Self-Appointed Preachers - Another Black Eye for the Christian Faith
"What are you doing February 10?"
He could barely contain himself. My son-in-law, George had just passed his ordination trials and wondered if I could preach at his ordination service. Now this is a big deal. He'd been through five years of seminary, several years as an assistant pastor in Tennessee. He'd just landed his first solo gig at a church in Beeville, Texas.
Of course, I'm delighted for him and will make every effort to be there on February 10. But there's something else that pleases me too. George might have followed an all too common practice of appointing himself to the Christian ministry, but didn't. The scenario goes something like this.
A person "feels called", presumably by God, to a particular ministry. It could be to start a church in a remote area, or not. Some will start a church in the shadow of another, 'cause the other isn't good enough. Often the ministry is some specialized outreach to a needy segment of the population. So the person announces that he is called. Out go his letters to friends and family and every distant acquaintance asking for prayer and for money. He is sincere. He is energetic. He is winsome. Dollars begin to roll in. God must be in it. After a few years, other opportunities for ministry are detected. More letters go out. More money comes in. The outreach expands. Along the way our friend has picked up a title to give him some legitimacy: Reverend, Apostle, Bishop. He's become powerful. People do his bidding and show him special favors. All in the name of the Lord's work.
But is it the Lord's work? Who's to say it was the Lord who called him? How do we know that he's legit? Maybe he's just pursuing his own desires for power and authority and wealth. The church or "outreach ministry" is his fiefdom.
Who are the first to see through the charade? A world of would-be followers of Christ. Their hearts ache. They need to know God and find forgiveness and restoration in the gospel of Christ. But they're smart enough to avoid feeding the self-serving ambitions of fraudulent preachers.
How to know!
Back in the day when ships followed beacons into port, an experienced captain knew to line up the blinking lights so that they appeared to the eye as one. As long as that was the case the ship was safely centered in the channel. If the beacons got out of line he'd run aground.
So it is with detecting God's call to the ministry. There are four beacons that must be kept in line for a person to be assured that it is God who is calling. The first is an internal desire to do so. Paul wrote to Timothy, his younger understudy, "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task." (I Timothy 1:1) So that's the first, but only the first, step. To know whether or not the desire is God given you'll want to get the next three lights in line.
The second light is possession of the requisite graces and gifts. By graces I mean a character marked by the fruit of the Spirit. These, of course, should be true of every Christian, but more-so in one who aspires to leadership. That fruit is listed in Galatians 5:22,23. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." Surely, if one is to lead others to Christ, he must demonstrate growth in Christlike character. Notice I said "growth" not "perfection." Along with the grace our would-be preacher must have the necessary gifts. A person may desire to serve the Lord and be obviously Christlike but if he's tongue-tied in public, can't carry on a conversation, or doesn't know how to string thoughts together so that they make sense... I doubt he's called by God. Both the graces and the gifts will be discovered and honed over time while in seminary, Bible School or some other training program and while serving an internship or two. If our candidate has chosen a faithful school and surrounds himself with godly people, he'll be picking up signals that he's got the graces and gifts or not.
The third light is a discernible invitation from others to come serve them. Usually this takes the form of a congregation voting to call a particular candidate to serve it as pastor. When this is done above board with due deliberation and prayer an objective measure is provided by which to judge the legitimacy of a call. Absent a congregational vote look for some group of people on the site of the ministry who will welcome you to serve among them. If no congregation or other group of folks indicate a desire to have the candidate come serve them, I'd question whether or not his call is from God.
The final beacon is the endorsement by those who are already in the field of service. That's what an ordination signals. Men already proven to be called by God now lay their hands on the newbie acknowledging their recognition of his call. That's the step my son-in-law will take on February 10.
Yes, it is an arduous journey with its share of pitfalls and distractions. Should it be otherwise? Don't physicians, engineers and attorneys go through a similar process? How much more should those who deal with the soul and affect eternal well-being.
But there is another side. Many churches and organizations are Christian in name only. They have adopted a politically correct agenda, jettisoned foundational truths of the Bible and followed their own lights. It's not surprising that sincere candidates for ministry have been rebuffed by such organizations for being outside the acceptable theological and political persuasions. Is it any wonder that some are tempted to ignore the beacons that lead to the assurance of God's call.
I wrote "many", not "all." There is a growing number of faithful Christian churches and ministries of most every denominational label. These will encourage young candidates for the gospel ministry to follow the steps I've outlined.
If you're a layman, don't hesitate to ask for a preacher's cred pack. If he's legit he'll happily show it to you and admire your due diligence.
I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted to quit the ministry. I've served three churches and over forty three years I've garnered my share of hostility from folks who didn't like me and well-intentioned opposition from those who said they liked me, but just didn't think I was a good enough pastor.
So what keeps a guy going under such pressure? Certainly it wasn't my strength. It was the conviction that to leave would be a betrayal of a call received from a Lord who gave his life to save me.
From a pastor's point of view that alone is reason to make sure that a call is legitimate. There are godly ways for a church to rid itself of an unwanted pastor, but pressure from a few self-appointed watchdogs is not one of them. Unless a pastor is certain of his call, he's likely to be at the mercy of some well-intentioned but overreaching members.