We shall have to continue, in this letter, our discussion concerning the godly example which ministers in the Church of Christ must be. You will recall that last time we discussed some matters of Christian liberty as they are connected with our calling to be a godly example. In this letter I want to range a bit farther afield in our discussion.
A matter which comes to mind as being important is the attitude of a minister towards worldly possessions. I am well aware of the fact that even to bring this subject up involves some measure of courage. There is scarcely a subject which involves such intensity of feeling as a minister’s worldly possessions. There are all kinds of questions which are raised in this connection and which are topics for debate—perhaps especially at the time the annual budget is drawn up and the minister’s salary is discussed. How much money does a minister need? At what economic level ought he to be supported? Should he be put on a financial level with the lowest paid people in the congregation? Should he receive a salary which places him at about the average income of the members? May smaller congregations increase their requests for synodical subsidy in order to raise the level of the salary of their ministers? Should we have fixed salaries in the denomination? All these questions and many more are constantly being discussed.
It is not my purpose to enter into these discussions. If I should write some day to your congregation, it would perhaps be fitting to enter into some of these questions. But I am writing to you. And I am interested in your attitude towards these matters.
The pressing nature of this question is repeatedly brought to mind when I hear discussions among ministers on these matters. I sometimes get the impression that ministers are more concerned about these things than about their calling as shepherds in the Church of Christ. I recall a few years ago being in the company of several pastors of a different denomination from the one you serve. Among themselves they were discussing a colleague who had apparently received a call from the richest and most prestigious congregation in the classis. There was not one smidgen of doubt in the minds of any of them that he would take this call—even though he had been in his congregation a very short period of time. Nor did they blame him for taking the call—they frankly admitted that anyone of them would have done the same. But they spoke of the fact in terms of this man’s having reached the top of the ecclesiastical ladder as far as the pastoral ministry was concerned. And their envy was ill-concealed. No more financial worries for him! He would have a home that bordered on a palace! And because he was young, that congregation was now tied up for the foreseeable future.
I recall also a minister from yet another denomination who spoke happily about the wonderful call he had received. When pressed a bit about why this call was so wonderful, he responded by pointing out that the work was minimal and the salary was large; the parsonage was new and the car allowance generous. This was about all he could say about why the call was wonderful.
There are, no doubt ministers also who, while deeply troubled over apostasy in their denominations, would never think of leaving simply because they would have to abandon large congregations, ample pensions, secure futures, and generous salaries for the uncertain financial status of an unknown future. In other words, they do, not hesitate to compromise their convictions concerning the truth of Scripture for “houses and lands.”
I think this attitude is far more widespread than you or I realize. It is, however, a wicked attitude. The Lord has some very sharp words to say through Ezekiel the prophet about this very thing. The passage is worthwhile and we can take the time to quote it. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be, to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased ye have not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither-have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there was no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them. Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; As I live, saith the Lord God, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock; Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them. . . .” Ez. 34:2-10
This is a powerful passage, Timothy, and you can sense how fitting it is for much of our time.
We live in a materialistic age. The spirit of materialism infects us all. It is a devastating spiritual illness, and goes far to destroy the life of the Church of Christ. How wholly wrong it is, therefore, for a minister of the gospel to seek the things which are below! How entirely out of keeping it is when he is constantly complaining about his salary, when he lives beyond his means, when he must seek help from the Church to bail him out of debt and financial difficulty because he is a free-wheeling spender who covets the good things of this world.
I know that the objections can be made that a congregation is obligated before God to support its minister. I know that it is a shame on the Church of Christ when a minister can barely subsist in these times of affluence. I know that there are tightfisted congregations who begrudge their pastor enough to support his family, send his children to a Christian school, and have something left over to give to the poor. I am not interested at the moment in all these things. I am interested in a minister, and particularly in you, Timothy, being a good example to the flock. Your good example must be a constant protest against the spirit of materialism which saps the spiritual energy of the members of the Church. It is not your concern or mine what the congregation does and what its attitude may be towards the support of the pastor. It is your concern and mine that we be good examples.
I wonder sometimes where the spirit of sacrifice is that has characterized so many shepherds in the past and still characterizes some today. I am thinking particularly of missionary work—to refer to but one example. There have been in the past, and are yet today, missionaries who left families and friends, who set out to unknown lands, entered hot and humid jungles, faced the fury of headhunters and aborigines, lived in shacks and ate from the land food which at home was considered unfit for dogs—all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that sometimes the objection is raised that these men often left even their children behind, and that in doing so they did not fulfill their covenant responsibilities before God. There is some room for argument here I suppose. Nevertheless, they brought the gospel to heathen lands at great personal cost to themselves. Far less sacrifice is required of us; yet we are so hesitant to leave our comfortable homes, our loaded tables, our warm, cozy family rooms, our large congregations to serve the Lord in places where only a bit of sacrifice is required of us.
Luxuries of life, vacations, recreations, eating out, costly clothes (all of which can never be wrong in themselves) are so much more important to us than the welfare of the Church of Christ. It becomes increasingly difficult to preach on texts which call the people of God to have their treasures in heaven and not upon earth.
It all seems to me to be somewhat frightening. We know and confess that before our Lord returns again upon the clouds of heaven there will be times of severe persecution for the Church of Christ. We know that the Scriptures teach that the people of God who are faithful to Christ will not be able to buy or sell without the mark of the beast which they refuse to carry. The Scriptures present to us a picture of the world enjoying an affluence and a prosperity such as the world has never seen, while the Church of Christ is an outcast among men and the people of God forced to scavenge in garbage pails to find a bone for their starving children to gnaw on. We know these days are coming, and we know Christ cannot return until they do.
I sometimes wonder whether we will be able to give up everything we have when this is the price that must be paid for faithfulness to our Lord and King. Perhaps we do not even like to think very much about it; and without too much thought, we convince ourselves that we will be able to give all these things up when the occasion demands it. But material things are like a powerful narcotic. The more they get their grip on our lives, the more difficult it becomes to break free of them. Will we be able to give up our homes and salaries, our books and treasures, our vacations and pleasures to flee to the mountains when that is the only way to be faithful? I am frightened sometimes—frightened for the Church, frightened for myself.
The ministers of the gospel shall surely be the first to experience the dread heat of persecution. They shall have to be the first to go to jail, to face the firing squads, to endure the exquisite tortures which ungodly men invent to try to overcome the grace of God. And this is as, it should be. This is part of a minister’s calling in the place he occupies in the Church. But can we? Will we? How can we know when so little is required now, and when we are so reluctant to let slip from our grasp the small bit we possess?
God’s grace will suffice. I have no doubt about that at all. Let God’s grace suffice now, too, as we point the way for God’s people in a spirit of self-sacrifice and godliness with respect to this world’s goods.
Fraternally in Christ,