This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you.
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
1 Corinthians 1:14–17
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:1–3
I wonder how often the apostle Paul made promises. I kind of think he would have shied away from promising or guaranteeing anything. Look at how he almost boasts in the fact that he didn’t baptize hardly anyone in Corinth, but just spoke the gospel without eloquent wisdom. Paul was cognizant enough to know how limited he was as a person. Even though we might think of him in larger than life terms, he was simply a human. Yes, he was an apostle who carried some authority, but he also was a fellow sinner like us, and he actually spent most of his life doing the mundane like every other human: sleeping, eating, commuting, and traveling. He was a limited man, and he seemed to mostly accept his limits. He lived with measure, he was restrained. In a similar way Peter exhorts the pastors of the church to which he’s writing to exercise authority with restraint. ‘Don’t be domineering! Try instead to lead by example.’
This kind of restraint is essential not only for pastors but also for each one of us. I met someone this week who said to me, ‘I want to be saved, can you save me.’ The answer is only God can. Unfortunately, a classic American societal thing is that we try to make people happy, and we think we can fix the problem. I was just looking at a certain church’s website, and they had two pastors listed. Now that might not seem like a bad thing, we only have one. But it’s a multi-site church that probably has thousands of attendees every Sunday. The leadership structure is clear enough: executive team including these two pastors over all. There is an implicit distrust in others and a lack of restraint in such a leadership model. All authority is at the top in part because they are not restrained by the scriptures. Even Paul appointed teams of elders in each city he started a church in, and he didn’t lord his apostolic authority over them later on when he wrote them letters. He entrusted authority to the local congregations to deal with their own problems. Although it might have been easier for Paul to have personally kicked the sinner out of the Corinthian church, it would not have been in line with the scriptures. And I think it also wouldn’t have developed each individual congregation into a center of gospel outreach because it would have relied on the word and presence of one man, Paul. The point is that because Paul exercised restraint both in his manner and in his preaching, he allowed the bare proclamation of the word to go out with power, and this relied on God’s Spirit that is ever present in his church.
Similarly, as I already mentioned, pastors shouldn’t be domineering and should lead by example (this doesn’t negate both their word and work). They must limit how they lead. They don’t just tell everyone what they ought to be doing and then scold them to hold them accountable. To be an example means that you aim to do something so excellently that others follow. To be an example means to be patient with those who are taking a little bit more time to figure it out. But sometimes, pastors must also admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, or help the weak. But we do this acknowledging we do not control their futures; with restraint and in humility, we trust that the Lord will work. I personally can’t save a soul, but neither could Billy Graham. It is all of God…through his servants.
Pastors who serve well serve with restraint because we know that it is God working through my broken things and not me pumping out my creative juices to get the next thing off the ground and to save everyone in the church from themselves. At the end of the day, the Lord is at work in more essential ways than me on my best day. This doesn’t mean that I give up working, but it does mean I work more freely. I am free to labor excellently.
The call for restraint, humility, and patience applies to every Christian. We are too tempted to try to save the world through our own means. Are our words sprinkled with humility? Do we restrain ourselves with love? Are we patient for God to work through our simple labor? We’re easily tempted to empty the cross of Christ of its power as we look to and offer other lesser things as the most important and joyful thing in my life. We end up becoming impatient with others and ourselves. Instead, we should seek to live patiently with ourselves and with others. Just remember how Jesus endured the rough edges of Peter. He was a bit impetuous. He denied him three times. After God had shown him that it is good to have fellowship and eat with gentiles, Peter separates from the gentiles in Galatia! Yet, God was patiently at work in Peter to bring the gospel to the nations. No matter how you criticize him, you also have to acknowledge his monumental impact on the church. It is through Peter that the gospels seem to have begun. If Mark was the first gospel, and it was really Mark translating Peter’s explanation of the gospel of Jesus, which I am convinced of, then we have Peter to thank for the gospels, which teach us masterfully the whole of the message of the gospel. It took years for him to mature, but this is the same for all of us. So we must be patient with ourselves, we must be humble about where we are today as we look into tomorrow. We must live within the restraint of where God has put us and how God has taught us to live. Perhaps it is less flashy than the people and churches whose marketing departments are larger than our church’s budget. But that is ok because it is through the simple means of the ministry of God’s word and prayer, and the ministry of the saints through the power of the Holy Spirit that God will build his church. It is through humiliated Peter and his confession: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And this is something we can hope in.