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Pastoral Lessons from My Betters, Part 1

I was sinking fast. It was my third year of church planting and I was having one of those “seminary didn’t prepare me for this!” moments. If memory serves me, I was taking what felt like my last gulp of air when I came into contact with several life altering texts that I would like to share with you over the next several posts.

The first was by Gregory of Nazianzus. For some that will be a familiar name. He, along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers. No, they were not the inventors of cappuccino! These men were theologians. In fact, Gregory of Nazianzus was given the title of “The Theologian” for a series of sermons he delivered titled, Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos.

All of this is fairly common knowledge to the avid church history buff. However, what may not be so well known is that these men were first rate pastors. In fact, what is not so well known is that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote an oration titled De Fuga or the Flight. If you know anything about the early church fathers (or the puritans for that matter!) it won’t surprise you to find that the full title is a bit longer. If you’re interested it reads, Oration II: In Defense of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office.

A little background might be helpful at this point. In our parlance, Gregory appears to have been a loner. In fact, his plan was to spend his life in seclusion. However, necessity called. His father (also Gregory) was a pastor in need. So, on Christmas Day in the year 362 Gregory senior ordained junior to the gospel ministry, which Junior later described as an act of tyranny. To everyone’s dismay Junior fled. However, after thinking about the situation he concluded that he had not acted rightly and so he returned. As you might guess, he had not endeared himself to his congregation and so he needed to explain himself. So, he wrote Oration II: De Fuga.

Now, it was to De Fuga that I turned in my third year of church planting and there I learned from my betters. Let me briefly share some of the lessons I learned. First, I learned that Gregory loved the church. He didn’t flee because he despised the church. No, he fled because he loved her and didn’t want to inflict or afflict her with his leadership! He was not enamored with himself. In fact, he cried out with Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Now, that is a lesson every pastor needs to learn. And may I say it is a lesson that every seminary student needs to learn. Let me put it plainly. I realized in that third year of ministry that “my” church did not need “me.” It could survive just fine without me if God so chose. To put the lesson simply, the pastor needs to stop feeling the need to be needed and instead give himself to loving Christ’s sheep sacrificially whether or not the love is reciprocated.

The second lesson I learned was and continues to be vital. As a church planter, I was being pressured into the mold of a religious salesman rather than allowed to be a pastor. Gregory (not to mention Martyn Lloyd-Jones) helped me to resist putting on the hat of CEO and instead put on the coat of physician. He reminded me that the pastoral office is an art much like that of a medical doctor. However, there is one great difference. The spiritual physician’s task is greater because he treats the hidden man of the heart. It was from Gregory that I began to realize that my task was not to market the church or to develop a purpose driven philosophy of ministry. My task was the three “P’s” of the pastorate: preach, pray, poimenics (okay, it’s the Greek for shepherding—but I needed a third “P”). That is a lesson pastors once again need to imbibe if they are to be faithful.

The third but not the final lesson I learned from Gregory was to preach the word. Gregory writes, “In regard to the distribution of the word, to mention last the first of our duties…” For Gregory, preaching was the first duty of the pastor. For this early pastor that meant knowing the Scripture and being well versed in theology. It meant more than knowing the different kinds of hearers; it also meant knowing the people to whom you preach and knowing them well. In other words, the pastor’s task is not only to exegete the text but his hearers as well. As important as evangelism was to my fledgling church plant Gregory reminded me to be in the study wrestling with God’s word and in homes with people so that when I climbed into the pulpit on the Lord’s Day morning and evening I would not arrive empty handed.

Let me encourage you to learn from my pastoral betters and yours too. Get hold of Gregory’s Oration II: Flight to Pontus and prepare for a treat. If you are a layperson you will find yourself in the text at some point and if you are a pastor you will find yourself saying, “Who is sufficient for these things?” But don’t despair. The answer to this question is rather obvious when you think about it. The God who called you, prepared you, and sustains you even now. He is sufficient for you and your congregation.

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