The Corinthian church was a highly gifted church, brilliant and growing. The gifts they had in abundance are illustrated in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3—miraculous gifts, teaching and preaching gifts, tremendous vision (faith that can move mountains), social concern, along with a tremendous commitment level (surrender my body to the flames). In short, the church had great gifts that were well mobilized.
Yet the Corinthian church was not all good: verses 4-7 point to a darker side. They were impatient, harsh, critical, rude, jealous, ego-centric. Paul even says it’s possible to have all those great abilities and have a dynamic church and yet be nothing. Most commentators think we should take him literally. He’s saying it is possible to do miracles by the power of God and have revelations and not even be a Christian. You can do all this and be nothing (spiritually). This principle is illustrated by the people of Matthew 7:21-22 who prophesy but to whom Jesus says, “I never knew you.” In other words, it is possible to do great ministry through the power of God with little, low, or even no saving grace in the heart.
Why? The terrible danger is that we can look to our ministry activity as evidence that God is with us, and as a way to earn God’s favor and prove ourselves. If our heart is remembering the grace of the Gospel, rejoicing in salvation by faith and not good works, then our ministry is a grateful sacrifice of thanksgiving—and the result will be that our ministry is done in love, humility, patience, tenderness. But our heart may be continuing to do the same self-justification it has always done—seeking to control God and others by earning and proving our worth—through our ministry performance. When this is the case, there will be the tell-tale signs (we see in the Corinthians) of impatience, irritability, pride, hurt feelings, jealousy, boasting. We will identify with our ministry and make it an extension of ourselves. We will be driven, scared and either too timid or too brash. And perhaps, away from the public glare, there may be secret sins. When ministry is a performance, it’s exhausting and it’s a cover for either of the two forms of pride: self-aggrandizement or self-hatred.
How godly character makes us effective leaders
See how much we need mature, godly character and personal holiness? First, we need godliness and character to cover the “gaps” of our gifts. There are three basic roles or functions that a Christian minister has: preaching, pastoring and leading. No one is equally gifted in all three areas, and yet we must do them all. We have “gaps” in our gifts—areas where we are obligated to work but not very gifted. Most leadership literature tells us to address the “gaps” by surrounding ourselves with people who have complementary gifts. That is helpful, if you can pull it off. But there is another, more sure-fire way to “cover the gaps.” How? With godliness. What do I mean?
You may be ineloquent, but if you are godly, you will have wisdom, insight and calmness so you won’t be a boring speaker. You may lack the temperament and skills to be an effective counselor, but if you are godly, you will have sympathy and love so you won’t be fruitless as a pastor. You may be disorganized and not very dynamic in personality, but if you are godly, you will have humility and command people’s respect. Your godly character “fills the gaps.” Multi-gifted people have a disadvantage: Others think they’re more spiritually mature than they truly are! It’s talent, not holiness, that covers all their bases.
Second, godliness and character cover our gifts’ “dark side.” Without godliness and character, the absence, weakness, presence or strength of spiritual gifts can trip us up.
A prophetically-gifted type may be impatient and unwise in the process and diplomacy it takes to get things done. The priestly-gifted type may be warm but not efficient, or not organized and practical. The kingly-type may be organized, but lack vision, or fear risks, or put goals ahead of people’s needs. Again, most leadership literature tells us to know our gift-deficient areas. But it rarely warns about the gift-rich areas! Gifts without compensatory godliness lead to huge blind spots. Prophetic types without compensatory godliness will tend to be condemning. They will feel everyone else is a coward or selfish and doesn’t see what needs to be done. People with priestly gifts without compensatory godliness will tend to compromise, to give in to people’s tears, and to chicken out instead of confront.
The dangers of Christian ministry
The Christian ministry will make you a worse person than you would’ve been otherwise, unless you resist this tendency with the power of the Holy Spirit and the priority of the inner life. I say it so outrageously and so negatively to get your attention. Character is primary because there is enormous pressure in the Christian ministry toward hypocrisy. Christian leadership means you have to tell people every day, “God is so wonderful!” But seldom will your heart be in a condition to say it with integrity.
There’s an adage: Don’t let the pulpit drive you to the word, but let the word drive you to the pulpit. Understand? Prepare the preacher more than the sermon. Prepare the heart more than the message. Ministry is joy, but it’s like the joy of climbing a mountain. You must watch where you put your feet; you must know what you are standing on.
This article originally appeared in Volume 2 of Neue Quarterly.