Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dear Pastor: Pastor Before Program

          Scenario: someone in our church tells us there is something seriously broken inside them. We want to help. However, they are using a program or resource that we can’t fully endorse because some of the content conflicts with our understanding of sound doctrine. What do we do next, fix the program, or shepherd the person?
          Answer: We are pastors to our people before we are judges of programs. By that I do not mean that we don’t care what programs our people are involved with as they seek to deal with things in their lives. It is more like the, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins,” idea.[1] A pastor’s shepherdly love covers over a multitude of flaws in a program, while we show our people better ways to experience the healing of God in the traumas they carry.
          In other words, even if someone is in a program I cannot endorse, or reading a book I cannot approve, or listening to a preacher who teaches unsound doctrine, I can still be a pastor to that person first, and then help them discover what is better than what they are using.
          I should also say that, in my encounters with the Psychology Police, I have never heard these people describe how they would minister to the need an individual is dealing with in a better way than the program or resource they are condemning. A pastor must certainly aim to bring all ministries of the church up to the standard of what accords with wound doctrine,[2] but sometimes that means shepherding the person in their heartache, pain, grief, trauma, before we have time or opportunity to fix the program they have already been using.
          Now, let me take this to the extreme. Let’s just say someone comes to me who is working through painful emotional issues, and tells me how much they have benefited from a book that contains what can only be described as false doctrine. We discover that the book leads people on a journey through intense soul pain, and that it has attracted Christians who have never found anyone in their church fellowships who would help them face such things in their own lives.
          For those people who know they are hurting, have bottled up painful experiences, often from childhood, and now find that someone claiming to be a Christian talks about the same intensity of brokenheartedness as they live with every day, the dishonest descriptions of God may not be enough for them to deny the opportunity to cry their way through an honest journey of healing.
          I know that there is a far better way of traveling through emotional trauma than misrepresenting God. I know that the nature of God revealed in Scripture is the very thing people need to see in order to experience the healing for the brokenhearted that the God revealed in Scripture promises to give them. I know that it is this God, in the words, phrases, and descriptions breathed-out in Scripture, who calls people to pour out their hearts to him with every manner of brokenness and pain that is inside them.
          I also know that some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are coming out of experiences in the world where the evil one has blinded people’s minds “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”[3] I know that pastoral work includes leading people into the truth of God’s word, and the ministry of the Spirit of truth, so that they see the light of the glory of Christ shining out through the gospel, and they understand what God is like, and what the image of God is like. Part of freedom ministry includes proclaiming “sight to the blind,”[4] so that they can see what it is like for God to shine “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[5]
          I understand the necessity of preaching the word of God “in season and out of season.”[6] I know this is because the word of God is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,”[7] which requires pastors to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”[8] I also regretfully accept that some people “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”[9] Yes, I get that.
          However, I contend that I can be a pastor to any of God’s children no matter where they are starting their journey. I can empathize and sympathize with them in their weakness, just as sound doctrine about my Savior reveals.[10] And I can be so filled with the grace of God, according to the sound doctrine revealed in Scripture, that people would feel confident in coming to me out of their weakness, pain, fear, and confusion, because they know my fellowship with Jesus Christ is such that I will make sure they “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[11]
          This mercy and grace come from the “throne of grace,” with Jesus alone as the great high priest who has opened the way to this gift.[12] However, as Jesus has given pastors and teachers to the church,[13] and made them shepherds of the flock,[14] there has to be a way that us under-shepherds relate to God’s people in the same shepherdly way as our Savior. We should make our people feel encouraged to approach the throne of grace with confidence because we minister to them in a similar way to any encouragement they get directly from Jesus.
          Not only should the whole body of Christ aim to imitate the love of God in our expressions to one another,[15] meaning that people in our churches should feel that our love for them is very similar to God’s love for them, but pastors have all the more accountability to be “examples to the flock,”[16] so that people in our churches feel we are showing them what it looks like to live the sound doctrine they read in God’s word.
          I should also point out that, in the New Testament, according to sound doctrine, the church of a city was led by a fellowship of elders all working together, sharing the duties of shepherdly care over the flock. There were even distinctions in what each elder offered in ministry, with all the elders called to “rule,” while some of the elders were identified as “those who labor in preaching and teaching.”[17]
          I say this to clarify that pastors are supposed to work together in the care of the flock since no one pastor is a sufficient example of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything I am sharing here is to promote togetherness in shepherding the flock, not the solitary pastor image that is so prominent. I trust that me writing this, and you reading this, gives some of that fellowship we need.
          Within this context of a church fellowship where there are many people in the church doing various kinds of ministry to the many people needing help to grow up in Christ, pastors must be pastors before they are Program Police. We must care more about our love covering over a multitude of sins, or weaknesses in a program, than leaving people with the impression that we can only love them if they are without sin, or in a flawless program.
          I admit that this has been difficult for me, since my modus operandi in handling my childhood pain was to try to do everything just right. The less people could find fault with me, the less pain I would experience. Of course, I wasn’t that old when I began to realize that my plan wasn’t working, had never worked, and was never going to work. I also discovered that when a child grows up trying to be good in order to avoid pain, he becomes an adult who expects everyone else to be good in order for us to get along with each other. That mindset certainly did not promote the gracious character that Jesus expressed.
          By immersing me in a fellowship of broken people who could not perform the good my self-protective coping mechanisms thrived on,[18] God began (or continued) humbling me, healing me, transforming me, changing me, until I could see that everything was about how good he is to help his people by grace, not how good we are to impress him with our works. I now contend that pastors must show so much grace and mercy to broken people that they would never feel we can’t be there for them because we think there is too much psychology in the program that is helping them.
          In fact, I would say this: when someone in our churches testifies that they are dealing with unresolved trauma, and we are concerned that the program they are using has too many elements we cannot endorse, to the degree we do not like the program they are using, we should expend every effort to lead them into something better.
          Instead of thinking we need to begin by throwing out the one thing that is helping them, rotten crutch that it may be, let’s think about how we can overwhelm these people with the glories of our hope and faith in Jesus Christ so they are able to let go of the teddy bears they have relied on for comfort. These crutches and teddy bears were necessary comforts when trauma came knocking at the door and no real human being was there for them. Let's meet them at their starting place and show them a better way.
          I am not talking about the kind of so-called hope that is a denial of what people are going through. I am always trying to hold in our minds the kind of hope that fully acknowledges what people are going through (just as is repeatedly revealed in the Psalms), humbles itself to meet these people where they are,[19] and then leads them into the experience of fulfilled promises of God in ways that make people feel they are safe and secure little lambs under the care of men who are “gentle and lowly in heart” like Jesus.[20]
          As people experience us relating to them like Jesus, they will follow our example in that transforming lifestyle that makes us more and more like Jesus “from one degree of glory to another.”[21]If we meet people where they are, and lead them to be daily transformed by the renewal of their mind,[22] we will see less and less reliance on the psychological explanations that were once necessary to describe where they were starting from.
          I would say to pastors, do not allow the Psychology Police to make you like Peter who stopped eating with the Gentile believers, and started restricting his fellowship to the Jewish believers. We should come across to everyone as the friend of sinners who will fellowship with anyone who wants to experience the fullness of the gospel that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”[23]
          Keep in mind that references to the use of psychology are only for the purpose of helping people understand practical issues to do with where they are starting from (just like a medical doctor describes the practical issues related to someone’s recovery from physical injury or disease). The treatment and cure to broken souls is Jesus Christ, with all his gifts of grace administered through the ministry of the body of Christ.
          When we can accept descriptions of where people are starting from, with confidence in where Jesus is taking them, we can fearlessly enter into the most confusing of soul conditions, provide the fullest soul care we can give “with all his energy that he powerfully works within me,”[24]and lead people into the complete soul provision of Jesus Christ to give rest to their souls.[25]Joining people where they are in their pain, so we can bring them to where we are in our freedom in Christ, makes us the branches through which Jesus heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,[26] revives the hearts of the contrite,[27] and all the other promises of sound doctrine that the mature in Christ grasp much better and stronger than those who need our help.
          Now, in conclusion, if God can hear the sound of his brokenhearted children crying out to him in their slavery, remember his covenant with Abraham that required him to lead these people into the Promised Land, and connect with these enslaved people through a man like Moses who was terrified of what God required of him, is it possible that God could connect his covenant promises for his church to the traumatized souls among us through men like us who are very insecure about what to do next?[28]
          And, if God could come to his people at that time, knowing where he was going to take them into his blessing, knowing his power to save, heal, and restore them to the glory they had once known under Prime Minister Joseph some centuries earlier, and to establish them in the land he promised to Abraham; if he could patiently reveal himself to both his people, and the enemies of his people, through a lengthy and systematic process of the ten plagues, and could bear with his people’s unfounded fears and unbelief on the way to the Promised Land, never failing to lead them towards the things his covenant promised, could we not join the people of God in whatever slavery they are experiencing? Could we not bear with any cultural expressions of psychology that have helped our people understand where they are and how they are doing, while testifying to them of the wonders and hopes of healing and wholeness in Jesus, until they feel such a hunger and thirst for the righteousness that is theirs by faith in Christ that they follow us as we lead them into the Promised Land of freedom in God our Savior?
          The apostle Paul did this by including the distinctive characteristic of becoming all things to all people. He said, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”[29] What a wonderful mindset to guide us in our ministry! People come to us with some trauma they are not free of, and we can tell ourselves that we are “free from all.”[30] We can make ourselves a servant to all, including these traumatized people who struggle with things that are no longer a problem to us. We can serve these people in love, no matter how much psychological baggage we think they are carrying, with the heartfelt pastoral desire that we “might win more of them.” If we think someone needs to be won out of a psychology-dependent program, join them where they are starting from (since you are free of both the bondage, and the dependence on psychology to address that bondage), and lead them where your faith tells you they should be in Christ.
          Where do I place my hope and faith for people overcoming pain and trauma from the past? In Jesus Christ setting them free. It is that hope and faith that enables me to join people wherever they are starting from. I know that he will lead us through any wilderness, even one that is covered with the unnecessary rubble of psychological explanations of what people are experiencing. If I, as a pastor, will go where the sheep are, Jesus will help me lead them to where he is. Simple as that (not easy, of course, just simple).

© 2014 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] I Peter 4:8
[2] Titus 2:1
[3] II Corinthians 4:4
[4] Luke 4:18
[5] II Corinthians 4:6
[6] II Timothy 4:1-2
[7] II Timothy 3:16-17
[8] II Timothy 4:2
[9] II Timothy 4:3-4
[10] Hebrews 4:15
[11] Hebrews 4:16 (I only mean this in the way that under-shepherds lead people to know the great shepherd, Jesus Christ)
[12] Hebrews 4:14. All believers are a “kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6), so none of us ever act as a priest that people need to come to in order to come to God. All believers have the same access to God through Jesus Christ. Pastors simply shepherd people who need help getting there.
[13] Ephesians 4:11-16
[14] I Peter 5:1-3
[15] Ephesians 5:1-2
[16] I Peter 5:3
[17] I Timothy 5:17
[18] Yes, “self-protection” and “coping mechanisms” would commonly be denounced by the Psychology Police, but they are wonderfully concise descriptions of behaviors that are far too prominent in churches.
[19] Philippians 2:1-11 explains how this should work in the church, obviously exemplified by all the elders, pastors, teachers.
[20] Matthew 11:28-30 tells us what Jesus promises to do, and reveals his gentle and lowly character towards those who “labor and are heavy laden.” Pastors should be the front line examples of what this looks like in real life.
[21] II Corinthians 3:18
[22] Romans 12:2
[23] Romans 1:16
[24] Colossians 1:29
[25] Matthew 11:28-30
[26] Psalm 147:3; John 15:1-17
[27] Isaiah 57:15
[28] The first chapters of Exodus introduce us to Moses and the initial stages of God delivering his people out of their Egyptian slavery. From there through to the book of Joshua we see how much God bore with his people on the way to leading them safely into the covenant promises of the land of Canaan.
[29] I Corinthians 9:19
[30] This, of course, requires that we have already experienced the freedom we believe Jesus will give to all his disciples.

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