Are you involved in ministry? Is the nature of your ministry full-time or are you just part-time? I have had people for years telling me that they could see me in full-time ministry someday. Since that had been an ambition of mine since Christ took up residence within me at 23, I was always pleased to hear this prediction. After all, I didn’t want to just give Jesus a part-time commitment. But, I have also been frustrated because my attempts at moving in that direction always felt like I was kicking against the goads.
It has only been in recent years that I discovered that I was already in full-time ministry and had been for years. Here is something that might cause you some surprise: if Christ is in you, you too are in full-time ministry. (And if you are a Christian, Christ is in you.) If you’re not drawing a paycheck for your ministerial contribution, this passage drives home some of the advantages of the type of full-time ministry you and I share. You and I (non-staff ones) have much more in common with Paul than we probably think!
Here are some observations from this passage about Paul’s ministry. His conscience was so clear before God and man that he could defend his whole-hearted effort and motives without blushing and also without pride. Paul clearly understood that in regard to his ministry, it was ultimately God, with whom he had to do. This was simply the orientation of his heart since he had become the tabernacle of the living Christ. This relieved Paul of the burden of trying to impress anyone or even assert the apostolic authority that was rightfully his. He preferred to win their hearts and draw their choices from them as opposed to laying down a law and driving them with guilt and fear toward obedience. A key to Paul’s success comes to light in verse 2:8: “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
Paul knew something about different types of authority. He knew that the kind of authority that is earned by sharing life’s burdens was superior to the kind that came with his apostolic title. Paul was using the authority of a true spiritual father, not that of a hireling. He knew from experience that, from this place of close relational proximity, he was more effective in the exhorting, encouraging and imploring necessary to equip men to live as sons and ultimately spiritual fathers.
Paul owed nothing to anyone other than God. He was not obligated to meet the expectation of a congregation whose tithes would be the basis of his economic stability. In the Christian culture most of us have grown up in, there is a pastor who receives a paycheck and he is accountable to his employer, which is typically represented by some kind of board or committee. And, if you have had the experience of being either the writer or the recipient of these checks, you know there are the ever-present dynamics of politics, by which Paul was fortunately unhindered in Thessalonica.
I have had the opportunity to enter into the dynamic tensions between the writer and recipient of these checks. Consequently, today I thank the Lord for sparing me from “that type” of full-time ministry and permitting me to see that all Christians are in full-time ministry with the same advantages that Paul knew. We have the privilege, just as Paul did:
…To walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls us into His own kingdom and glory. And for this reason we can thank God that when those (in relational proximity to us) received (and observed) the word of God’s message, they accepted it not as (just) the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in those of us who believe. (Parentheticals mine)
For the record, Paul did issue commands by the authority of the Lord Jesus, but he didn’t just preach them, he demonstrated them. When he exhorted the Thessalonians that each of them must learn to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, as a member of their community, he was able to actually demonstrate how to abstain from sexual immorality and to live and to work free from lust and greed. The kingdom of God is learned by a combination of exhibition (example) and exposition (teaching).
As much as a pastor might like to imitate Paul and personally exhort and encourage the flock, his organizational and managerial responsibilities usually require so much of his time that relational proximity to others is nearly impossible. There is another complicating feature for “pastors” in experiencing true relational proximity (and intimacy) to others in our current church culture— “compliance.”
I hate this word because our construction business contracts with government entities, who are really heavy into “compliance.” If we do not comply with their specifications and regulations, which are numerous—and sometimes onerous—we do not get our paycheck. I believe I see this same dynamic in-play within church (the way our traditions have taught us to do it). It may in fact be worse in churches than in government. At least in our business (where God is not confused as its sovereign author) we have written contracts, specification, and prescribed means of resolving disputes.
Within church cultures, there are some written codes, but there are also myriad unwritten ones spelling out the righteous standards that must be complied with. It is very complicated, because over time these standards become embedded into the group’s culture and are hence sacred (assumed to be ordained by God). If one wishes to remain employed or in good standing, it would serve them well to understand the religious culture in which they serve and live in compliance with it. If, however, you are a re-former of church culture, brace yourself for an inevitable and messy battle where the disputed territories being fought over will seldom even be understood or acknowledged for what they really are—a swampland of traditions, swimming with old-wineskin assumptions.
Pastor and staff beware. These stagnant waters often breed a nasty parasite – the backbiting saint. There is typically an ongoing buzz of discussion within the local assembly as to how the pastor (and others) are doing in their compliance. Sheep may look innocent, but they bite like crazy. Just ask all the pastors who have distanced themselves (for safety and sanity’s sake) from all the self-appointed code enforcers.
I have drifted. My point is that those of us who do not draw a paycheck for our service of worship have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility. The pastor does not have the same congregation we do. Only you and I have our particular network of friends, co-workers, and family. It’s not the pastor’s job to reach them. Only we, who are unencumbered by title and who have been uniquely gifted, equipped, and strategically located, must serve those nearest us. Only in our unique relational proximity to these people can we impart our lives.
I Thessalonians has much to say about life together, but here is one of Paul’s most precious pearls: “Encourage one another and build-up one another…and always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men.”
Father, may the light come on within us and help us see and take ownership of those you have placed near to us. Help us to love them with the gifts you placed uniquely in us for this purpose. Deliver us from the idea that the kingdom was left to be built by salaried professionals. Give us new strategies that will equip and commission the saints to impart our lives and the gospel to those You have placed near to us. Amen.