The hardest lesson for me to learn in ministry was what the enemy looked like. Theologically speaking I understood Satan was real and he was the god of this world. I knew that we did not wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. I knew that the early church, and the universal church around the world struggled against an enemy that was vitriol and out for the blood of anyone who would profess a commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and only savior. I understood all of this and I was ready to take on the enemy. If it meant I was to be burned at the stake for the name of Jesus, so be it. I could take pain, I wasn’t going to back down, and I was ready to rumble, fully armed and ready for war.
When I jumped into ministry, I was fired up about spreading the message of the Gospel. I also knew I had to call people to join me in this battle. That’s what planting a church is about. It’s calling the people of God to do the work of God, overcoming the enemy of God. In fact it was in the midst of my first church plant that I found myself in the fiercest battle…but the enemy I was fighting with wasn’t Satan, and it wasn’t godless pagans who hated the Gospel. I was fighting with people who professed a saving faith in Jesus Christ and as far as I could tell had a deep devotion to Him.
I could spend a lot of time trying to explain individual experiences I have had in order to give a fully developed picture. The problem was that each battle I faced was connected to the make up of the individual I was dealing with. The problems I found myself in were as complex and numerous as the personalities of the people in God’s church. There is enough content in the details to write 50 books and probably warrant an honorary doctorate in psychology from a prestigious university. I’m big on cliff notes, and I find that “principles” are the cliff notes of life’s experience. So, here’s a few Cliff Notes on years of experience I have gained in ministry.
First, Well intentioned and seemingly spiritual people sometimes hurt the church. It took me a long time to understand this principle, but I think I have figured it out. Somewhere during the life experience of certain believers, they grabbed onto a truth and elevated it above every other truth in scripture. In some cases the experience was bad and they found a truth in scripture that highlighted the problem so they grabbed a hold of it and elevated it. In other cases the experience was good and they felt they had the whole picture and didn’t need to develop a fully orbed theology.
As an innocuous example; The person who grew up in a fundamentalist background had an awesome grace experience but they can’t embrace a theology of church discipline. Another example would be a person who was blessed to see a supernatural move of God working on behalf of His people, but they don’t ever develop a realistic sense of how much human effort went into the work before God moved in a uniquely supernatural way. So they believe that everything God does is without human effort or responsibility. These experiences, by themselves, produce unbalanced and ultimately unhealthy believers.
Teaching someone to trust the Word of God more than their limited experience is extremely difficult. It’s not that their experience was wrong or unbiblical, it’s just that it was limited, and God has more to teach all of us. It takes cooperation to continue to grow in Christ, and when we refuse to allow God to develop us we get stuck, and when we get stuck we become ineffective, even a hinderance to the work God is willing to do.
Second, it’s extremely difficult to find people willing to examine themselves in order to grow further. It’s painful to grow. It requires that we acknowledge we have not arrived. It requires that we listen to what other believers around us are saying to us. It requires that we humble ourselves and admit we are wrong at times.
Jesus called us to make disciples. When the people of Christ refuse to engage in the process of Christ, they become incapable of producing disciples of Christ. The mark of truly healthy churches is the genuine commitment to discipleship at all levels. When you remove the willingness to allow the Word, Spirit and people of God to speak into your life you stop growing. When you stop growing you hit the ceiling of what God can do with you.
Thirdly, people act in a way that unsettles the faith of others while believing they are doing the work of God. This single principle is probably the most damaging because it’s the active destruction that nobody can see. When a person has an unhealthy balance in their theological thinking, they begin pushing their view. More often than not the tone is critical. Criticism fuels gossip, and gossip sows dischord.
Paul warned Timothy that quarreling and irreverent babel unsettles and even destroys people’s faith. How often do well intentioned believers who don’t examine themselves champion their unbalanced views. They make their hang ups the primary issue, and with a very critical approach pass judgement on everyone who won’t jump on their broken bandwagon. Some do it with passion, some do it with passivity, but they almost always communicate a form of judgement on anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
They believe their passion is spiritual and honoring to Christ but what they can’t see is that they are actually destroying the faith of some. The tone is often void of love or encouragement and often times they subtly promote themselves as more spiritual than anyone else. The truth is, God is honored when people are encouraged to press into Christ. Scripture is clear in it’s expectation that believers never lose sight of Jesus.
So what needs to happen? If we all examine ourselves in light of the cross…we realize that we have no capacity or place to judge anyone in the family of God. It’s in the midst of our failures and shortcomings that we submit to Christ, trusting His grace and strengthening one another. The one who judges, has not understood God’s grace, more specifically, they don’t understand how desperately they have needed God’s grace. When we realize that we are a mess, and we continue to be a mess, it causes us to proclaim Jesus Christ to our bothers and sisters and encourage them to press into grace. We walk together in the midst of our incomplete theology trusting God to shape us by His Word, with His Spirit, and through other imperfect believers.
When this happens we stop being our own worst enemy. When we stop being our own worst enemy God begins to move, and the battle we fight will be with the real enemy. When that happens victory is certain.