Public Ministry and the Christian: Eight Principles

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

By God’s grace, I converted to Christianity at age nineteen in 1976. The Lord led me to be a campus minister, an author, and then a professional philosopher. This ministry has been one of a public intellectual (if that doesn’t sound too pompous). That is, I’ve tried “to interpret the church for the world and the world for the church,” as Os Guinness put it concerning his ministry. Along these lines, I have been much occupied by doing apologetics and offering cultural critique. I am no exemplar in my ministry, and I have made many mistakes, but I have learned a few things along the way that might be helpful to those in similar situations.

  1. Beware of the quest for popularity at the expense of integrity. Too many public Christians cut corners morally or doctrinally. If you cannot build a ministry on biblical truth, then give up. Never water down or distort historic Christian doctrine for the sake of personal, church, or organizational gain. Francis Schaeffer rightly stressed the doctrinal “purity of the visible church,” which must be articulated in love and holiness before the watching world. (See his book, The Church Before the Watching World.) Nor can we afford to cut corner about our credentials.

    For example, you should never pad your resume to look more impressive than you really are. To be specific, you should not claim some affiliation with a prestigious institution if you that is not true. As someone with an earned doctorate from an accredited university, I also wonder about those who tout their doctorates when they have honorary degrees or degrees from unaccredited schools. If others refer to or introduce these folks as Doctor, that’s fine.
  2. Try to remain self-effacing and unpretentious, all the while being confident of your call and abilities in your chosen area of service. Self-motion took a quantum leap with the advent of social media. Everyone can promote themselves all the time to everyone, it seems. But remember the wisdom of Proverbs: “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). Jeremiah warns us well also:

    This is what the LORD says:
    “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom,nor the strong man in his strength,
    nor the wealthy man in his riches.
    But let him who boasts boast in this,
    that he understands and knows Me,
    that I am the LORD, 
    who exercises loving devotion, 
    justice and righteousness on the earth—
    for I delight in these things,”
    declares the LORD (Jeremiah 29:23-26).

    Finding the balance between bragging and properly asserting your credibility can be difficult to find. Walter Martin (1928-1989), the great counter- cult apologist and author of the seminal book, Kingdom of the Cults, used to speak of having to “pull rank” once in a while. That meant he might say something like, “I have been studying cults for thirty years, and I assure that what you think about Mormons is wrong.” Then Martin could refer someone to his writings to back it up. I was once speaking with a woman who insisted that yoga was “just stretching; it’s just stretching!” when I had just argued to the contrary in a public lecture. Thinking of Walter Martin, I said, “I have been studying religions, cults, and the occult for fifteen years, and I assure that yoga is more than stretching.” I’m not sure what effect this had, but it seemed right at the time.
  3. Wrap all your endeavors in prayer, asking God what to do, how to do it, and for his blessing on it. Don’t be ashamed to ask others for their prayers for you. It is not selfish if you are seeking first God’s kingdom in your pursuits. Paul, the great Apostle, often asked for prayer.

    Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Ephesians 6:19-20).

    And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should (Colossians 4:3-4).

    Before I speak publicly, I pray something like this: 

    Oh God, Thank you for this chance to minister. I pray that I might speak the truth in love to communicate the knowledge of what matters most to this group. Please bring the right people who can benefit from what I say,  May my talk edify people, extend your Kingdom, and push back the dominion of darkness. Please bless my mind, my brain, my voice, and protect me in all ways from any distraction that would take away from his message, whether it be obnoxious people or malfunctioning technology. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
  4. Be willing to refuse ministry requests and do not get too busy. Too many Christian leaders have burned out and crashed hard largely because they were running hard on fumes for too long. It is one thing to push yourself in God’s service and face fatigue. It is quite another to expect of yourself superhuman feats of ministry achievement. The role of the Messiah has already been taken and it is not you. The little book, Zeal without Burnout by Christopher Ash is helpful on this. I have burned out twice in ministry and I do not recommend it to anyone for any reason. God’s work in the world will continue with or without you (Acts 17:25). 

    So, take regular Sabbaths and enjoy relaxation in the good things of God. Allow close friends to tell you when you should slow down. Perhaps you can delegate some of your work to others. When Jethro say how overtaxed Moses was in judging the people, he convinced him to delegate some of his work to others (Exodus 18:13-27). I recently recommended that an editor contact one of my students to write the article that the editor asked me to write. I had a lot to write as is and didn’t want to get overwhelmed.
  5. Be careful not to envy those who are achieving more success in ministry than you are, even if you think you are more capable than they are. I struggle with this. Jesus rebuked Peter when he was overly concerned about the ministry of John.

    Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. He was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper to ask, “Lord, who is going to betray You?” When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 20:20-23).

    The point was not for Peter to muse over the ministry of John or to compare yourself with John, but to follow Christ, come what may. God has your own path marked out for you and it is not the same path as anyone else’s.

    Paul could even rejoice when the true gospel was preached by those with bad intent.

    It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).
  6. Be well prepared for every public outreach, whether sermon or lecture or radio show or podcast. Never BS your way through anything for any reason in any situation. Godly people don’t bluff nor do they rely on their winsome personalities instead of banking on knowledge that needs to be known. To be studious is a divine command for public communicators of the Christian message. As Paul writes to Timothy, a young pastor:

    In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:7-8).

    Or as James warns every teacher: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
  7. By all means, keep short accounts with our holy God. Confess your sins to him regularly and to trusted others who can encourage you to follow Christ with more integrity, zeal, and wisdom (1 John 1:8-10). No Christian leader should think that because his ministry is going well that he can overlook besetting sins get a pass from God. God wants a pure bride, not a compromised one with an impressive resume and a big head. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18; see also 8:13, 11:2).

    Arrogance and egotism often succeed in politics, business, entertainment, and even the church. But such should not be named among God’s leaders, the ones who follow and make known Jesus, the one who humbled himself to come from heaven to earth to rescue his sinful creatures from futility and damnation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16-18).
  8. The Christian leader must be above reproach in all things, but especially in matters of money, sex, and power (1 Timothy 3:2Titus 1:6–7). There should not even be a hintof financial impropriety, immorality, or power mongering. Christian leaders are first of all servants (Ephesians 5:3). Jesus said:

    You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 25:25-28).

         Paul instructed Timothy to “watch his life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). In an age of constant cover ups, plausible deniability, demagoguery, damage control, image manipulation, and spin, spin, and more spin, we must walk the narrow and sometimes lonely path of integrity before the face of God. We must cultivate the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning and end of wisdom.

Jesus for the Nominal Christian

Nominal means “in name only.” Some politicians, rightly or wrongly, are called RINOs: Republicans in name only. That is, they are not true Republicans. If there is a true and normative Christianity, then not everyone who says she is a Christian may be a Christian. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” knows the living God.

We name ourselves many things, rightly or wrongly—a friend, a father figure, a good citizen, and a Christian. Before discussing what a true Christian is, let us consider some nominal versions.

A nominal Christian does not self-identify as anything other than a Christian. She is not an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else.

She may consider herself a Christian because she believes in God. Perhaps she thinks Jesus was a master teacher, and she wants to love people. She prays, she was raised as a Christian, and she has spiritual experiences. She even becomes involved in religious events occasionally, such as church attendance or Christian concerts.

A genuine Christian will believe in God, esteem Jesus as a master teacher, want to love people; she will pray, have spiritual experiences, be involved in religious events, and more. However, she will not rest on how she was raised to define his identity. She might have been raised in an aberrant form of Christianity or no longer believe the true Christianity in which she was raised. She will certainly not deem herself a pretty good person, whose works are pleasing enough to God to merit heaven, since no one can be saved by the works of the law.

Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, called his followers to repent of their selfish sinful ways and turn to him as Lord. This was no small thing, no mere addition to life, no mere religious preference. Jesus’s first disciples rightly called him Lord and Master. Jesus cannot be domesticated. He issued radical statements. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. His disciples worshipped him. A nominal Christian merely compliments or salutes Jesus.

Rather than worrying about how to get on in life (with a dab of religion here and there), Jesus told us to seek first his Kingdom of love and service to our neighbor. We are to love our enemies and be eager to help the least, the last, and the lost—just as Jesus was.

Jesus summons us to deny ourselves and die to sin because he died for us on the cross. On that cross, he said, “Father forgive them.” Jesus’ true followers cast themselves on God’s mercy by having faith in what he has done for them through his death and his resurrection from the dead. They do not trust in their own goodness to earn salvation or lean on their own strength to do good works.

If we name the name of Christ as the Jesus and Bible intend, we will be born again and become a new creation, eager to do what is good and to worship God with his church in spirit and in truth.