Monday, September 7, 2009

Workers Among Us

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

                        1 Thessalonians 5.12-13 

If It Were Easy…

Studies came easily to me through high school. I credit this to my religious upbringing more than anything, as the added hours spent in Sunday school and listening to preachers taught me how to be taught. When I entered college, though, the intensified curriculum, competition, and workload challenged me in new ways. During one weekend at home, my father caught me at peak frustration as I studied for an economics midterm without the foggiest idea what any of it meant. I started crying uncontrollably. “It’s too hard,” I blubbered. Dad waited for me to collect myself and said, “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.” Since then, his words come back to me every time I consider quitting anything.

Dad’s credentials backed him up. He and my mother devoted their lives to founding churches in underprivileged Chicago neighborhoods. While Mom worked constantly at this, he supported our family and fledgling congregation by keeping a regular job. My parents heeded this call because, as they often explained, many better qualified than they thought it too hard. Ministry isn’t for everyone. Beyond years of preparation and hours of weekly prayer and study, it demands sacrifice of personal means and comfort in deference to others’ needs. Granted, some pastors and teachers possess native gifts and fervor for their work while others approach it with professional detachment or personal ambivalence. Yet from the most effective to the least, the nature of their work commands high regard and their willingness to do it earns our respect. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

Obedience Over Opinion

The Church—the organic, universal Body of Christ—is divinely sanctioned. Denominations, however, are manmade attempts to protect the Church’s principles and execute its mission. As a result, ministers serve two masters: the Church and their churches. The juxtaposition of divine mandate and vocational responsibility creates tensions all around. What Christ expects of those who shepherd His flock often conflicts with—and sometimes directly opposes—their superiors’ expectations. Political impositions supplant spiritual imperatives. Biblical standards crumble beneath organizational pressures. Conformity breeds mediocrity. And outbreaks of scandal can lead to cruel hypocrisy, typically justified “for the greater good.”

All this presents us with a serious dilemma. How do we reconcile idealized images of faith leadership with realities affecting those who work among us? Is it possible to respect ministers who shirk responsibilities, kowtow to human influence, or, worst of all, abuse powers of office for personal gratification? Ironically, the answer to our complaint is cached inside it. Displeasure with ministerial disobedience to God’s Word compels us to obey it. So what does the Bible say? (Brace yourselves; this won’t be easy, which is why everybody can’t do it.) Paul says we’re to “respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard because of their work.” (1 Thessalonians 5.12-13) Except in cases of flagrant sin—i.e., false teaching, moral impropriety, embezzlement, and so on—which he and every other apostolic writer instruct us to oppose vehemently, Paul insists we honor workers among us for their labor. Our opinions of them may not be stellar. Yet lest we fall to similar weaknesses, we place obedience over opinion. Why does Paul ask this of us? He’s very clear about it.

Living in Peace

“Live in peace with one another,” Paul writes. Venting disappointment and displeasure with our shepherds creates discord. We may be sufficiently seasoned and knowledgeable to recognize their faults—their capabilities may be inadequate to minister to our needs—yet expressing dissatisfaction to others could very well damage their faith. We tolerate ministerial weaknesses to avoid harming others. Christ’s flock consists of lambs and sheep, innocents and veterans. It’s the sheep’s responsibility to show wisdom and restraint for the lambs’ benefit. Maligning the shepherd fosters divisiveness within the fold. Living in peace must assume top priority.

Being the son of ministers, I can vouch their work is extremely hard, regardless how well they perform it. No professional calling on Earth carries graver implications than ministry. Souls hang in the balance and each pastor, teacher, and administrator’s performance review ultimately rests in God’s hands. It’s a fearsome task none of us should view lightly. What’s more, excluding those who’ve fallen into heartless corruption and apostasy, it’s hard to conceive even the most negligent ministers can fully divorce their occupational duty from its eternal consequences. They know their work isn’t easy, yet from the best to the worst, they’ve stepped up to do it. For that alone, we respect and hold them in high regard. We pray for their strength rather than prosecute their frailties. And we filter our opinions of them with canny grace, recognizing what my parents freely and frequently admitted. They’re there because many better qualified than they lack the courage and dedication to do the job.

We respect those who work among us and hold their labor in high regard. If their job was easy, everybody would be doing it.

(Tomorrow: Safe All Around)

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