When I was an intern preparing for ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, I asked Dr. Paul Tripp, “If you could give any one piece of advice to young men preparing for ministry, what would it be?” Speaking from years of pastoral experience, Paul responded, “Don’t become the fourth person of the Trinity for people.” What he obviously meant was, “Don’t try to stand in the place of God and do what only God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can do in someone’s life.” You can’t effect the change that you labor so diligently to help bring about in the lives of those entrusted to your care–only the Lord can produce real and lasting change (1 Cor. 3:6-8). There are real dangers that pastors face when they function as if they are the fourth person in the Trinity. Consider the following.
1. Congregants may develop sinful dependency. Jack Miller, in his small but important work, Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender, explained the danger of congregants developing an unhealthy dependance on their pastor when he tries to be too much for them. He wrote:
All too often religious leaders are flattered into accepting the role as priest by sympathetic parishioners who admire their gifts and graces. In accepting this role, they harm themselves and the ones for whom they attempt to mediate. It must be acknowledged that they are sinners and may love people’s honor and praise more than they know.
But the problem is even broader and deeper than pastors and their relationship with the members of the congregation. Christians who witness with power and effectiveness will find that others will look to them to do the work of Christ for them. For instance, as the pastor must take care not to become priest to needy people in the congregation, so the youth worker must take care not to become priest to the young people. The evangelist must follow suit with new converts.
Because most of this is unconscious, it is all the more dangerous. We are not to make men and women our own disciples, but to make them disciples of the Lord. Therefore, repentance means that people must turn from trusting in empty cisterns like ourselves and thirst and drink from Christ alone.1
I have witnessed this very thing–both in my own life and in the lives of congregants with relationship to biblical counselors to whom the pastors have sent them. This is also prevalent with regard to college students and the campus minister. I would suggest that there is an even greater possibility with that arrangement, since the college minister’s most prominent responsibility is to meet one-on-one with students on a very regular basis. When there is not an ecclesiastical accountability for many of the students with whom he works, the college pastor must be exceedingly cautious about becoming a priest to a student when coming alongside of one who has fallen into some particular sin. Where church discipline should be the biblical course of action, one-on-one counseling may become a replacement for it. The result tends to be unbiblical expectations of pastors later in life when the student moves on in his or her career. Students who have functionally made the campus minister a personal priest run the risk of expecting to get loads of one-on-one time with the pastor of the church they join. In every sphere of ministry and church life, this can become a problem. We must learn from John the Baptist what it means to decrease so that Christ may increase. As Miller noted above, “We are not to make men and women our own disciples, but to make them disciples of the Lord.”
2. Congregants may develop sinful bitterness. The reverse effect from that which we have just considered is also possible. Rather than sinfully admiring and forming a sinful dependance on overcommitted pastors, needy congregants often begin to despise a pastor who overextends himself in attempting to bring about change in an individual’s life. This is a fine line to walk. On the one hand, pastors are called to diligently shepherd the flock. This includes confronting sin in congregants and helping to bring about change in their lives. However, on the other hand, it means trusting the Lord to produce the biblically defined change, and bearing patiently with congregants while trusting the Lord to bring that change in His time. This takes great wisdom and great skill. Nevertheless, when people do not want to change, the faithful and caring pastor will find himself in danger of trying to make himself the fourth member of the Trinity. After the Apostle Paul set out that personal and experiential call to forget the things behind and press forward to what is ahead, charged the church in Philippi with the following words:
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Phil. 3:15)
The Apostle modeled for us the principle of being patient in waiting for God to produce spiritual change and renewal in thinking in the lives of congregants.
3. Pastors may develop sinful pride. Often imperceptible, pride is always ready to rise up and conquer the heart of pastors and people alike. When a man overextends himself in ministry, starts to see results and to receive undue gratitude from congregants, he can begin to embrace sinful pride. This is yet another reason why pastors and spiritually minded congregants must guard against trying to be overly involved in the lives of others in the congregation.
While we want to be faithful as pastors and spiritually fruitful congregants to help those entrusted to our care–as well as members of the same body, we must ever guard against allowing ourselves to slide into a role that God hasn’t given to us–a role that only He possesses. Although the three dangers mentioned above can be used to excuse a diligent ministry and a diligent use of gifts among members, they are nevertheless very real dangers. We must always remember that one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). When we do so, we will labor diligently to come alongside those in need in the church, as well as put ourselves on our knees to trust the Lord to do what only He can do in our life and in the lives of others.
- C. John Miller Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender (CLC Publication, 2009) p.26