By Paul Koch –
Once again I find myself amongst good friends trudging around a strange land steeped in inside jokes, bizarre rituals, and humor that can only move dedicated sycophants to robust laughter. That’s right we’ve come again to the great symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Though it is a strange land, it is a joy to be here. The theological papers are always top notch, the conversations at the hotel bar are refreshing and challenging, and I get to reconnect with some treasured friends.
However, this year I’ve noticed something new. It is a specific phrase about “faithful” pastors. Here’s how it usually sounds at a cocktail party;
Things are going well at my congregation and it’s nice that now a have a few more faithful pastors near me.
Do you know pastor ________? He’s a good guy, and he’s faithful.
How are things in California? Do you find that you have some faithful pastors to gather with?
Now I don’t really want to get into what they mean by “faithful;” after all the criticism can be everything from heretical teachings to moral failings (though they probably mean something more along the lines of what type of music they prefer in church or if they have screens or not). Rather I am fascinated about how we react to brothers in the ministry. That is, what do we do with a pastor that we believe to be unfaithful? Are we responsible for them? Do we have an obligation to them? Or are they simply to be fodder for our next gathering of the “faithful”?
Now of course in the church there are bureaucratic solutions for such things. There are prescribed options to deal with unfaithful pastors. But if you’ve read much of my writing, you will know that I would prefer almost any other option other than turning things over to a bureaucracy no matter how churchly it may seem. Bureaucracy will always defer to the Law, and proclamation will always be set aside for the sake of order. At best, the actions of love that flow from bureaucracy are like a father getting ready to use a belt on his son saying, “This is going to hurt me more than you.” In fact, if we remove the bureaucratic avenue for engaging with each other we find that we are faced with real calls for love; for then we are face to face with our brothers themselves.
So again, am I responsible for the unfaithful pastor? Do I owe them anything?
In Matthew 18, as the disciples ponder about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, our Lord calls attention to a new ordering of things: that the greatest in the church are those who are most in need of the gifts the church is called to hand over. They are children, the unrepentant sinner, the unfaithful pastor.
So it would seem that I do owe something to my brother even (or especially) if he has been labeled “unfaithful,” or perhaps even more accurately, if he has simply not been labeled as “faithful.” If there is really a danger, a glaring flaw that has become infected and endangers the health of the body, then there is most certainly a service that I am to render. After all this one is the greatest.
So what am I to do?
Quite simply, I am to be a preacher to my brother. I am sent to him to kill and make alive, to tear down and build up. It may be obvious, but pastors need preachers too. Pastors need to hear the Word upon the lips of a brother or sister in Christ. A Word outside of ourselves is crucial for this vocation, not only for the work we are called to do for our congregations but for our own reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.
Now, to be my brother’s preacher is to confess that I need someone to be my preacher, as well. If we are to wield the Law, to bring repentance in another, are we led to repentance ourselves? And if we can speak the renewing and life-giving words of freedom to the repentant, do we have a source from which we can drink deep of such gifts? If I lose the face to face relationship with the pastors who serve around me, I can forget that in their struggles they are the greatest; and I rob others of treating me as the greatest. In fact, I believe that it is only when we lose the face of our brother that we can talk so callously about how they are not being faithful.
Perhaps, just perhaps, those that are really unfaithful are those who have stopped being preachers. They’ve stopped engaging in the audacious and radical task of being the hitmen and midwives of God. And so they find it easy to talk about those they’ve never sat with, laughed with, confessed with, and argued with. They can label them through the lens of bureaucratic separation and assume it’s someone else’s duty to preach.
But if we are to be our brother’s preachers I think we just might be able to heal those wounds before the whole body becomes infected.