“Timothy” is a composite character. He is twenty-six years old, has recently graduated from seminary, and has been in his first church for six months. He and his wife, Mary, have been married for four years and they have a two-year-old son with another child on the way.
What is a gospel minister to do, then, when he finds himself newly called to a church that is in need of being brought into conformity with various biblical precepts? Timothy, believe me when I tell you that your personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, your stable relationship with your wife and family, your knowledge of sound doctrine and theology, your exegetical and pastoral skills as well as your people skills and capacity to communicate effectively, must all be buttressed by a deeply-rooted evangelical courage—the unconditional commitment to minister the gospel with compassion, regardless of the consequences and no matter the cost. As you labor in your first pastoral charge, I want to encourage you to have the evangelical courage to cultivate those you have been called to serve, to confront those whose sins are destructive to themselves or others, and to confess your faults to those against whom you sin.
First, you must always remember that God has called you to be a pastor to His sheep—those who are safely folded in the congregation and those whom He will call in the course of your ministry. Furthermore, the sheep under your care are comprised of little lambs, wounded sheep, maturing sheep, and erring sheep, all with different appetites concerning the gospel meals you desire to feed them. The wise pastor will patiently cultivate the sheep, feeding them the biblical truth according to their capacity to receive it. It takes evangelical courage to cultivate the sheep in their various situations since you will face several temptations in your attempts to pastor such a variety of sheep.
The little lambs will need to be fed the sincere milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). They will need digestible portions of the precious truths of God’s love for sinners shown in Jesus’ sufficient sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. They will need to be taught the simplicity of walking by faith in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, a blood and righteousness that constantly avails for them. They must learn that walking by faith means trusting in the promises of the gospel as if spoken personally to them. It will be important for them to know that this faith in Jesus Christ is most powerfully and joyfully expressed when it bears fruit in a willingness to repent of and confess their sins to others when others have sinned against them, as well as in a willingness to forgive others when others sin against them. There are so many “first lessons” that little lambs need to take in, but they cannot take them in all at once. Nor will they necessarily master them the first time they are taught to them. Cultivating a healthy “feeding regimen” that will provoke a steady appetite in a young Chris- tian will take patience and forbearance. The courageous minister will fight against the temptation to become impatient with, or discouraged concerning, the progress of growth in the grace of the little lamb. It will take evangelical courage to continue ministering the gospel with compassion fueled by an unconditional commitment, regardless of the consequences and no matter what the costs.
In any congregation, there are wounded sheep—those who have been deeply hurt by others in the congregation or worse yet, hurt by previous encounters with those serving in the role of God’s under-shepherd. You should not be surprised that these wounded sheep have learned not to trust the one who would offer his hand to feed them with words of life and healing. They will most likely be inclined to stay away from the ministry altogether or at least take a “wait and see” posture concerning the value and sincerity of your ministry. Again, great patience will be needed to bear with them, while at the same time you fight the temptation to take their reticence to benefit from your ministry as a personal rejection of you—or worse yet, of the gospel. Time has a way of leveling everything, and if approached in a redemptive way by the gospel minister, can be his friend in ministry.
The courageous minister will fight against the temptation to become impatient with, or discouraged concerning, the progress of growth in the grace of the little lamb.
In time everyone faces great need—even wounded sheep. It is often in the time of great need that the faithful pastor is allowed by God to exercise critical pastoral care in the life of the wounded sheep. A greater, more pressing pain experienced in the present may cause the deeply hurt church member to place on the back burner a deep pain from the past. It is at this point that the gospel minister must summon up a large measure of evangelical courage and be willing to wade into the middle of the hurt, even at the risk of facing initial continual rejection by the wounded sheep. I say initial because the heart of every one of Jesus’ sheep beats with His love and mercy—no matter how damaged it has become—and this mercy will ultimately express itself to those who are merciful. When you prove the sincerity of your love to the wounded, you earn the right to speak to them of things eternal. When you accumulate this kind of pastoral collateral, you will gain their ears as well as their hearts.
Some of the most delightful pastoral experiences occur between the pastor and the maturing sheep—those who demonstrate a healthy appetite for the Word of God and who manifest a genuine appreciation for sound doctrine. Ideally, these should be the leaders in the congregation. These are the ones who ask the right questions, draw the right conclusions, and exhibit a growing appetite for the meat of the Word. They do not tire of hearing (or of telling) the “old, old story of Jesus and His love.” They also very often express a “Berean spirit” in their willingness to search the Scriptures to see if the things learned under your ministry are taught there (Acts 17:10–11). They are not afraid of Bible doctrines that they have not previously been taught. They just want to know, “What does the Scripture say?” The maturing sheep will be most inclined to be jealous for the glory of God in their lives and in the life of the congregation, even if they do not know how to express this with theological precision. They will have a desire to see Jesus Christ exalted, convinced that He must increase and they must decrease. The maturing members of the church are most likely to be those who are faithful to pray together for the progress of the gospel through the ministry and who will give thanks to God for sending them a faithful gospel minister. It might be asked, “Why would evangelical courage be needed to minister to such as these?” The answer lies in the temptation to spend most of your time with them, running the risk of overlooking the needs of the less mature. Make no mistake about it, pastors are to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12), and we are to teach the things that we have seen and heard to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timo- thy 2:2). Gospel labor among the maturing sheep is enjoyable, even if the minister finds himself tired in a satisfying way. Another temptation, however, is that the pastor is susceptible to taking the praise directed toward him by the mature believers and turning it into an occasion for pride, boasting and thinking more highly of himself than he ought. It is also among this group that the minister is most likely to “drop his guard” in a bad way. It may well be that some of those who are most excited about your ministry now will one day turn against you and reject the truth that you expound.
Rejoice, Timothy, if the Lord has been pleased to surround you with a core group of maturing disciples who are hungry for the Word and who seem to hang upon every word you utter. But guard your heart, lest you become like King David who began to “believe his own press clippings” (2 Samuel 8:13; 11:1–2).
Perhaps the most difficult group to which a pastor tries to minister are those who are erring sheep. At one time they gave every appearance of having a vital interest in biblical Christianity and seemed sincerely to want to grow in grace as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. But now they have turned away. Perhaps their sinfulness expresses itself in habitual neglect of Bible study, worship, or other crucial meetings of the church. As professing Christians, they bear the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps they have brought shame to Christ’s name by undertaking a destructive lifestyle that is both dangerous to their souls and scandalous. Perhaps they have become troublemakers and are stirring up strife in the congregation. Whatever the nature of the sinful pattern, the erring sheep can take a spiritual and emotional toll on the pastor who takes seriously his responsibility to attempt to recover them.
Pastors are to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12), and we are to teach the things that we have seen and heard to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timo- thy 2:2).
The diligent pastor may discover in his attempts to recover those who have been overtaken in a fault (Galatians 6:1) that he is not dealing with one who is truly a sheep. It may be that the individual “professed” faith in Jesus Christ but has never really “possessed” true saving faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 8:13–23). Because this cannot necessarily be known immediately, the pastor must wade into the matter as one who is trying to recover someone who has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. When it is discovered, however, that the “erring sheep” is in actuality a “goat” or even a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” then the mission changes from the redemptive corrective discipline of a wayward disciple to the redemptive corrective discipline of, as well as the evangelistic witness to, an unconverted church member. Much evangelical courage is needed for this task because it can be tasteless at times and may well result in the maligning of the character of the pastor who dared to undertake the rescue according to biblical teaching. The erring member is often all too willing to “bite the hand that feeds him,” and he will not hesitate to sully the reputation of those who venture to tell him that all is not well with his soul.
You will need large doses of evangelical courage to engage in the ministry of recovering the erring sheep. The temptations are two-fold. First, there is the temptation to be a coward and not attempt to recover the erring sheep. The rationalizations for this are many. Perhaps this person is very influential in the church (or the relative or close friend of a very influential person in the church) and you do not want to upset him. Perhaps you don’t want to run the risk of offending the godly people who may not yet have the biblical acumen to understand. Perhaps you fear you will lose your influence or even your ministry! This is where it is important to remember that evangelical courage is the unconditional commitment to minister the gospel with compassion, regardless of the consequences and no matter the cost. The other temptation is just as dangerous, however. It is the temptation to deal harshly with the erring sheep (or goat or wolf in sheep’s clothing), acting as if the goal of corrective discipline is to cut them off, washing your hands of them and having nothing else to do with them. This approach, however, turns redemptive corrective church discipline on its head and becomes an offense not only in the congregation but in heaven as well.
Because the erring one may well turn out to be unconverted, he is likely to make threats against the pastor. The danger the pastor faces in such a situation is to go into self- defense mode. However, the pastor is placed over the flock by God to protect the sheep from those who would scatter and tear them—not necessarily to protect himself. (This is why a plurality of elders can be a blessed arrangement in a church—but that is a discussion for another letter!) The shepherd is to lay down his life for the sheep. Timothy, if you find yourself facing the challenge of rescuing an erring sheep, summon up the evangelical courage to undertake the effort in such a way that you guard your heart against cowardice, harshness, and the subtle danger of becoming self-defensive.
Next time we will look at the evangelical courage to confess your faults to those against whom you sin.
This excerpt is adapted from Dear Timothy edited by Tom Ascol. Dear Timothy reflects the collective wisdom of more than 480 years of pastoral experience. While the letters are aimed specifically at young pastors, the counsel they contain applies to ministers of all ages, denominations and, for most of the chapters, to any serious Christian. Order your copy today here.