Every now and then an event takes place in the life of a believer or church that shows whether what they profess matches up with what they really believe. One such event has recently occurred in our church.
My wife and I belong to a Chinese church that consists of three congregations. One is Cantonese, one is Mandarin, and the other is English. A few years ago, the wife of the Cantonese pastor was diagnosed with an incurable form of breast cancer. The pastor learned of a cancer specialist on the west coast who has had success working with stage four cancer patients. So with the consent of the church leadership he took a six month paid leave of absence to move across the country with his wife while she underwent treatment.
Although her condition seemed to improve at first, she never did make steady progress. Instead of passing away in a matter of weeks, her life was extended for over two years while she suffered terribly from the side effects of a modified program of chemo-therapy. Her husband continued to trust the Lord for a miracle while the church extended his stay from six months to a year to eighteen months to over two years. Yesterday we just received word that his wife finally passed away days before one of the biggest events on the church calendar – Easter Sunday baptisms. The pastor always made the trip back to Chicago to baptize new believers on Easter. This year he obviously won’t be coming.
The pastor continued to cling to his belief that God would heal his wife throughout her ordeal, allowing the doctor to administer the final dose of chemotherapy the very day before she passed away. The church leadership continued to send out urgent prayer requests to the congregation, even though some of the leaders had already made the trip cross country to say their farewells. And then came the terse announcement:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Pastor has just informed us that his wife is now with the Lord. She passed away peacefully today. Details of her memorial services will come later. Please pray for comfort and strength for Pastor and his family.“
I have expressed doubts about the way this situation has been handled from the very start. The response has been, “Well, it is worth the effort to prolong her life if she can bring even one more person to the Lord.” This attitude betrays a lack of confidence in the sovereignty of God to bring all those whom he has chosen to salvation, no matter the means involved. In John 10:27-29 Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” It is the Father who gives the sheep to the Son, not the evangelist. He needs no one’s help to secure the sheep. If God’s work was dependent on our efforts, all the sheep would be lost – there would not be a single one left.
Priority One — Feeding the Sheep
When Jesus restored Peter to favor after he had betrayed him three times, he did so by offering Peter the chance to declare his love. Three times he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Mortified that his Savior should find it necessary to repeat the question, Peter said, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you!” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). As far as Jesus was concerned, the best way Peter could show his love was to faithfully proclaim his Word to the sheep. This is his number one priority. But it wasn’t the first priority of the leaders of my church when they made the decision to grant a leave of absence to our pastor. They gave little consideration to the consequences of furloughing the shepherd for an extended period of time.
Actually, the pastor didn’t display much enthusiasm for preaching the Word of God anyway. It was very clear he didn’t spend a lot of time or put a lot of effort in preparing his messages. Church leaders have tolerated the situation for years. It was also apparent that they were not very particular about who they allowed in the pulpit. I have heard everything from personal resumes to personal anecdotes coming from the pulpit, but rarely a systematic exposition of the scriptures. I even heard one pastor say that the Lord waited to give him a message until late one Saturday night. He was preaching the next morning. The last message I heard from this man was a recitation of his family’s faithfulness in serving the Lord as an incentive to worship, prayer and Bible reading.
So it is perhaps not surprising that a congregation that has been willing to put up with mediocre preaching for years would see no problem in furloughing a pastor for an extended period of time. But there are serious consequences for not providing a consistent witness to the Word of God.
First, it was interesting to note that for the first time in years there were no adult baptisms at the Easter Service. All the candidates came from the youth group under the leadership of the youth pastor. So for all the insistence that a prolonged life would produce more fruit for the kingdom, the result was the exact opposite as far as the local congregation was concerned.
Second, doctrinal error can spring up if the Word of God is not preached faithfully from week to week and month to month. It is the pastor’s role to study hard to show himself an approved minister of God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15). Why? Because he is responsible to guard the truth. False teaching inevitably creeps into the church if the Word of God is not taught correctly and consistently. Paul acknowledged this danger when he reproached the Galatians. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ ” (Gal 1:6-7).
In the absence of pastoral leadership, there is also the tendency for strong-willed people to insinuate themselves into positions of influence and power. The first thing Paul did in his letters to Timothy was to warn him about those who led others astray by “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” Paul urged Timothy to ensure that the wrong people did not end up in leadership positions (1 Tim 1:7).
Even churches with strong leadership can fracture into factions. The Corinthian believers were choosing up sides based on whether they had been baptized by Paul or Peter or Apollos. None of these leaders were teaching error. And they weren’t vying for influence. Still the believers found their loyalties divided between them. Imagine the factions that could develop in the absence of strong leadership.
Then one has to question the ability of church leadership to discern the will of God. Leaders chose a direction based on a confidence that proved to be false in the end. The pastor consistently maintained that he believed God would perform a miracle. Yet his wife died. How then can he and the church leaders now justify the decision that set aside his pastoral responsibilities? How do their prayers square with their theology? Did they seek God’s will first or decide what they wanted and then ask him to give it to them? Was it their prayers that failed or was God simply not able to come through for them? Or perhaps healing the pastor’s wife was never his intention? If you believe in the sovereignty of God, you have to conclude that God never intended to restore the pastor’s wife to health.
Finally, how can the pastor and leaders urge others to seek first the kingdom of God when they cling so tenaciously to this life? In an article entitled, “Theological Fitness” in the daily devotional Table Talk Aimee Byrd says, “Every Christian will persevere, but whatever stage we may find ourselves in, we respond to our trials, triumphs, and ordinary circumstances according to what we believe to be true about God and His work.” It is our actions that indicate what we truly believe, not what we say. The writer of Hebrews says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland… But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:13-16).
If we cling tenaciously to life when the end comes, we make it clear that we don’t really believe there is a better country or that if there is one, we would rather stay where we are. The first instance betrays a lack of faith and the second shows misplaced affections. Neither attitude brings glory to God.
The fact that the outcome of this odyssey was so completely at odds with what the church leadership believed should give pause for serious reflection. Church leaders now should engage with members in examining their priorities and theology with respect to prayer, the sovereignty of God, the role of the pastor, and the prominence of the Word of God in the conduct of church affairs. It is apparent they are not on the same page with their heavenly Father.