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Three Respectable Sins of Pastors

Three Respectable Sins of Pastors

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of attention given to the ways that pastors may abuse their parishioners. Such attention is appropriate and every pastor ought to prayerfully guard himself against such abusive behaviors. Every church leadership structure ought to build rigorous systems of accountability and follow biblical guidelines in the event they observe abuse among themselves or are accused of it by others.

My interest in this article, however, is related more to the misuse of the office than to the outright abuse of it. Having considered churches I have been part of through the years, having observed many pastors locally and at a distance, and having gazed into the sometimes ugly depths of my own heart, I’d like to offer three ways in which pastors may be tempted to sin against the people they are called to serve. We might consider these “respectable sins,” to borrow Jerry Bridges’ term—sins we can easily dress up as virtues.

(Note: I am a firm believer in a plurality of elders who have equal authority, and though I write this in the singular, it applies equally to a board or team of elders. That said, one of the benefits of a plurality of elders is that it ought to mitigate some of these concerns by placing a church under the leadership of several men rather than one.)

Three Sins

Pastor, you may be tempted to use your congregants as raw material for enacting your dreams or pursuing your passions. As a pastor, you are called to lead your church and this often involves casting vision and setting direction. We like and need visionary leaders! Yet you must be wary of the temptation to cast a vision that reflects your desires more than God’s or that leads in a direction that massages your ego more than it serves God’s purpose. If you are not wary, you may put your parishioners to work at fulfilling your mission rather than God’s. When this happens, the church members may think they are serving the cause of the Lord when really they are serving the cause of their pastor. Hence, you must carefully separate your personal passion projects from what matters to God or those objectives that make you feel successful from those that make God look great.

In the world of business, it may be appropriate for a founder or leader to call employees to rally around his vision or to serve his mission. But not so within the church, for the church already has a founder and it already has a mission. The members of the church are to be loved, valued, and cared for and then tenderly and patiently directed to serve in ways that foster God’s purposes. A church is not a collection of willing workers called to serve your cause, but precious children of God called to be devoted to his. Your mission must fit within God’s mission and your vision of success be consistent with God’s vision of success.

Pastor, you can use the church’s budget to serve your own purposes rather than God’s. You may be far too upright to enrich yourself from the church’s accounts, but just as you can misuse people to fulfill your own vision instead of God’s, you can misuse funds in much the same way. As the one who directs the church’s spending, you can insist it go toward expenditures that shore up your ego more than they build up the people of God or to expenditures that make you feel good more than they make God look great.

There may be good reason, for example, to purchase excellent audio-video equipment to record or broadcast your sermons. But it may also be that your vision of success is to look great on YouTube, and you may have directed church funds in a way that makes you feel successful. You aren’t exactly stealing, but you are still misusing the church’s funds. There is nothing easier than spending other people’s money, and it’s possible that all of those expenses do a lot for you but little for the church and less still for the Lord. Another example might be spending a lot of money to bring in a very famous preacher one Sunday, not because the church will benefit all that much, but because it makes you feel good to be associated with him—to have friends in high places. There are many expenditures that may be respectable, yet still be sinful.

Pastor, you can communicate standards of righteousness that reflect your ego more than biblical commands. You can make the church feel like they have honored God by doing—or dishonored God by failing to do—things that are more important to you than to the Lord. In other words, when circumstances threaten to make you feel like a fool or a failure, you may cajole the church members to do things that are beyond your rightful jurisdiction.

Perhaps a fundraising drive can serve as an example. You may be a bit embarrassed by how old or how small the church building is, so you press the members to give beyond what they usually do—even though those members are already giving willingly and cheerfully, each as the Lord has directed them. Yet based on your admonitions, they begin to feel good about giving more and guilty about failing to give more. But that standard is yours, not the Lord’s. You have no right to push them to give more than God has directed, especially when the cause is more important to you than to the God who cares so much more for the sanctuary of the heart than the sanctuary of any building.

Be careful what you tell people they “ought” to do and honestly assess why you feel it so strongly.

Or perhaps there is a ministry in the life of the church that means a lot to you but is not clearly prescribed in Scripture. Yet you feel like a failure if people do not show up in droves. For that reason you may press people to participate, using words like “should” or “ought” when you speak about it. Yet because the Bible offers no “should” for such a ministry, you are creating a standard of righteousness that flows from the idolatry of your heart rather than the purity of God’s. Be careful what you tell people they “ought” to do and honestly assess why you feel it so strongly.

What Matters To God

In light of such misuse of the office, it strikes me how little the Bible says to pastors about the ways they are to direct the people to serve within the church. That’s certainly true when compared to how much it says about the ways pastors are to tend to them and care for them. What matters to God is his people—the people he called, created, and redeemed. It is of the utmost importance to him that they are faithfully shepherded by pastors who are willing to deny themselves—to deny their own egos, their own desires, their own visions of success—for the sake of caring for what he values most.


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