Hating the Messenger, Hating the Message?
Q: A person I know claims to have a pastor who is not practicing what he preaches. This person rejects the Word the pastor preaches because of disagreement with his lifestyle. I need some Scriptures to help them understand that the content is not contaminated by the container and that they should not reject the Word because the messenger is imperfect.
A: First of all, you don’t specify the type or degree of “failing” on the part of the pastor. There are certain reasons why a minister of Christ’s Gospel should be defrocked. These are, particularly, persistent teaching of false doctrine, an immoral lifestyle (not occasional minor lapses, but ongoing sinful behavior, such as consistent cursing and swearing, abuse of alcohol and drugs with no attempt to seek help, and the like), malfeasance of office, or an horribly scandalous public sin (such as having an affair). Additionally, ongoing physical, mental, or emotional inability to continue preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments could lead to medical leave or retirement, if not resignation or removal from office
Sometimes, even when reason exists, pastors have their defenders who will excuse or ignore the evidence. Sad to say, there are also those who seek to remove or marginalize a pastor because they either don’t like what he says — even when he preaches the truth — or disagree with some aspect of how he carries out the office. These unhappy souls may attempt to manufacture reasons for his removal which are at odds with Scripture.
God calls pastors to live as He commands and the Bible clearly states what sort of people they should be and what type of life they should live. Scripture notes the responsibilities imposed upon pastors in several places. A pastor should be “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2)” He should be of good general character and manage himself and his family well (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-7). A godly pastor emphasizes the things of God rather than vain human philosophies (see Colossians 2:8), avoiding “the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge.’ (1 Timothy 6:20)”
There is no one “best” Biblical example for a minister of the Gospel. Every pastor or apostle for whom we have significant Biblical testimony shows human failings as well as evidencing the holiness of life. Peter wrestled with his weakness regarding a double standard for Jews and Gentiles and was rebuked by Paul (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul and Barnabas argued, evidently with some rancor (Acts 15:36-41). Yet both instances ultimately found good resolutions.
Some, however, cannot grasp the reality that pastors are also sinful human beings. They seek a type of holiness in their ministers that no one living can attain. They are heirs of the ancient heresy of Donatism, which, at its core, claimed that pastoral acts carried out by those who’d given in during times of persecution were invalid.
As Pastor Alex Klages notes, “Donatists taught, and wrongly, that the validity of God’s work depends on the upright moral character of the one performing it. Now, while it is true that pastors and church leaders ought to be of upright moral character (1 Timothy 3 comes to mind), the greater truth is that, as the apostle Paul so clearly states, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)”
The bottom line is that holiness does not make or define the Church, her members, or her pastors. The Holy Spirit establishes and sustains Christ’s Church and creates and nurtures corporate and individual holiness through Word and Sacraments. No one in this life is one hundred percent perfect. Yet every believer is totally a saint, even as he remains also until death a sinner.
You don’t say to what church this pastor belongs. Lutherans and other liturgical churches have ordination and installation rites including specific passages about God’s requirements for — and the Church’s valid expectations of — pastors. They include the verses mentioned above and others.
Our installation rite also includes this divine command to the congregation: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)” It’s sad how often I hear of cases where congregations tell pastors, “You must,” while not reminding themselves, “We must.”
Your unnamed person and any who are like-minded need to examine themselves as well as their pastor in light of God’s Word. Is the problem addressed in Holy Writ or does it stem from differences in human opinion? Is it a matter of sin or of personal disagreement? If sinful, is it so bad as to drive the pastor from office or the flock from their pews? Or is it one that needs only repentance and reconciliation between pastor and congregation? In any of these circumstances, withdrawing from the assembly or disregarding God’s clear Word, even if spoken by a known sinner(!), is not what God calls His people to do. An erring pastor is just like any other erring church member — one we should seek to win back.
There may be times when an unrepentant pastor must be removed or else the faithful must remove themselves from his presence. However, these should only be considered after careful and thorough examination of the circumstances and only done if all other, less final methods fail.
As a closing aside, I find it interesting and a bit frustrating that the ancient heresies keep bubbling back up. In a month and a half, we’ve had contemporary evidence that neither the Pelagians nor the Donatists have vanished from the religious landscape.
Thanks to Pastor Alex Klages for some of the background material on Donatism and holiness.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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