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Text: 1 Tim 3:1-13
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Text: 1 Tim 3:1-13
This article was posted on the Gospel Coalition website by Zach Nielsen, one of the pastors at The Vine Church in Madison, Wisconsin.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1.11-13)
Just because you’re a strong and effective leader doesn’t mean you’ve built a cult of personality. That should be all of us. But the Oxford Dictionary helps us know what we are trying to avoid. It defines a cult of personality as a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”
its-all-about-meThere is nothing wrong with your people admiring you as their pastor. The problem starts when the healthy admiration morphs into unreflective obedience, fearful retreat, or a messianic complex.
Only our admiration of Jesus could never be misplaced or excessive. So perhaps the best way to avoid a cult of personality in your ministry is to actively pursue creating a cult of personality for someone else, namely Jesus.
Consider these other ways to help you avoid an unhealthy cult of personality.
Power. Where does the ultimate power in the church reside? Sometimes this is hard to pin down. The formal org chart may or may not accurately reflect the reality on the ground. We all know of churches ruled by the biggest givers, whether in formal leadership or not.
Where does the buck stop? If you are the lead pastor, does anyone have the authority to tell you “no”? Have you ever been told “no” by other leaders and submitted to their views? If not, why? If you have never submitted to anyone else’s input or leadership, who will help you identify your blind spots? Do you assume you don’t have any blind spots?
If all the power in the church resides with you, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Accessibility. How accessible are you? Do you give the impression that you are “set apart as holy” and different from them? Jesus retreated from the crowds at times, and so should we. I am certainly not advocating for any pastor to hand out his cell phone number to every member of the congregation. But if your ministry keeps messy people at arms length you might be establishing a cult of personality. Even as he spent most of his time with his disciples, Jesus reserved much of his attention for messy people. Think of how much the Gospels tell us about this activity of Jesus. He spent time with whores, political revolutionaries and conspirators, the marginalized, blue collar workers, and the physically broken. Does your ministry look this way?
If there are no pathways for “normal people” to reach you, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Transparency. A culture of legalism can easily spring up when a pastor fails to be wisely transparent. How will your congregation believe the truth of the gospel and find freedom in repentance if they never see you do so? Don’t transform the pulpit into a confessional booth, but help others know that you repent over your sins just like they do.
Does anyone in your church see you get tired, frustrated, discouraged, impatient, and sad? Jesus was all these things for his disciples to see. If he could be transparent with this inner circle, shouldn’t we follow his lead? Why would anyone bring their problems to you if you never seem to know what real life is like? Show others how your identity in Christ as a justified, loved, adopted, and freed man of God helps you battle the lies that lead you toward isolation and the veneer of having it all together.
If you are not transparent in healthy ways, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Branding. How much of your promotional materials, website, and Sunday service feature you? Is your name and face all over everything? It’s important for visitors to identify the lead pastor, but are you actually communicating that the ministry is all about you?
If it’s all about your name and face, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Criticism. How do you handle criticism? Are people punished for criticizing you? Do you provide avenues for feedback? Do you request feedback from people who love God, love his Word, love you, and do not fear you? Do not wait for criticism but habitually plead for feedback. Make it a regular practice when you meet with church members to ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” This example models humility, puts them in a position to share honestly, and helps you grow in ways you have not yet considered.
If you never receive healthy criticism or punish those who do, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Watch for the Bus. What would happen if you got hit by a bus? Would your whole ministry come to a screeching halt? Is it possible that you subtly enjoy thinking you are indispensable? We need to repent of this raw pride that burns us out and squashes the gifts of the body of Christ.
Battle this sin by empowering other leaders at a high level. Then everyone knows you don’t believe the life of the church rests completely on your shoulders. How are you investing in future leaders who will outlive you? Can you think of someone who would be in line to lead if you died tonight? If you can’t think of anyone, maybe it’s time to start investing in other leaders.
If you got hit by a bus and your ministry comes to a screeching halt, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
To be clear, it’s not necessarily a sin to be popular, well-liked, or deeply respected. But how are you seeking to lay attention, power, and control at Jesus’s feet? Do you revel in being the center of attention at church? Or do you seek to direct attention, power, and control to King Jesus? How can you decrease so that he might increase? (John 3:30)
What does it mean to be spiritual? If I asked 10 people in this room that question, I bet I would get 10 different answers. To be spiritual is be one with nature. Or to be spiritual is to have deep and intimate fellowship with the divine force of the universe. Or to be spiritual is to be really friendly and outgoing and you just have a big capacity for people and you want to serve them.
Many people these days say, I am not religious, but I am spiritual. What they are saying is, I don’t believe in the institution of the church. The church is corrupt. Christians who attend churches are hypocrites. They go to church and act all pious on Sundays, but outside the church, they lie, they cheat, they’re just nasty people so why should I bother attending church? I don’t need church. I can be spiritual by myself. It’s just me and my Bible. Or I can just pray by myself. Or I will meditate. Or do yoga. People these days are into having mystical spiritual experiences as long it is private and personal.
What about Christians? How do we define spirituality? Who do you consider spiritual? What is your ideal spiritual leader? Maybe Rick Warren or John Piper or Francis Chan? Someone who can lead a megachurch and write books read by millions, or someone who knows his bible really well and has solid theology, or someone Asian, bald and funny. Someone charismatic who can tell a good story and draw a crowd. Although we may not articulate it like this, I bet most Christians would want as their spiritual leader someone with the charisma of a President Obama, or the tech/biz savvy of a Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, or the power and influence of a Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke said a few words this past week about our economy and it caused the stock market to plunge the following day. That’s power and influence. We want our spiritual leader to possess the same level of charisma, same level of savviness, power and influence as the secular leaders we admire. As long as they are Christian. We borrow from the secular world to formulate our picture of the perfect leader and we dress him up in a suit and tie and put him behind a pulpit and say, that’s what I want my pastor to be.
Don’t we idolize and look up to certain secular leaders and think, if these people were Christian, that’s the kind of person I’d look up to and follow? Deep down, many of us want spiritual leaders who never show weakness, who always have the right answer, they never falter, they’re always decisive, they have clear vision and know exactly what needs to get done in order to achieve certain milestones. Essentially, we want Jesus reincarnate. You want an ideal perfect spiritual leader? Then look to Jesus. That’s the end of the sermon. We can go home now. Okay, maybe that’s too high of a standard. After all, He’s the Son of God. He died and resurrected. Maybe we’ll lower our standard a bit and settle for Apostle Paul as our pastor. Wouldn’t that be nice?
How does Paul define spirituality? In this chapter, Paul lays out the contours of true spirituality.
First, a spiritual person is Spirit-filled.
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are SPIRITUAL should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.
If you’ve been with us the past few weeks, I think this point is fairly obvious. Chapter 5 is all about contrasting the works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh, a fleshly person is characterized by things like moral impurity, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, and envy. In stark contrast, a spiritual person is quite simply one bearing the 9 characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control. Paul covers the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit in chapter 5 and then he says in chapter 6, you who are spiritual, you who are filled with the Spirit, you who bear the fruit of the Spirit should restore others with a gentle spirit. If you want to be a spiritual person, you need to get familiar with these 9 character traits.
None of us can will ourselves to be spiritual. You can’t try really hard to be loving and joyful and patient and display all 9 traits at the same time. It is humanly impossible. It’s like trying to will yourself to have the IQ of a genius. You either have it or you don’t. In the same way, for the fruit of the Spirit to be displayed in your life, you have to be born with it. You have to be born again. You either have it or you don’t. If you try hard to be a good, moral person, you might fool others because on the surface you might appear kind and patient and loving. But God will not be fooled.
At the core, deep down inside where no one else can see, the best of human intentions and effort cannot remedy a heart governed by the flesh. Only the Spirit of God can touch a person so deep, at the very root of their lives, and change someone from the inside so that that what comes out is unmistakably the evidence of the Spirit’s saving and transforming work. Fruit of the Spirit. In botany, a healthy root leads to healthy fruit. It’s no different in the spiritual landscape. A spiritual person is filled with the Spirit and displays the external fruit of the Spirit because the Spirit himself has come into our hearts and changed us at the invisible root level.
Second, a spiritual person restores others with a gentle spirit.
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a GENTLE spirit, WATCHING OUT for YOURSELVES so you also won’t be tempted.
Why does Paul begin with a warning directed at the spiritual person and not the person who is caught in wrongdoing? It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? You would think that Paul would be concerned about the person who is sinning. But instead, his focus is on the person who is not in sin. The spiritual person. The minister, the mentor, the small group leader. Paul’s attention is on the healthy Christian, not the backslider. And his concern is the manner in which the healthy Christian restores or helps the struggling Christian.
Why is that? For those of us who want to help others spiritually, which I hope is every Christian in this room, this is really important. We all fall into sin. We all fall short morally. We all assert our rights and do what’s best for us at the expense of others. Assuming there is repentance and a willingness to get right with God when one sins, how should we as spiritual, Spirit-filled Christians restore those who have repented of past sins. With gentleness.
What’s so dangerous about restoring fallen but repenting Christians on the part of the one doing the restoration? The danger is self-reliance. As ministers, or as mature Christians seeking to restore others, you and I will be tempted to rely upon ourselves. We don’t verbalize it, but don’t we measure ourselves against others in a spiritual point system? That brother, that sister sinned major and that sin is a minus 50 points. I, on the other hand, have done my devotions all week and so I am plus 15 points. I haven’t sinned like my fellow brother or sister so of course I am in a position to restore them. I’m above them. I score higher in terms of spiritual maturity. I have been a Christian longer. I have a title at church. Let me restore the person.
Spiritual life and ministry is not about points, or spiritual performance, or who sinned more vs. who prayed longer in the past few days. Spiritual life is entirely dependent on the Spirit. He works in your heart so even the fact that you had a good week in terms of not committing any blatant sins and on top of that, you met a couple a few people to disciple them and you prayed and read your Bible for 30 min every day last week–the good week is a result of the Spirit’s activity in your heart.
We shouldn’t get smug because we’ve had a “good” week. When we think this way, we begin to pat ourselves on the back. I’m spiritual. We begin self-congratulating. Without knowing it, a shift occurs and we stop relying on the Spirit and we begin relying on our own self-righteousness. Just because you had a good week should not be a reason to rely on yourself in restoring other believers.
We are called to restore others with a spirit of gentleness. Gentleness, we covered last week, is one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit of the Spirit is not something you can turn on and off like a faucet. You turn on the faucet and water comes forth because there is a tank of water right underneath the sink and so the hot or cold water is ready the instant you turn the faucet. Spiritual life is not like a faucet. There is no spiritual tank where you can store the fruit of the Spirit and it’s right at your fingertips the moment you need it.
If that’s your conception of Christian life, that you can turn a faucet or snap your fingers and you expect gentleness from the Spirit to gush forth, then you have the wrong idea of what it means to be spiritual or to walk in step with the Spirit. Yesterday, you might have had a great devotional time with the Lord. You prayed and you read Scripture and your heart was stirred. You were full of God’s presence. It’s like eating a buffet last night. You were stuffed. But you wake up this morning and wouldn’t you know it–your stomach is empty again. Our biology teaches us how spiritual life works.
In the Old Testament, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God supplied manna, bread from heaven. The Israelites thought this was the greatest thing. What a miracle! Bread from heaven. Some got smart and started hoarding manna more than they could eat for that day. Because they probably reasoned, what if God skips a day or He takes a Sabbath, what if God takes a vacation and the bread from heaven stops? Then, they’d go hungry so it makes sense. Let’s store a little extra for a rainy day.
What happened to the extra manna that was stored? It spoiled. God was teaching the Israelites an important spiritual lesson. I will supply your needs, but I will give you only what you need for that day. It was a daily provision. God was teaching them to depend on him for everything. The Old Testament manna is a picture of Jesus Christ in the New Testament because Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life. And just like when it comes to physical food, the meal from the night before was for yesterday, and today, you need a fresh supply–in the same way, spiritually, you need to feed on Jesus, the bread of life. You need to have fellowship with Jesus through the Word of God because Jesus is the Word. And as you abide in Christ and depend on Jesus for your spiritual sustenance, you will be spiritual, you will be Spirit-filled and gentleness will come out naturally when you are trying to restore others.
First point: Talk is cheap without the fruit to back it up.
There is a lot of talk in churches. Especially those in leadership, they wouldn’t be in leadership if they were quiet. They wouldn’t be recognized as leaders if they did not far excel others in the group. Excel in terms of gifting. Excel in their service. Thus, their professions of faith, the promises they make to God, are often very loud. These leaders have a very impressive exterior. They are polished. Well-educated. And often charismatic. People flock to them. They look like fruitful trees. You expect that their lives would produce many baskets of the best figs. They impress us by their talk. They overpower us by their competence and leadership skills. We envy them.
We are so easily impressed by man. We look at someone who seems to have a strong faith. Or a robust hope. Or someone who seems loving. Or has a sharp mind and knows their Bible. Yet it’s abundantly possible that such men and women have never entered the kingdom by the new birth. He has never been taught of God. The gospel has come to him in word only. He is a stranger to the work of the Holy Spirit.
All vineyards have some fig trees covered with leaves. The foliage of their profession is highly visible, noticeable, conspicuous. Yet they have no fruit. Such persons seem to defy the seasons. It was not fig season. Yet this fig tree was covered with leaves. When a fig tree is in full leaf, you expect to find figs upon it. And if you do not find figs, then the tree will not bear any figs for that season. Therefore, we have to consider the fact that this figless fig tree is a freak of nature. This fig tree is not growing as it should.
Lebron James – he is a freak of nature in the NBA. Someone as large and muscular as him shouldn’t be lightning quick and able to jump so high. Likewise, there are spiritual freaks of nature in churches today. Certain men and women seem advanced in every way compared to the average church member. They are quite superior in many regards, covered with virtues, as this fig tree is covered with leaves.
These people usually catch the eye of others. According to Mark, our Lord saw this fig tree from afar. Presumably, there were other trees around, but the other trees must not have been as noticeable because they didn’t produce leaves. And so, when Jesus began to go up the hill toward Jerusalem, he saw this one tree quite a long way before he reached it. The tree also stood in a prominent location. It stood near the path from Bethany to the city gate. In plain view for all those passing through.
People who are highly religious are frequently prominent, because they have lack the grace to be modest. They won’t settle for being a background servant. They want to push themselves to the front. They want to be leaders. Give me a position, give me a title so that I can be respected. They do not walk in secret with God. They have little concern about private godliness because they are eager to be seen by men. If they serve someone, they want to publicize to the world what they just did. If they led someone to Christ, they want to post what happened on their facebook wall. If they experienced an answer to prayer, they want to email blast everyone to show how God listens to the prayers of a righteous man or woman.
They live before men. They want to hear their names in the testimonies of their followers so that they can get the glory for themselves. But God never shares His glory with anyone. Remember that. At this church, we will help each other and you may mention a name or two in your testimony. But by far, the name that we should hear most often when we listen to a testimony is the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I may preach the gospel to you and through my preaching, by God’s grace, you may be saved. And for that you might be thankful for me, the preacher. I may provide some counsel in helping you make a critical decision, or I may visit you at the hospital. But Jesus is the only one who can save you and redeem you and sanctify you and love you unconditionally forever. So His name, not my name, not the name of one of the staff here, or the name of our church, but His name needs to be lifted high.
This is easier said than done because we like to be lifted up and we like to lift up someone from our ranks. We’d rather worship man over God. Because a man, a woman, a leader is tangible. God is invisible. It’s easier to worship man. For example, in in Acts 14, Barnabas and Paul are in the city of Lystra. Paul is preaching and in the crowd is a cripple and Paul calls out to him, Stand up on your feet. And the man was healed instantly. After witnessing the miracle, the crowds wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas. They brought sacrifices to them and Barnabas and Paul said, what are you doing? We too are only men, human like you. The same thing happens in Acts 10 with Peter. The point is, don’t worship the messenger. Worship the one who embodies the message, the good news about Jesus Christ. As leaders and under-shepherds, if the sheep start worshiping us, it’s our responsibility to help shift the sheep’s attention back to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Religious leaders love to be like the fig tree near the city gate in plain view for all to see. This is both their weakness and their peril. They want to be public figures but with that publicity comes an extra burden because everyone is watching them. This is the dark side of leadership. It makes their spiritual failure as a public figure that much more terrible because it has the potential to stumble many in the body of Christ. For those in leadership who fall, greater dishonor is brought upon the name of the Lord. It’s far better to be fruitless in a corner of your room than to be fruitless along the public path which leads to the temple.
Our Savior and his disciples went up to the leafy fig tree. It caught their eye. But it didn’t stop there. The leaves drew them to itself. Have we not been fascinated by the magnetic appeal of one who seemed to be more devout than usual? He seemed so godly, so generous, so humble, so useful, that we looked up to him, and wished that we were more worthy to be associated with him. Young converts and seekers are naturally inclined to fall into this trap. We are drawn to impressive people, who are usually hand picked to be the leaders. And if the leader fails, and we all do, how tragic for these young ones when they realize that their confidence in man was misplaced.
In cases when the leaders turn out to be all they profess to be, praise God, they are a great blessing. Think about that fig tree with leaves actually having figs. It would have been a great refreshment to the Savior if he had been fed by the fruit. When the Lord makes the leader flourish in terms of fruitfulness, it is a blessing to the family, to the church, and to the community. Please pray for me. Pray for Brother Jae. Brother Matthew. The deacons and deaconesses and college staff. Pray that we can bear fruit so that we can be a proper blessing to you.
May every Christian here say to himself or herself, I have been like that fig tree. I have many leaves. I’m prominent. People know that I am a Christian. People even look up to me. I have made many bold, public professions of faith in Christ. Please pray to the Lord that those professions would be more than words. May the talk be backed up by real, authentic, Spirit-generated fruit.
Second point: Just like in this fig tree account, Jesus will inspect our lives and look for fruit.
The first Adam in Genesis came to the fig tree looking for leaves because he wanted to cover his shame. But the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, comes to a fig tree and looks for figs. He searches our character through and through, to see whether there is any real faith, any true love, any living hope, any joy which is the fruit of the Spirit, any patience, any sign of self-control, any evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And if Jesus does not see these things, he is not satisfied with church attendance, going to prayer meetings, listening to sermons, Bible studies, daily devotionals. For all these may be no more than leaves.
Notice that what Jesus looks for is not your words, not your resolve, not your promises, not your loyalty or commitment, but he looks for none other than true, authentic spiritual fruit. The fruit is spiritual. We can’t produce it through works. Can you will yourself to be more loving? Or more joyful? Or more patient? You can’t. This fruit is generated by the Holy Spirit and it is a sign of genuine conversion.
When the Lord went up to that fig tree he had a right to expect fruit. Because the fig, according to nature, comes before the leaf. If leaves were present, there should be fruit. Jesus looks for fruit from the preacher, to the usher, to the sister who teaches a Bible study, to that brother who has a bunch of young men he is discipling. As Christ had a right to expect fruit from a leaf-bearing fig tree, so he has a right to expect fruit from all his followers born of the Spirit.
Fruit is what the Lord earnestly desires. The Savior, when he came under the fig tree, did not desire leaves. He was hungry and human hunger cannot be satisfied by leaves. He desired to eat figs. And he longs to have fruit from us also. He hungers for our holiness. He longs that his joy may be complete in us. He comes up to each of you who are members of his church, and especially to each of you who are leaders of his people, and he looks to see evidence of grace.
Third point: The result of Christ’s inspection of our lives can lead to judgment.
It can be most terrible if the inspector finds nothing but leaves where fruit was expected. Nothing but leaves means nothing but lies. Sounds harsh but it’s true. If I profess faith, and have no faith, is that not a lie? If I profess repentance, and have not repented, is that not a lie? If I profess to be kind, but my thoughts and attitudes are unkind, is that not a lie? If there is nothing but leaves, there is nothing but lies.
We can live a lie and fool one another because none of us can inspect the hearts of others. But Jesus can. He won’t be fooled. God cannot be mocked. Our Lord discovered that there was no fruit. What did he do next? He condemned the tree. Did he curse it? Actually, it was already cursed. The tree was of no use because it couldn’t provide any refreshment to hungry travelers. It’s only purpose was to deceive. Likewise, if a preacher doesn’t have the grace of God in him, he is utterly useless, and it’s likely that he is a curse to the people he is ministering to.
What was Jesus actually doing when he cursed the tree? He was simply revealing the true state of the tree. It was nothing more than a confirmation of its state. This tree has not produced any fruit, and so, Jesus condemns it to never bear fruit ever again.
This judgment is actually a blessing in disguise. There is grace wrapped up inside God’s judgment. A word from Jesus was given and the tree withered. Jesus reveals the true state of the fig tree–it is a figless fig tree after all. Such a withering would be terrible, but it would be infinitely better to wither away right now than to be left in its previous state and continue to deceive others for years to come, and worst of all, deceive ourselves.
If a church has 10 members and it’s been around for many years, then the church is obviously dead. But the damage it inflicts on others is minimal. Because visitors can readily see that the church is dead and they may come once but they won’t come back. What if the church was several hundred on Sundays and it looked alive. Things were happening. People were serving, but in reality, this church was also dead. Consider how many people would be fooled and stumbled. If our church ever dies on the inside and God leaves our presence and there is no fruit, then the best thing that could happen to this church, the most loving thing for others who might potentially join our church is for God to shut us down for good.
This has been a hard message. It has been a sobering message for me to preach. I want to end on a note of hope. Thank the Lord that he is a God of grace. He is all gentleness and tenderness. The only thing Jesus ever destroyed was this fig tree. He never destroyed a man or a woman. It is only a barren tree that he causes to wither away. He doesn’t want a single person to perish. He wants all to repent and place their faith in Christ. This is great news. He will never wither you, but he will give you chance after chance to respond to him.
After all this talk about false leaves, you might think, forget the leaves. But a fig tree with fruit and no leaves is also a freak of nature. It’s unhealthy growth. Leaves are necessary. The fruit is not likely to ripen well without leaves. Leaves are essential to the health of the tree, and the health of the tree is essential to the ripening of the fruit. So, open confession of faith is good, publicly professing our faith to others is good. Being public in our witness is healthy. These things must continue. There is nothing wrong with these things. What’s needed is fruit to back it up.