Pastors Who Preach the King

Pastors Who Preach the King

We have heard a good bit in recent decades about “kingly” ministry in evangelical spheres. If your ministry paradigm is “kingly,” then you like leading, making decisions, setting up structures in a broad-strokes kind of way, and trying to apply vision to the future of your church or institution.

There is good in this description. But we need to think hard about biblical kingship, and we should do so in a directly Christocentric way. Jesus was and is a king, but not a king like the world still yearns to follow. Jesus’ kingship was not of this world. He reigned by serving and suffering, and never was more powerful than in his moment of death. All this was wisdom, truth, and power—but of an upside down kind. So it is with the pastor, who serves like the old covenant king as a minister of wisdom. The pastor’s participation in Jesus’ kingly office is not grounded in grandeur, in striking fear in the hearts of the church staff, or in conducting meetings in a lordly manner. On the contrary: the pastor is most like king Jesus when serving the church in wisdom and weakness, leading the congregation with humility and bearing its burdens in prayer.

The wisdom of God, like the kingdom of Christ, turns the world on its head. Pastors do not shy away from making decisions and leading with conviction, of course; they must “put things into order,” as Paul instructed Timothy to do. This speaks to the necessity of courage and vision and insight for faithful pastoral ministry. Recognizing the cruciform nature of kingly pastoral work does not mean that a shepherd never reaches a conclusion, steps out in faith, or champions an initiative. The Old and New Testaments are full of kings and apostles and other leaders who acted boldly, yet humbly, in the name of God, and who were commended for doing so.

But the pastor who leads well owes less to “best practices” or strategic vision and more to biblical theology and the way of the cross. The core of pastoral leadership is the reality that Jesus has, by his personal holocaust, inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth. To belong to the church is to have been transferred into the kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13). Pastors are not kings. They do, however, participate in Jesus’ kingly office but, as we have seen, Jesus’ kingdom does not come in Caesarean power but in cruciform weakness. He who reigns is him who was crucified, a paradox that must be believed in order to be understood. Pastors can learn from the biblical model of the crucified king who leads not only by serving, but also by humbling himself to the point of death. If the pastor does not live by this paradoxical calculus, the church will not understand the nature of the cross, and the world will not comprehend the glory and beauty of the gospel.

Too often, pastors are lured away from their kingly work by counterfeit versions: CEOs who never take counsel or politicians who master the art of persuasion. Pastoral leadership ought to march to the beat of a different, world-defying drummer, participating in Christ’s kingship by personifying the cruciform wisdom of God.

We find resonance with this view of the pastorate in a very different context: the logic of “fairy stories” in the work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. These men drew considerable critique in the 1930s and beyond for their interest in what we would call today “fantasy literature.” Such writing was not appropriate – not academically respectable enough! – for Oxford dons. Lewis and Tolkien nevertheless persisted in their shared conviction that faerie could illuminate truths about our world that no “science” could:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.[1]

So it is with pastoral ministry, which is a kind of faerie inasmuch as it discloses the deep truth about the real world that other stories miss. No other vocation offers such a sustained “glimpse of Joy” to be found “beyond the walls of the world.” When pastor-theologians proclaim the gospel, they allow us to see, hear, and even taste the wisdom of God. So, pastor: preach Christ the crucified and resurrected king from all the Scripture (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-47). Do not hold back. Do not be quieted.

Let it rip.

This material is adapted with permission from The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in C. S. Lewis, ed., Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 81.

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