“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”
I Timothy 3:1
I believe all faithful evangelical Christians would agree that there are many serious sins besetting our visible churches today, rendering too much of the Body spiritually stunted, intellectually shallow and morally compromised.
But of all the sins that beset us, I have become convinced that one of the most grievous and most harmful to the Body is our dangerously unbiblical view of and cavalier attitude toward the sacred pastoral ministry.
Simply put, today’s evangelical largely has no problem with men who have no business being pastors … being pastors.
Here’s one example of this phenomenon: Steven Furtick, pastor of North Carolina’s Elevation Church, who has rightly come under widespread fire for both ethical and theological misdeeds and sins.
Furtick, for instance, was credibly accused of using what Forbes calls a “laundering operation” — through a now-defunct company called ResultSource — to dishonestly game the system to land one of his books onto the New York Times bestseller list. He was criticized for his “spontaneous baptisms” scandal, his self-serving “We are United Under the Visionary” page in a coloring book made available at his church, and his purchase of a 16,000-square-foot megamansion, while refusing to disclose his salary.
Theologically, Furtick has further problems. He has called Trinity-denying T.D. Jakes the “greatest preacher of our time.” He also has said: “We don’t teach from books of the Bible because it gets in the way of evangelism. We don’t offer different kinds of Bible studies because it gets in the way of evangelism. We don’t teach doctrine because it gets in the way of evangelism. If you want to be fed God’s word or have the Bible explained to you, then you are a fat, lazy Christian, and you need to shut up and get to work, or you need to leave this church, because we ONLY do evangelism.” On another occasion, Furtick declared: “The church wants your money! Guess what? It’s not your money! God gave you that money, big boy!”
And who can forget his infamous “Hey Haters” video, in which he snidely told his critics, “Your day is done!” with the insulting high-water mark, “You look like a toddler!”
What would a godly, well-respected pastor say to all this? A few years ago, at Grace Community Church’s Shepherds’ Conference, Dr. John MacArthur was asked to do a word-association segment, in which he responded with one word to different trends and figures within modern evangelicalism. When asked for his response to “Steven Furtick,” MacArthur uttered one word: “Unqualified.”
Now in a normal world, Steven Furtick would be horrified and embarrassed that a highly respected, world-famous Bible teacher like MacArthur would declare him unfit for the pastoral ministry. But this isn’t a normal world. At least not in Furtick’s corner of it. Instead, Furtick used the hard truth as — what else? — a book marketing opportunity!
In a recent promotional video for his new book, “Unqualified” — yuk, yuk, yuk! Get it?! — Furtick had this to say about MacArthur’s pronouncement:
“It didn’t make me mad. I kind of laughed. For a moment, I thought of some words that I could call him back … But what surprised me was that I kind of agreed, and I was fine with it. And after I thought through my emotions for a few minutes, it was like, I thought, ‘Yeah, that has a nice ring to it: Unqualified.’ I’ve always felt that way. … Who doesn’t feel unqualified? And so all of a sudden what he meant as a criticism turned into a compliment, because it set me free from the need to perform, knowing that God produces results in my life.”
This would be hilarious if it weren’t so utterly and catastrophically arrogant, delusional and devoid of any biblical seriousness.
The reason Dr. MacArthur declared Furtick “unqualified” is not because all of us are “inadequate” in ourselves to serve God, or some such. It’s because biblically speaking, Furtick is unqualified for the pastoral ministry. Why? All you have to do is read what Scripture says about the qualifications for pastors. Here is a partial list of required pastoral traits from I Timothy 3:
• He must be above reproach (v. 2)
• He must be sober-minded (v. 2)
• He must be self-controlled (v. 2)
• He must be respectable (v. 2)
• He must be gentle (v. 3)
• He must not be quarrelsome (v. 3)
• He must not be a lover of money (v. 3)
• He must be well thought-of by outsiders (v. 3)
Game over, right? Naaaah.
When I cite I Timothy 3, I sometimes feel like a broken record. That’s because I constantly cited it during the Mark Driscoll controversy, after I publicly revealed his plagiarism to a church world that largely didn’t want to hear about it. Again and again, I kept returning to I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, especially after additional Driscoll scandals slowly began to come to light (the ResultSource scandal, accusations of verbal and spiritual abuse inside his Mars Hill Church, the William Wallace II debacle, et al.).
What I shockingly noted then, as I do now, is how completely uninterested most professing evangelical Christians actually were when it came to what the Bible actually says about pastoral qualification. They can read I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They can comprehend it. They just don’t care!
This is horribly obvious when you note that there are people who actually expressed excitement when the unrepentant Driscoll recently announced his plans to launch a new church in Phoenix.
Let me add another recent example to the mix. In June 2015, Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, resigned his pastoral post at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after he confessed to committing adultery and announced his impending divorce. He tweeted, “Fade to black …” as his parachurch ministry, Liberate, was reported to have closed indefinitely.
Less than six weeks later, as Christianity Today reported, Tchividjian announced he had no plans to withdraw from the public eye and would continue to update his fans on his “glorious ruin” of a life via social media. How else would we understand grace, after all, were Tchividjian to have done something silly like get his life right with God in private? Oh, and less than two weeks after he filed for divorce, Tchividjian was named “director of ministry development” at Willow Creek Church (PCA).
Fast forward to a few days ago, when the “indefinitely closed” Liberate relaunched, with the announcement, “Our prayerful hope and expectation is that Tullian will join us fully in this great work one day. In the meantime (and in keeping with his care plan) he is presently on sabbatical from the board of the Liberate Network.” And “Pastor Tullian” (still his Twitter handle to this day, though he was stripped of the actual ministry title in real life) recently headed up “A Two-Day Event with Tullian Tchividjian” at a California church, in which the disgraced pastor was to demonstrate how “Christianity is not about good people getting better.” He also participated in a recent panel discussion at the Christ Hold Fast Conference ’16.
So we have a megachurch pastor laughing that he’s unqualified for the pastoral ministry and using the occasion to promote his latest book. We have another unrepentant megachurch pastor whose personal sins and scandals brought his entire ministry down in flames, who’s now brazen enough to launch a new church. And we have an adulterous pastor who quickly took a ministry development position at a church and didn’t even wait until the ink was dry on his divorce papers before foisting himself back on the church in a ministry capacity.
And in the last case, it’s spurious reasoning to say — as some have of Tchividjian — that “he’s not a pastor.” Objections of his friends (and references to his Twitter handle) notwithstanding, the Bible says nothing of “ministry conference circuits” or “weekend events,” but it is crystal clear on the qualifications for a man in ministry, who goes by the title “pastor” or “overseer.” So you don’t get to hide behind this weird new “ecclesiology” we’ve got going, allow a disqualified pastor back into a preaching/teaching capacity, and then yell, “But he’s not a pastor!” It doesn’t work that way. Plus, it’s intellectually dishonest.
The point is: If you’re the guy standing in front of the flock, preaching or teaching, wherever you happen to be, or whatever you happen to call yourself, you can’t be just anybody. You can’t just appoint yourself. You can’t just gloss over I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. If you fail the test on any one of these standards — especially if you once WERE a pastor — then you need to get out of the pulpit, get off the stage, unplug the spotlight and accept the permanent consequences of your sin. Repent before God, seek reconciliation with those you’ve hurt, receive forgiveness and restoration, and then — for the sake of the church — live out your life as a layman. In private. With appropriate sobriety. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this option is so unthinkable to these guys. To do anything less is to treat the ministry like it’s no big deal. Anybody who wants to do it can do it, and he can move in and out of the role at will, despite what he’s done, despite his character, despite his reputation. No. That is simply not biblical.
John Hancock, pastor of the First Church in Braintree, Conn., once preached a sermon in 1743 called, “The Danger of an Unqualified Ministry.” And in it, he noted:
“It is of very dangerous tendency for unqualified persons to be employed in the sacred Ministry … the pastors of the churches should use great caution and vigilance in admitting persons to the ministerial office. For the danger of putting unsuitable and unqualified men into the evangelical ministry is much every way … The souls of such daring intruders, and the souls of them that are committed to their trust, are greatly endangered by the unskilfulness of such blind guides. … Sad and dangerous indeed is the state of the church, when it is so forsaken of God, as to be left to the care of unskilful and unfaithful guides.”
He also warns of the consequences of putting the wrong men into ministry:
“Alas! How soon would the Church of God be laid desolate, if the hedge of a learned, able and faithful ministry, which Christ hath set about it, were once taken down. Ignorance, error, heresy, superstition, confusion and every evil work, would soon cover the face of the Vineyard and the Lord of Hosts. … how shameful is it for weak, raw, illiterate men to exalt themselves to the priesthood and set up for teachers in the church? … The setting up and sending forth such teachers in the Church of Christ is the great Reproach to Christianity, and the direct Way to promote the Contempt of the Clergy, than which a greater Injury can scarce be offered to the true interest of Religion.”
It’s sobering to read these words in our day, references to the decline of a “learned, able and faithful ministry” and the rise of “ignorance, error .. confusion and every evil work,” leading to the promotion of “Contempt of the Clergy.” Sound familiar? There’s a reason the polls show that respect for the clergy continues a marked decline. Not universally, but certainly increasingly, what’s to respect?
This is why it’s critical for us to listen to godly ministers of the past. Hancock had a much better understanding of the call to the pastoral ministry than we have. Ministers of old, along with their congregations, once understood that the call to ministry is a high and holy calling, one that requires serious and sober consideration and biblical guidance, a calling whose importance is underscored by God’s care in specifically outlining in His Word the exact qualifications required of any man to enter it. As Hancock put it, “There is surely no affair in the whole circle of life that requires more serious care and assiduous prayer, than this of choosing able, faithful, skilful Guides for our Souls.”
The fact that we see so many men today treat the ministry — either in churches or parachurch ministries — with such cavalier indifference, with such shamelessness and self-congratulatory swagger, and with such little regard for the reputation of the ministry or the good of the sheep, is testament to a serious spiritual crisis in evangelicalism. And what’s worse is that most of the church loses no sleep over it.
Let us lose sleep over it, and let that lead us back to the Word of God. There is such a thing as “unqualified.” And there’s nothing funny about it.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”