from the base motives of lust and pride are manifold, and Jesus is regularly abused by those who use His name to gratify themselves.
Someone once said that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. On that basis, I want to go beyond pointing at the base motives of people who are using the name of Jesus to promote themselves.
What is the pastor to do about his physical appetites so that the name of Jesus is not dishonored by His representative? The biblical answer is not hard to find: 1 Corinthians 9:27. This text expresses Paul's claim that he "buffets his body and makes it his slave" so that he might not be disqualified from ministry. One of the anomalies of the English language is the fact that words that are spelled the same are often not pronounced the same, nor do they have the same meaning. The word "buffet" is one of those. How it ever came to be that the verb "to buffet" [pronounced "buff-et"] could also be used as a noun to refer to a meal set out by a restaurant at which the patrons might gorge themselves by repeated trips to the "buffet [pronounced buff-ey] line" is a wonder indeed, but it gives an apt illustration of the declension of principle over time from a personal strictness over the body to a personal bondage to its appetites. Now, instead of "I buffet my body" many pastors "buffey" their bodies and act like physical pleasure is as important as the service of the ministry.
But Paul's principle of self-discipline over his body is a fundamental principle of true ministry. It is not a principle of stoicism; it is a principle of keeping the flesh and its appetites under the dominion of the Spirit Who has exalted ministry to the saints to a position far higher than anything that the body can achieve. Fellow-pastor, if you and I are to honor Jesus in the name of Jesus, we have no option but to call upon the Spirit of self-discipline to guard us from the mind set of fleshly indulgence. This applies in two directions: we cannot seek pleasure at the price of the sacrifice of godliness; nor can we seek to escape pain at the price of the denial of Jesus. Our bodies glory in their power to yield pleasure and pain as methods of dominion over our goals to glorify Jesus, but we are commissioned with the Spirit of Power to buffet our bodies and keep them in line.
In the same way we are required to guard against the power that material possessions seek to exercise over our commitment to minister in the name of Jesus. When I was a student at the Dallas Theological Seminary, I developed an abiding friendship with a man who served the seminary in the capacity of directing student placement. One day, I told him that I believed that DTS was training men for upper class ministries simply because of the extraordinarily high cost of the training. He, good-naturedly, argued that I was incorrect and to try to prove me wrong, summoned a fellow-student to our table. He asked the student if he had the opportunity to go to one of two ministries that differed only in the amount of the compensation package, which would he choose? The student immediately answered, "I would take the one with the better salary; why shouldn't I?" My friend looked at me solemnly and agreed I had a point. Later, in the year of my graduation, this same friend held a session for graduating seniors on their expectations regarding ministry. After a presentation of several issues, he opened the session for questions. The first question asked by a graduating senior was "What kind of salary can I expect to draw as a graduate?" When that is the first question, lest I should say that when that question even comes up, there is something wrong with the mind set regarding ministry. In order to be free from the lust of the eyes and the tendency to accumulate earthly prizes that dissuade us from the work of the pastor/teacher, we must keep Peter's admonition foremost before our eyes: "shepherd the flock of God...not for sordid gain...".
Recently I had an email communication from a pagan who said that he did not expect me to agree with him because I made my living from propagating "the Gospel". To my great relief I was free to write him back and tell him that if I had to work 60 hours a week to make a living for my family, I would still be preaching the Gospel. I know this is true because much of my ministry life I have worked at something else in order to make ends meet so that I could serve the church without demanding more in salary than it could give. There is great freedom in being free from the demands of the material lusts.
And, finally, in the same way we are to maintain our freedom from the use of the ministry for status-lust fulfillment. Instead of measuring success by how many people flock to hear us, and instead of measuring success by the measure of respect we get from the communities in which we serve, we are to measure success by one standard: have we done what Jesus has called us to do?
There are entirely too many men, and in these days I also have to add "women", in the pastoral ministry whose motivations are stirred by the desire to be applauded and recognized. A true pastor cannot be motivated by that. James 3:1 is a caution that we must keep before our eyes. No one should be a pastor that is not gifted for the task and called by God to pursue it. Neither should anyone seek to be a teacher because it is a way to have men look up to him. The pastoral ministry exists for one reason: to serve the people of God; not to be served by the people of God.
1 John 2:16 says that "all" that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Paul says we can win over the lust of the flesh by buffeting our bodies and keeping them in subjection. Peter says we can win over the lust of the eyes if we diligently remember that we are forbidden to do the work of the ministry for the sake of material gain. And James says we can win over the pride of life if we do not aspire to the office of pastor, nor to the function of teacher without a compelling sense of divine gifting and calling. At the end of the Twentieth Century the ministry has become a way for men to gratify their lusts and ambitions. This is something we expect from a Dispensational grasp of the progress of the mystery of iniquity, but it is not something in which we need to participate. Brothers and fellow-pastors, keep yourselves from idols.