07 May 2012

The High Calling of Being a Pastor

Yesterday, a prominent Baptist church in the town in which I grew up, after nearly a two-year search for a new pastor, finally called a new one.  This church has been historically a conservative Baptist church and one of the larger ones in the state of Kentucky.  However, they made a historic turn by calling a divorced man as their pastor.

This action got me thinking about the high calling placed on a pastor.  It got me thinking about how much has changed in my lifetime on the attitudes toward the issue of the credibility and suitability of a minister who experiences divorce.  I remember when Dr. Charles Stanley, of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, GA became divorced from his wife in 2000.  It did cause some discussion and controversy, but not as much as I would have thought.  His church chose to retain him as pastor.  Stanley was a leader among conservatives in the  Southern Baptist Convention and many felt badly for him and regretted that his marriage had ultimately failed.  However, I and many others were shocked when he reasoned that as long as he did not remarry he was not in violation of any biblical teachings concerning his qualifications.  I remember thinking this would be the beginning of a huge shift in our collective mindset about the issue of divorce and ministerial qualification among Southern Baptists.

The pastor that was recently elected to the church aforementioned is divorced and remarried.  So, now we've pushed the needle a little further.  I neither know him, nor know anything about the circumstances of his divorce and remarriage.  I just know these are the facts.  I pass no judgment on the man personally, but I am prompted to think about the matter in terms of the biblical issue of pastoral qualification.

Being a pastor is to walk in a different place from others within the church.  It can prove difficult to just be a "normal" person.  People tend to put you on a pedestal as an idealized spiritual role model or keep you at a comfortable arms-length distance because of their own uncomfortableness of just being around you.  Some people treat you like a religious fetish, while others will avoid you like the plague.  If you can find just a couple of people who will just treat you like a normal person, you feel fortunate. (This is also true for pastors' wives) 

It's not healthy or helpful to place a pastor on a different spiritual plane from everyone else.  I know, and my wife knows for sure, that I'm just like everyone else.  On the one hand, I have a temper if pushed far enough; I can easily get grumpy when I'm over tired or stressed out.  I can speak a mean-spirited word, and I can be insensitive.  You can catch me in good moments and bad ones - just like anyone.  On the other hand, God has called me to special position as a pastor and that makes me different - not in my human nature, but in my role.  I have a calling which necessitates a higher standard of responsibility and living.

Pastors sometimes act like they are above it all.  This is a mistake.  In my humanness, I'm as frail, sinful, and weak as the next person.  I have to remember this always.  Just because I'm the pastor doesn't somehow make me automatically immune to temptations, bad judgment, and sin. 

Sometimes pastors seem to feel like they must work really hard at trying to be "just one of the guys."  They feel compelled to go out of their way to parade around as connected to those of their flock by accentuating their own short-comings and even behaving badly in an attempt to be "real," such as using expletives in preaching! 

Both these extremes are misguided.

I believe there must be biblical and sensible ground on which to stand.  A pastor is just a man who shares the same humanity with his parishioners, and he is also called to a role in the church that demands that he set the example for all.  This I think leads a divorced man to be unqualified for service as a pastor of a church.  Let me explain why I think this by reflecting a bit on 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

God's Word declares that if a man aspires to be a pastor (overseer), then he seeks a noble and good vocation.  However, this desire alone (or calling) is not enough.  There is more at play.  The Apostle Paul went on to explain to Timothy that the man that the church would call, recognize, and give authority to as a pastor must be "above reproach."  This is the big idea.  The specific items that Paul lists are examples of what being above reproach looks like.  He could have possibly added more if the Holy Spirit had prompted him to, but the list we have is sufficient to make the point. 

The first example of being above reproach is that a pastor should be "the husband of one wife." Through the years many have taken this to mean only one wife - period.  The truth is this phrase doesn't really directly address divorce.  Literally it means "a one-woman man" with the connotation that the man is a faithful husband to his wife.  In other words, he's a good husband, who loves his wife, doesn't cheat on her and maintains a good relationship with her.  Paul goes on to list other items of behavior as examples of being above reproach, including "managing his own household well." 

The pastoral epistles clearly lay down a high calling for both pastors (and deacons).  We should pay attention to all the description that we find there, because each one tell us something about the kind of men God's desires to have leading His congregations.  When these descriptions are taken seriously it should cause a church to be prayerful, diligent, patient and discerning about who they invite to assume such roles. 

God tells us that He hates divorce.  Jesus strongly condemned divorce with a qualification concerning the offense of adultery.  Paul did talk to believers about those who were abandoned by a spouse, but urged married couples to stay married.  Divorce was a reality then, and even more so now.  Divorce was neither an unpardonable sin then, and it's not now.  There is always grace, and the church should always be a gracious people.  Divorced people should not be beat up with the fact they have experience divorce.  By God's grace people must move on to greater faithfulness to God from where they are and the church should always help them do this.

However, the role of pastor is a higher calling.  A pastor will not be a perfect person - I hope no one suffers from such a delusion - but he is called to be THE example in his church.  He is to say, like the Apostle Paul, with boldness, "follow me as I follow Christ."  He can't be a stumbling block to others in his specific behavior, overall character or example.   

I'm afraid the truth may be that our church culture is now wanting pastors in some ways to become more reflective of the culture.  Marriage has become practically disposable in America.  More and more marriages fail and more and more people are choosing not even to marry, but simply live together.  Maybe our churches are beginning to think that a divorced pastor will be more compassionate and connect better with others who have gone through the same experience.  I do wonder how many people on the committee that recommended this pastor are divorced.  I think that would be interesting to know.

At a time in our culture when the bar most desperately needs to be raised, when we most urgently need to be reminded to be in the world but not of it, we seem to be consistently conforming more and more to the world's lowering standards.  We seem now to be headed down a road that would make insisting on uncompromising standards for pastoral qualification as judgmental and mean spirited.   

It seems to me that a pastor's role, with the Word of God as the guide, is to reach down and help people up to where God would call them to be.  If he's going to do that, then he already needs to be where they need to go.  Being a pastor is not an easy calling.  The work is not easy and the biblical demands on who you need to be are high.  Divorced Christians certainly have a place right beside those who have not been divorced in the Kingdom's work.  However, the man who is going to be responsible for teaching and leading the flock must be above reproach - a divorced pastor immediately invites reproach no matter how nice, genuine or otherwise qualified he may be.      


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