The pursuit of excellence is a goodly theme. He who would remain content with the mediocre despises his Lord. Talents are given for multiplication, not preservation. An over-indulgence in pondering the weaknesses and sins of the flesh prevents us from laying hold of God’s strength and righteousness.
“Though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins or our indifference, and therefore it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.” (C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Few would argue with such sentiments. But we must ask ourselves the question, what is excellence? To what shall we look as a legitimate goal? What does our Master expect of us when He urges us to achieve, to strive, to seek, to hunger and thirst after, to have courage, to pursue, as this “excellence”? Within the churches of the western world, to achieve some degree of excellence usually involves becoming a “leader” of one sort or another. It is really quite surprising how much emphasis we place on what our brethren DO in their Christian lives, quite apart from what they ARE. I have seen numerous advertisements in Christian magazines and newspapers extolling the virtues and achievements of certain individuals whose names have become common parlance.
“Come and hear Brother A., whose work in B. is well known.”
“Our main speaker will be C., a truly charismatic figure in today’s evangelistic thrust.”
“Brother D., the well known healing evangelist – -.”
“We are privileged to have E. as our main speaker, an accepted apostolic figure in the British church.”
Of course, there is absolutely no precedent for such advertising in the documents of the New Testament; in fact the SPIRIT of such advertising is wholly contrary to the SPIRIT of New Testament teaching. But to most, the atmosphere created by such advertising induces an urge to rise “through the ranks” and become someone who has a credible list of “achievements” like those of the “big names.”
What is it that creates this urge? When analysed, it reduces to a fairly simple common denominator – the desire to be seen, to be admired, and to be successful in the eyes of the Christian world. When seen in that light, the whole edifice collapses like a house of cards. There is absolutely no justification for it. But pride is a horrible thing that niggles within our minds, and the Devil uses it as a rudder to steer us along a slippery downward path to our own destruction.
Is it wrong then to have a ministry? Didn’t the twelve apostles have ministries? Is it wrong to use the gift of healing, if God has given it? Didn’t the Lord Himself? There is no argument against ministries. It is part of the method that God employs as His “joints and bands” within the organic structure of His Church. No, the problem is not in this direction. The problem arises from two sources. First, the man or woman who has a ministry of any sort, and second, those who support and sustain such a ministry. The minister himself needs to understand the nature of the problem, how any form of publicly acclaimed Christian ministry can lead to pride, and what steps must be taken to ensure that this pride is stamped out continuously along the daily path of work for the Lord. And those who uphold that ministry must not take steps to elevate their brother/sister by advertising of the sort mentioned above. They must do everything they can to help their friend towards the goal of humility, rather than pride.
Let’s take a quick look at the New Testament, and see what it says about ministries. We find there a mention of Bishops, Elders, Deacons, Ministers, Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers, just to list the best known titles. But what did Paul say about the last five on that list (and by inference, the other four as well)? They are given for the “building up of the Body of Christ.” This is a far cry from the “building up of the ministerial status” of individuals. And in Ephesians 4 Paul goes on to say “until we ALL come – – to the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ, to a full-grown man.” Yes, there is the goal of all ministries, the interworking of each one part, the sharing, the helping, the sustaining, of each other until ALL reach their God-intended goal of maturity. Ministries can never be looked upon as a means of achieving personal fame, acclaim, or higher rank than others in God’s Kingdom. Self-esteem may force some to settle themselves at the top table, near to the King, only to be asked, very politely, to move down. Others may have an equal desire to be near to their Master, but consider it an impertinence to assume that position of nearness unless asked. Moses was the God-appointed leader of His people in the wilderness experience, but he was said to be “the meekest man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) The Hebrew word here translated “meek” is ANAV, and it attracts a variety of nuances in English, such as Humility, Clemency, and Gentleness. When found in David’s hymn of praise (2 Samuel 22:36) he testifies, “Thy gentleness hath made me great.” And in Proverbs 15:33, “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom, and Humility (meekness, gentleness) comes before honour.”
In our youth we do not understand this process, having an urge to “rise and conquer”, but with increasing age and experience, the Lord imparts the knowledge of a different way. Paul puts this in a nutshell in Philippians 2:3-5. “Let nothing be done through rivalry or self-glorification, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”A more suitable translation of the latter half would be, “Let each esteem others more than, or beyond, themselves.” To use the word “better” is only to foster differentials the other way round and I’m sure Paul didn’t wish to create such an inversion. He goes on to say, “Look not every man on his own things, but also on the things of others.” That clinches the meaning. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” In the Old Testament Ezekiel was given a very stern message to pass on to the “Shepherds of Israel”, the Pastors of God’s own Flock. In chapter 34 we read, “Woe to the Shepherds of Israel who feed themselves. Should not the Shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat, and clothe yourselves with the wool, and you kill the fat ewe, but you do not feed the flock. The diseased you have not strengthened, neither have you healed those which were sick, nor bound up that which was broken, nor searched for those who were driven away and lost, but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.”
The Lord was recalling this passage when He spoke of Himself as “the GOOD Shepherd”, who cares for His sheep, and leaves the ninety and nine to search for the one who is lost. Pastors of churches today should pattern their ministries on the Lord as the Chief Pastor. Those who copy His example He will honour. But those who “feed not the flock” and who “rule with cruelty” will be rejected, not from their redeemed state, but from any responsible position in God’s Millennial Kingdom. How we treat others here and now, will determine whether we are considered worthy to share in Christ’s administration in His Kingdom. This is a serious matter, and as the years have progressed the weight of the message has grown in my own heart. Humility is not a work of the flesh, but a fruit of the Spirit to be sought by prayer.
One has often heard over the last twenty years the expression “Heavy Shepherding.” Within the Charismatic Movement there has been a great deal of emphasis on Leadership at various levels, almost creating a pyramidal system. Without doubt many of those who have occupied such positions have done so with admirable concern, prayer, and service to those placed within their jurisdiction. But it has also created the opening for misuse, harsh ruling, domination, and various forms of abuse and injustice. What did the Master have to say about this? “Remember the word that I said to you, the servant is not greater than his lord.” (John 15:20) And in Matthew 23:1-12 He spoke about the Pharisees who “love the chief places at festivals, and the best seats in the synagogues, the greetings in the market place, and the cry of “Rabbi, Rabbi!” In all their works they “loved to be seen of men, broadening their phylacteries, and enlarging their fringes.” But our Lord turned to His disciples and said, “Let no man call you Rabbi, because you have one Teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man Father on earth, because you have one Father in heaven. And be not called Leaders, for you have but one Leader, Christ. And the greater among you shall be your servant. Whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
I suppose it was because of such teaching that ten of the disciples were so incensed against James and John when their mother presented them to the Lord, asking that they may have the chief seats in His Kingdom. But when the Lord answered, He didn’t eliminate the quest for excellence in His Kingdom, but merely said that such positions were held within His Father’s jurisdiction. What He DID say was “Are you able to drink the cup that I am drinking?” In other words, are you able to share in MY sufferings? For as Paul said later, “Those who suffer with Him shall also rule with Him; but those who deny Him (the suffering) shall He deny (the rule.)” (2 Timothy 2:12) Then again, “If any man desire the office of a Bishop (i.e. an Overseer) he desires a good work.” There is nothing wrong in such aspirations. It could well be that the desire is founded on the gentle urge of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, then the Lord has singled out that man for the position. But Paul (in 1 Timothy 3) goes on to give a very grave list of character values which such a man must have.Likewise for Deacons (Ministers). “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the Devil.” Such Officers of the Church must be “Vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, ready to teach, grave, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not fond of base gain, able to raise their own families in the fear and discipline of the Lord, holding the faith in a pure conscience.” In addition, Paul said that they should first of all be “proved”, indicating that there should be a period of probation.
I get the impression that God is very jealous of His children, unwilling that any of us should be exposed to situations engendering the spirit of pride. The person is more important in His sight than the Ministry he performs. Hence none should be allowed to occupy high positions in the church until they have been proved. Proved, not only to be able to take the lead, but also proved to be resistant to pride and self-glorification. How great a service we should perform for some men today, if only we were able to convince them that their High Office is corrupting them, and destroying their own credibility.But this is no easy task. It is difficult to approach some. Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:1 “Rebuke not an Elder (or an Older Man) but entreat him as a father.” But sometimes the Leader is unapproachable, having arrogated to himself a position where advice cannot be accepted. If this is the case, then pride has already done its nefarious work, and one must resort to prayer, asking that God may so engineer his circumstances that he is brought to repentance. That which is impossible for man is easy for God. He said, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”
Wherein then is true excellence? What is it that we should pursue with a continual drive? The Lord said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” What righteousness should they seek? Their own righteousness, as an assessment of their own ministerial work? By no means. It is God’s own righteousness which comes by faith. And faith comes by hearing the word of God. Hearing the divine directive, and obeying it cannot produce pride because one can only say, “I have merely performed that which the Master asked.” Jesus once said, “So when you have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have merely done that which was our duty to do.” True excellence is based on Meekness, Humility, Gentleness, Servanthood, a Childlike attitude towards our Father in Heaven, Yieldedness, a willingness to suffer for, and with, Christ, a strong desire to help and assist our brethren not only in a practical way, but also by prayer as the Lord leads, and a profound thankfulness for all the great mercies and lovingkindness that God showers upon us day by day.
False excellence is based on self-esteem, the pursuance of a personal goal regardless of what it does to others, a desire to rule God’s people without the accompanying Servanthood, an overbearing manner that cannot listen to others but believes in its own ability at all times and in all situations, and a belief that some people have more leadership-potential than others, and seek to use it to their own advantage. “The disciples came to Jesus saying, ‘Who is the greater in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ And Jesus called a little child to Him and set him in their midst, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, except you change and become as children, you shall by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever will humble himself as this child shall be greater in the Kingdom of Heaven.'” (Matthew 18:1-4)