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Loving the Flock When It Seems That They Do Not Love You

Alan D. Strange

We are to love the flock to which God has called us to serve as overseers—regardless of our perception of their love for us.[1] To be sure, just as a man seeking a wife, we should, before accepting a call from a particular congregation, ascertain that they gladly receive our ministrations and that we enjoy mutual love and respect (as Paul loved, and was loved and respected by, those he references in 1 Thess. 2:1–13). Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving his ministry to them, particularly his preaching of the Word of God, which they rightly regarded not as the word of men, but as it truly was, the Word of God. Clearly, they loved and received him, even as he did them, speaking to and of them in the most affectionate terms, likening himself to a father and even a nursing mother to them.

So, too, as much as possible, a man who is a candidate for a pastoral call should ascertain that he has a true heart for ministry to those seeking to call him and that they truly receive his ministry to them, particularly his preaching of the Word. This is why the process of the pastoral call should never be perfunctory. It is preferable that a candidate visit the congregation and preach and teach in that congregation over the course of a number of weeks and Lord’s Days. Only in this way can all parties have any hope of making a reasonable assessment of the suitability and fitness of both parties for each other.

A congregation’s call to a minister is of the utmost importance and they ought not to issue, nor should he accept a call, unless all parties have done all that is reasonable to ascertain whether or not this is the man that the congregation should call. However—as is also true with a man and a woman who think that they should get married—a congregation and pastor may think that they know and love each other; however, they can never really love each other until they take the time to know each other. Such real and deep knowledge does not happen apart from a pastor and a congregation living together for some time.

Here again the analogy of a marriage is apt as minister and congregation frequently are said in the early part of his tenure to enjoy a honeymoon and inquiry is made after some time along the lines of “is the honeymoon over?” when problems come to the fore. This reflects the reality that once a marriage ensues it is not simply wine and roses all the time but involves the hard, but immensely rewarding, work of learning to live together, which involves pain and pleasure, as we die to sin and live to righteousness. In a ministerial relationship such occurs as it does in a marriage.

What is a man to do if he discovers that his wife does not trust or respect him as he thought she did (or if she changes or appears to change in this)? This is not uncommon as we get to know each other: we are all sinners, and when the bloom is off the rose we see things about each other that we did not earlier see. A congregation will come to learn in some practical ways, however godly their minister may be, that he is but a man, a man who has many faults along with his virtues (even as a wife will learn this about her husband in practical ways that hitherto eluded her). And, even as a man will learn this about his dear wife—that she, as lovely as she is, has many faults and shortcomings—a minister will come to see that his congregation is not everything that he dreamed, imagined, or hoped it to be (even as he is not all that they had hoped a pastor would be to them).

What are a congregation and a minister to do when they come to see these things about each other? Particularly, in light of this topic, what is a minister to do when he comes to a clearer-eyed assessment of his congregation? Well, what is a man to do when he discovers that his wife is a sinner and not only falls short in her own ways but also is not as loving of him as he thought (or expects)?

He is to love her, even as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:22–33). Remember, Christ loves the church even though the church at times resists Christ and never perfectly submits to Him. The church at times resists Christ, even as wives resist husbands, and congregations resist their pastors, failing to respect him and love him as they ought. So a husband ought to love his wife, even when she fails or seems to fail to respect him, and a pastor ought to love his flock, even when they fail or seem to fail to love and respect him. The love of a husband for his wife and a minister for his flock may be made easier by greater real or perceived receptivity, yet the responsibility to love remains on the part of the one called to love (minister or husband), whether or not he believes that his wife loves and respects him.

A husband, once he has entered marriage and made vows, sticks by them through thick and thin. Similarly, once a minister has been installed in a particular congregation, and thus taken the requisite vows, he does not abandon that congregation. Only upon proper process can the ministerial call be dissolved— and that only in the proper circumstances (another valid call is in the offing, for instance), not merely because things have grown difficult, including real or perceived lack of affection on the part of a congregation.

Once you have accepted the call and are within a congregation, endeavoring to serve as their pastor, what are you to do when the congregation does not seem to love you? Even as a man does not abandon his marriage because he perceives his wife not loving him, so a man does not abandon a call as pastor because he perceives (real or not) that the congregation is lacking in love to him. By the way, this husband/wife, pastor/church analogy is, as we have seen, not inappropriate for several reasons, not the least being that a minister represents Christ to the congregation (as a man in his own way represents Christ to his wife, Eph. 4:33).

Why does a man love a wife who he perceives fails to love him as she should or as he thinks she should? Because God loves him, and he loves God and delights to obey him. Why does a man love a church that he perceives fails to love him? Because God loves him, and he loves God and delights to obey him. God calls you to love the flock regardless of their real or perceived lack of reciprocation. If one keeps in mind that our duty is first to God and then to our neighbor, we can continue loving our neighbor even when we perceive them as unlovable, because God loves us and thus gives us the strength to love them. Additionally, since God loves them, we are to love them.

We are to love the flock regardless of their response because God never stops loving us or them, even though, especially in light of his ineffable holiness, he has no reason to love the likes of us or them. We may feel that we have no reason to love the likes of our flock, but we are empowered to do so in loving a God who loves the unlovely and by that love beautifies them. Here is a wonderful thing: in loving, a husband beautifies his wife and a minister beautifies a congregation. Maybe it is a congregation that has a reputation for being hard or inhospitable. A kind, loving minister, after some time, will likely help shape, by God’s grace, his congregation to become more kind and loving, more welcoming of the stranger, and more caring for one another.

When a man takes a call, he is to endeavor then to love and serve that congregation, even if he senses or believes that they lack love for him. He is to give himself to them, to wash their feet (John 13): preach, pray, visit, counsel, and administer among them (to be among them as Paul was among the Thessalonians). Even as a husband is to give himself to and for his wife, so a minister should give himself to and for his congregation. Or as a father and mother give themselves for their children, as Paul compares himself to parents, as we have seen, in 1 Thessalonians, so a minister gives himself for his congregation. These are the people God has given to you and you to them: love and serve them.

Yes, preach to them the living Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13) in the context of a loving father/mother/husband/Christ-like relationship. Not only preaching, though—here is the point—but being like Paul was to the Thessalonians, even as a nurturing mother and guiding father. Do we love our people like this in any respect? Listen to what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” Does this sort of language, in its depth and intensity, capture our love for the flock? Or does the language of Paul embarrass us in our cold, loveless, cynical culture? Look at Paul’s language and check yourself against it.

This is the sort of thing that John Piper means when he reminds us that we are not professionals in the ministry. This is not to say that there is not a professional aspect to what we do, and that we are not to operate in a properly professional way, but we are never merely professionals. We are more like caring husbands or parents to our flock—or husbands or dear friends who employ the most affectionate of terms to the sheep under our care—who long to see Christ formed more and more in them and labor in fervent love to that end day and night. Pray for yourselves without ceasing for this sort of heart to be formed in you and this sort of love to characterize your ministry to the flock.

This service of the minister to his people is not conditioned on their conduct or understanding and not conditioned on your perception of their affection for you. A husband is not to refuse to love and give himself to his wife because of her real or perceived shortcomings, even her failure to love. Similarly, as long as one is the pastor of a particular congregation he has a divine obligation to love those under his care, regardless of their real or perceived lack of love of him. Again, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, even our Lord Jesus Christ, continues to love us though we are very unworthy of his love and though we never in return love him as we ought. Pastors need to be willing to love and never receive in return the kind of love that they bring to the people, since they are ambassadors of Christ to the congregation and he never receives in return anything close to what he gives. Let us learn to love regardless of the love that the flock returns, remembering that Jesus loves us in this way and keeps loving us though we keep failing to love him as we ought in return.

Notice the proposition that I have been given to address—“loving them when it seems they do not love you.” We need to recognize that we only have our perceptions. There are times when, because we misunderstand something, we perceive that someone does not love us, care for us, like us, or respect us. This sense sometimes stems from our own sin: a person or persons fail sufficiently to admire us, praise us, recognize us, etc., so we conclude that they do not love us. In other words, someone may not fail to love us truly but only fail to fill our love buckets, because we are looking to them to provide what only God can by way of love and acceptance. When we look to our parishioners this way, we are bound to be disappointed with them, even as they with us, when they look to us for what only God can give them.

We must remember that we do not have a “God’s eye” view of our people. We cannot read their hearts, as tempting as we may find that notion, and as much as we may attempt to do it. We may quite misunderstand “the signals” from this or that person by mistaking something cultural or temperamental for a lack of love (“these quiet Midwesterners don’t appreciate me; these noisy New Yorkers don’t respect me”; the various ethnicities and regions all have their ways of expressing things that may differ from our desires or expectations).

Only Christ is the truth incarnate, and we need to be really very careful and humble by not going around and pronouncing that we know what is really going on with people. This would be an ungodly judging of our brethren, of our flock. It is important, then, to remember the “seems” in this equation, because our feeling of a lack of love, or perception of a lack of love, can say more about us than them.

It can stem from our own sins and idols. We crave adoration, and when people fail to give it to us as we think they should, it is easy to dismiss them and to think, “they do not love me.” We may think others do not love us because of our own pride and envy (and  the other deadly sins). We should be careful not to mistake the “feeling” of not being loved with the fact of not being loved. The truth is that we can often make the mistake of thinking that our deepest feelings are the truth and end up worshipping our emotions and letting them control us rather than being controlled by him who is truth.

God’s Word, however, not what I feel most deeply, is what determines truth (Eph. 4:25). This is important to remember when we “speak the truth.” I may think that I am speaking the truth to my wife or my friend or someone else that I “tell off” and “let have it.” But such venting often misses the truth of God about that person. I may wish to tell my friend that he is this or that. But if he is God’s child, he is precious to God, and the ultimate truth about him is not the frustration that I feel with him that prompts me to call him a “loser.” He is not, in Christ, a loser, even if he has much lamentable behavior.

We need to learn to speak of each other, and to each other, the way that Christ thinks and speaks of us. He regards us as his dear children in spite of all our sin and misery, and when he confronts us about sin he never does so in a way that indicates that that is all that he thinks about us. No, when he confronts us through his Word and Spirit, it is always contextualized with the truth that we are his, and that what he calls us to is not something alien to whom we are as new creations in Christ, but simply to be who we are in Christ as new creations.

Having considered that we must love others, regardless of their love, or lack thereof, to us—whether or not we correctly perceive that—how do we love them when, perhaps, they really do not love us? Sometimes our perception that the flock, or some of the flock, does not love us, is correct—they do not love us. Perhaps, in such cases, then, the first thing that we need to address is this: what are some reasons that people might have for not loving us?

Let us address a few reasons that are “our fault,” while still acknowledging that the congregation ought to love us regardless of what our shortcomings may be. Our sins are many and not easy to hide, especially as we engage our people (they will also not love us if we withdraw and hide from them). Think of sins on our part as ministers that may irritate and put people off: a proud, dismissive, lording-it-over-them spirit; a lack of respect for them (contempt of them); being (or seeming) greedy—mercenary; being  controlling, manipulative—though “for their own good” (some very gifted men are like this); being angry and throwing tantrums, or bullying by your behavior; being lazy, lustful, gluttonous, self-seeking, self-promoting. We manifest these sorts of sins in the flesh far more than we wish to acknowledge (even as we walk in the flesh more often than we care to admit).

We need to acknowledge, though we are all commanded to love one another, that we are not always loveable and to be actively at work on this in our lives by pursuing holiness in humility, kindness, and approachability; real holiness is always approachable. Because of the sorts of things cited in the above paragraph, God’s people are often challenged to love the likes of us who serve as their ministers. There are, in other words, many reasons that the flock may find us unlovable and thus have a hard time loving us (or simply fail to do so). The right response here on the part of ministers is repentance, chiefly for the sake of Christ, who is our gracious Lord and Savior and to whom we should render joyful obedience. We also respond for the sake of those to whom we minister—not only because we are to be examples to the flock, but because repenting of what makes it hard for them to love us is the way that we ought to treat them. By doing this we help them to fulfill their obligation to love us as their minister.

Reasons that are “their fault” in failing to love us are also not difficult to discover. Their own sins meet ours—they are impatient with our impatience, they are greedy and do not like our greed—and they fail to love. Particularly, they may sense our lack of love for them and this galls them and tempts them not to love us. Perhaps, they cannot accept our temperaments and personalities: we are quiet and they prefer louder or we are voluble and they prefer more reserved. We need to change in many ways, though not basic personality (careful here: we cannot claim this while excusing any sin—that is not mere personality).

While a congregation is to love its minister even if he is genuinely unlovable for some unmortified sins, they do not have the right to seek to make their minister over into something that he is not, something that is contrary to the way that God made him. This is not to say that a man cannot grow in, and ought to seek to grow in, for instance, his social skills that will permit him to more readily engage people. It is to say that the congregation is not to expect someone who is of a more retiring disposition to become a glad-handed extrovert.

Consider the ways, wrong and right, in which we respond to a lack of love (or a perceived lack of love). Perhaps the chief temptation, for most of us, is to engage in withdrawal—this is a very real temptation that often also occurs in our families. Do not withdraw. Rather ora et labora (pray and labor) for and with them. Give yourself selflessly to them. Even when they are envious, greedy, proud, etc.—all the things for which they despise you. Give and give and give, and you can, because you have received superabundantly. Remember you are a sinner and your people are sinners. God’s grace is sufficient for you all.

We can also be those who are known for blowing up and lashing out, if withdrawal is not our response to a perceived lack of love from the flock. Do not pitch a fit in or out of the pulpit. Do not slander or gossip about your real or perceived enemies. Do not be bitter and full of hatred toward those that oppose you. Understand the use that God intends to make of opposition in your life (and remember that some people will hate even the most godly persons, certainly something experienced by our Lord and the apostle Paul). Some will resist the truth and will resent your confronting them with their sin. Do not “let them have it” in the pulpit; do not “preach searchingly” so as to expose hypocrisy that we are certain of because some people do not love us. Preach searchingly in love, not “beating them up” because of a lack of love on your part.

We ought to respond not by clamming up or blowing up but by learning patiently how to deal with those who do not love us, seeking to win them by firm yet loving engagement, disciplining in love when needed (be careful here). Engage, in fact, in the sort of self-sacrifice for the flock that Warfield counseled in his masterful sermon, “Imitating the Incarnation:”

Self-sacrifice brought Christ into the world. And self-sacrifice will lead us, His followers, not away from but into the midst of men. Wherever men suffer, there will we be to comfort. Wherever men strive, there will we be to help. Wherever men fail, there will we be to uplift. Wherever men succeed, there will we be to rejoice. Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them. It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means entering into every man’s hopes and fears, longings and despairs: it means manysidedness of spirit, multiform activity, multiplicity of sympathies. It means richness of development.

If the people know that we preach what we preach to ourselves as well as to them and are struggling to love just as we call them to do, that will enable us to say more to them and to be received by them. A people who know that you love them will be, in the main, receiving and loving in return.

You are opposed sometimes because some are resistant to Christ’s Lordship and resist you as his ambassador. But do not be too quick, as we often are, because of our tendency to excuse and justify ourselves, to conclude that the flock’s disaffection is persecution for righteousness’ sake (again, it may be, but it is self-serving, and often self-deceiving, to quickly conclude this).

Above all, remember that, while you were yet a sinner, Christ loved you and died for you. He washed the feet of his confused, doubting disciples. It is when poor, doubting souls are drawn to Christ that minister and congregants most love each other. And this is what you, as Christ’s minister, are privileged to do: minister, so that you and your people are drawn to Christ, drawn to love him with all your being, and you are drawn to love your people, and your people are drawn to love each other, including you, their minister, with a pure, fervent heart.

It is only when we love him, in response to his loving us, that we love each other. So it is that pastors love their people and the flock loves the pastor. This is a loveless world. Only in Christ, as we commune with him and each other, as members of his mystical body, only then are we very unloveable people able to love him and each other. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] This article is based on “Loving the Flock When It Seems That They Don’t Love You,” an address by Alan D. Strange to the URCNA Pastors’ Conference, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, June 2013.

[2] B. B. Warfield, “Imitating the Incarnation,” in The Person and Work of Christ (1914; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1970 ), 574–575.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, May 2020.

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