Robert M. Norris
The church today is confused, and that confusion is deep and profound. There may be many reasons why this is so, but it is true that in this generation, self-doubt, division, and weakness mark the church, even the evangelical church. Responsibility for much of what is wrong must lie with those appointed by God to be his spokesmen in the midst of the church. All too often pastors have forgotten that the subject matter of their work is primarily spiritual.
Their first concern must be to please God and to aid the salvation of his people. When we allow temporal and ultimately transitory things to intrude and interfere in this primary task, then we have failed. Our ministry is to offer to our congregations that pastoral care that will point always to Christ. In general, pastoral care may be reduced to confirmation that speaks of the necessary building up of the body of Christ, encouraging, supporting, edifying.
Another responsibility is preservationthe development within congregations of issues of doctrinal truth. We live in a generation of vastly diverse opinions, where much is taught that purports to be Christian. Because our congregations are increasingly biblically illiterate, they do not have the means to determine what is true and good, much less to know what is doctrinally substantial and sound.
Our ministry is also one of restoration, which means to bring those who have lapsed in their profession of faith back to the fullness of church life. The primary vehicle for that task is the public preaching of the Word of God. It is a work that requires careful preparation, energy, and the use of skills and gifts that individuals have been given. Because of the illiteracy of many in our generation in the things of the Bible, we are called to give clearer, simpler, and truer presentations of the gospel message. We do no service to God's flock by distorting that gospel message in an effort to please or even interest congregations.
One simple example of distortion that occurs in many evangelical pulpits is the simple equation of salvation with forgiveness. The truth of the matter is that the Bible makes it clear that salvation is always seen in God's sight as making men and women righteous. The righteousness that God requires is more than a simple forgiveness of what is past. It is a reclothing with the righteousness of Christ himself, imputed to us by the Father, then worked out in a process of sanctification by the Spirit of God. When we forget this truth, we downplay the moral content of our message. Indeed, the downplaying and degrading of theology within the preaching of the church has resulted in a distortion of the Christian message and a weakening of the understanding of congregations.
To recapture the reality that a minister's primary responsibility is to stand up in the face of the congregation and speak a word from the living God in his name, is to be reminded of the awe-inspiring nature of the call. Nor is it sufficient for ministers to argue that congregations do not want sermons dealing with propositional truth, that they are incapable of listening to expositions of the Scripture because they do not understand it. If we capitulate to the requests that many make to deal with their "felt needs" instead of the spiritual reality of pleasing God first, then, however successful we may appear to be in our churches, we do no real service either to the Lord or to the people that are under our care. If we do not prepare this generation in the midst of a pagan culture to deal with the onslaughts against faith, then we are poor shepherds, neglecting our calling.
Perhaps an equally important aspect of our ministry, which is often ignored, is to provide oversight to those who are failing to walk in Christ's way. We must provide encouragement for those who stumble and offer effective means of restoring those who have fallen on the path of faith. If we do not do that by setting the standard of righteousness and purity to which we are accountable and to which we call our people to be accountable, then we will ultimately become confused with the world. Baxter reminds us forcibly: "The principal use of public discipline is not for the offender but for the church. It is tendered so as to keep pure the congregation and their worship."
To remember that it is the first call of the Christians to present pure worship before God as part of our high calling is to remember that it is God's people who are the instruments of worship.
Finally, it is important to remember that the pastoral office to which ministers are called requires a confidence in what we do and are called to do. It seems that our generation of ministers has lost confidence in the call to preach the Word of God as it is set by the Lord of Scripture. Rather, we find increasingly a determination in the name of "relevance" to acquire other skills and technical capacities that do not complement, but rather supplant, the primary call of spiritual leadership through proclamation. When ministers are not confident in the nature of that callwhen they are not confident in the agenda offered to them by Christ in his Wordthen they will never be able to give to their congregations that true sense of focused worship of holy obedience to a righteous God, which is both our privilege and our high call.
The author is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Bethesda, Md. Reprinted with permission from Tabletalk, April 1992. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2002.