Leaving the 99

Over the years I have written a good deal about one of the great neglected qualifications for the ministry, which is the spiritual state of the minister’s family and home. Paul tells us plainly that a man whose house is not in order is not qualified to be a steward in the household of God. The stewardship abilities required in the one setting are comparable to those which are needed in the other. The texts seem plain enough.

“If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work . . . One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) (1 Tim. 3:1,4-5)

“Ordain elders in every city . . . the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God” (Tit. 1:5-7)

Having stated the hard center of the position, let us go on to acknowledge that life is messy and the texts are not plain enough to apply themselves. Somebody has to make decisions about it, and there will be complications. For example, the requirements have to do with making someone a minister — sacking a minister two years before his retirement is not in view. We also have to decide where the enforcement line for others might be. A man might have one line for what would require his own resignation, another one for how much he would say if a friend asked his advice, and yet a third for what he would fight about at presbytery. Another question concerns what scale of blameworthiness we are using — do we wait until excommunication? Or is the line crossed as soon as the wife of the head deacon sees the teenaged son of the minister sneaking into the back room of the video rental store? And what about the pastor whose natural kids are all thriving spiritually but the crack cocaine baby they adopted has had nothing but struggles? Okay, so life is messy, and we have to make decisions, and we have to do so non-legalistically, and do so without treating personal pastoral problems like we were stacking no more than five wooden blocks. Got it.

That said, I want to offer another consideration for men who are in such messy situations, and who truly desire to know what the Lord would have them do. I do not offer them a rule, and certainly I am not handing a rule over to the self-appointed chairman of their lynching party. I don’t want to lend encouragement to any “tag, you’re disqualified” factions within the church. Sometimes people confuse settling scores with holiness. I simply offer something to consider, and here it is.

Not all disqualifications are the same. Some men are disqualified from the ministerial office down to the bone. Given the nature of the case, they are probably disqualified in other areas as well, but when it comes to the Christian family, they don’t have a clue. Many years ago, back in our Jesus people days, when I was a very young pastor, a gent rolled into town, and “felt led” such that he wanted to join in with us on the leadership team. Only problem was, he had been married six times — and the last two wives were in his Christian phase. Um, let us think about it, no. So say a pastor has six kids, all of them hellions, from the three-year-old, whom the child care workers at the church have affectionately named Demon Child, to the eldest boy, who is sixteen and has already gotten three girls in the youth group pregnant. How all this could possibly be happening is a grand mystery to Dad, and he feels greatly put upon if anybody is legalistic enough to bring it up. Whatever happened to grace? This is disqualification simpliciter.

But there is another sort of qualification issue that is in a different category entirely. It is not the revealing of an utterly unpastoral heart, but is rather closer to what I would regard as one of a pastor’s final qualifying exams, an advanced test. A pastor has a number of grown children, walking in the Lord, and one black sheep. Does the Bible give directions to shepherds about the sheep who can take care of themselves for a bit, and the one who obviously can’t? Yes, it does.

“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:4-5).

There are two elements here — the obvious one is finding the lost sheep. But the other element is that of leaving the ninety nine. In this scenario, with this consideration, the disqualification would not be in the fact of the sheep wandering — that does happen from time to time. The potential disqualification comes in not going after the wandering sheep. The “reveal” is not found in the fact that a pastor’s kids can sin, sometimes grievously. I would want to argue that a pastor’s kid can sin grievously without disqualifying his or her father from the ministry. But what happens after that? When a child sins in this way, it is not so much a disqualification from ministry as it is a drastic invitation to radical ministry.

So this is just a consideration. When should a good pastor leave the 99? “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The answer is some form of “when there are just 99.”

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