Augustus Hopkins Strong—Baptist theologian, seminary president, and pastor from generations past—stated of those in Christian ministry, “The natural tendency of every minister is to usurp authority and to become a bishop. He has in him an undeveloped pope” (Strong ST 898). Strong recognized the temptation of power and pride for those in the ministry. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for ministers today is not necessarily with the congregations they serve but with the enemy within—the tendency to channel their inner pope rather than radically empty their egos.
Philippians 2:5-11 provides a model for all Christians to follow, which begins with the command, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus….” The idea is to keep on cultivating the mind of Christ. The command is for the whole church to correct the natural drift of the human heart to wield power for one’s own benefit rather than in sacrificial service to others. God’s plan is to shape His people into the image of Jesus Christ, and God calls Christian ministers to lead in following the example of Christ’s self-emptying humility. What does godly humility look like in the servant of Christ?
The servant of Christ does not crave power, use it for selfish gain, or seek to subvert the accountability structure of the local church and other believers that God has put in place around him. Instead of selfishly clinging to power to avoid His suffering and death, Jesus humbled Himself and became a servant. He added humanity to His deity (the true meaning of “emptied Himself”), taking the way of the cross to atone for our sins.
Christian ministers will constantly be tempted to believe that consolidated power is the way to advance the cause of Church and Kingdom. Paul, however, learned that the power of Christ is displayed in weakness and not in the strength of man so that the praise and glory will go to God alone for any fruit from our ministry (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Christian ministers and pastors hold great spiritual authority, but this does not come without accountability. Ministers of the Gospel profit the church when they embrace the way of the servant, submit to accountability, equip the saints for the work of the ministry, and sacrificially serve the church as an example to the flock. Strong notes,
It should be the ambition of the pastor not “to run the church,” but to teach the church intelligently and scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word “minister” means not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but he does not drive. He is like the trusty mountain guide, who carries a load thrice as heavy is that of the man he serves, who leads in safe places and points out dangers, but who neither shouts nor compels obedience (Strong ST 908).
The church is not the arena where Christian leaders advance their own agenda or a platform to promote their own ministry. Paul refers in Philippians 1:14-18 to errant minsters of the Gospel who preached Christ out of envy and strife, to do Paul harm in his imprisonment, and out of selfish motives. The church belongs to Christ. Peter put it this way:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that it is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis added).
A Christian pastor can either rule, or he can have the reputation of ruling; but he cannot do both. Real ruling involves a sinking of the self, a working through others, a doing of nothing that someone else can be got to do. The reputation of ruling leads sooner or later to the loss of real influence, and to the decline of the activities of the church itself (Strong ST 908).
Often, though by no means always, what is left behind after a man of God’s departure from a church is a good indicator of the type of ministry he engaged while serving the church. Here we can appeal once again to Strong. He notes,
That minister is most successful who gets the whole body to move, and who renders the church independent of himself. The test of his work is not while he is with them, but after he leaves them. Then it can be seen whether he has taught them to follow him, or to follow Christ; whether he has led them to the formation of habits of independent Christian activity, or whether he has made them passively dependent upon himself (Strong ST 908).
Only God’s power at work within can enable us to follow the path of Christ; it is not natural to empty our egos. When Christian leaders exhibit the humility of Christ, God is glorified, the church is edified, and the Gospel is advanced. We are not popes but bondservants of Jesus Christ. The apostles did not appoint successors and neither should men of God be concerned about their legacy in ministry other than the one Paul describes in 2 Timothy 4:6-8,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.