I have written to you at some length about the evils of wrong criticisms of one’s pastor and his preaching. In writing about these things, I called your attention especially to what the Word of God says in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” There are a few more passages in Scripture which speak of this matter and which are profitable to discuss, even though briefly. The first of these is found in this same chapter, verse 7: “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” There are a few ideas in this text which we ought to notice.
1) That the apostle here refers especially to ministers of the gospel is plain from the fact that he describes them as those “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” They are those who have been entrusted with that responsibility—to speak the Word of God.
2) They are called here, “those that have the rule over you.” This is a good translation all right; but the word which is used here is a word which really, basically, means, “leaders.” We speak of our rulers in government sometimes as leaders. This is the idea here. Those who bring to us the word of God are our rulers, but they are our rulers from the viewpoint of their being leaders. They, so to speak, lead us through the pathway of life according to the directions of the Word of God. And, in leading us, they teach us to follow Christ Himself Whom they too follow.
3) We are “to remember” them. The idea is to keep them in mind, to hold them before our thoughts, to be aware of them and the position they occupy in the Church of Jesus Christ. This can, of course, refer to a number of things. It can refer to the need to see to it that their earthly needs are provided for. It can remind us of our calling to show honor and respect to them. But, surely, it also means that we must remember them in our prayers to God. It is so easy to sit back and criticize the minister. It is so easy to be dissatisfied with his preaching and to complain about the quality of his sermons. It is so easy to grumble that we are not being fed and to push the blame for our failure to worship on the minister. But the question is very important: Do we pray for our pastors and remember them before the throne of God’s grace? Do we pray for them every day of the week while they are preparing their sermons? Do we pray for them on the Lord’s Day before and after we enter the church? Do we pray for them with our families at mealtimes? That is quite another question. And it simply remains a fact that no man has any right to bring any criticism of his pastor unless he makes it a continual practice to bring his pastor to the throne of God’s grace.
4) In this same verse the apostle says, “Whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” Perhaps somewhat more literally we could translate this, “Whose faith imitate, observing carefully the conclusion of their walk in life.” The apostle has in mind the fact that faithful ministers of the gospel must be examples to the flock. They must be such examples in the whole of their life so that every minister dares to say, as Paul said, Imitate my life. But this passage simply assumes that ministers do live this kind of life. And now he admonishes God’s people to imitate their pastors, imitate the faithfulness of their walk and make their walk and conduct a model for you in your walk. But especially, so says the text, observe carefully that their walk of faith ends in a glorious death. They live in faith, complete their work in hope, and die in the confidence that they shall presently be with the Lord. Paul writes to Timothy, without boasting, just before his death: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.”
It is a sign of our respect for our pastors and our willingness to be instructed by them in the Word of God that we make them our models for our own life. We do this because we know that Christ is in them and comes to expression in the Word they bring and in the life they lead.
It is in connection with this latter idea of honor that I want to call your attention to several other texts which emphasize this point. In I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 we read: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” This same idea is found in I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” And this is repeated in Philippians 2:29: “Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation.” The reference in this latter verse is to Epaphroditus through whom it is possible that Paul sent this letter to the church at Philippi. Epaphroditus was a fellow laborer with Paul; a companion in labor and fellow-soldier—as Paul calls him in verse 25. The Philippians must receive him in the Lord with happy hearts and hold him in reputation, i.e., in honor.
We need not say very much about these verses other than to point out that this is exactly the requirement of the fifth commandment. When, therefore, we fail to hold those who are our pastors in honor we violate the fifth commandment. This is very serious and a great sin against God. It is a commandment the violation of which brings with it its own kind of punishment. The relationship of authority and obedience upon which this commandment are based are fundamental. If these relationships are violated, the structures and institutions in which these relationships exist disintegrate and disappear. If, e.g., the obligations inherent in authority and obedience in the home are not met, the home is destroyed. If authority is not exercised and obedience is not practiced in the state, the state destroys itself. If in the Church the fifth commandment is violated, and honor, love, and respect are not shown to those in authority, the Church is destroyed. God destroys because God punishes those who violate His law. But God destroys in such a way that those who violate His law destroy themselves. These institutions can only exist by a keeping of the fifth commandment. The relationships of authority and obedience are woven into the warp and woof of these institutions so that they cannot be destroyed without destroying the institutions themselves. So honor those who are ministers of the Word.
Finally, there are some passages of Scripture which speak of our calling towards ministers of the Word from a slightly different perspective. They look at our calling from the viewpoint of the Word of God which pastors bring. After all, in the final analysis, one’s attitude towards the preaching is decisive. If one submits to the preaching, one will honor the preacher. If one allows himself to be led in the green pastures of the Word, He will also give proper respect to him who leads. The preacher and his message can never be separated.
Some of the texts to which I refer are the following. InJames 1:19-21 the Scriptures teach us: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” This same idea which James expresses here so graphically is even in the Old Testament. In Proverbs 10:19 the wise king of Israel instructs us with the words: “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.” This is, of course, a general precept which applies to the whole of life. People who talk too much will surely sin with their lips. This is unavoidable. The wise man does not talk so much. He restrains his lips. He is quiet and keeps his tongue from running away with him. This is always true; but it applies also to our attitude towards the preaching. That is why James tells us to be swift to hear, but slow to speak. That this is indeed the idea is clear from a more direct passage inEcclesiastes 5:1,2: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” That is about as clear as it is possible to make it.
All of this surely does not mean that there does not come a time when the believer must, for the sake of the Church of Jesus Christ and for the welfare of the cause of God, speak up. And sometimes that speech must indeed be in defense of the truth and on behalf of the honor and glory of God. If Luther had bowed before Rome and refused to open his mouth in criticism there would have been no Reformation. Church reformation comes about through the office of believers also. The truth is greater than all and the honor of God more important than any man. But this surely is not the point. James, in telling us to be slow to speak, certainly suggests that there may come a time when we have to speak. In receiving the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls, sometimes the necessity of speaking is forced upon us. But the fact remains that we must be swift to hear and slow to speak. We must refrain our lips. Our heart must not be hasty to utter anything before God. After all, God is in heaven and we upon earth. Our words ought therefore to be few.
The whole point is that we must go to Church to hear the preaching. We must go to hear Christ. We must go determined to hear and not to speak. If then, we pray for our pastor, if we honor him for his office’s sake, if we go to church to hear Christ speak through him, and if we are a people who guard their lips before the face of God, then we will receive a blessing.
It is my earnest prayer that this spirit may prevail in our Churches and in the Churches of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then and then only will our Churches continue to be blessed.
Fraternally in Christ,