Being an independent Baptist in the 1970s was exciting. Elmer Towns published The Ten Largest Sunday Schools in America in 1969, and we occupied a majority of the spots. People were being saved, and churches were growing exponentially through aggressive soulwinning and outreach. The independent Baptist churches were making a noticeable difference as they reached out to the poor and forgotten in their communities and ministered with a sustained soulwinning fervor.
Yes, the American culture of the ‘70s was already beginning to turn against biblical Christianity, but there was still a level of respect and goodwill towards churches and pastors. Fast-forward forty years, however, and we find we are ministering in a different climate.
Scandals attached to Christianity, even nominally, have helped foster hostility towards churches. The TV evangelist scandals cast a shadow of greed and mistrust over pastors as a whole. Sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church further cast a distrust for any who claimed to be ministers of Christ. And grievously, there have been similar sins committed by some who call themselves conservative or “independent” Baptists. When you add in angry, unfruitful bloggers and picketers at military funerals who call themselves Baptists, you can understand the need to better articulate our position, guard our spirit, and walk with the Lord.
Over the past year, reporters have jumped on these stories of failed or unbiblical ministries with biased and unkind reports. Often they portray the assumption that a few churches represent all, which of course is unfair, and most of us have been quick to call “foul.” To take a few examples, however serious, and paint thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of believers in the same light is disingenuous.
The nature of our movement as a whole is different than organized denominations. Because of our independent status, there is no board or president to speak for the whole. While no one person can speak for all the churches, neither can one person (reporter or pastor)—unless they are omnipresent and omniscient—declare all the churches corrupt, cultic, or any other stereotype.
As valid as our concerns over this unjust treatment may be, we must not overlook the broader picture. People in our churches and in our communities have heightened concerns. In a hostile culture, it is more important than ever to minister with grace and integrity. Pastors are not given the benefit of the doubt, and we represent the name above all names—Jesus Christ.
Additionally, we are all subject to temptation, and we are in greatest danger when we think “It will never happen to me.” “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The answer to the criticism without and to the danger within is the same—be like Jesus.
When we look at the character of Jesus, John 1:14 describes Him as “full of grace and truth.” We need both. A spirit of grace is humble, merciful, and generous. A commitment to truth means we stand firm on the Word of God and that we are committed to personal integrity. As Paul told Timothy, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:16).
I have watched seasoned men, weary in the battle, respond poorly to the additional scrutiny of the current culture. In fact, when questions are asked or discussions are needed, it seems they sometimes respond with insecure anger. Sadly, their arguments are often the loudest where the Scriptures are silent.
How can we pursue the grace and truth that filled Christ and live “soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world”? How can we minister with “a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ”?
How to Minister with Grace
I bring up The Ten Largest Sunday Schools in America because in hindsight, I wish this book had never been written. We are fallen men with nothing good in ourselves apart from the grace of God, and anything good that comes must come from God. When our response to the blessings of God is pride, not gratitude, we cut ourselves off from the very source of blessing. “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).
Pride is at the root of much of the unbalanced ministry that leads to compromised integrity. Pride precludes us from being filled with the very grace we so desperately need to minister like Jesus. I recently shared with our church family how pride has created imbalances in some fundamental churches. The Lord has graciously convicted me over the years when pride creeps into my life instead of gratitude or a desire to deflect the praise to Him. Over the years, I have tried to avoid fellowship with ministries where proud imbalances are the norm. I have also asked the Holy Spirit and godly friends and mentors to point out prideful imbalances in ministry that reflect the opposite of humility before the Lord:
Anger. While we share God’s righteous anger against sin, we must avoid a persistently angry spirit. Proverbs 22:24 warns, “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go.” Too often our anger is not over sin against God, but a perceived slight against ourselves or embarrassment.
Concern for Image over Integrity. I recently read a book in which the author used an illustration to which I think all of us in ministry can relate. He pointed out that when we first enter the ministry, we are consumed with the desire to preach Christ and make Him known. We know that Jesus is the true gift of ministry, and we are eager and zealous to give others this incredible gift. But along the way, we tend to become more consumed with how the gift is packaged than the gift itself. We wrap the gift in packaging called “platform” or “programs” or “ministry philosophy”—none of which are wrong—but we must remember that they are only the packaging. The danger to which we too often succumb is our own tendency to focus more on keeping the wrapping looking good than to simply know Christ and to purely make Him known.
Man-centered ministries will do just about anything to protect image. For example, immorality, whether committed by a pastoral staff member or a church member, should be confronted immediately and biblically. Even more so, if a crime has taken place, it should immediately be reported to the proper government authorities. These concerns cannot be ignored or covered. (See 1 Corinthians 5.) Pride seeks to preserve an image of grace when in reality there is dark sin hiding. Humility acknowledges the sin and seeks God’s grace in dealing with it and in ministering to those hurt by it.
Pride in Numbers. When people are saved through our ministry, God is glorified. That is the greatest privilege of ministry. But if we instead competed with other ministries to be the biggest, greatest, fastest growing, or any other superlative, we would cut ourselves off from God’s grace. “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Sadly, some young preachers who are disappointed in their numbers will shift ministry philosophies and doctrine in their quest for success only to find attendances are not dramatically affected. Often these men are disappointed further. God is not as interested in the size of our ministries as He is in our faithfulness to His truth.
Pride in Men. Our allegiance is to the Lord Jesus Christ, and our mission as Christians is to point others to Him. The church at Corinth was divided over personalities. Some would boast, “I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos.” Paul rebuked them, “are ye not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:4). They were co-laborers in the Lord preaching the same Gospel with the same doctrine, yet some felt compelled to choose sides. Whenever we pride ourselves in our associations with men and institutions, we grieve the only One who grants true empowerment—the Holy Spirit of God.
Pride in Standards. Truthfully, everyone has some standards of living for themselves. And standards drawn from biblical principles are essential in practicing the doctrines of holiness and purity. Yet there is a temptation to glory in one’s standards, sometimes even to the neglect of deeper heart issues. Only when we obey the instruction of 2 Corinthians 10:17 will we free ourselves from this sinful boasting in standards: “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” Our focus and our joy must always be rooted in Him. If a standard is based upon a biblical conviction, and it helps me to be more Christlike, then all the glory should go to Christ. When we become proud of ourselves, we are just as sinful as the immodest or “worldly” Christian.
Unbiblical Preaching. It is a tremendous responsibility to preach the powerful, life-changing Word of God. One of the most tragic mistakes we make is when we elevate personal opinions to a doctrinal level, preaching man’s opinion as truth. Also, because of our sacred responsibility, vulgar and offensive language has no place in the pulpit.
Lack of Grace. When pride enters our hearts, we stop being gracious. The strongest motivators in a graceless ministry are guilt and fear—tragic substitutes for being motivated by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14). Our lack of grace is manifested in shortness with others, lack of mercy, and a condemning attitude.
Misplaced Identity. At the heart of most pride problems is a works-based identity. Do we value ourselves based on the number of hours we worked or the number of people in our Sunday school class? Where do we find our worth and acceptance? Ephesians 1:6 gives a welcome answer: “He hath made us accepted in the beloved.”
Pride in Position. I treasure my Baptist heritage. I am thankful to take my place in a long legacy of men who have studied God’s Word for truth and made Bible convictions their rule for faith and practice. But I dare not become prideful in this position. After all, I am what I am only by God’s grace. When any person, church, or group takes pride in themselves, God will resist that. Sooner or later, He will expose them for who they are apart from His grace and remove His blessing.
Avoiding these imbalances is not as simple as pointing them out in an article. The only way to maintain the delicate balance of grace and truth is to confess to the Lord the pride that sways us and humbly seek God’s grace as we declare His truth.
In part 2 of this article, we’ll look at several practical suggestions to elevate both humility and integrity in ministry.