The Man Behind the Ministry: Be Careful How We Define Spiritual Maturity

I want to begin this column with where the last one ended. We must be careful how we define ministry readiness and spiritual maturity. There is a danger in thinking that the well-educated and trained seminary graduate is ministry ready or to mistake knowledge, busyness, and skill with personal spiritual maturity. Maturity is a vertical thing that will have a wide variety of horizontal expressions. Maturity is about relationship to God that results in wise and humble living. Love for Christ expresses itself in love for other. Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving of others. Your daily experience of gospel rescue gives you passion for people experiencing the same rescue.

These things need to be brought to the forefront in the application and examination of all pastoral candidates. We are not calling skills, knowledge, and experience to ministry. We are calling whole people who live out of the heart and whose ministries will always be shaped and directed by some kind of worship. We are calling people in the middle of their own sanctification, still struggling with the seductive and deceptive power of sin. We are calling people who face the daily snares of a world that simply is not operating the way that God intended. We are calling people God will call into hardship for their redemptive good and for his glory. We are calling people in intimate daily relationships with other sinners. We are calling people capable of losing their way, capable of self-deception, and tempted to be self-sufficient and self-righteous. We are calling people who drag their feelings about and interpretations of ministry experiences into this new place. We are calling people in as desperate need of forgiving, transforming, empowering, and delivering grace as anybody to whom they would ever minister. We are calling real people who are not yet grace graduates.

So we must get to know – really know – the people we put into positions spiritual leadership and care of God's people.

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Some Biblical Examples

It is clear from examining Scripture that leadership fruitfulness or failure is seldom only about knowledge, strategy, skill, and experience. Consider what Romans 4 says of Abraham. He was chosen by God to receive his covenant promises. He was told that his offspring would be like the sand on the seashore. Yet his wife was a very old woman, way beyond child-bearing age, and he had not yet given birth to the son who would carry on his line. Romans 4 tells us something significant about Abraham's heart. When you and I are called by God to wait for an extended period as Abraham was, our story is often a chronicle of ever-weakening faith. The longer we think about what we are waiting for, the longer we consider how we have no ability to deliver it. The longer we have to let ourselves wonder why we have been selected to wait, the more our faith weakens.

Not so with Abraham. We're told in this passage that during this time of protracted waiting his faith actually grew stronger. Rather than meditating on the impossibility of his situation, Abraham meditated on the power and character of the One who made the promise. The more Abraham let his heart bask in the glory of God, he grew convinced he was in good hands. Rather than a cycle of discouragement and hopelessness, Abraham's story was one of encouragement and hope.

What about Joseph, whom God chose as his tool to preserve the children of Israel from famine and resultant extinction? When seduced by the Egyptian ruler Potiphar's wife, he would not give in. Why? Not fear of consequences, not learning from experience, and not his skill at negotiating the complicated relationships of the palace. Genesis 39 tells us clearly what motivated Joseph at this critical choice point in his life. He resisted because of deep heart devotion to his Lord. His heart was not ruled by horizontal pleasure but by vertical worship. He could not conceive of doing such a wicked thing against God. A glory greater than the temporary glories of the created world captured his heart, so he spoke with an immediate, emphatic, and heart-felt "no."

Good to Go

Or think about Moses as he stood before that burning bush. God had chosen Moses to be his tool of redemption, to lead Israel out of captivity and into the land of promise. But Moses was neither willing nor hopeful. Exodus 3 and 4 record Moses' argument with God. Moses believed he was completely unable, unprepared, and unqualified to do the thing that God called him to do. God's response was simple: "I will go with you." Moses' bottom line was just as simple: "Lord, please send someone else." Even after God gave Moses a first-hand demonstration of the power at his disposal as the chosen tool of God, Moses begged the Lord not to send him.

What is going on here? Moses was not protected by all of his Egyptian education. He was not motivated by the wealth of his Egyptian cultural knowledge. He was not heartened by his understanding of palace politics. None of these things helped Moses at this point, because he was betrayed by the fear of his own heart. Only in the face of God's anger did Moses finally go.

Or think of the army of Israel in the valley of Elah, armed for battle but too afraid to fight. They stood there as the chosen army of the Most High God, the Lord of Hosts, afraid to face the Philistine champion. It was an army suffering from a tragic case of identity amnesia. They forgot who they were. They forgot the promises they had been given. So they drew a false spiritual equation as they evaluated the moment. It wasn't these puny little soldiers against this huge giant, it was this puny giant against almighty God. 1 Samuel 17 chronicles David arriving. This shepherd, there to deliver provisions to his brothers, was a man of faith, a man who had experienced the rescuing power of God. David couldn't understand why the army would not fight. In an act of courage only possible for someone who knows he is a child of God, David walked into that valley to face Goliath with nothing more than a shepherd's sling. David knew God would deliver the Philistine champion and his army into his hand. David knew that he fought not in the shadow of the glory of Goliath but in the brightness of the glory of God. The courage of faith propelled him into that valley.

Or remember Elijah, who after the great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel found himself so alone, discouraged, and hopeless that he wanted to die. 1 Kings 19 pictures for us this pathetic prophet who completely lost his way. He could see no way out. Convinced he was the only righteous man left, he was sure evil would win. Only God could return Elijah to his senses. He was not alone. God's work was not done. Evil would not ultimately win. There were 7,000 faithful left to carry on the work of God.

Think about what Paul said of his opposition of Peter, who was about to compromise a core principle of the gospel, because he was afraid of what a certain group of people would think of him and how they would respond. He was about to act in a way that directly contradicted the message he was called to represent, not because he lacked knowledge, experience, or skill, but because, at the moment, his heart was ruled more by horizontal fear than vertical belief.

The 'X' Factor

In each instance, the condition of the leader's heart made the difference. The heart is the inescapable "X" factor in ministry. Put two people with the exact same training, experience, and skill set next to one another, and it would be easy to conclude that they will respond in similar ways to the push and pull of local church ministry. It would be easy to conclude this, but dangerous. The potential for significant difference in the way these men function as pastors is as wide as the catalog of things that can rule a person's heart in ministry.

 It is naïve to think that pastoral ministry is always propelled by love for Christ and love of his gospel. It is simplistic to conclude that people in ministry have a natural and abiding love for people. It is dangerous to conclude that everyone in ministry is working to further God's kingdom. It is important to recognize that many people in ministry have been seduced by self-glory and lost sight of the glory of God. Not all people in ministry do their work out of a humble sense of their own need. Ministries derail because leaders begin to think they have arrived and don't do the protective things they warn everyone else to do. It's naïve to think that pastors are free from sexual temptation, fear of man, envy, greed, pride, anger, doubt of God, bitterness, and idolatry. Every pastor is being reconstructed by God's grace.

So it is essential to know the heart of the man behind the knowledge, skill, experience, and ministry strategy before you call him to pastor God's flock. You can be assured that like God's leaders of old, he will face crucial personal and ministry choice points. In those significant moments, the heart will win the day and determine what he will do. Because, like everyone else, whatever rules his heart will direct his life and his ministry. It is vital to get way, way beyond the profile that emerges from the data on his vitae. The one called to teach God's Word must have a heart ruled by grace.

Paul David Tripp is a pastor, author, and international conference speaker. He is the president of Paul Tripp Ministries and works to connect the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life. This vision has led Paul to write 13 books on Christian living and travel around the world preaching and teaching. Paul's driving passion is to help people understand how the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks with practical hope into all the things people face in this broken world. For more resources, visit

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