A Common Pastoral Temptation in Studying the Word

There are many pitfalls and temptations of various kinds inherent in the work of pastoral ministry. (Please pray for your pastors!) No doubt this is why Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV) Pastors not only need to “keep a close watch” on what they teach, but also on themselves as well. Paul even adds that we must “persist in this.” We never arrive or outgrow this need for self-watch.

Now those of us who are in full-time ministry have, as part of our work, the great privilege and blessing of spending a good bit of time in studying the Word of God. It has been said that we are paid, not so much to do the work of ministry (as if it were just our jobs), but in order to be freed up to do the work of ministry. And part of that certainly includes time in study and in prayer.

Having said that, there are some peculiar temptations that may arise in the midst of that time in study and sermon preparation. Have you ever listened to a sermon and immediately thought to yourself (or even said to someone next to you in church), “I know someone who really needs to hear this sermon!” Now that may be true enough, but sometimes when we think this way it shows that we are not necessarily focusing on our own need for hearing that same sermon. If we, for example, are focusing so much on someone else’s shortcomings and sins that are addressed in the sermon text, there is a greater likelihood that we might neglect to focus on our own need for grace and repentance. And if that is the case, we have probably failed to benefit from the ministry of the Word much at all that day.

Well, a similar mindset can creep in unawares among pastors as well, even if it takes a slightly different form. This happens when I as the pastor find myself studying a given text of Scripture primarily with my listeners in mind first. Now don’t get me wrong – having the congregation in mind is certainly a necessary part of good sermon preparation. But it cannot start there. Starting there shortcuts the process in some rather important ways.

In his book, Shepherding God’s Flock, Jay Adams writes,

“One great temptation, for instance, is for the minister to read the Scriptures only in terms of sermons and ministry. Since he must preach to others, counsel with others, and in a dozen different ways minister from the Book to someone else, it is not hard for the minister to neglect the sort of reading that is calculated to penetrate his own heart and affect his life.” (p,23)

Personally, I believe this to be one of the more common temptations that many pastors face. And it is a rather subtle temptation at that, which makes it even more difficult to recognize.

Adams wisely notes that one obvious solution to this temptation is for the minister to “develop the practice of studying devotionally.” This involves studying, even as part of sermon preparation, “first with the aim of personal application” to himself, and only then with the aim toward applying it to the members of his congregation.

You might think that sounds simple, but I can assure you from personal experience that it is not nearly as easy as it sounds to keep such a perspective in mind.

Another practical suggestion is to seek to spend some time in reading and study that has no direct bearing on one’s preaching and teaching at the moment. This may not be easy to do, as there is only so much time in a day, but I believe it to be well worth the time.

So for my fellow pastors out there, I hope that you find this brief post to be helpful and encouraging. And if you ever find yourself stuck in the grind (so to speak) of studying just to preach to other people on Sundays, I sincerely hope that you will prayerfully consider these things, and get back to studying devotionally, as Dr. Adams suggests. (I know that I certainly need that reminder from time to time.)

And for those of you who are church members, may I humbly ask that you pray for your pastors, and encourage them in their work, which is for your benefit (Hebrews 13:17)? And see what you might be able to do as a church to enable your pastors and elders to avail themselves of opportunities for personal study and growth in the faith. That could even be through such things as attending a sound Christian conference or retreat from time to time. (Even seasoned pastors need to be ministered to, preached to, and taught from time to time.)

A Word of Warning for Ministers of the Gospel

knotsuntiedI believe that there is a subtle temptation among those of us who are pastors to give our own beliefs and teachings the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our orthodoxy. We may keep an eye out for error or false doctrine “out there,” so to speak, but somehow assume that it could never be an issue for us.

A similar tendency can also be found at times when it comes to one’s Reformed orthodoxy. What I mean is this – pastors at times can seem to assume that because they consider themselves to be Reformed, whatever they happen to believe and teach must therefore (of course) be Reformed as well. In other words, we can tend to then (whether consciously or not) define what is “Reformed” by whatever it is that we ourselves hold to be true.

In his book, Knots Untied, J.C. Ryle writes,

” . . .none need warnings so much as the ministers of Christ’s gospel. Our office and ordination are no security against errors and mistakes. It is, alas, too true, that the greatest heresies have crept into the church of Christ by means of ordained men. Neither Episcopal ordination, nor Presbyterian ordination, nor any other ordination, confers any immunity from error and false doctrine.” (p.365)

It is not without reason that Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV). Likewise, in Acts 20:28-31 he gives the elders of the church in Ephesus the following sober admonition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (ESV)

One of the dangers inherent in the mindset mentioned above is that it is not exactly conducive toward keeping a close eye on one’s own doctrine. Keeping an eye on other people’s doctrine? Maybe. But your own? Probably not so much if we define orthodoxy by whatever we ourselves happen to believe! And so we who are pastors and teachers must be careful not view our ordination (as Ryle puts it) as conferring “any immunity from error and false doctrine.” We must seek to be reformed and yet always reforming.

There are a number of things that we can do to safeguard ourselves (and so our respective flocks as well) from this potential pitfall. First, continue to study the Scriptureskeep on studying. As Paul told Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).

Not only that, but if you are a minister in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination, make it your practice to continue to read, study, and teach your particular denomination’s doctrinal standards. If you are a Presbyterian pastor, that means continuing to familiarize yourself  with the Westminster Standards (i.e. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism).  Dare I say, even memorize some of it!

Now the Westminster Standards are certainly no cure-all. Frankly, they do not deal with every possible theological question that a pastor might need to deal with in the course of his studies – nor were they designed to do so! But they do give the basic substance of the system of doctrine that is taught in the Scriptures. Think of the Standards as (among other things) guard rails to keep you from drifting off to one side of the road or the other, so to speak.

This means that there may be some areas of theology upon which solidly Reformed pastors may disagree without really being at odds with the Westminster Standards (or even with each other, for that matter). But those areas of difference will inherently not therefore be regarding the main points of the system of doctrine. And so a strong familiarity with one’s doctrinal standards is then not only a way to study to show yourself approved (to borrow Paul’s words above from 2 Timothy 2:15), but also an effective way to study the peace and purity of the church in which one has taken his ordination vows.

Book Review: Finding Faithful Elders And Deacons

Thabiti M. Anyabwile

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways!

First, it is thoroughly biblical from start to finish.  Anyabwile firmly grounds everything he says in Scripture.  His treatment of the qualifications of both deacons and elders (in that order) largely consists of a verse-by-verse or even phrase-by-phrase exegesis of 1 Timothy chapters 3-4.

Second, this book is short and to the point.  There is no filler or wasted space.  He gets right to the point and stays on point in each chapter.

Third, both church officer & laity alike will benefit from this book.  As a pastor, I not only found this book to be useful in clarifying my understanding of the nature and work of the offices of elder & deacon, but also found it to be more than a little edifying & encouraging as well.  Church members who want to be more well-informed in their nomination & election of church officers will also find it immensely helpful.

Another thing that I greatly appreciated was that Anyabwile did not just focus on the qualifications of elders or pastors (part 2 of the book), but also dedicated the entire third section of the book to the work that they are called to do.  Again, this section would be good for pastor/elder & laity alike.  We often have unbiblical notions or expectations about what our pastors and ruling elders are called to do,  and this can cause much confusion and unnecessary difficulty in the church.

There is much more that could be said, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend this book.  I will almost certainly be referring to it (and re-reading it!) in the future.  And I hope that I am not alone in that regard.

Para-church or Pseudo-church?


What is the biblical view of the role of parachurch organizations?  How are they to be rightly understood in relation to the church?  In his book, The Gospel Commission, Michael Horton writes,

“By providing support systems, parachurch organizations can help churches to stay focused on execution, but they transgress their limits when they assume the role that Christ entrusted to his church. They are not authorized to make disciples. They have no commission to proclaim the Word, to administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper, to determine faith and practice, or to exercise spiritual discipline. Whatever they do must be in service to this ministry of the church rather than as a substitute parent.” (p.209)

Think about that.  What is your view of the church?  And what is your view of parachurch organizations in relation to (or even in comparison to) the church?  Do you think of the  various parachurch organizations as the place(s) where the ‘real’ work of ministry takes place? Do you have a low view of Christ’s church when it comes to the outward & ordinary means of grace and the Commission to make disciples of all the nations?

Oddly enough, in our day it seems as if church & parachurch have drifted into each other’s lanes, so to speak.  The church (as church) seeks to accomplish works of social justice and other such things, while seemingly leaving the work of making disciples to others (i.e. parachurch).  Likewise often parachurch organizations seem bent on picking up the slack as it were, by drifting into the work that the church (as church) is alone truly commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to do.

Parachurch organizations have their rightful place, but that place is not as a substitute for the church (and vice-versa).

The Mother of All Heresies

Ambition 3

“Ambition is the mother of all heresies.”

This is Calvin’s remark about Paul’s words in Acts chapter 20, where the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian elders that after his departure, “fierce wolves” would come in (v.29) or even arise from among their own number, “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (v.30).

Ambition, either for a personal following, for financial gain, or both (as one often follows the other) may be found at the root of most or even all false teaching.  Calvin goes on to say,

“Pure handling of the Scripture aims to give Christ the preeminence, and people cannot appropriate anything for themselves without detracting from the glory of Christ. It follows that those who try to promote their own glory are corrupters of sound doctrine.” (Acts, Crossway Classic Commentary Series, p.339)

So if you are a minister of the gospel of Christ, beware of pride and the temptations of self-promotion.  Seek to make much of Christ in your public and private ministry of the Word.  It is no wonder that Paul admonished the Ephesian elders to “Be on guard” for themselves before telling them to be on guard for all the flock (v.28, NASB).