Previous article in this series: April 15, 2005, p. 316.
Lack of preachers in the church world, felt also in the PRC, motivates God’s people to pray more fervently: “Lord of the harvest, thrust out (see previous editorial) laborers into the harvest…. Graciously move men to prepare for the gospel ministry…. Provide us pastors after Thine Own heart (Jer. 3:15)…. Ride forth, victorious White Horse of the gospel!!”
Especially vacant churches feel this lack. Some feel it more keenly than others. Churches with regular preaching from retired ministers or the seminary do not experience the lack as a great hardship. Where elders must read sermons, or run a tape recorder twice on Sunday, they do. But even those who have regular supply on the Lord’s Day are aware of all the catechism students who need their own pastor. And how many merely plod along in their personal or family troubles because no pastor is aware to assist them with the Word?
Along with the problem of the lack of ministers is a lack in ministers. There are preachers, but without the graces that make their work edifying. The gospel is heard, but barely. The people are fed, but in meager portions. Then the difficulty is not the absence, but the presence of the preacher.
The churches need preachers. Soon. Always. Who of the young (or older) men will take up the preparation for the rewarding work of a lifetime labor in the gospel?
The explanations commonly given for the lack of ministers are unsatisfactory. They range from the mundane and prosaic (baby-boomers are retiring and not enough are alive to take their place, or churches neglect to encourage their young men to enter the ministry), to the humbling (men are leaving the ministry on account of the increasing expectations, high pressures, or for disqualifying sins). Pollsters query active ministers and men who have left the ministry for explanation. They present statistics, offer solutions. If the churches follow the suggestions, they ought to get their ministers. So they think.
With regard to the lack in ministers, the explanations are often as unsatisfactory.
But who will ask God for His explanation for this lack? And who will dare ask whether God may withhold preachers in His judgment upon churches?
God may well withhold, remove, or give unqualified preachers in judgment (or chastisement) upon churches.
This is implied in the reality that ministers are God’s gift (Jer. 3:15). Lack of ministers is God withholding His gifts. When Jesus taught the church to pray for laborers, He said, Ask my Father that He would send out laborers (Matt. 9:37, 38; Luke 10:2). Unless the Lord sends ministers, there will be none.
But Scripture is explicit in indicating that God sometimes judges (or chastens) a people by withholding His Word. That may be why churches lack preachers. It may be why a church suffers from weak preaching. In His displeasure, God allows the people to suffer spiritual hunger. Calvin recognized this: “Nothing is more ruinous for the church than for God to take away faithful pastors” (emphasis mine: BLG).
In Amos’ days, God warned Israel of an impending famine. No ordinary famine, this would be a famine of the Word. God would withhold the refreshing and life-giving Word (Amos 8:11). During this famine, the people would feel as though God had turned their “feasts into mourning, and all (their) songs into lamentation … as the mourning of an only son” (v. 10). God would no longer send His Word. And they were “the church.”
In the book of Revelation, God’s first warning to the churches was to Ephesus. Ephesus’ sin is familiar: they were leaving (or had already forsaken) their “first love” (Rev. 2:4). Even the warning is well-known: If they did not repent and “do the first works,” God would come to them “quickly, and… remove (their) candlestick out of his place” (v. 5). That is, they would cease to be a true church of Christ.
What is not so familiar is the description of the one who issues this warning. He is the one who “holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (v. 1). This description may well indicate one way in which He would bring about their judgment. The seven stars are “angels” or “messengers,” that is, the pastors of the seven churches (Rev. 1:20). The declining church at Ephesus is reminded first to see Jesus as the one who provides these “angels” for the churches. His judgment (chastisement) upon a falling church may be to remove these “angels,” or allow unfaithful men to occupy pulpits. In this way, He removes their candlestick, that is, their place as a true church.
God judges churches, denominations or congregations, by not giving them pastors. And sometimes by giving pastors not according to his heart.
If there is a lack of preachers, or weak preaching, or bad preaching, churches—including the Protestant Reformed Churches—must examine themselves. God does. God examines them.
This is not often the response to a lack in preachers. Usually, one looks at the minister: “If the minister would work harder, we would have sermons that feed us.” Or the elders are faulted: “If the elders would take better oversight of the minister, we would see improvements.” Or they examine the seminary: “The seminary must do more to train the men and recruit more and better students.” Or they take polls to explain the absence of ministers: then it’s the pressure, the workload, the long hours, the thankless labor….
But how often do members examine themselves? God’s people must look within. In humility, they must ask: “Lord, why this lack of ones to bring the life-giving word? And if there is a lack in the preachers, why this lack? Show us, O great Lord of the harvest! Try us, and examine us, and see if there be any wicked way in us!”
To refuse to ask that question would be like Israel—after their stunning and humbling defeat at little Ai for the sin of Achan—to examine everything but whether God was judging (chastening) them. “Were our soldiers not rested well? Has their training been insufficient? Was the number of warriors too low?” Whereas they ought to have asked: “Lord, why art Thou not giving us victory?” Our response today must be that of Joshua at that time:
And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord… he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord God…. For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land shall hear of it, and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what wilt thou do unto thy great name?
God’s great name!
Indeed, the pressures are high enough to keep some away; the minister may lack important gifts; the seminary may be at fault; the elders lax. But that all begs the question: “Why, Lord?” Why would the Lord withhold His blessings, permitting the seminary to slip, the elders to be asleep at the switch, the minister to be interested in many things besides making solid sermons? Why? Is God chastening a declining church? Is God judging a falling church?
What is it, Lord?
The year the famine (of the Word) came to Israel was a sad year. It should not have been a surprise. Through Prophet Amos, God explained: judgment comes because the people, smug in their wealth, cannot wait for Sabbath to end so they may get on with commerce. They mistreat the needy for selfish gain. They practice business deceitfully, driven as they are by greed (Amos 8:4-6). “As my judgment upon your impenitence, I send a famine of the Word.”
Judgment on Ephesus, however, was surprising, at least from one perspective. Ephesus maintained right doctrine (Rev. 2:2). The church exercised discipline (Rev. 2:2, 6). She was even active in her proper work (Rev. 2:3): preaching, catechism instruction, missions. But God may still remove her candlestick! Why? All her activity was not rooted in love for God in Jesus Christ.
There are other reasons the Lord may deny a church preachers. Maybe she falls into the sin Ezekiel warned of:
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.
Woe to them that are at ease in Zion (Amos 6:1).
Or the church members are busy criticizing the preachers, blatantly or, what is sometimes worse, more “carefully.” Some take the attitude that there are really only one or two preachers worth listening to or having. A “Corinthian” party-spirit prevails that says, “We’ll listen to Rev. So-and-So; but when Rev. Such-and-Such comes, we’ll be visiting elsewhere. You’re fans of Prof. X; but we like Prof. Y.” Surprisingly, the apostle Paul himself suffered this treatment, as one Corinthian faction preferred Rev. Apollos over him. Ministers themselves can be guilty of this. The Lord judges such carnal folly (I Cor. 3:1-5).
Or the people are guilty of Israel’s sin in Isaiah’s day, when the proud people said to others, “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou” (Is. 65:5). Then my haughty pride attempts to remove the motes from everyone else’s eyes, while the beam remains in my own.
Or the church members gradually come to love many things besides the things of the kingdom. Their confession, if asked, is: “I seek first the kingdom.” But the time has come that the people of God are tempted to be busy with almost anything except the labors of the church: Bible studies and catechism and good reading and visiting the needy and other activities that constitute “pure religion” (James 1:27). As in another day, what most makes the people happy is “bread and circuses,” that is, fine food, entertainment, and the money to get both.
The Lord’s call
To these the Lord says, “Repent, and remember from whence thou art fallen, and do the first works” (Rev. 2:5).
For believers, the judgment is chastisement—loving chastisement.
The warning is not intended to cause believers to despair, but to repent. The proper response is not wringing of hands or lamenting “good old days.” The proper response is (united) godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Cry to God for an end to the famine. Cry that the famine not become worse.
Believers will seek God in the sorrow that trusts His Son for mercy—mercy upon the churches. Mercy that forgives follies. Mercy that delivers from follies. Mercy that sends pastors.
Believers seek Him for the grace to stand together in genuine support of the God-appointed servants who stand in the front lines of the battle. Even in earthly battles, how few are on the front lines, and how many thousands are needed as support, behind the lines. Pray for the leaders in the heat of the battle. They are weak and sinful.
Lord of the harvest, care for the preachers. Care for Thy dear church, precious blood-bought heritage! Humble us. And for Thy name’s sake (Josh. 7:7), do not withhold the gift of pastors … according to Thine heart.