When A Pastor Fights

The book of Galatians is one of the most passionate books of the New Testament. After Paul established the church in Galatia, false teachers entered the church and promoted a false gospel. According to the false teachers, Christians need to believe in Jesus and obey the works of the Law—especially circumcision—to be saved. Though this sounded like the gospel, Paul realized that the false teachers were teaching a works-based salvation. While the gospel says that trusting in Jesus is enough for salvation, the false teachers taught that Christians need more than simple faith. True to form, the apostle Paul would not allow this false teaching to go unanswered.

Though strong language is ubiquitous in Galatians, Galatians 5:12 may contain the strongest language in the letter. If a pastor used such language, he’d certainly offend people and may just lose his job. Addressing false teachers who said that men had to circumcise themselves to be Christians, Paul says that he would love it if the false teachers would do more than circumcise themselves.

Paul’s strong language raises an important question: At what point is it appropriate for a pastor to fight for his congregation? At what point can a pastor disregard feelings and speak honestly about errors?

To consider this question, we must first discard elements of our Western mind-set about church. Unfortunately, much of what we think about the church comes from American culture instead of the Bible. In our comfortable churches, we assume that a pastor must always treat others with kid gloves. We’re concerned with not hurting others’ feelings because we’re afraid someone might not return to church if offended. In the name of larger crowds and ever-expanding budgets, we’ve learned not to speak difficult truth. The New Testament knows of no such goal.

The New Testament church did not hesitate to speak the truth even when the truth was difficult to accept. Epistles make up a large section of the New Testament. In the epistles, the apostles or those close to the apostles wrote letters to various churches. In these letters, the church’s early leaders felt free to address the public errors of congregations. They had no qualms about telling a congregation that their current course would prove detrimental to their spiritual standing. Indeed, the apostles Paul even encouraged Timothy to rebuke publicly the elder who was engaged in continuous sin.[1] According to the New Testament, then, there are situations in which a pastor can use drastic measures if his congregation is in danger.

One instance in which a pastor should fight for his congregation is when elemental doctrines are threatened. To perceive these threats correctly, a pastor must first embrace the biblical role of the pastor-theologian. In an age where pastors are expected to cast vision, visit the sick, and verify purchases, we would do well to remember that the New Testament does not place these requirements on pastors. Instead, the primary responsibility of the pastor is to administer the Word of God. While Paul commanded pastors to “preach the word,”[2] never once did he say to visit the sick. Similarly, Paul told Timothy that he would save both himself and his hearers by watching his life and his doctrine closely.[3] Once a pastor embraces the biblical role of pastor-theologian, he will begin to recognize which doctrines are essential and which are non-essential. When essential doctrines are threatened, the pastor who does not act is liable for pastoral malpractice.

A second instance in which a pastor must fight for his church is when false teachers enter the church. Again, the New Testament is replete with examples of pastors addressing false teachers in the churches. Many of the epistles are themselves evidence of times that pastors took a firm, public stand against false teaching. Through an analogy, Paul claimed that allowing a small amount of false teaching to continue in the church would eventually change the entire church.[4] For this reason, pastors must forcefully excise false teaching in the church, even if such a process is difficult. To turn a blind eye on false teaching would cause too much harm.

Though Galatians has important passages in the book, the entire book is an example of a pastor fighting for his congregation. The idea of a pastor taking drastic action runs contrary to our ideas about church, however. Instead of uncritically accepting the American paradigm for pastors, we should remember that the New Testament would have pastors serve as public theologians for their church as they safeguard the mysteries of the gospel on the local level. The local pastor is the first-line of defense against heresy in the pews. When essential doctrines are threatened or false teachers enter, a pastor must fight for his congregation. If he fails to act, he is falling short of his calling as an under-shepherd of Christ.

Notes & Sources

[1] 1 Timothy 5:20.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:2, NIV.

[3] 1 Timothy 4:16.

[4] Galatians 5:9.

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