Pastoral Idolatry: 10 Common Forms of False Righteousness in Ministry
Brothers, we are all idolaters. If Calvin was right when he said that our hearts are idol factories, and he was, then pastors are no exception. Which insufficient form of righteousness are you guilty of seeking from ministry? Or – if you are like me – which one are you not guilty of seeking?
1. Theology Righteousness – You find your identity in your theological acumen. You earn this righteousness through the books you read – the bigger the better. Your preferred mode of baptism, the number of points of Calvinism you subscribe to (or don’t), and knowledge about the latest winds of false doctrine are merit badges you wear so that everyone can gawk at your theological superiority.
2. Philosophy of Ministry Righteousness – Whether you do multi-site (or not), and whether you do multiple services (or not) are ways you distinguish yourself. You’re proud of the fact that your trellis/vine proportions are strong enough for an unbeliever, but pH balanced for the Christian.
3. Big Church Righteousness – You feel secure if last week’s numbers were higher than the week before. If there is no increase, then you borrow your 3rd grade teacher’s red pen to dole out grades to everyone involved in the Sunday service.
4. Small Church Righteousness – The warmth of relationships within your church is what sets you apart. This means you can’t get big because big churches, you assume, are places where it’s impossible to get connected.
5. Contextualization Righteousness – You think you earn God’s favor (albeit unconsciously if you are Reformed) to the extent that your church engages in local service, social justice, and community involvement. Your pastoral staff may be indistinguishable from the local indie band. Or they may be the local indie band.
6. Gospel-Centered Righteousness – You sense that you are the best pastor in town because you are the only one around who can nuance, ever so subtly, how the functional centrality of the gospel affects everything in life. You still haven’t realized that after you say “functional centrality” in a sermon, your congregation’s eyes glaze over until you tell an illustration (which means the missed the “gospel” part…which is the most important part).
7. Conference Righteousness – You’ve been emailed your registration confirmation before anyone else knows the dates of the upcoming big pastor’s conferences. Your ego gets a boost for having not attended certain inferior conferences. But what really makes you feel good is the small conference you go to that not that many people know about.
8. Network Righteousness – You feel superior because you are connected with celebrity pastors. This ranges from “He preached at my church once” to “One of his associates preached at our church once” to “We were in the same hotel elevator for floors 3 to 9 one time at TGC.”
9. Education Righteousness – You base your qualification for ministry based on the number of letters that come after your name. If another pastor has the same amount as you, you win the tiebreaker because your schools are better than his. (Of course, he thinks the same thing. But just to be nice, we’ll let him keep thinking that.)
10. Worship Style Righteousness – You worship the “right” way, whether the music is contemporary, hymns, choruses, big production, small production, or self-written.
Let it be said that theology, well-thought ministry philosophy, and the rest of these things are good things. But when they become the way we distinguish ourselves from other Christians, they have tragic results on our souls and our ministry. We all find security in each of them, and some more than others.
There are five common denominators that each of these false forms of righteousness share: each of these are (1) exterior signs (2) that make you proud (3) before other churches/pastors, and God. (4) You are the judge, and (5) the other pastors/churches are condemned.
Yet, these are each idols that deceive us into thinking we don’t need Jesus.
And if we don’t think we need Jesus, we won’t give our people Jesus.
The only thing that will get your iconoclastic juices flowing is when you meditate on the righteousness of Jesus for you, which is (1) an interior reality (2) that humbles you (3) before God and others. (4) Jesus is the savior, and (5) you are the rescued.
Rather than merely feeling better about yourself, you feel peace because you don’t have to earn Jesus’ righteousness (and, as a matter of fact, you can’t).