This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
I have both good news and bad news for you and your church.
Bad news first: the single biggest threat to the life and health of your church is already on the inside of your church walls. That greatest of threats is not external. It’s not slander or persecution or even some terrible act of violence perpetrated by an evil attacker or group in the throes of Satan—not to make light of such trials, however severe. Great as they may be, imposing as they may seem, Christ keeps quite the record of building his church through such external threats and attacks. In Christ’s strange and wonderful economy, the most awful of external tests often serve to strengthen the hearts, and join the hands, of God’s people and spread the reputation of Jesus for good as his church rallies with patience and resilient joy.
No, the biggest threats usually come from within. And typically, the worst of them—the deepest, most discouraging, most divisive, most devastating—come from within you, dear pastor. The biggest threat is already on the inside because it’s on the inside of you. Your indwelling sin, if fed rather than starved, if coddled rather than put to death, if given time and space to breath and grow and expand, can wreak havoc not only on your own soul but—because you’re a pastor—your congregation with it.
So the apostle Paul, writing to his delegate and protégé Timothy and embroiled in a conflict with false teachers in Ephesus, warned him not only of real, external threats that had come to roost in the church, but of the even greater threat that might emerge from Timothy’s own soul were he not to stay on guard:
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
Yes, Timothy, be vigilant with the teaching. Oh, do be faithful! Christianity is a teaching movement, and “the teaching” is so important for the reputation of Christ (1 Tim. 6:1) and the good of his church (1 Tim. 6:3). The church will not thrive and survive without faithful, enduring, engaging, earnest teaching. But diligence and care with your public words alone will not suffice. You also must keep a close watch on yourself. Neglect your own soul, and your public teaching, however seemingly fruitful, is a ticking time bomb.
But we have good news, too, on this topic: that under Christ and by his Spirit, there is something you can do to address and avoid this great threat. Though not ultimate, you have a part to play. The risen Christ has pledged his sustaining grace to his own and invited you into the process of preserving your own heart. You are not helpless. Paul issues such a command to Timothy, and through him to us, because you can keep a close watch on yourself. God chose you apart from you, and he called you apart from you; but he does not keep you apart from you. It is dignifying to be so included. And frightful. In our right minds, we “work out” (not “work for”) such a salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God himself, in his Spirit, is at work in us to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13). In our keeping such a self-watch, Christ works not just for us but in us, and through us.
Very practically, then, one significant way the risen Christ keeps his churches and their pastors is through their daily habits, and in particular their “habits of grace” for hearing Christ’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body. That is, pastors not just leading his body, but truly belonging to it in the fellowship of the local church.
For one, dear pastor, what are your secret liturgies? Before you lead in the public gathering, are you protecting and cherishing and growing and thriving in your private worship of the risen Christ over his word and in prayer?
The most profound accountability of all is the accountability of knowing and enjoying Jesus. You may be able to trick your family and fellow elders for a season. You cannot trick Christ. And as your soul comes to know and enjoy him more truly and more fully, you will be driving Peter’s famous reply more deeply into your soul: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Don’t check the box on morning devotions. Don’t surrender your time with Jesus to study and message prep. Linger in his words for your own joy. Steep. Lose track of time. Meditate on his word and don’t let him go till he blesses you with the kind of satisfaction that keeps, because we know it to have no replacement in any of the world’s offerings.
The most profound accountability of all is the accountability of knowing and enjoying Jesus.
As for the fellowship, God has appointed, dear pastor, that we are first and foremost sheep—rejoicing far more that our names are in the book of life than that he uses us as his instruments in ministry (Luke 10:20)—and that we labor not alone, but as a team. A plurality of shepherds is a glorious keeping grace of the chief shepherd. So, before Paul addressed Timothy as his delegate, he had spoken to the Ephesian elders as a group:
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.—Acts 20:28
Indeed, as a team of pastors, pay careful attention to your flock—that is, not distant flocks through the Internet, but your flock and all your flock. But as one member of a team of pastors, pay careful attention to yourselves. A cooling heart among you. A cherished sin among you. Needless division among you. Deep-seated pride and subtle slights and bruised egos among you. Pay careful attention to yourselves as pastor-elders. If Christ has given you the grace of having a team of fellow pastor-elders—so many good brothers, sadly, are without such fellows!—cherish it. Lean into it. Cultivate it. Work on it. Mine for conflict. Vocalize appreciation. Affirm others’ abilities. Smote sinful comparison and competition.
And, dear pastor, in it all and beneath it all—in and beneath your personal habits and team habits, in and beneath your morning vigilance and late-night meetings—you have a helper. He has seen fit to give you the dignity of participating in your own preservation, but he has not rolled this burden from his shoulders onto yours. He is the keeper. He is able.
Knowing ourselves as sinners in the midst of a recovery project called sanctification is sobering. Our sin, left unchecked, really could ruin so much that we hold near and dear. The first dragon we have to fight is the one still lurking in our own hearts. And yet, what hope we have! What confidence can be ours to know ourselves recipients of divine grace, divine words in Scripture, the divine ear in prayer, divine fellows, and the divine helper—who is the Holy Spirit and, stunningly, not just available, but ours in Christ.
Do keep a close watch on your teaching and on the flock. And confident of his grace and power to help, keep a close watch on yourself—through the delightful discipline of daily joy in Christ and with brother elders. In doing so, you will, dear pastor, help to save your church from the sinful impulses still coursing through your own veins.
David Mathis is the author of Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ on Christian Leaders.
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