Matthew 18:6-7 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”
James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Hebrews 13:17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Ezekiel 33:6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes… I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.
These Bible verses piss me off.
It’s because of passages like these that pastors, Christian educators, church volunteers, and others feel like they can’t be honest. We put leaders on such a pedestal that they cannot be vulnerable with their friends and families. Given enough time, the leaders crack under the pressure.
Perry Noble, (former) lead pastor of NewSong Church in Anderson, South Carolina stepped down in the last year due to struggles with alcoholism. Mark Driscoll let Mars Hill Church in Seattle implode because of his ego. Rob Bell left his Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan, after he questioned traditional doctrine about heaven and hell. On a more personal level, I’ve seen multiple pastors leave the ministry because of “moral failures.”
We use passages like the aforementioned to justify how we ostracize and shame pastors when their ministry flames out. The implication is that these pastors simply weren’t cut out for the ministry. “It’s a tough calling. Ministry isn’t for everyone,” people say. “Count the cost,” they continue, almost with an air of superiority.
But who can actually stand up to this? Who can honestly say they are qualified to preach, teach, or lead after reading passages like these? In fact, I think if somebody does feel qualified to lead after reading these passages, they are the very person who shouldn’t lead or teach.
These passages are crippling. Who would say “yes” to teaching, preaching, or leading when these are the consequences of getting it wrong? And who can guarantee total perfection? What pastor can honestly say they’ve never misspoken or misrepresented an idea in a sermon? What leader can say they’ve never changed their stance on an issue and discovered they had been wrong for years? A pastor friend of mine once said that all preaching is basically pastors confidently espousing truths they only 80% understand.
“Then pastors should study more!” is the likely response. “It’s a high calling. Respect the office. Do the hard work, study the Scriptures and the commentaries. Do the exegesis and bring us the truth.”
How does that happen on the week then there was both a wedding and a funeral in addition to normal work requirements? How does that play out when there’s a family crisis and the majority of the pastor’s attention is spent worrying about loved ones? Even more likely still, how does that logic play out on the week where the pastor simply wasn’t excited about the passage? Does the pastor bring eternal judgment or divine retribution upon him or herself for deciding to go to their kid’s soccer game instead of reading that last commentary, knowing they may preach a sermon without a total understanding of the text?
What angers me about these passages even more is that the pastor often feels unable to voice their own doubts, questions about this and other issues. I often hear comments like, “You’re supposed to be the one with the answers.” Or “You can’t complain, you have no idea what real life is like and what others experience.”
Even among fellow pastors, the response is often “There’s a time and a place. If you have doubts or questions, don’t burden your congregation with them. Take those issues to a therapist.” I even had a preaching professor once tell me in class, “Don’t ever say anything negative about yourself from the pulpit. There will already be enough people trying to take you off of the pedestal. You don’t need to do it for them.”
I feel duped.
It’s my own fault, really. How did I not notice these verses before becoming a pastor? More accurately, why did I ignore them when I did come across them? Did I really believe I was more qualified than others?
I feel like the prophet Jeremiah as he describes himself in Jeremiah 20. He basically says that proclaiming God’s word continually brings him pain and difficulty, but he cannot help it. He simply must preach what God has given to preach. It is like a fire in his bones; he can’t hold it in. To be sure, I’m not being persecuted like Jeremiah was, but I regularly struggle with wondering whether I am being faithful to the calling God has placed on my life. Am I preaching how and what God would want me to preach? Could I have done a better job, prepared more for that sermon or that particular church event? Every week, I get increasingly anxious the closer it gets to Sunday morning, regardless of how prepared I am for the sermon. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just do something else. But I can’t do that. Every time I’m not preaching, I’m thinking about when I’ll preach again and what God maybe wants me to talk about. I can’t escape it.
Most frustrating of all is the Ezekiel passage from above. It says that the responsibility is on me if I fail to warn people when there is danger ahead. Talk about a total minefield! Does that mean I’m being spiritually negligent when I don’t come right out say what I believe about every political issue before us today? Am I at risk of incurring God’s judgment because I have not been crystal clear about what I think God says about same sex marriage, or the refugee crisis, universal health care, religious pluralism, or racial inequality? And what if I don’t know? What if the more books I read, the more I study it, the less sure I become?
Surely I need to respect people’s minds enough to refrain from clichés, trite answers, and simple formulas. The world doesn’t need another sermon highlighting the seven steps to finding God’s purpose for your life, all starting with the same letter. And if you want it here it is: Prayer, petition, passion, planning, pursuit, perseverance, and prosperity. There you have it. All rights reserved.
If you want to call me jaded, cynical, or burnt out, I won’t stop you. But I think it’s something deeper than that. For better or for worse, I keep showing up. If I were burnt out, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. I’d be gone already.
Do we really want a church culture where our leaders tow the party line, where they are such moral exemplars that they cannot be honest? We live in an unprecedented time in human history. Everybody has access to more information than ever before and people have been inundated with advertising for their whole lives. Everything is a product to be sold and consumed, even faith. Could the church be the one place where people aren’t being sold something?
What would it look like if we truly allowed people to come to church as they were, with all their questions, sins, doubts, and fears? Rather than try to fix everyone, could we say, “Let’s stumble our way toward Jesus together and see what happens?”