His watchmen are blind, All of them know nothing. All of them are mute dogs unable to bark, Dreamers lying down, who love to slumber; And the dogs are greedy, they are not satisfied. And they are shepherds who have no understanding; They have all turned to their own way, Each one to his unjust gain, to the last one.
"Come," they say, "let us get wine, and let us drink heavily of strong drink; And tomorrow will be like today, only more so." (Isaiah 56:10-12)
One of the most discouraging aspects of the church today is the refusal of shepherds to say God's "no" as well as His "yes," and to say it in person as well as from the pulpit. We are mute dogs unable to bark.
The Holy Spirit commands us to "Let judgment begin...in the House of God," but we are very careful to make sure judgment is kept outside God's House. We save our prophetic words for pagans: "Hear this, you wicked people of San Francisco and Madison and Las Vegas!" Yet the Apostle Paul commands us not to judge the world, but instead to judge those who call themselves "brothers":
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)
Shamelessly, we do the opposite of what he commands. We castigate those who make no claim to Christian faith, but we observe a strict hands-off policy toward flagrant sinners within the church. And if an elder or pastor tries to obey the Apostle Paul, and to judge someone who claims to be a Christian but lives a life of rebellion against God, we reserve our most intense condemnation for him.
"But he's on our side!" we exclaim. "He's a Christian and you're treating him like an unbeliever! Jesus said, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone' and 'Judge not lest ye be judged.' So why are you judging your brother? Who made you judge over him, anyhow? How do you know he's not a Christian?"
We talk and act as if the Apostle Paul had commanded us to judge those outside the church, but never those inside the church; as if Paul had commanded us to disassociate ourselves from the greedy and sexually immoral who make no claim to faith, but never to cut ourselves off from the greedy or sexually immoral who do claim to be Christians; as if God's people are to hide themselves from sin in the church, seeing, naming, and condemning only the sin of those outside the Household of Faith.
No wonder our churches are filled with hypocrisy. We have no way of dealing with sin because correction, rebuke, and discipline are only for unbelievers...
So everyone denies their sin. "The discussion of sin is a messy business," we say, "and it shouldn't be allowed in the church. It would leave stains on our carpets and scandalize our sweet elderly widows."
Or, as a prominent evangelical pastor once said to me, "Tim, I used to confront people but they always got mad and left the church. So I stopped doing it."
Pastors and elders have good reasons for not confronting sin in the church. They once did it, but it got them into big trouble and they learned their lesson. No more public or private rebuking of fellow Christians. People won't stand for it. Not the one rebuked, nor the people in the pew who heard of his rebuke, nor the board of elders whose ears are burned by irate congregants who can't believe Pastor Smith would talk to Mr. Rogers that way.
Yet biblical pastors can't quite resign themselves to their entire ministry consisting of saying nice things about pussycats. They must have some edge or it'll be clear they're a fake. But where and when should they rattle their saber? If 'no' has to show up somewhere, let it be where it presents the least risk to the peace and unity of my church and where there's the smallest chance I'll lose my job.
Here are two of the most common solutions.
First, there is the pastor who turns his pulpit and church into a museum of past battles, trusting that his knowledge of those battles, their tactics, weapons, and heroes, will rub off on him and give him a reputation for steadfastness. This pastor can explain the difference between the infusion and the imputation of Christ's righteousness. If you ask, he'll be happy to recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism word for word. He loves to recount the history of the Westminster Assembly and can give you a blow-by-blow of the main debates among the Westminster divines. He tells you Stonewall Jackson, J. Gresham Machen. and Martyn Lloyd-Jones are his heroes. Each summer he takes part in civil war reenactments.
But this same man, steeped in dead men's conflicts and courage, can't quite figure out where or by whom the Word of God is being opposed within his own presbytery or board of elders. Nor has he ever preached to his own congregation in such a way as to suffer their wrath the way the Apostle Paul or Jonathan Edwards suffered the wrath of his congregation.
Second, there is the pastor who uses his pulpit to attack the world. He makes a big show of courage, acting the prophet against Larry Flynt, Donald Trump, Howard Stern, Justin Timberlake, and Teddy Kennedy. But he never prophesies against the sins of the People of God--against prominent Christians like Tony Campolo, Steve Hayner, Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, Stan Gundry, N. T. Wright, Gordon Fee, or Jerram Barrs. Nor does he address the sins of his own congregation--his widows, sons and daughters, or elders board. Amazingly, his vision is 20/20 when it comes to the world's sodomy and greed, but he's got hyperopia when it comes to the fornication and idolatry of his own heart, home, and congregation.
These are shepherds who muster the courage to say "no" to Hollywood and Washington D.C., but wouldn't dream of pointing the finger at Wheaton, Trinity Broadcasting Network, or the Christian Booksellers Association. After all, those people are fellow believers and God's using them. Their theology may be a little different from ours, but who are we to judge?
Of course, this is not to say that it's worthless to know history and to lay wreathes on the tombs of dead prophets and soldiers. Where would we be without Dabney's tribute to Stonewall Jackson, Murray's to Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Volume 1) and (Volume 2), or Hart's to J. Gresham Machen? One of the more courageous pastors I know cried when he came to the end of the second volume of Murray's biography of Lloyd-Jones. And I've met no one who has read those volumes and not been profoundly influenced by them in the way he carries out the work of his ministry.
Shepherds must study and learn from those who have gone before. Yet we should never mistake the history of courage and faithfulness for courage and faithfulness themselves. To know how Edwards opposed the halfway covenant in his Northampton parish is not the same thing as opposing similar compromises present in our own churches.
The pastor is called to speak the Word of God to unbelievers as well as believers; and not just in the safety of his pulpit but also in the public square. John the Baptist lost his head because he spoke as God's prophet condemning Herod for taking his brother's wife. And in this, he was not condemning the sin of a member of his rural parish but the local regent of the mighty Roman Empire. But John the Baptist never viewed his prophetic witness to Herod as justification for silence in the presence of his fellow Jews or the Scribes and Pharisees. He held a good bit of his courage in abeyance, rebuking the Pharisees who jumped on the repentance bandwagon. When they asked him to baptize them, he responded:
You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:7b-10)
So John the Baptist's preaching never lacked courage. He confronted his own congregation boldly when they came to sit under his preaching out in the wilderness. But his confrontation of Herod was even bolder and led to his grisly execution.
We have no record of what Tony Campolo, Bill Hybels, or Jesse Jackson said to President Clinton when he invited them to come to the White House to provide him spiritual advice in the middle of the public scandal over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But we do know that there was never a hint of any of them being in danger of losing his head because he had angered the president by rebuking him. In fact, I find myself suppressing a chuckle over the thought of any one of them allowing himself to say something that would cause Hillary (or any woman, for that matter) to ask for his head.
Pastors today seem to be cut from a different bolt of cloth than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Stephen, Athanasius, Knox, Edwards, or Schaeffer. But we're not. They were jars of clay and so are we.
Yet they had learned that God's servants must choose between the fear of man and the fear of God.
Each of them chose the fear of God.